Primeval: Volume One (review)

Cute Scientists Running From Dinosaurs

Dinosaurs rampaging in supermarket parking lots! Wormholes swallowing up little kids and their dogs! Creatures from the past — and the future — hunting down poor puny humans in modern-day Great Britain while cute brainy scientists try to stop them!

Good times, good times.
It’s not exactly a fully satisfying replacement for Doctor Who or Torchwood, but it’ll do till we get more of those. I’m talking about Primeval, of course, the ITV series that is an obvious reaction by that British TV network to the BBC’s wildly popular SF adventure shows: it just finished airing on BBC America, and now we have the Region 1 DVD release out today from BBC Video. (It’s been available in Region 2 for a while already.)

We get only 13 episodes here, a six-episode first season and a seven-episode followup — the ten-episode Season Three is set to debut in England in January — but they are jam-packed with action and monsters and intrigue and family-friendly levels of romance. (That’s one of the ways it’s not quite as much fun as Torchwood: it’s way less sexy.) And it all feels pretty plausible, too, as far as TV sci-fi goes: “We didn’t want spooky old churches and ghostly houses — we wanted something that felt really really modern,” says Adrian Hodges, writer and cocreator, on the Disc 2 featurette “Behind the Scenes.” And he and cocreator Tim Haines succeed with that. See, weird “anomalies” are suddenly opening up all over England, sparkly wormholey thingies that connect today to the distant prehistoric past, and coincidentally sometimes bring animals through to our time… animals that they end up eating people and causing general havoc.

But now professor of paleontology Nick Cutter (Douglas Henshall: Orphans), of the fictional Central Metropolitan University, and his team are trying to get on top of the situation, catching creatures and working out how to predict when and where an anomaly will open, that kind of thing. Government types are trying to keep it all secret, of course. Oh, it gets complicated: Nick’s wife, Helen (Juliet Aubrey: The Constant Gardener, The Mayor of Casterbridge), who’s been missing for eight years? Turns out she, a scientist herself, has been living in the past, jumping through anomalies and causing, perhaps, some havoc of her own. Romance blooms — or not — among the young geeks of Cutter’s team, and perhaps between Cutter and Home Office scientist Claudia Brown (Lucy Brown).

The characters are fascinating, in fact: there are all sorts of shifting alliances, and we’re never quite sure whom to trust. But it’s the concept — sort of Stargate meets Land of the Lost — that makes it all work. The clever scriptwriting uses real science as the basis for some mind-bending speculation, and there’s a shift that’s almost literally earth-shattering at the end of the first season, one that rattles the entire premise of the show for the second season. And then there’s another at the end of the second season that seems like a spectacular jumping-off point for Season Three.

This is where I’m supposed to note how awesome the FX are, which they are: Hodges and Haines previously created with Walking with Dinosaurs and other installments in that documentary series, which broke new ground for realistic CGI on TV, and so this is one of the best-looking SF series TV has ever seen. But the FX wouldn’t matter if we didn’t love the characters and if we weren’t enthralled by the concept. Primeval gets it all right.

More fun bonus stuff: There’s commentary on two episodes, but I especially liked the featurette on Disc 3, “Through the Anomaly,” which treats us to (among mucho other behind-the-scenes tidbits) a look at how action figures get created from human actors… and how human actors get geekily excited over getting turned into action figures.

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