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Primeval review

ITV's £6 million sci-fi drama to counter Doctor Who (and friends)

ITV1 • Saturday evenings

Writer: Adrian Hodges

Starring: Douglas Henshall, Ben Miller, Andrew Lee Potts, Hannah Spearitt


The people behind Primeval will probably hate the comparisons but you can’t deny this series’ linkage to BBC 1’s Doctor Who reheat. It’s a family-orientated action adventure show and is ITV’s first unapologetic sci-fi show in donkey’s. It’s even got a Scot playing a doctor and a former popette as the female lead.
What’s it taken from Who then? Well, truth is it’s only the fact that it’s being made at all, and that it’s not a post watershed show for big boys. There’s more Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park in Primeval’s DNA – so much so that Spielberg’s going to be either flattered or furious.

It’s dinosaurs that are this series’ big neon sell. A vortex or time rift or wormhole or whatever has been located and dinos are wandering in and flying into the 21st century. Professor Nick Cutter and his assistant (seemingly a male model he pays to pretend to help him out) investigate but come up against Ben Miller’s flirtatiously evil civil servant James Lester.

Douglas Henshall makes for an electrifying lead. With most of the younger cast culled from the pages of Heat and Smash Hits, he cuts a craggier kind of sex symbol. He’s genuinely charismatic and without him the series might have looked a little too Hollyoaks for its own good. The rest of the cast are all right in an unexciting way but suffer the Denise Richards/World is Not Enough problem in looking a bit comically young and Met Bar beautiful for their jobs.

The central mystery of the series is the disappearance of Cutter’s wife. It looks like Cutter’s found out what may have happened when he finds the time rift. In fact, the episode’s best scene is when he steps through it to witness a London from 65 million years ago. It’s a stunning scene, going from the noise and pollution of the present day to the exact same spot in the past, all pastoral serenity and unspoilt skies.

What about the dinosaurs? you ask. Walking with Dinosaurs, still the most CGI weighty series ever produced in Blighty, is eight years old now, and many of the people who worked on the award-winning programmes are behind this. Producer Tim Haines was the mastermind behind that original series and Framestore is back in the effects chair. The CGI is easily the equal to anything on the last Jurassic Park and these dinos properly live. The series would have been dead if you couldn’t sell these things as jaw-droppingly as a Hollywood movie. And after three hopelessly island-bound Jurassic Parks and another island-bound dino frenzy in King Kong. It feels brilliant and fresh to see these things not just in a residential setting, but a British one to boot.

Over 35 years ago, ITV made its first attempt to take on Doctor Who with The Tomorrow People. Now Doctor Who has the ITV nemesis it deserves. It’s pacey, it’s funny, it’s exciting and it’s got a solid mystery at its centre that feels genuinely beguiling. It’s only potential problem is a lack of variety. But we’ll have to find out whether a series like Primeval can survive without bringing out the T Rexes every week.

Steve O'Brien

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