Friday, September 18, 2009

'Primeval' Vol. 2 DVD offers throwback to cheesy sci-fi

Posted By on Fri, Sep 18, 2009 at 9:43 PM

The British sci-fi adventure series “Primeval” tends to be pitched as “Jurassic Park meets ‘The X-Files,’" but that makes it sound grander and scarier than it actually is. It’s more like a 1960s Irwin Allen gee-whiz show like “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” combined with the artful-but-still-fakey creature effects from a Ray Harryhausen movie like The Valley of Gwangi (which pit cowboys against dinosaurs). “Primeval” aired from 2007-2009 and features computer-generated prehistoric monsters, but the cheese factor gives it almost a retro feel that’s not entirely intentional.

The "Primeval" Vol. 2 DVD set dropped on Sep. 15 and presents the show at both its best and worst. Confusingly, the Volume 1 DVD contained the show’s first two seasons, while Volume 2 features the 10 episodes of “Primeval’s” third and likely final season. “Primeval’s” last season improves on its first, but falls conspicuously short of the bar set by its imaginative contemporaries as “Torchwood” or “Fringe,” and seems positively unevolved compared to the writing on “Lost” or “Battlestar Galactica.”

The premise explains that glittering holes in time, called “anomalies,” pop up without warning in England and tend to release, say, a ravenous prehistoric crocodile in the British Museum. A team of scholarly experts and military-trained men of action try to stop the creatures, protect the populace and keep the time warps secret – not necessarily in that order. “Primeval’s” creators came from the “Walking With…” series of documentaries about prehistoric animals. In the early episodes, “Primeval” proves much more creative at coming up with realistically proportioned (if obviously SFX-driven) monsters than interesting characters.

Team-mates like intense paleontologist Nick Cutter (Douglas Henshall) or geeky dinosaur expert Connor Temple (Andrew-Lee Potts) frequently play toward stereotypes. Perhaps “Primeval” reached its nadir in its first season, when a dodo bit one of Connor’s friends, spreading a parasite that turned a friendly nerd into a vampire-like freak. (Fun dodos, though.)

By Season Three, “Primeval” elecated the level of its acting and dialogue and eased up on the clichés as shorthand for character development. Cutter and his team expand their anomaly-hunting mission to include mythological beasts in the historical record, which provide evidence that dinosaurs or futuristic predators may have been mistaken for supernatural monsters. Appearances from, say, highly advanced man-bats allows the show to riff on the Predator and Alien franchises, too.

“Primeval’s” later installments don’t avoid narrative stumbles, however. The season’s second episode borrows cleverly from Gremlins, Don’t Look Now and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark for a haunted house-type tale. In one scene, however, perky zoologist Abby (Hannah Spearritt) falls down a flight of stairs and is left apparently at the mercy of an unseen assailant. Her friends find her, make sure she’s okay, then take her back to the house! The accident seemed present only to bad the episode to an hour.

The show reveals a startling willingness to write out or otherwise sacrifice some of its recurring roles on its third season, while Jason Flemyng, a frequent actor in Guy Ritchie films, makes a charismatic addition to the series as a former cop. Unfortunately the DVD ends with a cliffhanger episode that may never be resolved, given the lack of plans to produce a fourth season.

“Primeval” may be a little bit of a let-down, but it consistently offers the simple pleasures of scientists and army guys fighting dinosaurs in modern urban situations. Probably the centerpiece action scene of Volume 2 occurs when a when a gigantosaurus, or “G-Rex,” emerges in an airport hangar and rampages across the runway. At its best, “Primeval” becomes a time machine that makes you feel like a kid watching late-night movies and forgotten TV series again.

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