‘Primeval’ and the Anomalies of Time Travel

Primeval enters its fifth season on a bit of an upswing. This science fiction show has gone through a lot of changes over the years, many of them positive. It started out as a mildly diverting action show about scientists fighting dinosaurs, but has gradually evolved into a stronger, more involving drama. It has also displayed a willingness to kill off major cast members, an attrition that now leaves only three original players: scientific genius Connor (Andrew Lee-Potts), zoologist Abby (Hannah Spearit), and pompous boss James Lester (Ben Miller). After the third season ended with Connor and Abby trapped in Earth’s distant past, the fourth provided a reboot: they returned a year later to find that their home base, the ARC, had undergone significant changes. New team leader Matt (Ciaran McMenamin) was harboring a secret history, and there were hints that the ARC’s new benefactor Philip Burton (Alexander Siddig) had his own hidden agenda.

Season Five, which premieres on BBCA 13 November, again raises intriguing questions involving the anomalies (usually time warps), mechanics, and consequences of time travel. It opens with another monster of the week, a group of gigantic insects from the future, whereupon Abby notices that Matt seems to have intimate knowledge of their habits. At last, after maintaining his secret all last season, Matt admits he has come from the future to prevent the destruction of civilization. His disclosure jumpstarts the new season — which is only six episodes, which brings a kind meta-urgency — by granting him some much-needed help in his effort to save the world.

Still, the new season takes time to revisit the problem posed by Matt’s time-crossed love interest, Emily. Also a time traveler, but from the mid-19th century, and she returned to her original time at the end of Season Four. Abby’s research reveals what happened to Emily after she returned to her own time, and she convinces Matt to go after her. This is a welcome turn, as Emily has previously helped to complicate Matt’s thinness as a character, being (understandably) dour and single-minded.

Connor this season is assigned his own single focus, namely, to learn how to use the power of the anomalies to satisfy the world’s energy needs. He’s assigned this classified project by Philip, a character in need of more shading. Here, as the short season works against developing details, the casting of Siddig, a subtle actor able to complicate Philip’s villainy. Charismatic and charming, Philip appeals to Connor’s ego as a scientific genius. But keep in mind that Primeval has a history of plot twists involving its main characters. There’s no guarantee that everything is going to work out all right for the heroes.

There’s also no guarantee the monsters will be convincing. During the first couple of seasons, they were marked by mediocre CGI and an over-reliance on dinosaurs. For a series that was premised on portals opening to any place in time, past or future, these ideas were sometimes frustratingly limited. Primeval still uses dinosaurs as its go-to creatures, but it’s a bit more creative about how it deploys them these days. The new season’s second episode takes place largely inside of a submarine after an anomaly opens in the North Atlantic. Not only does the team face an external threat from large aquatic dinosaurs battering the sub, but they also have to deal with a smaller, amphibious dino that gets loose inside the boat. It helps as well that the special effects are much better now than they were in earlier seasons. The creatures in Season Five aren’t quite photorealistic, but they’re often very convincing (and they compare favorably to Fox’s much more expensive Terra Nova).

Primeval isn’t without its flaws, though. The character of James Lester has always been a tricky one. The show too often has him seem an obnoxious jerk boss, an overbearing bureaucratic twit, and a sly ally — all in the space of a single episode. Miller is a good actor who tries his best, but it’s tough going when the character writing is inconsistent. This season’s not quite coherent character is Connor’s new assistant, April (Janice Byrne). Because she’s actually spying on him for Philip, April works in opposite directions. She’s characterized by cliché wardrobe choices: because she’s wearing horn-rimmed glasses and unflattering sweaters, she’s supposed to be an awkward nerd. But Byrne never really manages to pull this off, because she isn’t awkward or dowdy, or really much of anything April is supposed to be.

These complaints about minor characters don’t matter so much in the series’ trajectory. On the whole, the fifth season of Primeval is consistently entertaining science fiction, appealing to multiple demographics. There’s enough action-packed monster fighting to keep the show exciting, the character development is solid, and the cerebral overarching plot will keep sci-fi fans interested.

RATING 6 / 10