20 January 2017

It's like I've gone crazy and woken up in a new, darker universe.

I speak, of course, of the way the first series of ITV sci-fi show Primeval comes to an end.

My wife is making me watch this through with her; I think it's payback for subjecting her to seven seasons of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. She has an innate bias toward it, as it's about a crack team of evolutionary biologists, which I guess is not a thing you see on television very much. (She's an evolutionary biologist.) The basic premise is that portals have opened up in contemporary England, linking it to times and places all along Earth's past and future-- and giant extinct animals are coming through, hungry for human flesh. Seriously, every animal across history apparently thinks humans are the best to eat.

I'm not sure I've ever met a postdoc this badass.
I'm not an evolutionary biologist, but as an academic, I still do appreciate that the core team is made up of a professor, his postdoc, an undergraduate, and a zoo attendant (I'd guess she must have a Master's, though no one says that). There are not many tv shows with postdocs in them, so I get a kick out of this, though the show often raises questions for me that it will never answer, like how does a postdoc afford an apartment that nice, and is the government paying for the professor's course release so that he can go hunt dinosaurs, and will the professor's wife have to go up before the university ethics board for having a sexual relationship with the postdoc back when he was a graduate student? I've also hung out with enough research biologists to know they really wouldn't give a shit about saving the life of a single ancient animal / making sure it got back to its own time. They'd want to dissect the thing, or at least study it!

Apparently being able to quote Star Trek II
is all the skill you need to be on a top-
secret government team.
The first series ranges from dumb to silly. Basically every episode is set in a different location, and the whole thrill of the show is seeing an ancient life-form where it doesn't belong. At the point I'm up to we've seen forest/suburbs, the London Underground, underwater, a kitchen, a country club, a zoo, a mall, a skyscraper, an amusement park, underwater (again), a housing estate, and a motorway. Are there enough visually interesting locations in England to sustain three more series? I mean, they squandered the Underground in episode two!

It has a very procedural feel (each episode begins with a random jerk who gets eaten to prove the situation is serious), and the characters are written with all the subtlety of a brick to the head: there's the scientist one (because he's a professor, he knows all sciences, including physics), the attractive male action one, the nerdy one, and the girl one (the show contrives to get her into her pants in most episodes of the first series). There's also the boss one, who I feel like I should like, but mostly he just stands there. At the end of the first series, I wasn't exactly enthused.

Would you give this man tenure?
(I've met worse-dressed professors of
The second series makes a couple interesting move: during Professor Nick Cutter's trip into the past at the end of series one, he accidentally changes history, which is both a really clever way to have a couple status quo changes (I spent the whole first series saying the team should have an SGC-esque base; in the new timeline, they just have one, no moving necessary) and to kill a character off without killing her off. She just never existed, and only Cutter remembers her. (This doesn't really go anywhere in the end.) There's also a conspiracy introduced around the same time, which connects a background threat to each monster-of-the-week, which really works to raise the stakes and make the episodes feel more consequential. I also think the direction gets better-- it feels very lightweight and corny (in a bad way) in series one.

It all falls apart in the finale, though, because the conspiracy turns out to be dumb, the bad guy revealing himself for absolutely no benefit, and his plan not really making any sense. Also Cutter's wife goes from havining-a-possibly-mysterious-yet-interesting-agenda to always-performing-the-most-evil-action-for-no-readily-apparent-reason-but-with-cleavage. The characters are still very simple, though I assume the guy playing the professor said his favorite emotion to play was "haunted" because he spends the whole series freaking out and yelling at people because the timeline change threw him off so much.

But seriously, why isn't there a physicist on the team?

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