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Posts Tagged ‘Primeval’

…or, possibly, Finding the Character.

So, this is going to be about the way in which the presentation of a certain class of TV character has changed over the last forty to fifty years and what this may tell us about changes in UK culture. As I’m mainly going to talk about British genre shows, particularly action-adventure and SF (the latter is almost invariably a subset of the former), there’s going to be a lot of stuff about Doctor Who and Sherlock (yeah, sorry about that, people who aren’t interested in them) but also some other shows that no-one seems to care about any more (yeah, sorry about that, people who are interested).

What got me thinking along these lines was a discussion about – yes, you guessed it – Sherlock and Doctor Who, wherein a friend of mine argued that the two lead characters were presented in a fundamentally similar way. Regular readers may recall that I have visited this topic before in the not too distant past, and I’m not planning to go over it again here in too much detail. But anyway, as I suggested to my friend, this may well be a bit of an optical illusion inasmuch as this is how all TV action-adventure heroes are presented these days, and it’s only the scarcity of this type of character that’s clouded the issue.

Certainly British action-adventure TV shows are a lot thinner on the ground than they used to be. Casting our minds back to the 1960s, surely the golden age of the genre, we encounter The Saint, The Avengers, Man in a Suitcase, the original Randall and Hopkirk, The Champions, Danger Man, The Prisoner, Adam Adamant Lives and many other less celebrated examples – to say nothing of the early years of Doctor Who (albeit a rather different show in those days) and no fewer than two BBC-produced Sherlock Holmes series (starring Douglas Wilmer and Peter Cushing respectively). Wind on to 2012 and all we really find are Doctor Who, Sherlock, and – still just about current – Primeval. (Oh, and I suppose the grisly Merlin qualifies, but I can never watch more than five minutes at a time without losing my temper and switching over, so I can’t really discuss it in any detail.)

The reasons for the decline in this genre’s presence are, I would suspect, mainly economic: most of the 60s shows I mentioned were made on film and largely shot on location, with lengthy runs – mainly because they were made by ITC with more than half a eye on selling them to the lucrative American market. American sales were what made a lot of these shows viable propositions and the major American networks are a lot less open to foreign product these days – the only British show to get a major network slot since The New Avengers in the late 1970s is Merlin, for reasons I find utterly impossible to work out.

So this may be why this kind of show is no longer such a fixture, but what’s more interesting to me is the change in the way these shows are written. Many years ago on the BBC Doctor Who message board I remember laboriously trying to explain the difference between a plot-driven story and a character-driven story. I think I settled on saying that in a plot-driven story it’s events that dictate the actions of the protagonists, while in a character-driven one it’s the personalities of the protagonists that motivate the events. This probably sounds rather circular – to simplify things still further, I would go on to say that a plot-driven story is primarily about what people do, while a character-driven one is about who they are. This is not to say that plot-driven stories can’t have an interesting cast, or that a character-driven one must be wholly bereft of incident – it’s a question of focus and emphasis.

Looking at The Avengers or Danger Man these days one of the most striking things about them is how little attention is paid to the histories and emotions of the leading characters beyond the strict demands of the plot. The backgrounds of Steed and Drake remain almost entirely vague; we know nothing about their families or any relationships they may have had in the past. None of this matters in an Avengers or Danger Man episode – it’s all about the case or the mission in that particular episode, the leads are there to fulfil a set of plot functions. This is most striking in the case of Mrs Peel (also from The Avengers) – she’s introduced as Mrs Peel in her debut episode, but her exact marital situation is never addressed or even alluded to, until the closing minutes of her final episode in which it is revealed her husband is a test pilot who’s been lost up the Amazon for years.

Stiff upper lips were the order of the day in Ye Good Olde Days.

If The Avengers were being made today, in the modern style, I cannot imagine an episode going by in which Mrs Peel’s angst over her missing spouse is not given a little moment to itself. Whole episodes would no doubt be written wherein she helps to reunite people who have been forcibly separated from their loved ones, concluding with bittersweet moments – no doubt taking place to a piano or power-ballad soundtrack – where she sees the happiness she has brought about but is confronted yet again by her own loneliness. It would, if you ask me, be totally and utterly awful, mawkish, charmless dross – we can perhaps get a slight impression of what it would be like by looking at the New Avengers episode Obsession, a deeply atypical and rather underwhelming outing focussing on Purdey’s unhappy love affair with Martin Shaw’s character.

I can’t begin to imagine how an updated version of Steed would work – but then again, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing the part a tenth as well as Patrick Macnee, so it’s really an empty question – the same kind of applies to the Prisoner, but it’s interesting how much more conventional and less interesting the central character of the updated version is.

These days it isn’t enough to just be an interesting and engaging screen character who resolves fun and imaginative plots – there seems to be a distinct sense that audiences won’t care about that. Every character these days has to have some kind of emotional baggage, which not only allows us access to their psychological hinterland, but seems to insist we visit it virtually on a weekly basis.

As a case in point let us look at the male leads of Primeval, who have the advantage of being new-minted characters unlike Sherlock Holmes or the Doctor and are thus more amenable to being crafted to fit a specific role. The three guys in question are Nick Cutter, Danny Quinn, and Matt Anderson, and they are the successive male leads in a show which largely revolves around people being chased around by CGI monsters who’ve wandered out of holes in time. They are a scientist, a cop, and a soldier-turned-zookeeper, and yet despite this diversity and the nature of the show they all fit the same template: each of them isn’t just chasing CGI monsters because it’s their job. All of them have Personal Issues involved with loved ones who have got mixed up in the holes-in-time business.

Or, to put it another way, everything these days has a much stronger soap opera element than it did in years gone by. This was one of the main accusations flung at the early Rusty Davies series of Doctor Who, certainly, and while I don’t have a problem with the attention paid to extended family lives of most of the regular characters I do sense and slightly object to an ongoing attempt to load the Doctor down with baggage of various kinds.

Specifically, things which were nicely underplayed and subtextual in the 1963-89 version of the series – the loneliness of the Doctor, the grounding influence of his companions – are dragged out into the centre of episodes. The mostly-implied affection the Doctor shares with his friends is replaced by operatic and overblown excursions into sentimental navel-gazing such as conclude most of the Davies seasons. As you may have sensed, I am not a tremendous fan of this kind of thing – I’m quite capable of having an emotion off my own bat without having it wholly specified by whatever it is I’m reading or watching.

Sherlock Holmes is a character who dates back much further than any other I’ve mentioned so far, hailing from an era when angst was an unknown concept and upper lips remained entirely solid. Presenting him not just in a modern context but in a modern style thus presents a bit of an issue. In my initial discussion on this subject, the point came up that Holmes and the Doctor really do mirror each other – one is a superbeing with human emotions, the other is a normal man with superhuman faculties.

Conan Doyle pays lip service to giving Holmes a few weaknesses – most famously his occasional depressions and his ignorance of many basic facts about astronomy – but most of the time he’s an almost superhumanly accomplished individual – an accomplished musician and highly-skilled martial artist in addition to his prodigious talents as a detective. However this clearly will not do for a modern TV hero and so in Sherlock he is assigned a dreadful personal flaw with which he must contend. It’s interesting that Sherlock has received quite so many plaudits for being utterly faithful to Doyle, when the depiction of Holmes as someone quite so socially incompetent and often downright rude is really not to be found anywhere in the original canon.

Holmes and the Doctor have a number of similarities, to be sure, but these are only emphasised by the fact that both have gone through the modern-genre-TV-baggage-attaching process. Heroes are not allowed to simply be heroes any more, nor are we allowed to work out for ourselves what the deeper elements of their characters might be. It’s not enough for a character to simply be likeable or interesting, we have to be able to Emotionally Invest in them, no matter how absurd that might be in the case of a soldier-turned-zookeeper whose job is to chase prehistoric monsters into holes in time.

Why has this happened? It seems to be a recent phenomenon, though the near-total absence of British action-adventure TV shows between the mid-80s and the mid-00s makes it difficult to be sure. Certainly the leads of Bugs (launched in 1994) are in the old style, as were the central characters in Crime Traveller. This takes us up to 1997, an interesting year inasmuch as the death of Princess Diana provoked scenes of wild emotion on the streets of Britain of an intensity and on a scale which was previously unthinkable.

Certainly in the 15 years since, British culture seems to have become considerably more emotionally articulate, if not in fact emotionally incontinent. Quite outside of the action-adventure TV genre, even the main TV variety shows rely on the ’emotional journey’ of the participants to provide a hook for the audience. Basically, everything has gone very soapy and sentimental at the the expense of reason and wit and restraint.

Once again I suspect my personal preferences may be apparent. I suspect my dislike for the modern Emo-style of genre TV is not solely because I object to cheap and obvious sentimentality but because this has supplanted so many of the elements I really like in the older shows – wit, inventiveness, and so on. Certainly they still exist in the modern shows, which is why Sherlock and Doctor Who remain so watchable for me, but often they seem less important than people’s character arcs and emotional foibles. Maybe the wheel will turn again and they will come back into fashion once more. I hope so, but I’m not holding my breath.

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I’ve resisted the temptation to post week-by-week reviews of the series of Primeval that’s just wrapped up on ITV. This is partly because, while it’s a good show, it’s not quite in the first rank, and partly because I’d probably have ended up saying the same things every time. My impression after the first episode, as you may recall, was that the series was showing ominous signs of having jumped the shark during its unplanned hiatus from our screens. Did the rest of the run do anything to shake this?
 
Well, a little. It was somewhat obvious that a budget cut had occurred, although the production’s move to Ireland was by no means obvious. Occasionally, short-cuts in the special effects budget were a little blatant – fight sequences where the human performer and the beastie were both filmed in close up, and never in the same shot – but this was more than compensated for later in the run. I wasn’t quite sure of what to make of the fact that the creature focus this series was on prehistoric reptiles more than ever before (and no future-creatures at all). Possibly this was a marketing decision and this is now A Show About Dinosaurs.

This series’s main problem was the one I outlined in my thoughts on the first episode, however: the loss of several major characters and the need to replace them in a hurry. Recipient of the rawest deal here was Ruth Kearney, who worked wonders with a character who was little more than a cipher, her most noticeable characteristic being a crush on Boring Old Becker. Most regrettable was the absence of Jason Flemyng, who always brought a lovely spiky energy to the show – in comparison, Ciaran McMenamin always seemed a little too restrained. And while both Cutter and Quinn were given a strong character background on their first appearances, Anderson wasn’t – and the revelation of his real agenda was arguably left too late in the run. (Apparently some background on Matt Anderson and something approaching an introduction was provided via webisode. If so, I am not impressed.)

 

From left to right: underestimated, undervalued, underwritten, unbearably dull and underused.

With the ongoing storyline with Helen Cutter concluded, the whole series seemed at times to be hunting around for a new direction, with various ongoing elements appearing from episode to episode, none of them in a particularly arresting manner. The truth – that, for the most part, they were either connected to each other or to previous storylines – was kept back for an extremely busy final episode with almost too much going on in it. A little more drip-feeding of clues and connections wouldn’t have gone amiss – characters whose secrets we know, or who are trying to solve particular mysteries, can be engaging. Characters we don’t know that well wandering around being enigmatic is just a bit tedious.

The good things about this series were mainly holdovers from earlier ones: as I’ve said before, Andrew-Lee Potts and Hannah Spearitt are now the core of this show and were consistently engaging throughout, as was Ben Miller (who seemed to get rather less screen-time than usual this year). Some sort of mention, if only for being so very easy on the eye, must go to Ruth Bradley – hopefully we haven’t seen the last of her or her character.

The individual episodes were on the whole okay, although the lack of variety in this year’s creatures didn’t help to make them stand out from one another. Episode four managed to confound my expectations by having a teenage girl not rescued by the team and horribly slaughtered by a beastie – a bold move, but rather incongruous given the mainstream audience this show’s still theoretically pitching for.

I say ‘theoretically’ – in addition to apparently doing some key storytelling via supplementary internet material, this series also seemed to be pitching to its fanbase with the return of a few old characters, some more prominent than others. It was obviously nice to see Lucy Brown again, but she was hardly vital to the plot of episode six (inevitably memories of the Torchwood episode Something Borrowed crowded my brain, given the premise). Jason Flemyng’s eventual reappearance was the making of the series finale in all sorts of ways. The ongoing storylines genuinely seemed to be progressing for the first time all series, there was a definite sense of closure to a couple of them, and Boring Old Becker got repeatedly tasered: it was the best of a fairly indifferent bunch.

Hopefully it bodes well for the upcoming final series, because everything now seems a bit clearer. We know what Matt Anderson’s agenda is, we know what’s happened to all the other main characters (well, the fate of Sarah Page remains a little vague, but we know enough to make a guess), and above all we know who the new main villain of the series really is. With the decks thus cleared, hopefully the final set of episodes can display some of the wit and deftness and invention which distinguished the earlier seasons.

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I was going through a bit of a dark patch in Autumn 2009 – though in hindsight it sometimes feels like that patch never really stopped – and one of the things which made me a bit more cheerful was finally catching up with the ITV series Primeval. I’d completely missed this on its original broadcasts, being variously in Japan, Italy, and Kyrgyzstan at the time, and I was rather dismissive of what I’d heard: a fairly obvious knock-off aimed at the Doctor Who demographic. No doubt every episode would see a dinosaur come out of a hole in time, requiring a group of wafer-thin characters to track it down and sort it out. Ho, and, if you will, hum.

Well, Primeval is very clearly a post-revived-Doctor Who show, but at its best it’s amongst the very top flight of them, and the best piece of genre TV ITV’s produced in a very long time. It wasn’t just dinosaurs, and the stories were inventive and clever – this was a show that didn’t bend over backwards trying to be challenging or self-consciously culty (Torchwood, I’m looking at you) but built up its own mythology slowly and carefully. By the time the rerun of series three was over I was as peeved as anyone that it had been axed. Then, a little later the news came that the show was to be resurrected – that was a good day, too.

And now series four of Primeval is being broadcast. There’s something probably significant about the fact that the first episode revolves around a dinosaur coming out of a hole in time, requiring the characters to track it down and sort it out, but I can’t quite work out what. I am too concerned about signs that Primeval may in fact have Jumped the Shark.

This is not solely due to the hunt-the-dinosaur nature of the season opener, which had some work to do in picking up the pieces following season three’s cliffhanger. For various reasons two of the main cast have decided to not to return for the new series – once again, this shouldn’t be a problem, as the show has serious form in this department and most of its new characters have been engaging and carefully introduced (the only one who’s remained a bit of a cipher is boring old Becker, who’s still hanging around the ARC like a bad smell). This episode, on the other hand, opened with two complete strangers already on the scene – to their credit, the makers of the show avoided an ‘As you know, Anderson, you’re an ex-soldier who joined this project in order to…’ speech, but the fact remained that I had no idea who either of them were and frankly rather resented them being there at all. (I suppose if I’d kept up with things I’d have known that Jason Flemyng and Laila Rouass weren’t coming back, which would have softened the blow a bit, but even so.)

Boring old Beck... (yawn) ...zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

(Imminent spoiler.) As things stand new guy Anderson is giving boring old Becker severe competition in the who’s-most-bland stakes – having an Irish accent is not an acceptable replacement for a personality – and the other new character seems to be almost wholly ornamental (although I predict that a frisson between her and Connor will constitute a big chunk of this season’s soap quotient). The last-minute revelation that Anderson is some kind of mole for yet another shadowy bad guy was really too little too late – and would only have really worked if I’d liked the guy in the first place. As it is I’ll probably be hoping he goes the way of Nigel Marven for the rest of the series.

I suspect that new viewers would have found this rather unengaging, too – the first half of the episode seemed to be missing its beats as it clumsily attempted to recap the situation and introduce a few new elements. The chase and action with the raptors and the spinosaurus were as efficient and polished as we’ve come to expect from Primeval of old – though the creatures do look rather different, probably due to the fact that the CGI is now done by a different company. For me, though, the monsters were never the real draw of this show – I’ve always been more interested in the ongoing storyline and the characters, both of which did not seem to be especially well-served by this installment.

One should not write off a quality show on the basis of one or even two duff episodes in a row – if I was in the habit of doing that, I’d have bailed out of Doctor Who following Tooth and Claw, for heaven’s sake – and 4.1 wasn’t all bad by any means. Alexander Siddig (you know, he’ll always be Siddig el Fadil to me) shows promise, and the surviving members of the old cast were all excellent (although the guy who plays boring old Becker still really has nothing to work with). This show is really about Connor and Abby now, and Andrew-Lee Potts and Hannah Spearritt have grown into their leading roles very impressively (I enjoyed the in-joke about Spearritt’s former life, too). It’s just sad the producers felt the need to stick with the old formula and insert a more conventional leading-man into the forefront of the show rather than officially moving them to centre-stage. Doing that would have solved almost all of this episode’s problems and allowed them to introduce whatever new characters they felt were necessary in a more organic way. Given the way the last series ended, this one was always going to have some housekeeping to do, and it’s a shame that it wasn’t done more elegantly or bravely. Nil desperandum, though, and I’m certainly not giving up on this show.

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