You spend your entire career planning for just about every crisis imaginable - up to and including alien invasion - then this happens. So much for thinking outside the bloody box.
-- James Lester
The first episode of Primeval opens up like a classic monster movie flick; a young woman in trouble, chased by something we don't see clearly but is definitely huge and hostile, and then a quick chase sequence which indicates our momentary heroine is a goner.
But Primeval is nothing like your typical monster flick.
The central concept of this BBC SF series is that for some reason, "Anomalies" – space-time disruptions which look to the human eye like drifting sculptures of chiming crystal – periodically open up at various places around the world. Because of their rarity and random nature, they were not scientifically proven to exist until now.
But when a strange, monstrous creature appears in the Forest of Dean, Dr. Nick Cutter is driven to investigate it; his wife, Helen, disappeared in the Forest of Dean years ago, under similar circumstances, and this is the first hint he's gotten that there may be answers still out there. Along with his long-time companion and expert hunter Stephen Hart, Nick Cutter acquires an impromptu team composed of himself, Stephen, Abby Maitland (a reptile expert), and ubergeek extraordinaire Connor Temple.
As their investigations – originally separate, but eventually dovetailing – progress, they find there are indeed strange creatures in the Forest of Dean, creatures that shouldn't be there. As they investigate, Claudia Brown, from the Home Office, shows up, and swiftly proves to be an agent of some organization within the government that's trying to throw a lid over the investigation – in as polite a manner as possible, of course.
They get their monster – and more questions. The various creatures they encounter, from a strange flying reptile simply called "Rex" to the "monster" originally reported (a gorgonopsid, thought extinct for over two hundred million years) certainly could not possibly have been living in the Forest of Dean – or indeed anywhere in the United Kingdom – undetected all these years.
And indeed, they have not. The creatures come through crystal-like gateways in space and time, enter our time, and – usually – end up returning to their own through the Anomaly. But for some reason, the Anomalies are starting to open up more frequently, more widely…
Thus is Primeval started and a peculiar team assembled. Under the control and direction of James Lester, appointed administrator for the project, they locate and deal with incursions from multiple time periods of varying danger, while trying to solve the mystery of the Anomalies.
This isn't as straightforward as it sounds; the next few episodes show that Nick's wife Helen has survived, but her survival has … changed her. It is not immediately clear what her goal is, but she demonstrates a knowledge of the schedule of the Anomalies, possibly even a way to control them, and as time goes on it becomes clear that her goals are anything but beneficent.
The science of Primeval is in a sense the centerpiece of the show, but it's definitely science fiction. While most of the creatures we see have some basis in reality, the specifics of them are changed for dramatic license; for instance, Arthropleura's size was roughly doubled and it was given a venomous bite, neither of which have any scientific evidence to support them. Most other creatures have such artistic liberties taken with them as well.
At the same time, the general drift of the discussions respect science, even if they ignore the facts of our universe in areas, and the creature effects are usually quite well done; this isn't a surprise since the same special effects team did Walking With Dinosaurs.
The real key to enjoying the series, though, is to follow the characters and plot twists. One twist, commonly used for an episode or two in other shows but never, as far as I can recall, used as a long-term change, was to have one of the team's missions change the timeline. Rather than – as most such shows do – have the change reversed after an episode or so, the change to the timeline was permanent, with the characters from the original timeline having to deal with the slight, but disconcerting changes in their world.
The characters themselves are quite… colorful. Nick Cutter, the true leader of the group, is a maverick, short-tempered scientist, badly damaged by the loss and, now, betrayal of his wife (who, it later turns out, also had an affair with Stephen). Despite his brusque exterior, however, Nick is capable of considerable sympathy and loyalty to his team and is utterly incorruptible and not able to be intimidated; these traits are key to keeping Helen from wreaking even more destruction than she does.
Abby Maitland, although a small, very pretty blonde girl who seems set up as the "animal friend" of the group, is highly intelligent, very educated and skilled with animal handling, and dangerously physically competent; she is an accomplished martial artist and often serves as the main combatant whenever Stephen isn't present; even when he is, Abby remains quite an Action Girl. Though she initially (and justifiably) finds Connor extremely annoying, the two form a friendship and eventually a romance follows.
Abby and Nick are the "preservers" of the group – their concern is to protect and rescue the animals stranded from their own time and return them home. The others understand this motive, but tend to be more concerned with the human element – what damage the creatures can do, and what the overall Anomaly phenomenon means.
Connor Temple is the third of the main characters. Uncertain with himself and compensating with fast talk, showing off his knowledge, and armored with a nigh-impenetrable cluelessness at times, Connor's strengths are his encyclopedic knowledge of ancient creatures and ability to make the right deductions under stress. In addition, he is extremely technically gifted and eventually even creates a device to detect, and seal shut, Anomalies.
He is also apparently possessed of a particularly perverse form of luck; he will get into numberless scrapes through inattention, overconfidence, and clumsiness, but under extreme stress will take dramatic and very effective unorthodox actions that lead to his survival and, often, those around him.
Connor immediately becomes infatuated with Abby upon meeting her, and while it takes some time, she eventually warms to him. Connor is a classic geek, often describing things in pop-culture terms that either lose Nick, or irritate him, and is a positive fanboy of prehistoric creatures; he will sometimes literally squee upon encountering something really spectacular.
James Lester at first is the distant bureaucrat who wants to control the team and views them as a bunch of misfits, but as time goes on he comes to see that, unorthodox as they are, they're also the right people for the Anomaly Research Centre – concerned not about what possible weapons or advantages can be wrung from the Anomalies but in understanding them and protecting the world from them.
While the initial episodes play with the "monster of the week" format, there is a long-running plotline that develops around Helen Cutter and her knowledge of the Anomalies, one that is driven by a strangely nhilistic view which she seemed to have formed over her time lost behind the Anomalies, and by her ability to select –and perhaps – control creatures from the Anomalies.
The most formidable of these creatures is simply called the "Future Predator" – a highly evolved super-bat with tremendous speed, strength, and senses. Blind, it uses exceedingly accurate sonar to detect, locate, and track prey, and can do so with preternatural quickness. It is in many ways played up similarly to "The Predator" from the similarly-named movies, and may be fully intelligent (though it is hard to tell). One of James Lester's Crowning Moments of Awesome is his duel – alone in the ARC – against a Future Predator sent to kill him. One such creature has been known to kill many trained soldiers; Lester should have been no problem, but it turns out that it never pays to underestimate an experienced administrator with a reputation for unorthodoxy.
The combination of quirky characters, monsters from future and past, evil schemes, and cool special effects – and an absolutely marvelous soundtrack – make Primeval one of the best BBC shows I've watched. This one is definitely worth a try!