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Primeval is History – some post-mortem thoughts

PrimevalTo minimal surprise, ITV has cancelled its early Saturday evening family action/adventure drama series Primeval.  If you will indulge me, I’d like to just say a few things about this sad outcome.

The ITV Contender
Let’s not pretend otherwise, Primeval was ITV’s attempt to rival the BBC’s unexpectedly popular revival of Doctor Who (no doubt there are some that will now say they always expected New Who to be as massively popular as it now is but I certainly wasn’t amongst them and nor were the BBC suits in London (but let’s not get into that right now!))  As a series, Primeval never quite hit the heights of Doctor Who, not in terms of viewing figures, audience appreciation figures or the general saturation into popular culture.  Of course Doctor Who had something of a head start, what with a dormant affection, in many of the older generations, for the original series and a rich history to plunder from.  Primeval had to start from cold.

The Winning Formula
Children like dinosaurs!  They also like Doctor Who and that’s got time travel.  So, thought ITV, lets make a rival to Doctor Who with people who time travel to prehistoric Earth!  Even better, extreme wildlife programmes, such as the BBC “Walking with…” series, are popular – lets make those time travellers modern day zoologists and animal conservationists!  No, this isn’t Primeval I’m talking about but its immediate predecessor, Prehistoric Park.  Borrowing heavily from the Jurassic Park idea of conserving otherwise extinct animals (mainly ‘dinosaurs’ to my untrained eyes) in a vast animal preserve.  Real life naturalist and wildlife presenter, Nigel Marven, played himself as the head of the Prehistoric Park team and the whole thing was played as a ‘docu-fiction’.  They even had David Jason narrating it.  It was entertaining enough but, as it was supposed to come across as a documentary, they were limited in the dramatic licence they could take (even though they were jumping back through man made time portals and coaxing extinct wild animals back through them).

Clearly ITV decided they needed more drama, more adventure.  The production company behind Prehistoric Park were contracted to take their CGI dinosaur expertise and make a true rival for Doctor Who.  Prehistoric Park, with its time portals and dinosaurs coming through to modern day, was gone, instead we had Primeval, with its temporal anomalies and, er, dinosaurs coming through to modern day…  On paper they sound quite similar and it is clear to see how they took the Prehistoric Park premise and retooled it for an action/adventure family drama.  The park was gone and the man made time portals are replaced by (apparently) natural temporal anomalies.  Nigel Marven’s leading role is replace by an evolutionary biologist character named Professor Nick Cutter (played by Douglas Henshall).

I won’t go into massive detail but the basic plot is that each week a temporal anomaly will appear in modern day England linking back to, usually, a prehistoric period.  One or more ‘monsters’ will emerge and wreak havoc and Cutter and his team will be called in to clean the mess up (usually getting the animals back through the anomaly).  It was very much ‘monster of the week’ fare.  As the series went on we would begin to see future creatures come through (a chance for the CGI team to come up with something not based on fossil records) and a political intrigue storyline was layered underneath the familiar monster attack theme.

The format was beginning to feel a little tired, even with a rival ‘evil’ team and Professor Cutter’s ‘evil’ wife on the rampage.  The producers slavishly stood by the monster of the week format, though augmenting it with these extra elements.  Now I can’t claim to have seen every single episode but I have seen the majority of them.  I have to wonder, though, if I was getting a little fed up with the formulaic nature of it, what were people who had seen every single episode thinking?  Presumably those people would be its biggest fans and probably rather liked it how it was.  The more casual viewer might not have minded either – after all they knew they could miss an episode or two but still tune in and know what to expect (the plot ‘arc’ wasn’t deep or all that necessary to follow (and, yes, the naming of the Anomaly Research Centre (ARC) cannot have been a coincidence!))  Millions of people tuned in every week and there are a lot of very vocal fans, so perhaps they weren’t wrong in their approach.  I can’t say the series really grabbed me but maybe that is just me.

Drama bad…
Beyond the merits or otherwise of Primeval, what does its cancellation mean for genre TV?  Clearly it isn’t good.  Primeval was pulling in respectable numbers, not quite up there with Doctor Who but that isn’t a fair comparison.  With a retooled format (and perhaps slightly more engaging characters – or is that just me, too?) it may have gotten Who levels of viewers and audience appreciation.  I do rather doubt it, though – at least for the viewing figures side.  ITV has been in a massive decline for some years, as has TV viewing in general.  ITV consistently trails the BBC nowadays but it is not without its successes.  I am, of course, talking about the likes of Britain’s Got Talent and other talent, reality and game shows.  Popular and very cheap to produce.  You can just imagine the ITV bean counters saying to one another – we can spend more on a drama series or spend less on a talent show and get higher ratings, let’s fill our schedules with talent shows!  Thank goodness for the BBC, whose charter prevents such short sighted thinking.

Money Matters
It’s not just the success of their cheap programmes at ITV that has sealed the fate of Primeval.  Obviously money is the important factor and CGI dinos don’t come cheap, even these days.  ITV intends to cut £160m from it’s programming budget over the next three years and, in the past day or two, an ‘ITV spokesman’ has been widely quoted as saying “Our current focus is on post-watershed dramas,” although they are not ruling out commissioning or airing pre-watershed dramas entirely…

Talent shows and reality TV might be cheap and popular but where are the merchandise opportunities?  People don’t (as far as I know!) buy DVDs of ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ or ‘I’m a Celebrity… Get me Out of Here’.  Action figures?  Books?  Computer games (actually quite possibly for talent shows!)  Film rights (such as the proposed Hollywood adaptation of Primeval?)  Look at the massive Doctor Who merchandise industry and imagine all that licensing money that must be coming into the BBC.  Then add in overseas TV rights.  According to Wikipedia (the font of all knowledge!) new Doctor Who has been sold to at least 42 countries. I cannot find such information for Primeval but I don’t doubt for a second that it has much higher international interest than, say, Britain’s Got Talent.  Even the repeat (or ‘rerun’) value of a good drama like Primeval has got to be vastly superior to a talent show where the audience voted for contestants (but, clearly, cannot on a repeat).  It does feel like a false economy to axe Primeval if they were looking beyond the very short term.

Going It Alone
I think we can be certain that Primeval’s intended stablemate, Demons, won’t be returning either.  That really won’t surprise anybody, especially after Philip Glenister very publicly stated he wouldn’t return for a second season.  How much did the failure of Demons affect the cancellation of Primeval?  We can never be sure but if we look at Primeval sitting out there on its own in the ITV schedules and then turn the channel to BBC 1 and see what they are doing… Very quickly after the success of Doctor Who, the BBC announced they were going to create a new Robin Hood series, to take the same slot as Doctor Who but in the Autumn (as opposed to New Who’s Spring slot).  Now BBC 1 also has Merlin in the same early Saturday evening family drama slot that Doctor Who created.  When Doctor Who returns in 2010 the BBC will have such family, pre-watershed, drama on throughout the year (the quiet summer months aside and assuming both Robin Hood and Merlin continue).  That’s a pretty solid line up that will keep people coming back week after week.  ITV just didn’t have that.  They tried but Demons destroyed that hope for them.  Without the money to create a replacement for Demons there wasn’t really a sustainable place for Primeval, it just wasn’t making a big enough mark on its own.

Competition and Imagination
Whatever the cause of Primeval’s extinction (and the wider extermination of drama on ITV) it is a very sorry tale.  Doctor Who has some indirect competition from Robin Hood and Merlin but is that enough?  I think it is vitally important that ITV gives BBC 1 competition as well.  Clearly that is not going to happen from now on, for a good few years, at least.  Thank goodness for Doctor Who – if that hadn’t have come back in 2005 we would almost certainly be completely bereft of quality family drama now – as we were for so many years before.  At least there is something out there to fire children’s imagination but our hopes for a multi-channel family drama renaissance have been destroyed.

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