Primeval Vs. Doctor Who

Matt argues that CGI can't buy you suspense, and that there's more that Primeval needs to learn from Doctor Who than just big scary monsters…

Primeval future monster

Despite the writers’ initial insistences that Primeval and Doctor Who are completely unconnected, the influences of the latter on the former regularly scream off the screen. It’s clear that without the success of 2005’s regenerated Doctor Who, ITV wouldn’t have had the guts to commission the monstrously expensive dino-drama and you could argue that  – with the continuing success of WhoPrimeval acts as a good inter-season replacement and ensures its continuing production.

It may be that the connections are even deeper than that. Watching the fifth episode of the current season, I became convinced that it must have been either written or directed by a Jon Pertwee fan.

In the episode, a man stumbles though a time-anomaly, is infected with a fungus and then returns. He dies but the infection is passed on to his employer. Slowly the infection takes hold. Alerted to the appearance of the anomaly the Anomaly Research Centre (ARC) team try to capture the man whilst simultaneously trying to combat the infection. Eventually, the team secure the man, who then transforms into an aggressive creature that is only defeated when it is trapped within a climate-controlled lab and then frozen to death.

Throughout the episode I was mentally referencing old Doctor Who: Oh look – a man stumbles through central London infected with a plague (Doctor Who And The Silurians); oh look – the fungal infection is spreading disconcertingly across the man’s face (The Green Death). In fact, the mixture of scientists and military personnel that forms the ARC team strongly recalls the UNIT format of Doctor Who in the early 1970s. Despite the fact that they like the new series of Doctor Who and although Primeval nostalgically references old and new episodes of the BBC series, my family and friends have given up on Primeval, bored with the over-complex narrative arc and the shifting cast, as actors decide to abandon ship to return to the theatre or ascend to Hollywood.

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I persist – but I worry about the long term appeal of the series. I worry that unless the makers of Primeval take note of how Doctor Who balances spectacles with scares then the ITV series risks running out of stories to tell.

In part this is because I’m optimistic – I still bask in the warm nostalgia of the revival of Doctor Who, and greedily gobble down any mildly quirky series that seems even remotely-inspired by the return to popularity of big, primary coloured narrative concepts.

Hence I’ve happily (well, almost happily) sat through Demons, Robin Hood, Merlin, Apparitions, Torchwood, even Bonekickers and two and a half seasons of Primeval. While these series are chock-full of clichéd, poorly executed plots, if you watch for long enough you find a few well-constructed, memorable and, sometimes, frightening episodes. These moments are enough for me to carry on watching, so I mentally edit out the chaff and cling to the gold.

This third season of Primeval is lightly peppered with these nuggets – not many, but enough to be encouraging. But what does Primeval owe to Doctor Who? And why is it that Doctor Who regularly gets it right when Primeval regularly misses the mark?

Watching the second episode of the third series a few weeks ago I sensed an attempt at a shift in the conventions of the series towards tension and creepiness away from dinosaur-of-the-week spectacle. Clearly inspired by Blink, a successful episode from the revived Doctor Who, the Primeval episode is essentially the ITV series’ take on a traditional ghost story.

The early scenes of the episode develop a slow-burning tension complete with mysterious creaks and groans and a spooky child. It is when the truth behind the ‘haunted house’ of the story is revealed that tension evaporates and becomes, as with earlier and more conventional episodes, just another demonstration of the production team’s skills with CGI.

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The fifth episode of the third season suggests a continuation of this trend towards contrasting the big dinosaur episodes with storylines that for the most part rely on a more subtle build-up of tension. The big let-down comes when the creature is revealed in all its CGI ‘glory’.

The problem with Primeval is that the monster-of-the-week format has become a fixed convention. Because of this a creatively confining expectation has been formed that at some point in each episode a big CGI moment must happen. Whilst the CGI is undoubtedly spectacular, it counters the creepiness that the makers clearly strive for. You could call this the Stephen King’s It syndrome. The first episode of that two-part miniseries is a classic in tension and horror, featuring Tim Curry as a killer spectral clown.

The second episode climaxes with a clearly expensive but disappointing giant model spider. Doctor Who generally recognises this fine balance. The most successful and memorable episodes of Doctor Who have been the ones that use minimal and subtle CGI: the weeping angels in Blink, the gas-masked children in The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances and the scarecrows in Human Nature and Family Of Blood all beat the computer generated mutated Professor Lazarus or the rock monsters in The Fires Of Pompeii hands down.

An excellent example of how Doctor Who finds this balance can be seen in the successful two part story The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit. In the first episode, the tension is ratcheted up by slowly revealing the villain of the story through disembodied voices and an eerily well-acted ‘possessed’ character. When, in the second episode, a giant horned monster is discovered by the Doctor, the CGI works because crucially the monster is shown to be an animated husk. The ‘Satanic’ intelligence operates remotely to control the crew members and the usually docile Ood servants. Literally, in this case, the CGI effect is the dumb representation of the more intelligent verbal and physical effects.

I’m not suggesting that CGI is bad or has no place in fantasy television. On the contrary, I think the revolution in small-screen effects is a crucial factor in the recent resurgence in the popularity of what we used to call ‘telefantasy’.

What I do think is that the spectacle and visual impact of the effects-heavy episodes need to be balanced by the more low-tech and more creative ‘uncanny’ scares.

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Recently, Primeval seems to be attempting to reproduce the creepiness of the more successful episodes of the Doctor Who revival, but in resistance to this attempt, the series seems to be hampered by the expectation of an expensive ‘monster reveal’ in every episode that, so far without exception, has drained the story of uncanny horror or (to use a phrase from the marketing department of Doctor Who) the ‘fear factor’.

As if to reinforce my concerns for the future of Primeval based on these creative tensions, I’ve just seen the trailer for the next episode. A medieval knight has come through an anomaly accompanied by…a CGI dragon.