Primeval: New World, the spin-off intended to supercede a once-vital parent series lately drifting from its potential, has found a home.
It was an open question exactly where the spin-off of Primeval, set in Vancouver with a new North American cast, would be seen here in the actual New World apart from its originating network in Canada, Space. But here in the states, Syfy, displaying an increasing willingness to leaven is original productions with acquired series broadcast as original, has picked up the 13-episode first season that began production in March.
Old Hands at New Sci-Fi
Primeval: New World lighting at Syfy may seem to have been inevitable anyway if you look at the cast and crew. The star, Niall Matter, is fresh off Eureka; but more telling is the presence of Martin Wood, one of the driving forces behind both the Stargate franchise and Sanctuary. Directors on the series include names familiar to Stargate fans, including Andy Mikita and Amanda Tapping, and Eureka veteran Mike Rohl (whose credits also include multiple episodes of Smallville, Supernatural, The Dead Zone, Kyle XY, First Wave, and Andromeda). And the writer-producers are Gillian Horvath (Sanctuary, Flash Gordon, Painkiller Jane) and Garfield and Judith Reeves-Stevens (The Lost World, Enterprise), with more scripts by people like Peter Hume (developer of the 2007 Flash Gordon) and Jon Cooksey (the Canadian supernatural series The Collector). These are people who have been making sci-fi for decades, most of it for Syfy.
But Syfy has a pretty full grid these days, and despite their profile and profitability they're still a relatively small part of a vast conglomerate where all the kids are being encouraged to slug it out for increased visibility (I get as much promotional stuff from Chiller, which wasn't on anyone's radar a year ago, as from Syfy, an industry graybeard by comparison). Syfy adding one more series in a year where they've already expanded dramatically above past levels of original programming, scripted and nonscripted, is worthy of sighs of relief and general celebration.
What Happened to Primeval?
But is the extension of Primeval into a new series cause for joy? The last two seasons of Primeval, a sudden resurrection from the dead after cancellation and an influx of Irish funds, ranged from the peculiar to the soporific. With a dialed down performance at its center from a new lead so soft-spoken he seemed to have wandered in from an adjacent rest home, seasons 4 and 5 were handicapped from the beginning: Ciarán McMenamin being outacted by everyone from Alexander "Am I the villain?" Siddig to Hannah Spearritt to Rex the flying lizard only made viewers dolefully long for the days of the strong-willing, fire-eyed leads of yore, Douglas Henshall and Jason Flemyng.
Even worse, the creators made the mistake of setting back the progressive development of Andrew Lee Potts's character, Connor Temple. A wet-behind-the-ears university student in the pilot, Connor has been through enough -- including years of fighting monsters both in present-day U.K. and during a long stretch being marooned in the Cretaceous -- to have been finding his feet as a leader; instead, the most fan-liked character on the show was shunted into being the villain's dupe. By the end of the 13 episodes broadcast as seasons 4 and 5 across the spring and summer of 2011, the once-vital Primeval seemed played out.
Then came news that Primeval was, like everything else sci-fi/fantasy in the U.K., enthusiastically expanding across the Atlantic. This didn't seem like quite so bad an idea until the same experiment conducted on behalf of Torchwood became that mixed-reviewed dud, Torchwood: Miracle Day. The fact that the North American incarnation of Torchwood was originally titled A New World only underlined the unease for Primeval fans.
New and Better?
There's a lot to suggest, however, that Primeval: New World will do exactly what it's supposed to: revive and reenergize the franchise while opening up new audiences broader than the cult following accorded most U.K. imports.
Whereas Torchwood increasingly had no throughline as to what it was about, the premise here is the same as for the original series, and it's still solid: scientists confront the opening of anomalies that provide passage into the past and future, allowing dangerous creatures from all the ages of Earth not rules by man to endanger civilization. It's just happening in Vancouver this time.
The collective centuries of experience of the production team means that the systemic challenges of making a live-action/computer-animated hybrid series have been solved and solved again. Martin Wood alone knows more about integrating drama with CGI than the folks at Impossible Pictures did when they first started making Primeval on the strength of a series of dinosaur docs. Their successes make sci-fi drama look easy.
Premise and Practice
And where they did not succeed? Stargate Universe was canceled because the creators planned too big and the network suits lost patience; but that can't be a problem at Primeval: New World, which of necessity will be focused on episodic drama rather than years-long story arcs. Even Flash Gordon -- which was a failure -- flopped because its developers, Hume among them, realized too late that they couldn't create space opera on their budget, and by the time they shifted the center of gravity toward character-driven conflict it was game over.
The arc of the original Primeval -- seasons 1 and 2 with Henshall were great, season 3 with Flemyng was a downshift in some ways but opened up new possibilities, seasons 4 and 5 with McMenamin were diffuse and unmemorable -- points up what's necessary in front of the cameras. Primeval is a show about fighting monsters, and that means it's really a show about the team that fights the monsters. The first requirement is that the team have a heroic center. Henshall played a university prof, and had an action-man sidekick in the first season that would have been presumed to do all the heavy lifting, but Henshall himself was a red-blooded hero. He did what a hero did: face danger fearlessly and hold the weird and disparate team together through force of will.
Many action-oriented shows have an advantage in the team cohesion department: there's often some kind of military structure. The away teams on Star Trek or Stargate are all or part military command structure, with the assumption that even civvies will follow the commander's orders. But Primeval started out as a bunch of scholars thrown together quite at random dealing with space-time anomalies almost despite themselves. One of the reasons McMenamin failed was that the burden of team leadership was so much higher.
The New Team
So what can we expect from Niall Matter as the (to us) new guy, Evan Cross (an "enterprising inventor and visionary hero")? Most viewers will know him only as Eureka's Zane Donovan, a character created out of three parts cliché (he's a supergenius "bad boy") and one part the weight-training regimen Matter engaged in to pass the time. Zane, a late arrival in the history of Eureka and treated rather unevenly by its writers, should have been a one-off but developed staying power through Matter's capacity to energize and find a center for an inconsistently written character. In Primeval, Matter, now with several seasons' worth of experience on Eureka for seasoning, is now free to use his charm to build up a character properly from the foundations.
The bits and pieces we've seen so far suggest it's working behind the scenes as much as in front of the camera. The rest of the cast, led by Sara Canning and Danny Rahim and joined by Potts from the U.K. series, look even in still photos like they fit together. And that's just the sort of thing that Wood and Tapping and Mikta and the rest, after years of working with Richard Dean Anderson and Joe Flanigan and so on, will know how to get onto the screen.
Primeval: New World will premiere on Syfy in the U.S., Space in Canada, and Watch in the U.K. sometime in 2013.