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PRIMEVAL: Are story arcs killing TV?

The heart was ripped out of Primeval when Douglas Henshall quit as Professor Cutter, but Andrew Lee Potts (as Connor) stepped up well in the fourth series to be the one who actually cares what is happening, and give the show some kind of belief in itself.

Primeval is a strange fish, it seems to be written to a strict percentage scheme: every episode 80% monster-of-the-week, 10% conspiracy-of-the-series, then about 5% each of character stuff and vague flirtiness. Characters get few lines. It’s possible to be a star in Primeval, and yet have less dialogue than Third Tree in the school play. Douglas Henshall made the most impact per screen-time by delivering most of his lines in a kind of slow-mo universe of his own bitter intensity, and when not speaking, dishing out glowering stares.

Ben Miller, a key presence in the series, seems especially underused – instead of being made more central to the show, he has become a kind of bureaucratic  Zebedee, who pops up at the end of the episode to make everything all right again.

He worked better with sparks of tension flying around between him and the team. Just because a character becomes popular in a series, it doesn’t mean they have to become popular within the world of the series itself.

Primeval is an entertaining show which could surely be a great show. Maybe the approach to writing it has become a problem. In the old days, series like this were written so that each episode could stand alone, and thus the episodes could be shown on US TV networks in any order.

Episodes had a meaning, or at least a theme. The Prisoner faced existential issues, identity and the meaning of it all.  Star Trek tackled racism, arms escalation, and so on. Diverse writers dug deep trying to make their episode the most memorable one of all time (Harlan Ellison with his City on the Edge of Forever, for instance).

But now, largely thanks to Buffy, the story arc is king. Writers are cogs in the machine of a higher plan. Instead of meaning and originality, we have the 10% of  conspiracy dropped in.

Dr Who has gone down this route and now much of the series is devoted to building up to a massive finale. But what seemed exciting and original, with Bad Wolf, has become a bit routine, and despite many curious loose ends in the last series of the Doc, nobody I know is really talking about ‘The Silence’.

Let’s hope this fad, like 3-D movies will evolve into something new, and we won’t end up with shows full of arcs that are spectacular, but insubstantial – like the rainbows they metaphorically, err… perhaps resemble.

Sorry, that doesn’t work at all – people like looking at rainbows. Yeah, well – you know what I mean… hey, where’s the exit?

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About Glenn Dakin

Glenn Dakin is a writer, cartoonist and editor. He is author of the Candle Man series of fantasy novels for Egmont. His best-known comics are Abe - an autobiographical strip (Top Shelf);Temptation (Penguin Books and Active Images); Spider-Man heroes and Villains (Eaglemoss);the Rockpool Files (With Phil Elliott, Slave Labor/Marvel UK); Robot Crusoe (Funday TImes); Plasmer (Marvel UK); Clan Destine (Marvel USA).

4 responses to “PRIMEVAL: Are story arcs killing TV?

  1. Zebedee ⋅

    Boing!
    No argument with all the above. And surely another major flaw in Primeval is the sheer volume of dull, pointless characters running around, hoovering up valuable air and screen time from other, more interesting characters. Do we really NEED all these guys? Do we really need Ben Miller AND Doctor Bashir from Deep Space Nine playing essentially the same vaguely sinister suit? Out ‘in the field’, do we really need Connor and Abby, plus the stumpy Irish guy, plus the male knitting pattern model, PLUS (this week) the unwelcome reappearance of the gangling doofus we all hoped had been eaten at the end of last series? I’d call them by name, except I find that any scene featuring them is instantly deleted from memory even as I’m watching it.

    Stephen King once said that it was his ultimate ambition to write an entire novel set in a lift (he probably said elevator), with the smallest possible cast – plot and story boiled down to bare essentials. Primeval could learn this lesson too; for one thing the money they’d save on duff, boring actors posing around with guns could be channeled into more dinosaurs!
    Time for bed, BOING!

  2. Don’t watch Primeval, but my beef is the perpetual deferment that so often seems to come with story arcs – nothing interesting is ever happening now! Instead something veeeeeery significant is going on, which maybe we’ll tell you about later. It’s like the writers are just stalling for time and the effect becomes like junk food. You don’t actually like it, but it still remains moreish.

    TV used to be about making something good enough that you’d want to tune back in next week. Now it’s just about making you tune back in next week.

    • I agree, maybe that’s why you get that hollow feeling sometimes after watching a show. Don’t want to see Dr Who go that way, but it does suffer a bit from your ‘veeeeeeery significant’ syndrome!

  3. Baleegh ⋅

    I have been watching the primeval at a non stop phase just completed season 1,2,3 and part of 4. I think they have done pretty good job. To my mind after a long time TV is enable to attaract a large audience. I think after season 5,6,7 and 8 should also be made to attaract more audience.

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