Did we like them?
Two of the offspring of the Doctor Who sci-fi/ fantasy revival return for a third series. Each continues to offer an entertaining episodic drama serial, loosely linked by an overarching arc, but the main problem they both suffer from endures – a sense that from week to week the chapters blur into a single repetitive morass. However, this has been recognised by both camps, and the fruits of which – rotten or ripe – will be borne out over the coming months.
What was good about them?
• The central element of both shows – a breakneck, well-acted narrative – persists. This isn’t a flaw in the first episodes of series as the action still seems fresh and exciting (unless you’ve been watching DVD box sets of previous series the night before, where you’ll see the distinct join).
• Robin Hood began with our hero sprinting through the forest with his loyal troops chasing him, much like Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli in The Two Towers, only here when they stopped Robin knocked Little John to the floor with his quarterstaff and also punched out the devoted Mutch.
• Robin’s fury was directed at Guy of Gisborne (the excellent Richard Armitage), who had murdered Robin’s wife Marian in the Holy Lands at the end of the last series. Initially it appeared as if the whole episode was going to be dull procession as Robin hunted down his nemesis without mercy, but his anger was skilfully manipulated to introduce a new character Friar Tuck (an impressive David Harewood).
• Tuck tempered Robin’s grief with his own philosophy, urging him to continue living the legend of Robin Hood for the good of the people oppressed by Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham. He did so by firstly tying him up to calm his lust for vengeance, and then betraying John, Alan and Mutch to the Sheriff to motivate Robin to rescue them and rekindle his passion, and cope with his grief.
• Grief was also a feature of Primeval as Nick Cutter coped with his guilt over the death of Stephen at the end of the last series (though he might have been cloned by the evil Helen). However, rather than consuming every last thought, Stephen only popped into his head on a couple of occasions to remind the viewer for the reason behind his slight unhappiness.
• The first mission for the team was pretty much par for the course. A pristichampsus – essentially a crocodile that can stand on its hind legs like a bear – had come through an anomaly in a museum’s Ancient Egypt display. After dispatching an irascible curator, who was irascible so she needn’t be mourned (in much the same way that the cleaner who was cornered wouldn’t die because she was ‘innocent’), it rampaged about London.
• Even though monsters seem to rampage about London in every episode of Primeval, the moment it crashed into a café and chased people around a shopping centre was very effectively executed.
• The twist in this pursuit was the presence of Sarah (Laila Rouass), a professor at the museum and an expert on mythology. She identified the pristichampsus as the deity Ammit, and from that the team theorised that the anomaly through which pristichampsus emerged had been in existence for thousands of years.
• This was the crucial part of Primeval’s evolution. Instead of drawing a monster out of “the big book of dinosaurs”, there’s a move towards the inclusion of more mythical beasts such as the Chimera. This would liberate the show from showcasing the same dumb leviathans running aimlessly amok in a supermarket, and enable them to become more devious adversaries. As if to compound this advancement, we once more met up with the predators from the future that have evolved from bats, and witnessed them massacre a squad of troops who were hunting for a mysterious metal pipe (that was scavenged by Helen).
• Robin Hood has sought to evolve through a more contemplative script. Indeed as Robin struggled against his bonds, it could almost double as a metaphor for what this opener was trying to achieve – to quell the endless fight scenes for better dialogue and characterisation.
• It accomplished this well, as the best scenes were those focused on dialogue – between Tuck and Robin and Tuck and Guy – and this meant that when the action scenes arrived they had all the more impact because the audience could empathise more with their motivations.
What was bad about them?
• The spectre of the main problem for each show – of repeating the same plot week after week with only a few tweaks – remains. Even though each has acted to alleviate the threat of episode cloning, both openers heavily relied upon those traits that have become both a boon and a curse. A boon because they are often thrilling, but a curse because they pall after a few episodes.
• The quandary facing each is that they really face the same enemy week after week. This is more explicit in Robin Hood with the Sheriff and Guy, and was awkwardly exposed after Robin had spent the whole episode threatening to kill Guy. But when he got the chance, he showed mercy partially because of his own saintly nature and partially because Guy begged for death to end the torment of his nightmares.
• It was neatly scripted, yet the eternal symbiosis between the pair exhibited how fundamental each is to the narrative of the show, and that Guy can’t be killed else Robin won’t have anyone to fight other than some guest-starring warlord.
• And matters aren’t helped by the device of Robin or some of his men being captured, and the rescue forming the denouement. Hasn’t the Sheriff learned that once he’s got Robin or some of his merry men in his clutches that he should skewer them with spears as they quail in their cells?
• Primeval suffers from the same sense of déjà vu, only while their foes differ every week they lumber around cities with all the dexterity and intellect of a herd of lost talent show contestants. And because of their bestial nature, even the waspish dialogue that brightens Robin Hood is absent. There are only so many times a series monsters can look scary pulling exactly the same trick as their ancestors the episode before, but we hope the shift into mythology can assuage this.
• Cutter’s wife Helen provides the human face of the enemy, while the new government minister in charge of the team is part of the sinister conspiracy concerning the mysterious tubing. This, of course, has blunted the beguiling ambiguity of Ben Miller’s acerbic James Lester, who is now reduced to the role of office bitch.