Primeval series three began with a shock for the audience, with the death of Professor Nick Cutter in one of the earliest episodes, and the introduction of a number of new characters, including Danny Quinn, Sarah Page and, of course, Becker. Series co-creator Adrian Hodges took the time to discuss the changes with Paul Simpson in this wide-ranging interview, most of which has not previously been published.
Is the show completely finished now?
I know they have finished episode 10. Our producer and the core team are on hiatus now. All 10 episodes are finished, all the effects, everything. Because we had this long delay [series three began later than in previous years, allowing for the transmission of the not particularly well-received vampire series Demons] normally we’d still be working on the series when it’s going out, but we had time to finish the whole series this time.
Has that had any positive benefits or in the past could you gauge the audience reaction to the first few episodes and re-edit the later ones?
Not really – it wouldn’t have mattered in that respect. It was always just a question of finalising the special effects. The pictures were locked long before we started transmitting. It wouldn’t have made any difference in terms of being able to re-edit in the light of audience response.
Up to now, and I count no chickens, audience response has been fairly positive so we never felt we had to make a last minute change to anything. It’s just the last minute making the effects as good as they can be.
This season feels like it goes off on a sidestep – was that your intention? Was that trying to avoid being stale?
It depends what you mean by a sidestep. I don’t know we would see it as a sidestep. I think because we had 10 episodes, we felt we had more time to go off in different directions. We were more ambitious. The mythology has always been inherent in the possibilities of the show. Early on in the first series, Cutter has a speech about dragons being creatures that came through anomalies, so it was always at the back of our minds, but we never had a place to do it before. Once we had the storyline of a creature coming out in the British Museum, it seemed a very natural time to introduce this notion of mythology and knit it into the storyline.
Is that this season’s theme, or just a string to the bow?
It is an ongoing theme, but it takes a sharp left turn after episode three. That’s an episode I’m very proud of. It’s one we didn’t expect to have to write in the way we did, so when we did, it was a very interesting opportunity.
When we knew Dougie [Henshall] was leaving we were presented with a dilemma. It was always my intention to finish the Cutter/Helen story at the end of the third series, and give Dougie an out then, if he wanted it. I never thought he’d do more than three series. But when he decided to go earlier than we’d expected, we had to come up with an ending that fitted the Cutter/Helen arc, one which we could also carry forward into the rest of the series. That left us with very few options; unlike a certain other fantasy series we can’t regenerate our leading men, so whatever we did had to be realistic and credible – and also we had to make it unexpected. I think a lot of people would have said (and in fact many of them did) “Oh, he’s just going to get lost in an anomaly or something” so I felt we had to do something more than that, and really, if you look at the way things have been going with Helen, it had to end badly one way or the other. So we came up with the end you’ve now seen, which I hope is both shocking and moving – and realistic, which is in line with the feel of our show.
What an emphatic ending for the character also does is make sure that we don’t spend the rest of the series looking back and saying, “is he coming back this week?” because we wanted to give the show a completely new start and even a slightly new feel with Jason [Flemyng] in the lead. That’s the thinking, anyway – but needless to say the Helen story isn’t finished and will now follow an arc slightly different to the one I originally had in mind but reaching roughly the same conclusion (at the end of this series).
Has creating 10 episodes had a different feel to just doing six or seven?
Yes. Ten is a very different proposition. One is very conscious in a six episode run that you are hovering in an area that sits between miniseries and a full series. I think that six episodes of anything pushes you to a miniseries kind of approach, with a much stronger serial link between episodes. Something about that length says to the audience it’s a serial. That’s something I’ve learned very clearly from Survivors: people expected that to be a serial and were a little confused by some of the stories of the week. The second series of that will be much more explicitly a continuing miniseries rather than a series with lots of extra characters and stories.
When you get to 10, which is approaching a half US season, you’re very much more able to keep your serial stories floating but you don’t have to use up quite so much material quite so quickly. Particularly in a show like Primeval which does the Creature of the Week, you can expand those stories a little bit.
It’s not massively different. It’s harder, because you’ve got to keep more balls in the air more of the time, but with a 10 episode run, you can have two or three episode stories that have a beginning, a middle and an end. We’ve done a bit of that – episode four climaxes the story with the journalist from three and four which is a story in its own right.
We wanted a leading man who would be very different to Cutter. Dougie patented a kind of passionate intensity, and I think was pretty convincing as an academic and a driven loner, who certainly thawed a bit in the company of his team but was basically always his own man. Jason, as a personality is naturally very warm and outgoing, and we wanted to catch that in Danny, who is really nothing like Cutter in that he’s not an academic but a policeman by training, and he’s not really an expert. But he’s a natural leader with a great ability to look at the big picture and make good decisions.
After Cutter’s death, the team need someone to pull them together and Danny, as an outsider, is just the man to do it. He has enormous relish for what he does and even in adversity has a kind of James Bondish glee in the danger and mayhem (that would be the old James Bond rather than the glum Quantum one). But that said, he has his own demons – he lost his brother to an anomaly creature, and his determination to find out what really happened led him to join the police and eventually the Arc team. That story may not be entirely finished (look out for season 4) and does play a role in the make up of his personality – but he’s basically a friendly, open guy with a great taste for the physical side of things and real leadership qualities. If Cutter was the stern patriarch, Danny is more of the firm but fair big brother. And he’s funny with it.
The problem they have with Sarah is she’s very aware of all the ins and outs – the anomalies, the creatures, the team. She’s very smart and also very interested so when Cutter hits on this notion of tracking back through mythology to get a closer idea of the anomalies in history, he needs somebody to do that with him, and it seems natural that Sarah with her expertise would be that person.
Merely having her looking at history books for 10 episodes would be a little difficult, so she will gradually expand her role as the series goes on.
Why bring in such a character in real life?
We lost Steven [Hart, played by James Murray] in the last round, and there are significant changes during the run of this series, so we felt a different balance in the team would be a good idea. We were thinking of subsequent series as well as this one. We do finish a couple of storylines in this series that we started early on, and I was keen that people had satisfying answers to those questions, but then having done that, we have been preparing other stuff so we can move on. You don’t want it to feel like the end!
Primeval is not an easy formula to keep refreshing. We always had that problem that merely having a creature come through, roaring and eating people was going to have a limited shelf life. We had to bring more to the show than that, or we would have died halfway through the second season. It’s always been about bringing in human storylines that support the structure, that allows the creatures to come through.
Episode two isn’t about the creature…
No – but he’s a horrible little git!
There’s some breaking the fourth wall in that episode with the creature turning to camera…
It certainly goes further in that direction than anything we’ve done before. That was partly dictated by the creature’s character and partly by it turning into more of a horror film than we sometimes do. It’s scary – it’s about as scary as I want to get. I no longer want to be frightened in that way.
He develops well. In the second series, we made a conscious decision to see if we could go without having too much military intervention. One dreads that Star Trek thing of having someone in uniform around purely to be killed. Could we do Primeval with our core team without another military guy? Also, we really liked Ryan and what Mark had done with him, and we felt we should respect him and not replace him instantly.
What we found as the series went on was that it just wasn’t credible that the team would go into these situations without having back up. It didn’t feel sensible or right. Given they are a quasi-government set up, it made no sense. When we planned the third series, there was another military character needed, particularly as they had just lost Steven arguably through not having proper military support. A new character would lead a team, who would supposedly keep them safe…
And Christine Johnson – played by Ben Miller’s real life wife, Belinda Stewart Wilson?
It was one of those strange things, we were down to the last four, looking at the auditions, and our casting lady asked if we knew that Belinda was Ben’s wife. She was fun, and they’re really rather good together.
It’s worthwhile – and he gets a good deal more disconcerted as the series goes along. You need a credible situation with the government: we all know that in any area of government there is rivalry between different departments. And we wanted to have Lester not repeat the same manoeuvres every week – see him in different situations and slightly less sure of himself.
Are the novels a side story alongside the main continuity?
The Extinction Event was a story we wanted to do but was simply not achievable on TV. Outside of a feature film we simply couldn’t do it. The books, in most cases, are a wonderful opportunity to go to locations that we couldn’t do in the show, to have much bigger kinds of spectacle than we have in the show. They’re a place to put stories that we have no opportunity to do elsewhere. The books are a combination of the authors of the books pitching stories to us, and us telling them stories we want to achieve. We do our best to keep things in continuity, and the characters in the right mode. What we try and avoid is having anything that would have truly catastrophic effects on serial elements in the TV. They do exist slightly at an angle to the show.
There are number of new writers credited this season…
The way this is working now, I haven’t written any first drafts in this series, but I have written the final version of every single script. It’s broadly: I do a polish or a rewrite depending on the situation. I have a substantial involvement in each episode. Each writer has done a brilliant job – nobody is going to get a credit who doesn’t deserve it.
It’s a tough job – you go through a lot of drafts. These shows are not easy to write. You often find yourself doing a third draft which is almost completely different to your first draft because what your first draft often reveals is better opportunities for better stories.
Has Tim Haines come forward with a creature to write a story around?
We tend to do that in the preproduction phase. Tim often comes in chuckling because he’s just come across a creature he really loves.
We’re constantly on the hunt for good creatures from the past that really will help us. The trouble with a lot of predators in prehistory is they are pretty raptor-ish, so it’s hard to say “This is a different sort of raptor to the one you saw last week,” because it does look rather similar. Tim thinks up creatures that are different enough, fun and lively, but not just straining for novelty. There’s a lot of creatures you can’t use because they’re a bit boring: they just sit there chewing grass. Late in the series, we have a creature that isn’t in and of itself particularly dangerous but only dangerous because it’s huge and goes around in herds.
The Creature of the Week isn’t always the main focus now…
It’s a balance. We do believe in the creatures having a strong story impact, but it is very much the case that they exist equally with the other aspects of the story to make the whole thing work as a satisfying whole.
I think it is our most ambitious season – it goes through changes and surprises, which we had to deal with at quite short notice in certain cases. There is no doubt that episode three has an impact. It’s a very important episode in the history of Primeval. I’m very proud of the work, because it’s emotional and very strong. It’s also very funny, with a lot at the beginning that is very endearing.
We have a very strong run in the middle of the season – three through seven are remarkable. The giganotosaurus in episode four is a fun filled episode, and it’s good to see a huge creature. Episode five is a genuinely unusual creature – it’s so crazy and unusual. Much of it is set in the ARC, and the threat comes from within.
I’m bound to say that Framestore have taken this to a new level this series – the work they’ve done is really remarkable. We were justifiably proud of the effects in the first series, but seeing it now, we’ve moved on. It’s just astonishing. They’ve learned on the run.