Running From Dinosaurs: BBC's Primeval Brings 'Em Back Alive

Now here's an anomaly: a BBC sci-fi show with special effects more special than a kindergarten electronics class could produce. Primeval features creatures conjured by Impossible Pictures, who brought you the historically correct saurians in Walking With Dinosaurs.

On Primeval, they're free to tinker with history: get ready for cute, chirpy flying lizard pet Rex, the oversized ancient alligator Mosasaur, the wide-winged Pteranodon, the sabre-toothed Gorgonopsid, the placid and elephantine Scutosaurus, and the Dodo dinosaur, who pretty much just looks like a dodo bird -- and why not? As Walking With Dinosaurs viewers know, dinosaurs didn't go extinct; they simply became birds. The scariest, least historically-rooted dinosaur isn't really a dinosaur at all, but a fanged, two-fingered killer who looks like Gollum on a diet.

And just what are all these varmints doing in our time, rampaging through supermarket parking lots and golf courses? They stroll through "anomalies," shimmering crystalline holes in the fabric of reality like the stargates that launched Richard Dean Anderson to a life after MacGyver and addicted countless fans of Stargate SG-1. Only instead of facilitating interstellar travel, they just pop people and creatures back and forth in time. Also, they're even cheaper-looking than stargates.

The showrunner is Walking With Dinosaurs auteur Tim Haines. The humans hunting the dinos are concocted by Adrian Hodges, who cowrote an episode of Rome. Zoology prof Nick Cutter (Douglas Henshall) walks through anomalies in pursuit of dinos, but more passionately in search of his wife Helen (Juliet Aubrey), who's been living in the past for eight years. She's scarier than a Gorgonopsid. I don't know what he sees in her, but it's clear what he sees of her: she always leaves her top three buttons undone, theatrically revealing breasts cradled in a fetching black bra.

How odoriferously cheesy is Hodges' dialogue? "I offer you the key to time -- the key to time, Nick! And you turn your back on it! You call yourself a scientist?" snaps Helen. "I call myself a human being," says Nick.

The human beings are less believable than the dinos, but they do participate in some gratifyingly intricate soap-opera emotional antics. Good friends sometimes turn out to have slept with one's girlfriend. Even girls who aren't as overtly bad as Helen sometimes turn out to be working for bad-guy bosses as spies.

There's also some time-trippy paradox peddling that should wow the stoned freshman philosophy major in you. Sometimes anomalies lead to the future, not the past. One character goes back in time via an anomaly and winds up contemplating his own skeleton. Another apparently disappears in the past, and everybody except Nick forgets that she ever existed. This notion may have been nicked from my favorite book when I was ten, Danger: Dinosaurs, by Richard Marsten, who also wrote Blackboard Jungle, Hitchcock's The Birds, and the Ed McBain crime novels.

Primeval definitely nicks the stainless-steel-kitchen dinosaur chase from Jurassic Park, and blends it with the jesting spirit of the "Trouble With Tribbles" episode of

Star Trek, the one where the Enterprise is invaded by cute little furry critters. In this case, it's Dodos, who aren't furry.

The CGI dinos are nowhere near the quality of Spielberg's, but so what? By now, no matter how good a CGI dino is, it's old reanimated hat. BBC's dinos look just fine, and it's fun to see them toss supermarket shopping baskets around and generally upset people. My problem is with the dramatic writing of the show. It could be scary when a giant ancient alligator jumps out of the water to gobble you up, but Primeval has the gator jump just far enough to snap his fangs close to the allegedly imperiled blonde and a guy without persuasively imperiling them, and then illogically slipping back into the water. From the episode snippets BBC provided, it looks like there's not enough terror in Primeval. Terror requires narrative art. Spielberg's got it. Haines and Hodges don't.

Even so, there's just enough fun stuff per minute, in terms of soap opera, sci-fi adventure, and cool CGI pets and monsters, that I'll be watching Primeval. And I'm not even a Stargate freak.