As a fourth series of ITV’s increasingly popular sci-fi show “Primeval” returns for a fourth outing, Titan Books unleashes a new selection of original paperback adventures novels based on the TV characters made popular during the series’ previous run of on-screen adventures. Originally conceived as the commercial channel’s Saturday evening challenge to the BBC’s all-conquering revival of “Doctor Who” in 2005, “Primeval” is a canny mix of fantasy elements capitalising on both the success of the new “Doctor Who” , and also that of the then-recent and popular with children “Walking with Dinosaurs” documentary series.
Series creators Adrian Hodges and Tim Haines employ an intriguing science fiction conceit based on the concept of the discovery of mysterious time anomalies that cause holes to appear in the fabric of space-time and provide portals into the Earth’s prehistoric past. Unfortunately, these portals can pop up anywhere at any time, and provide a route into the modern world for all sorts of monsters, ranging from right across the full span of the Mesozoic age. The series’ potent mixture of misplaced, rampaging dinosaurs, pictured running amok in contemporary Britain, and the time traveling possibilities opened up by the sci-fi concept of the anomalies that lie at the show’s heart, has proved to be a popular one, with the show capturing a similar audience demographic to that of “Doctor Who”.
Like the other books being released in this series of new non-TV adventures, author Dan Abnett faces the challenge of creating an original story while dealing with the various comings and goings that have taken place in the series’ cast over the years; as well as an ever-developing story arc that has resulted in some pretty wide-ranging changes, not just in the faces but in the set-up underpinning the show since it first began. This particular adventure is set sometime mid series two in the show’s chronology, after the death of lead character professor Nick Cutter’s colleague Stephen and the introduction of the Anomaly Research Centre (ARC), but before the archaeological professor himself exited the programme, bringing to an end the whole subplot involving Cutter’s ex-wife Helen and her involvement with the anomalies. Abnett’s first task with this novel is to establish the story’s continuity with the series, without making it virtually unreadable for anyone who hasn’t seen every single episode. Kicking off with a snappy self-contained episode in which the team at ARC deal with a pig-like Entelodon on the loose in broad daylight on Oxford Street, gives the author a chance to establish the point at which the tale connects with the TV series and introduce the main protagonists and all their relationships and various backstories to the newcomer. It’s so seamlessly done that you could actually read and enjoy the novel without ever having seen the series on which it is based and still not be lost. From this point on, you know you’re in a safe pair of hands.
The main story of “Extinction Event” revolves around one of those high concept ideas that is so good, and fits so perfectly into the series’ basic remit, that it’s a wonder it hasn’t already been used on the show itself. The tale begins when the series’ young technical whiz kid, Conner, alerts the rest of the team to the fact that he has started to detect strange integral instabilities in some of the recent anomalies they’ve been dealing with. Hoping he might find some notes from his former life at the University Research Facility, that might shed some light on the phenomenon (a nice reference to the changes that spontaneously appeared in Nick Cutter’s life history after he emerged from an anomaly at the end of series one), Cutter takes Conner and former zookeeper, now ARC employee, Abby Maitland, along with him to investigate. But at this point the trio are kidnapped by former KGB Special Forces operatives, accompanied by a Russian scientist called Medyevin.
It turns out that the Russians have their own anomaly problem – although they have no real inkling about the true nature of what they are dealing with. It was Medyevin’s idea -- based on the Russians’ limited knowledge of the activities of the ARC team -- that Cutter might be able to help them. The three friends find themselves helicoptered out to a remote part of Siberia against their will – and even when ARC leader Lester and his security chief Hemple discover the truth, they soon realise that they are powerless to do anything about it. In Siberia, it becomes apparent that the Russians have a rather unpleasant problem: a huge anomaly – much bigger than anything the ARC has dealt with before – is venting practically a forest-full of prehistoric life into the present day, including a rather hungry Tyrannosaurus s Rex. But this turns out to be only a minor problem when Cutter discovers that the area has recently been subjected to a huge meteor strike and that they are in that part of Siberia known as Tunguska – the site of a famous (and real) huge meteor strike and accompanying ‘airburst’ in 1902!
While some of the more suspicious (and psychotic) of the Russian special forces refuse to believe anything Cutter, Conner and Abby are saying about faults in time and portals into the past, Cutter gradually begins to realise that the future of the whole of humanity is at stake, that the Tunguska portal connects the present to a point in the Cretaceous past when the extinction event that eventually wiped out the dinosaurs is set to occur, and that the whole of present-day life on Earth is consequently just as imperilled by the anomaly connecting the two time periods. As Cutter battles to come up with a plan to save the Earth from destruction, he and the others have also to contend with a violent Russian security head who is convinced that they are all spies, a lethal forest fire rapidly spreading through the Siberian forest, and not one but two Tyrannosaurus Rex rampaging through the base camp!
Dan Abnett has a fluid, easy-to-read prose style and proves well adept at crafting plenty of action-packed, suspenseful set-pieces to keep the story ticking along nicely right up to the climax. There are a plenitude of new characters introduced along the way thanks to the Russian connection, and, as is usually the case in this genre, the military is used to create a source of tension throughout the story, due to its bone-headed refusal to countenance any other course of action other than violence. Conner gets to flirt with an authoritarian Russian medical supervisor, and Abby has the attentions of a bunch of woman-starved Russian soldiers to cope with. Conner and Abby probably get most of the character scenes in the book; they are the two main cast members to have survived right the way through all four series after all, so that’s not too surprising. But Abnett does also find a neat little twist that enables him to give a role for Cutter’s ex-wife Helen and the other ARC team members in the story. It’s a well-paced, nicely constructed adventure that is sure to please any fan of the series, but it also works well simply as a stand-alone story; the central concept is intriguing and the potential paradox over whether it is the anomaly that first causes the meteorites in Tunguska or whether it’s the other way round, adds some timey-wimey (to coin Steven Moffat’s phrase) weirdness to proceedings that augments the action-adventure shenanigans nicely and makes for an excellent page-turner. “Extinction Event” is a rollicking good read.