Sinbad debuts tonight on Syfy at 9 p.m. Eastern. Primeval: New World debuts tonight on Syfy at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Pilot episodes for new dramas have the unenviable task of balancing table-setting exposition with character/world-defining atmosphere. Striking a balance between these two things is especially difficult when your story is a high-concept fantasy, and you're working on a limited budget. Which is just to say: it's not easy to make a memorable pilot for a SyFy Channel drama. Admittedly, neither Primeval: New World nor Sinbad started as SyFy dramas, but they do feel like SyFy shows.
Then again, neither show has a chance of being picked up for renewal. Primeval: New World has a built-in audience since it's a spin-off of the popular British-Canadian dino-hunting drama. But it's already dead in the water, having already been cancelled after its first season got poor ratings on Canada's Space Channel. It's not difficult to see why after watching "The New World," a lackluster series premiere that fails to do more than cursorily set up the show's players. While it's great to see that show's creators infrequently try to do more than just over-burden viewers with info-dump dialogue, "The New World" is fairly unremarkable, despite the fact that it does in fact feature a (too brief) fight between a pterodactyl and a raptor.
Primeval: New World's pilot pales in comparison to the functionally-named "Pilot," the first episode of Sinbad, a surprisingly exciting adventure-fantasy. Like Primeval: New World, Sinbad was also co-produced by Impossible Pictures. And while it was also cancelled already after one season on England's Sky cable network, Sinbad is easily the more immediately compelling of the two shows debuting tonight on SyFy Channel.
To make up for a fairly sleepy series opener, "The New World" starts with a pterodactyl attack. A pair of base-jumpers parachute off of a building, and then get jumped by a giant winged dinosaur. Cut to an equally frantic, but uneventful chase scene: Evan Cross (Niall Davis) and Tony Drake (Tom Butler) run through the forest with a beeping doohickey but don't make it to their destination in time. An anomaly, a portal that the scientist heroes of Primevel use to travel to and from a prehistoric alternate dimension populated by dinosaurs, has just closed in Cross and Drake's faces. And while Drake huffs and puffs that he's so old that he must be slowing his partner down, Cross insists that there's another reason two other anomalies have already closed seconds before he could enter them.
The rest of "The New World" is a fairly uneventful introduction to the characters and their world, which wouldn't be so bad if the episode weren't conceived with such a myopic eye for detail. Cross, a man haunted by a fairly predictable dino-related tragedy, assembles a team to look for, study, and contain any dinosaur that wanders through an anomaly into our world. Cross hunts a Utah raptor with the help of Dylan Weir (Sara Canning), a park ranger and animal expert. This search would be more exciting if series writers' Judy and Garfield Reeves-Stevens had invested more than a minimal amount of detail in their scenario and characterizations. It doesn't help that episode director Martin Wood tries and fails to keep viewers guessing what will happen next with a couple of long, visually flat tracking shots of characters walking down hallways. These scenes are strictly functional: they're really just (relatively) long takes of people walking down hallways. They're walking, they're moving, they turn the corner in a hallway, and, whoomp, there it is, another person. Not very suspenseful, really.
But the worst part about "The New World" is how by-the-numbers its plot, and dialogue are. Awkward banter, like when one character contrasts two dinosaurs by calling one, "Big Nose," and the other, "Toothy McBiterson," is dismally cheesy. And despite the fact that multiple characters have skeletons in their closet, the only one that's mysterious enough to be compelling is Lieutenant Ken Leeds (Geoff Gustaffson), an agent for Project Magnet, a Canadian government organization currently investigating Cross and his company.
Gustaffon gives a compelling performance, and his fumbling, distracted answers are like a less flamboyant version of Tom Noonan's savant cop on Damages. But Gustaffon's also been given superior material to work with. Leeds is casually insidious: he doesn't have to work to prove he's planning something Cross won't like. Just by stalling for time, and refusing to answer questions, you can tell that he's up to something. You can also see that Reeves-Stevens invested more effort in developing Leeds more than any other character in "The New World" based on his relatively involving, though totally forgettable, dialogue. You can see that extra effort on the screen, which just makes it that much more frustrating to see that Leeds has such a tiny part to play in "The New World."
By contrast, Sinbad's "Pilot" is appreciably well-directed, scripted, and acted. "Pilot" is also a fundamentally cheesy reboot of the famous sailor's origins, mostly because the skeleton in Sinbad's closet is generic. When we first meet young Sinbad (Elliot Knight), he's getting the snot punched out of him at an underground fight in Basra. The fight is rigged, as we soon learn, because Sinbad's just playing possum. After his brother Jamil (Devon Anderson) bets a small purse on him, Sinbad comes back swinging, and wins. Sinbad and Jamil are confidence men, so it's fitting that "Pilot" revolves around a reversal of fortune. While they trick other people into thinking that their luck has changed for the better, their actions in this opening scene also have consequences that lead to Jamil's death, and Sinbad's exile from Basra.
Series writer Jack Lothian's dialogue sometimes clangs, especially whenever Sinbad's fortune-telling grandmother (Janet Suzman) speaks (ex: "This is my gift to you, my curse, so you can learn until you find atonement. You will never know peace!"). But what Lohian's source material lacks in finesse, episode helmer Andy Wilson makes up for in directing style. Wilson blocks and paces "Pilot" in such a way that he literally gives the characters a greater sense of perspective. His sensitive direction is especially impressive in the scene where Sinbad first meets evil Lord Akbari (Lost's Naveen Andrews), the King's evil consort/brother. Without going into too much detail, Akbari does something shocking, and impassively taunts Sinbad, now imprisoned in a dungeon. Wilson expressively represents Akbari and Sinbad's adversarial relationship by only partially filming the two characters' faces through the bars of Sinbad's jail cell. Akbari's face is shown in uncomfortable extreme close-ups while Sinbad's face is front-lit by the natural light streaming in from outside the jail. "The Pilot" is not consistently so well-directed, though Wilson does usually know when to let his actors take their time with their lines, and how long to hold his camera on a monster, or bad guy. But if Sinbad's series premiere is any indication, it's the lame duck SyFy Channel fantasy to beat.