There was so much riding on Terra Nova, that failure was not scene as an option. It was easily one of the most hyped shows going into this fall TV season, and for good reason: It was a sweeping epic that blended together the future and the past. The production and writing team was culled from some of the most prolific and well known in the science fiction television universe, including perennial show-runners Brannon Braga and Rene Echevarria, who cut their teeth on Star Trek in the 1990s. And it had the backing of one Mr. Steven Spielberg, the original voice of “bigger is better”. Never had a science fiction show had so much hype and hope riding on it to succeed where others had failed in the past. So much hope, in fact, that FOX Broadcasting threw its weight behind it and set it up as one of the biggest shows of the Fall season.
It almost worked. Terra Nova debuted to around 9.5 million viewers before settling in at around 8 million in subsequent weeks. While this isn’t really a bad thing for any other show, because so much was riding on Terra Nova to be the “Next Big Thing,” the fact that it’s not comes off as a disappointment.
Which is a shame, really, because Terra Nova is easily one of the most entertaining science fiction-type shows of late not to come out of the United Kingdom. Barring the inevitable comparisons to UK stalwarts (and imports) “Primeval” and “Sanctuary,” Terra Nova presents an alternative version of the future that carries on the traditions set by some of the classic authors in the genre, while keeping itself firmly grounded in appeal as a family show. And it has dinosaurs. Can’t forget the dinosaurs.
The show follows the Shannon family: cop-father Jim, doctor-mother Elizabeth and children Josh, Maddie and Zoe, as they attempt to build a new life in the colony of Terra Nova, which exists on a time stream that runs parallel to ours, but is currently experiencing the Cretaceous Era, a time where the dinosaur is king. The setting alone would make for an interesting series (which, by the way, Discovery Channel has already done repeatedly), but added into the mix are themes of conservation, intrigue, rebellion and more dinosaurs, who are often at odds with the colonists.
See, in this future world, mankind has so destroyed the planet that we need air masks to breathe outside, fresh produce is non-existent (which makes for an interesting scene in the premiere involving a single orange), and families are limited to 4 people tops to prevent rampant overpopulation. Violators are often fined or imprisoned. Such is the fate of the Shannons, when Jim and Elizabeth welcome into this forsaken landscape youngest daughter Zoe. And the price they pay for this indiscretion is Jim being thrown in jail, and Zoe taken away.
Given that some of these issues are prevalent in our own world (and, given the prevalence, I doubt we would actually make it into the 23rd century), Terra Nova had a lot of heavy material it could easily cover pertaining to current social issues. Well, it really doesn’t (at least not from the 5 episodes currently aired). Less than twenty minutes into the first episode, Elizabeth, Josh and Maddie are already on their way to the past, recruited by the Terra Nova project to be part of the 10th “Pilgrimage” to this new, unpolluted world, and Jim has broken out of jail, rescued Zoe, and charging headlong after them.
That point, which marks the formal beginning of the series, is also where the tone drastically changes from pseudo-political science fiction, to fish-out-of-water family drama, as the Shannons settle into life 85 million years into the past. Formerly alien and exotic things like fresh fruit are now everywhere. The air is so clean, the pilgrims need to get adjusted to it. And of course, the dinosaurs. Can’t forget the dinosaurs.
At its core, Terra Nova isn’t so different from any other family show (and it is a family show, make no mistake) currently on the air. Jim struggles to fit in before becoming the only cop in the colony (why they need one escapes me, what with half the colony being military. Not to mention the fact that Jim sort of broke into the past…and out of jail). Elizabeth has to juggle a hard job, a family, and a supervisor who wants to sleep with her. Josh and Maddie find love interests before the first episode is over, and they pan out pretty much as one would expect them to. And Zoe…is sort of there. Given everything that’s going on around them, and the fact that they are currently living in a world that looks and feels like ours, but plainly isn’t, there is a wealth of other storytelling possibilities there to cover without resorting to more of the same, expected plots that other shows have. Like what the real deal is with the Sixers (think of them as the “Others” of Terra Nova, members of an earlier pilgrimage who ran off after their attempted coup failed). Or just exactly what happened to Commander Taylor (an amazing Stephen Lang- you will start watching the show just for him after a while) after he crossed over and spent 100+ days alone in the height of Dinosaur domination.
Human melodrama aside, Terra Nova might be one of the most beautiful shows in the history of television. Pulling visual effects that wouldn’t appear out of place in a SquareEnix game and overlaying them into the lush wilderness of modern Australia gives the show a true feeling of being someplace out of time and untouched by human hands. The greens are green, the blues are blue, and the forest is alive, sometimes literally. Seeing as how Spielberg is part of the production team, and he did give us the splendid Jurassic Park back in the early 90s, it seems fitting that the show manages to create a world that is alien but also familiar.
Lunch time, everybody get in line…
And the dinosaurs. Can’t forget the dinosaurs. Currently, they’ve only shown a few of the hundreds of species available to choose from when crafting a tale set in the Cretaceous (and those few have only shown up a few times), but the ones they’ve chosen fit the bill. Not enemies (though they sometimes feel the need to attack and eat colonists), definitely not allies (except maybe the Brachiosaurs), but neighbors that the colony must learn to live with and not disrupt as much as possible. But when they do collide with the humans, it creates for some truly tense moments. (Watch the interesting, and visually stunning, second episode to see what I mean.)
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One of my friends told me, after seeing previews that seemed everywhere this summer, that Terra Nova reminded him of Avatar with dinosaurs. And that comparison isn’t exactly wrong- like the much hyped, visually stunning James Cameron movie of 2009, Terra Nova is heavy on scenery, light on story (at times), and designed to be escapist fluff that entertains you, but not much beyond that. But that doesn’t mean that it’s a bad show. Putting aside all the connotations ascribed to science fiction, what you get is a solidly produced diversion from the crime dramas (though this has them), family oriented dramadies (also these) and reality TV that seems to be the entirety of the broadcast and cable schedules. Will it win any awards? No. Will it be renewed? Hopefully. The planned 13 episode arc, which concludes in December, has a lot of potential left in it, and if it can find a gripping meta-plot, it has a good chance to come back.
Welcome to Terra Nova. It’s not perfect, but it sure is interesting. And fun.