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On my first viewing of the pilot episode of Terra Nova I was taken with how free the show is in the beginning. There’s no driving plot to get you hooked in, instead the series begins by focusing on a big “what if” and letting the characters explore that world. At times Terra Nova rambles off track, and perhaps it’ll need to reel in the sci-fi plot in order to tighten up the story. By the end of “Genesis Parts 1 and 2” there’s a sense of direction, but the question is whether giving the show a mystery to solve, an enemy to explore, and a conflict to resolve is the best choice.
Too many recent science fiction driven TV shows have floundered upon a heady premise. Dollhouse and Flash Forward are prime examples of recent series’ that lost their audience partly due to convoluted ideas. Cool ideas, to be sure, but there’s still a lot to take in with these types of shows. Terra Nova spends all of 15 minutes in the “modern” world where people wonder at how the space time rift works. Scientists have discovered a way to open a portal in space-time back to when dinosaurs roamed Earth, and now people are escaping a ravaged Earth to have a chance at survival. Once we’ve gone through the portal we’re fully in this new ancient world, leave the science gobbledygook at the door.
That’s what makes Terra Nova fresh, and more importantly a show that could build an audience. References to things like the original probe, or how the people on Terra Nova are not in our time stream (a convenient plotpoint that allows for anything to happen without consequence to mankind’s future), become rare. The alternate time stream element is a bit worrying, because it makes me wonder if we’re going to discover in time that this has happened before, and all this will happen again. Over and over, with the Terra Nova experiment explaining the pyramids and other ancient mysteries. The ancient alien civilization that actually built the great pyramids were humans from another time stream; it failed miserably for Battlestar Galactica. Unfounded conjecture aside, the adventure far outweighs the sci-fi in Terra Nova.
In the year 2249 mankind has destroyed the Earth so much that we require masks to breathe. OK, I can get behind an Earth that’s so far gone as a plot point but the beginning of Terra Nova is rife with unneeded preachiness about the horror of mankind causing environmental problems, the man keeping good people down, and a dystopian society set on population control. It’s borderline silly, but apparently will have no bearing on the rest of the series. As one main character says, “I don’t care about population control from another time.”
We follow the Shannon family, a group of fairly clichéd characters who get by on having a bit of charm; this is especially true of Life on Mars’ Jason O’Mara, who is exceptionally watchable. The family is barely interesting, and even worse we’re subjected to a bout of teenage anti-parental angst. It’s used to introduce conflict into the show on a larger scale as the oldest Shannon boy goes beyond the fence with his new friends.
As much as the show wants to be about the Shannon family, it’s truthfully about cool shit happening. With the exception being Stephen Lang’s portrayal of Terra Nova commander Nathaniel Taylor, a role that is pretty awesome. Think of Nathan as a cuddlier version of the crazed General in Avatar. Nathan Taylor is even a fantastic alpha male name fit for a video game hero, exactly who this character should be.
Back to the cool shit, and specifically the dinosaurs. Jurassic Park released in theaters in 1993, and we still can’t get similar dino effects on TV. That’s not to say the dino’s are horrible in Terra Nova. In fact, these are the best effects TV has produced in a long while. But they’re inconsistent, and that throws the CGI into sharp contrast with reality. The set design is exquisite, which makes it all the more jarring when a background vista shot looks like it was pasted there using Photoshop.
I’m excited to see where Terra Nova goes, because it’s a show with vast potential. Sometimes it’s OK to have fun and play in a dinosaur sandbox. I hope that the creative team behind the show never forgets that as they plot out the future of the series.
Terra Nova premieres Monday September 26 at 8:00 PM ET on Fox.