Lost With Terra Nova

After much delay, Terra Nova finally premiered earlier this fall on FOX. Reasons for the delay were reportedly due to production problems such as tweaking the special effects. Despite Steven Spielberg being behind the show, a lot of people fretted over the delays especially when Brannon Braga (who many blame for Star Trek’s decline) came onboard as a show runner. What most overlook is that other sci-fi TV veterans are also involved like Firefly’s Jose Molina and Trek writer/producer Rene Echevarria.

With all these talents behind the scenes you have to wonder why Terra Nova isn’t a can’t-miss show. Many parts of it come off as tepid combinations of seaQuest and tired Star Trek plots (and that means the banal Next Generation and Voyager episodes that earned Braga his reputation). Yet there is potential in this program. It’s not downright awful and I’m still watching (which is something that could not be said for other new genre offerings like Person of Interest and Once Upon A Time, I couldn’t even get past the half hour mark on those pilots).

Here’s the premise as seen in the pilot episode “Genesis;” by 2149 Earth is an ecological disaster, overpopulated, polluted and pretty grim. But humanity’s salvation lies in the distant past. A way was found to time travel back 85 million years into an alternate Earth (and sidestepping any time paradox questions), so a select few are chosen whether by lottery or needed skill to go back in time and live in a  new colony called Terra Nova. Enter the Shannon family. In the future, family sizes are regulated to just two children and the Shannons  are caught harboring a third child, which leads to the father Jim (played by Jason O’Mara) to being  jailed. Years later, the rest of the family is chosen to make a pilgrimage to Terra Nova. His wife Elizabeth (played by Shelly Conn) helps break Jim out of jail and all five of them escape into the past to start over.

Probably part of the problem with the show is that the place they arrive in is a bit too perfect. It tries to come off as a bit rugged but the colony looks like a beefed up farmer’s market meshed with a timeshare resort with everyone walking around casually. The Shannons are part of the what’s called the Tenth Pilgrimage, meaning that nine other waves of colonists have arrived and settled into the place. It would have been more interesting to have seen the struggles of the early colonists, seeing death, hardships,  and dinosaurs. Yep. For a show that takes place in prehistoric times, dinosaurs appear far and few in this show, which is surprising when you consider that each episode costs about $4 million and has a longer than usual post production. If you look at Primeval, which has plenty of scenes with dinosaurs per show, you have to wonder where did Terra Nova’s budget go to? Sure, it has some nice special fx, esp. when showing futuristic tablets and graphics but the dinosaurs are nowhere near the level seen in the Jurassic Park films. They might as well have set the show during a more recent time period, the premise would still be viable.

So without the constant drudgery of trying to set up a colony, the show is reduced to banal plot lines. One episode called “The Runaway” dealt with a little girl that sought asylum with Terra Nova. She was part of a group of renegade, thuggish colonists that broke away from the colony in the Sixth Pilgrimage and are known as the Sixers. Interesting concept for recurring villains, but they come off as rejects from a bad Mad Max rip-off with Hollywood camouflage face painting and rags. It was pretty obvious that the girl was  a plant sent by the Sixers to infiltrate the colony. But the episode did reveal some mysteries such as the fact that some people from the future are unhappy with the leader of Terra Nova (Commander Nathaniel Taylor,  well played by Stephen Lang, think of a nicer version of the character he portrayed in Avatar) and want him removed and part of the mission of the Sixers is to do this. There are very small indications that there is more to Terra Nova than viewers are shown such as the story behind Taylor’s missing, estranged son. But so little time is spent on them.

Instead we get generic plot lines and really stupid family and teenage drama that belongs on The CW network. Haven’t the producers seen other genre shows with idiotic teenagers and known how loathed the y were? Here we have Jim’s mopey son Josh (Landon Liboiron) wasting screen time about how miserable he is without his girlfriend from the future. So he takes a job with a shady bar owner, that the parents are completely unaware of until lately (even from the first episode it was shown the parents were irresponsible by not keeping tabs on him), and strikes up a bargain with the leader of the Sixers to bring his sweetie pie through the time portal. How dumb is this guy? Then we’re tortured with scenes of the Shannons’ middle daughter making lovely eyes with the oh-so cute security guard. Speaking of security, Jim Shannon saved Taylor’s life in the pilot, earning him a job as the colony’s cop, so why isn’t he wearing a uniform like the other security personnel?

Here are some other episode plots, in “What Remains” the main cast gets stricken with a virus that causes amnesia. Actually it was better than it sounds, like a dull episode of Star Trek: Enterprise that recycled that plot from older Trek shows. That’s because of the interactions between O’Mara and Conn (who happens to be the only one who can cure the disease: “roll eyes now”). “Bylaw” concerned THE FIRST MURDER EVER COMMITTED ON TERRA NOVA! Wow with all the problems with the Sixers it’s hard to believe that there hasn’t been any violent incidents and casualties before this episode. And if memory recalls, Taylor was nearly assassinated in the pilot. So why no brouhaha over that? BTW the mystery was dull and by the book.

A recent episode “Nightfall” was fairly good (an EMP from an exploding meteor knocks out the colony’s electronics leaving them defenseless) then again there were some head-scratching moments. For instance, they go on about how their weapons are now useless, well don’t they have the skills to at least make crude spears and traps? And another thing they have to manufacture chips to operate most of Terra Nova which is without any means of protection. So why is priority given to make a chip just to operate a bio bed for one patient? What about the security of the entire colony? Wouldn’t that take precedent?

Terra Nova has some interesting nuggets. Unfortunately TPTB don’t concentrate on them. Yet there is enough going on to keep my attention and watching, which may be for naught. All thirteen episodes in this season are in the can, so there is little that can be done to improve the show at this point until filming the second season. But I get the feeling this one may be extinct before long.

José Soto

Dinosaurs On The Small Screen

When I saw the new series Terra Nova on Fox I couldn’t help wondering about how many dinosaur-based TV shows there have been. It turns out there aren’t many, which isn’t surprising for the obvious budgetary reason. Here’s a brief rundown of such shows but for brevity’s sake cartoons, documentaries and shows that only had an episode or two featuring the extinct reptiles won’t be included.

Terra Nova — Currently airing on Fox after numerous delays. The show follows the adventures of a 22nd century family who time travel 85 million years into an alternate past to escape a dying future. They are part of a human colony called Terra Nova and contend with predatory dinosaurs, dumb teenage drama and renegade humans.

Primeval–A BBC program that first aired in 2007 and was recently resurrected. Taking place in Britain, time portals called anomalies appear more and more often throughout the land and deposit confused and rampaging dinosaurs, prehistoric animals and even future animals. The Arc, a research and security facility, is set up with misfits and soldiers who deal with temporal incursions. It was recently announced that a spinoff taking place in Vancouver called Primeval: New World will go into production.

Prehistoric Park–This was a six-part series that aired in 2007 on ITV and Animal Planet was more of a mockumentary that starred Nigel Marvin who played himself. The premise is that a prehistoric wildlife preserve has been set up on an island. Think of it as a successful Jurassic Park. In the show, Nigel time travels to prehistoric periods and rescues animals about to perish and brings them to the present. More often than not he wound bringing unexpected animals.

Dinotopia–Based on the series of books, it was originally a four-hour mini-series that became a show and aired on ABC in 2002. The network pulled the plug after six episodes, which was a mercy killing. In this show, two brothers crash their plane in an uncharted continent where humans and dinosaurs (some are sentient and able to speak) live in harmony.

 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World–This syndicated show ran for three seasons from 1999 to 2002. Loosely based on Doyle’s classic, it featured Professor Challenger and a group of people who are stranded on a South America plateau that is inhabited by dinosaurs, natives and people in latex makeup. It ended with an unresolved cliffhanger.

Dinosaurs–ABC aired this comedy, produced by Jim Henson Television, from 1991 to 1994. Coming off as a knock off of The Simpsons and The Flintstones, it was your standard nuclear family sitcom complete with the goofball dad, patient mom, wise children and a precocious little baby that kept screaming “Not the momma!” Only these were talking dinosaurs wearing clothes and complaining about humdrum problems. The series ended on a downer as a global catastrophe dooms the dinosaurs.

Land of the LostA personal favorite that first aired on NBC Saturday mornings from 1974 to 1976 and it set the standard. Rick, Will and Holly Marshall are out whitewater rafting and fall through a portal that transports them into an alternate dimension populated by stop-motion and puppet dinosaurs, hairy hominids called Pakuni and evil reptilian Sleestaks. Despite its juvenile trappings and budget the show really shone thanks to high-concept scripts penned by the likes of David Gerrold, Norman Spinrad, Larry Niven and D.C. Fontana. A remake aired in 1991 in syndication for two seasons but it had a lighter tone and wasn’t as memorable. And let’s not get into that Will Ferrell movie.

José Soto