Big-budget. Steven Spielberg. Time travel. Dinosaurs. There, did I get in all the buzz words that I’m supposed to use when talking about Fox’s much-delayed, Spielberg-produced sci-fi adventure series ‘Terra Nova’? Ah, “delayed.” That’s another important one. The network wants everyone to know that it cared so much about making sure that the show’s expensive visual effects could be completed that it had to push back the originally-planned summer premiere until fall. So, now that it’s here, is this one of the more promising TV series of the season, or a ridiculous cheesefest? Can’t it be both? Oh yes. Yes, it can.
The two-hour pilot episode ‘Genesis’ sure starts out on a bad foot. In the dystopian future of year 2149, the Earth is overpopulated and clogged with pollution. Former cop Jim Shannon (‘Life on Mars’ star Jason O’Mara) is sentenced to maximum security prison for the crime of having one too many children. His wife (who, you know, actually had the kid) not only goes unpunished, she and their two eldest children are selected for the next expedition to Terra Nova, a colony that exists 85 million years in Earth’s past, a time when the planet was lush and healthy and unpopulated (except by dinosaurs, of course). Travel there is possible via a “chrono rift” time portal thingamajig, but once you go, there’s no coming back. (How did scientists know that previous expeditions got there safely and weren’t ripped to pieces by the time vortex?) Naturally, a little thing like the law can’t keep a family apart. Jim rather easily breaks out of prison, finds his youngest daughter and shoves her in a backpack (yes, seriously), and pushes past the hilariously lax security at the time portal to run through and wind up in the prehistoric jungle.
First off, for all the money lavished on the show, while the CGI visual effects are quite extensive, they’re also incredibly, astoundingly cheesy as hell in this first section of the episode. The low-rent ‘Blade Runner’ visuals are just embarrassingly bad – matched only by the terrible writing. These scenes that take place in the future are filled with implausibilities, plot holes and outright stupidity. I have no idea what the point of the prison storyline even is. It serves no purpose at all. By the time Jim gets to the other side, his record is wiped clean and he gets a fresh start. Why not cut ten minutes of that crap out and just say that the whole family was selected for the expedition?
Fortunately, the episode picks up a bit once the action shifts to Terra Nova itself. The show wisely sidesteps issues of paradox or causality by quickly explaining that, in traveling back in time, the characters have established an alternate timeline. They can live and muck around in the past without affecting their (or our) future. They’ve started a brand new Earth all to themselves, and can stomp on all the butterflies they want without worrying about the consequences.
The Terra Nova colony is ruled by Commander Taylor (Stephen Lang, playing a slightly kinder, cuddlier version of his character from ‘Avatar’). Taylor was the first person through the time portal, learned how to survive in a jungle filled with dinosaurs, and founded the colony.
Again I ask, how did scientists in the future know that he survived when they started sending through massive groups of colonists after him? For all they know, they’re sending all these people to instant deaths. Taylor and the colonists have no way of communicating their success back to the future, which now exists in a totally different timeline from themselves.
Ah, anyway… The more interesting parts of the episode (and hopefully future episodes) involve the details of day-to-day life in prehistoric Earth – things like what people can eat, how their bodies raised in a pollution-filled atmosphere react to fresh air, and how they avoid becoming dinosaur chow.
The visual effects in this part of the episode are… better. This still ain’t no ‘Jurassic Park’, and there are a handful of really dodgy green-screen backgrounds, but the dinosaurs look OK. While clearly CG, they’re acceptable enough for television.
The pilot sets up a conflict with a rogue group of separatists called “Sixers,” who came through in the sixth expedition from the future and quickly started mutinying. Eventually, they ran off and formed their own colony, and have control over a quarry of meteoric iron, which the Terra Nova colony needs for fuel or something. Who the Sixers are and who sent them are mysteries.
We also learn that Taylor’s son ran off into the jungle on his own, and has been drawing complex mathematical formulas on rocks near a waterfall. The Sixers claim that these formulas are related to the real reason for the Terra Nova colony’s existence. “Control the past, control the future.” This implies that Terra Nova is not in an alternate timeline after all. Or that it’s possible to affect other timelines. I don’t know. We’ll have to see where this goes. In any case, both of these storylines have potential.
Much less interesting is the familial drama between Jim and his bratty teenage son. (Spielberg’s influence weighs heavily here.) The stupid kid skips out on orientation with a bunch of outcasts he just met so that they can sneak into the jungle and drink. Naturally, they get trapped outside the colony as night falls and the dinosaurs get hungry. Jim and Commander Taylor have to risk their own lives to rescue the idiots. This gives the episode the majority of its action and suspense, but it’s all rather tame. One moron girl freaks out and runs off alone to get eaten, but only winds up with some scratches. I’d like the episode a lot more if it’d had the balls to kill off Jim’s annoying son, but of course that was never in the cards.
All in all, ‘Terra Nova’ is a big mixed bag. The pilot episode is filled with stuff worthy only of mocking. On the other hand, it has an interesting premise and sets up some storylines that could be worth following. I suppose I’ll watch again – at least until the Sleestaks show up, anyway.