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Review: Terra Nova 1x1

Posted on September 28, 2011 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Terra Nova 

In the US: Mondays, 8/7c, Fox
In the UK: Monday, 8pm, Sky 1 HD. Starts 3rd October

A true scientific law about TV: while having the name 'Steven Spielberg' attached to a movie is almost always a blessing, with a TV show, unless it's an historical drama about the US military, it's almost certain that that TV show will suck collossally and usually feature various men agonising about the responsibilities of being a father.

Another true scientific law about TV: if your script is written by former Star Trek producers René Echevarria and Brannon Braga, it will almost invariably involve time travel and temporal paradoxes.

The final true scientific law about TV: it's almost impossible to go wrong with dinosaurs on a TV show. Almost.

You can imagine the thought processes involved in the making of Terra Nova. "You can't go wrong with dinosaurs. Remember Jurassic Park? Let's have a TV show about dinosaurs."

"Dinosaurs are millions of years in the past. How do we have have a show about dinosaurs?"

"Can we just make new dinosaurs?"

"Jurassic Park – we'll get sued."

"Can we bring the dinosaurs from the past to now?"

"Primeval – we'll get sued."

"Dinosaurs on another planet?"

"Why would there be dinosaurs on another planet? How about we go into the past? I do like time travel and timey-wimey paradoxes."

"Why would we go into the past to meet dinosaurs?"

"Maybe the whole world is falling apart from environmental catastrophe and the only way to escape it is to go back into the past."

"That makes no sense, but it would mean we could pretend to do Blade Runner for 20 minutes. Then what?"

"Well, we could tell a story involving lots of kids and really dangerous dinosaurs about how hard it is to survive millions of years in the past with only the bare essentials."

"Where's the fun in that? How about we create a show in which people go 'glamping' - that's glamorous camping – in the past to escape from the terrible future and have mildly exciting adventures in which they're surrounded by inhospitable but only marginally threatening outsiders, while a bunch of guys worry about how hard it is to be dads?"

"Cool. And even though it's set in the year 2149, do you think we could have minimal changes in technology and social order, while reinforcing every single possible modern-day stereotype imaginable?"

"Sure. Although it's going to sound a bit like Earth 2, isn't it?"

"Meh. Who remembers you even did that show, Steven? Falling Skies is the one everyone will be reminded of because it's on TV right now."

"This has got dinosaurs in it though."

"Big difference…"

"You can't go wrong with dinosaurs, Steven."

"Fine. Let's do it."

Here's a trailer.

About
From executive producers Steven Spielberg, Peter Chernin, René Echevarria and Brannon Braga comes an epic family adventure 85 million years in the making.

TERRA NOVA follows an ordinary family on an incredible journey back in time to prehistoric Earth as a small part of a daring experiment to save the human race. In the year 2149, the world is dying. The planet is overdeveloped and overcrowded, with the majority of plant and animal life extinct. The future of mankind is in jeopardy, and its only hope for survival is in the distant past. When scientists unexpectedly discovered a fracture in time that made it possible to construct a portal into primeval history, the bold notion was born to resettle humanity in the past – a second chance to rebuild civilization and get it right this time.

The series centers on the Shannon family as they join the Tenth Pilgrimage of settlers to Terra Nova, the first colony established in this beautiful yet foreboding land. JIM SHANNON (Jason O’Mara), a devoted father with a checkered past, guides his family through this new world of limitless beauty, mystery and terror. Jim’s wife, ELISABETH (Shelley Conn), is a trauma surgeon and the newest addition to Terra Nova’s medical team. JOSH (Landon Liboiron) is their 17-year-old son who is torn to leave life as he knows it behind; upon arriving at the settlement, he finds himself instantly drawn to the beautiful and rule-breaking SKYE (Allison Miller). MADDY (Naomi Scott), Josh’s endearingly awkward 15-year-old sister, hopes Terra Nova will give her a chance to reinvent herself. Although Elisabeth’s medical training secured the family a spot on the pilgrimage, a secret involving their five-year-old daughter, ZOE (Alana Mansour), soon endangers their place in this utopia.

Upon the Shannons’ arrival, they are introduced to COMMANDER NATHANIEL TAYLOR (Stephen Lang), the charismatic and heroic first pioneer and leader of the settlement. Taylor warns the travelers that while Terra Nova is a place of new opportunities and fresh beginnings, all is not as idyllic as it initially appears. Along with blue skies, towering waterfalls and lush vegetation, the surrounding terrain is teeming with danger – and not just of the man-eating dinosaur variety. There is also a splinter colony of renegades led by the battle-hardened MIRA (Christine Adams), who is vehemently opposed to Taylor and his leadership.

Even more threatening than what lies outside the protective walls of the colony is the chilling possibility that something sinister is happening inside Terra Nova. The Shannons will come to suspect that not everyone on this mission has the same idea of how to best save mankind; in fact, there may be forces intent on destroying this new world before it even begins. TERRA NOVA is produced by 20th Century Fox Television, Chernin Entertainment, DreamWorks Television and Kapital Entertainment. Steven Spielberg (“Saving Private Ryan”), Peter Chernin, René Echevarria (“Castle”), Brannon Braga (“24”), Jon Cassar (“24”), Aaron Kaplan, Katherine Pope, Justin Falvey (“Falling Skies”), Darryl Frank (“The Borgias”), Craig Silverstein (“Nikita”) and Kelly Marcel serve as executive producers. Alex Graves (FRINGE) directed and serves as executive producer of the series premiere.

Is it any good?
It has to be said, there are few merits to the show. 

As science fiction, it's terrible. The plot is nonsenical: in 2149, the whole world is dying from an environmental catastrophe. Because it's Fox, this isn't global warming, but is in fact pollution and overpopulation. Again, because it's Fox family fare, we're not talking Soylent Green miserable (at least, not on-screen), but people marginally inconvenienced and limited to only having two children.

Fortunately, someone discovers a handy time-space fissure that allows people – and by people, I mean almost exclusively Americans – to go back into the distance past where the dinosaurs live. Rather than the US government going, "Oh that's interesting. But why don't we spend the billions of dollars necessary to do anything useful with that on green energy sources, a decent clean public transport infrastructure and nuclear fusion instead?", it decides to send a group of people back in time to settle the past. Apparently, sending 100 or so people (sorry, Americans – can't see that causing an international problem), largely at random, into the past is going to be enough to save humanity. Oh wait, there's a secret government plan to change the future, even though they're in a different "time stream" – in other words, nothing they do can affect the future. Huh.

Notably, despite this being the year 2149, US society has not changed at all. In fact, it seems to have regressed. Even though everyone either earned their position in the past on merit or by lottery, the good guys are almost exclusively white, with a couple of Latinos thrown in for good measure; the bad guys are almost all black. Members of the military must either be gruff white Southern men (one gruff black American man is allowed) or Latino men. No women must be in the army or in any position of responsibility – only white men must be in charge. Almost all black good guys must be non-speaking background cast at best or be the first ones to die in any battle if they dare to speak. Boys must be daring and brave to win respect, girls may break the rules but they must be sensible and coy and definitely not be bad girls. Brainy girls must be embarassed about their scientific knowledge. Asians of any variety must be either gardeners or doctors. 

Is this the 1950s?

Technology has moved on a bit, but soldiers and doctors are largely operating in exactly the same way they do now. There's CCTV to monitor barriers but someone has to be watching it to know if anyone's crossing the barrier. And it may be the past and everyone's using vastly powerful sonic cannons and computers, but no one's that worried they're going to run out of power, there not being a power station and all. The camp that everyone lives in is surrounded by wooden, slatted barriers, despite numerous insects and small dinosaurs that would probably give everyone a kicking if they could. 

But this is family drama and Fox, so expecting logic is a bit much. So let's look at this in terms of drama. Again, Terra Nova is a crashing, boring failure. We have a tedious family – in fact, everyone's a member of a tedious family. There are no decent characters, only cliches, and most characters are intensely irritiating, standard Spielberg characters.  

Everything's told from the male point of view: even when we're dealing with a woman or girl's story, it's still told from the point of view of whichever male she's with. Gruff guy in charge will ask the escaped prisoner why he took the chance of having a third kid against the rules, but he'll talk with the prisoner's very important wife and not bother to ask why she would (good hiding of the pregnancy in your futuristic world, top doctor lady, by the way).

There are no surprises – you know exactly what's coming and how every situation will turn out. The one halfway decent surprise – who's writing equations all over rocks by the waterfall? – is answered before the end of the episode.

Prisons are apparently very easy to escape from in the future, so there's no risk of that being exciting. Action scenes are prosaic and unoriginal. The emotional dilemmas everyone faces are spelt out and over-acted to the n-th degree, before being solved by the end of the episode. There's nothing really to latch onto.

Worst of all, it looks cheap, despite $20 million being spent on this pilot episode. The dinosaurs don't actually look that good. If Primeval can do it on £3.50 an episode, why can't Terra Nova

It's not an absolute disaster and kids will probably love it because, apparently, you can't go far wrong with dinosaurs in a TV show, but as a sci-fi drama, it's lamentably boring and unoriginal, as well as a conservative's wet dream*. Avoid.

* Of course, a real conservative would have problems with the idea of going into the past more than 6,000 years and meeting dinosaurs but not Adam and Eve at the same time. I'm sure they'll cope though.

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