While watching Terra Nova I found myself thinking of Seaquest DSV. On the surface that 90s underwater sci-fi endeavor has almost nothing in common with a TV show about people colonizing our dinosaur-infested past, but thematically they feel like the same thing. Terra Nova feels like a television show from a different time, from the 90s specifically, when getting sci-fi like Seaquest or Earth 2 on television was suddenly possible. Those shows, like Terra Nova, weren’t tightly constructed. They weren’t necessarily about any one thing. There wasn’t a big, over-reaching villain to fight or an obvious story arc which must come to some sort of inevitable conclusion. Terra Nova is, rather, just a big, splashy, world in which some stuff may happen… or maybe it won’t. We don’t know. It’s more about taking us somewhere different than hooking us with big chase sequences or daring escapes. And these days, that’s pretty rare.
It’s rare because modern television formula has suggested shows like that just can’t survive. But attempts to create science fiction using that other format really haven’t worked either. Shows like Dollhouse and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles tried to do it the conventional way, with those clearly defined plot arcs and weekly fight scenes. They were cancelled pretty quickly. So maybe it makes sense that Terra Nova is doing it the other way. Here’s this world. Let’s have fun with it.
The pilot, titled “Genesis”, opens by introducing us to a family called the Shannons, living in the year 2249. It’s not a great place, ruined by man’s arrogance and pollution. Just once I’d like to see a future where the Earth has been fucked up by some random meteor impact or something, but we humans love blaming ourselves, so a couple hundred years from now we’ll have screwed it all up so bad that humanity has to get the hell out.
Our solution is to start colonizing the past. Scientists have found a way to open a portal to ancient Earth, back when it was still populated by dinosaurs. As luck would have it this won’t mess up the future, since it’s actually ancient Earth in some sort of parallel dimension… or is it? That’s one of the few little questions the show leaves hanging for future episodes. I guess they figured they had to give you some reason to tune back in besides CGI dinosaurs.
The ancient Earth colony is called Terra Nova and the Shannons end up as part of it thanks to the brilliance of scientist mother Elizabeth Shannon, whom the colony wants around to pull giant slugs off the backs of patients. There’s also a lot of mostly unnecessary plot involving population control and the punching of cops, but none of that seems likely to have any impact on what happens in future episodes and feels a lot like it was stuck in as filler.
The Shannons show up on Terra Nova and go to work. Dinosaurs are seen briefly and the CGI used on them is of varying quality. You’d think by now television would be capable of matching the 1993 special effects technology used on Jurassic Park but it isn’t. It really isn’t. It’s ok, the dinos are fun anyway and in at least one dino attack sequence they have the good sense to shoot it in the dark. Bad CGI creatures are a lot scarier when you can’t see them. That’s not to say they’re skimping on effects. The show has plenty of them (the look of the time portal is particularly successful… and suitably impressive) and if it’s dinosaurs you want to see, you’ll see them.
Terra Nova’s pilot is mainly about establishing characters and locations. It does that. In particular it establishes Stephen Lang as Terra Nova’s base commander Nathaniel Taylor, played as a more warm and friendly version of his Colonel Quaritch character from Avatar. Lang is easily the best thing about the show, the more of him they give us, the more we’re likely to be interested in what’s happening on Terra Nova.
The thing about Terra Nova so far, though, is that it’s not really about anything. There are hints at rival factions and a couple of half-hearted mysteries, but for the most part it seems content to be a big, pre-historic sandbox where cool stuff might happen from time to time. I like that. The sets are gorgeous, the setting loaded with opportunity… and there isn’t some smoke monster lurking out there which demands our attention. That leaves the show free to be, well, different. Terra Nova is a throwback and that makes it a little unlike anything else you’ll see on television. It’s not perfect, but maybe they’re on to something.
Don’t miss the 2-hour premiere of Terra Nova September 26 at 8pm et on Fox.