The good news is, most that money is up on the screen (the cash that's not going to Steven Spielberg and the show's other 11 executive producers, that is). 'Terra Nova's' expansive vistas and action scenes look spiffy, and if you like to see humans battle dinosaurs in HD, you're likely to be satisfied by the workmanlike but effective story told in the pilot.
But the long-term future of 'Terra Nova,' which is set 85 million years in the past, hinges on which of two very different questions it's going to answer. If it chooses to focus on whether the generic Shannon family can rebuild itself, all the dino antics in the world probably won't save it from falling into a tar pit of predictable, sub-Spielbergian sentimentality.
The most interesting question 'Terra Nova' could answer is this: What problems and baggage does a society bring to its efforts to reinvent itself?
That's the most tantalizing part of the 'Terra Nova' premise, but one wonders how interested anyone involved is in delving into the kind of complicated ideas explored by other edge-of-the-frontier shows we've seen in recent years. Nobody's expecting a dino-riffic version of 'Deadwood' or 'Battlestar Galactica' (the Fox show is meant to be popcorn entertainment, after all), but it would be a huge disappointment if 'Terra Nova' ignored the political possibilities and ethical dilemmas of its premise. Certainly the various indications that there are serious troubles in the Terra Nova colony are the most interesting parts of the pilot.
There's a good chunk of 'Swiss Family Robinson' in the Shannon family's quest to start over in pristine yet dangerous environment, and there are other mainstream pop-culture influences here as well. Part of the reason 'Avatar' was so successful was because it efficiently recycled some of the oldest and best science-fiction premises about colonialism, culture clashes and the ways in which individual and social goals can come into conflict, and both 'Avatar' and 'Jurassic Park' are echoed strongly in the 'Terra Nova' pilot.
There are exciting dinosaur action sequences, especially in the final third of the pilot, and Stephen Lang, who played the arrogant mercenary who complained about 'science pukes' in 'Avatar,' brings his tough-guy charisma to the role of Nathaniel Taylor, the leader of the new colony. The settlement is about seven years old and has taken in 10 transports of refugees from the year 2149, all of whom have settled into more or less agrarian lives in apparent harmony. Though the settlement looks a little too well-scrubbed to be completely believable, not everything is as squeaky-clean and Ikea-perfect as it first appears.
Still, it's better than the Shannon's garden-variety nightmare future, where everyone lives in grimy, tiny flats, all families are limited to two kids and even "rebreathers" can't keep the filth in the atmosphere at bay. Jason O'Mara plays cop Jim Shannon, and if anyone else occupied this role, you'd probably just designate Jim a jackass and leave it at that. Without going into too much detail, Jim makes some rash decisions that harm his family, but, despite Jim's occasional flashes of inexplicable stubbornness and cockiness, O'Mara's innate likability makes you not want to write the guy off. It's not going too far to say that casting O'Mara and Lang were the two best early decisions the producers could have made. (And in case you're wondering, the Terra Nova colony exists in an alternate timeline, so it won't be affecting the world the Shannons left.)
The not-as-good news is that nobody else in the Shannon family makes much of an impression in the pilot, except the teen son Josh (Landon Liboiron), who is is mired in one of my least favorite TV cliches -- the Stupid Teenager Plot. As was the case with 'Falling Skies,' another sci-fi project that has Spielberg as an executive producer, elements of the 'Terra Nova' pilot depend on characters acting stupidly because the plot needs them to, which doesn't really do much for one's long-term investment in those individuals. There's certainly cause for Josh to be chock-full of resentment at his dad, but the predictable way in which his story plays out is eyeroll-inducing at times.
One of the show's more interesting ideas is that teens are allowed to leave home and grow up fast, but you wonder what the leadership's agenda is on that score. Is it more than a population-building policiy at work? You do get the sense that everything is done with an agenda of some kind, and not surprisingly, not everyone is a fan of Taylor and the tight, secretive ship he runs.
Those kinds of stories will no doubt be contrasted with those concerning the Shannons, but I'm willing to put up with a modicum of "no matter what happens, we're a family" schmaltz, which is probably unavoidable here, if 'Terra Nova' takes its political elements in interesting directions. The idea that in the long-ago past there were differing versions of how to reinvent humanity's future could make for compelling drama, and those kind of story lines are more likely to be more intriguing than what will transpire among the Shannons, unless this bland family's character development takes a great leap forward very quickly.
The giant beasties on display in this show may make for pretty -- or pretty scary -- window dressing, and nobody likes a good dinosaur chomping more than me. But 'Terra Nova' will be worth sticking with if it takes seriously the idea that the two-legged mammals inside the walls of the colony can, at times, be the most frightening animals of all.
Return here tonight for my post-premiere post, which will explore in depth the questions I had at the end of the 'Terra Nova' pilot. See you then!
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