Channel Guide: ‘Terra Nova’ Surprises But Stumbles

This past summer I was surprisingly blown away by the Steven Spielberg produced alien-invasion drama Falling Skies. Part of the surprise came from the fact that my anticipation for the series was extremely low. All I had known prior to watching the first episode was whatever information was in the trailer that dropped from TNT a month before it began airing. That case is the exact opposite when it comes to the much, much more high profile sci-fi show from camp Spielberg, Terra Nova.

Especially now that Falling Skies cemented Spielberg’s return television (and the first time since ER that he has put out a series that’s been widely praised across the board), all eyes are on Terra Nova to see if lightning can strike twice. But unlike Falling Skies whose behind the camera talent is mostly full of non-names (outside of the offices of studio heads and agent assistants), Terra Nova boasts some heavy hitter talent such as Craig Silverstein (who created the new iteration of Nikita on The CW), 24 heavy-hitter Jon Cassar and Brannon Braga whose credits include Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and the highly under-rated FlashForward. The point being that there are a lot of hands in the pot of a show that is either the next LOST or this season’s The Event.

So it’s time to figure out which one it is.

Terra Nova centers on the classic Spielberg style of telling both the microcosm and macrocosm consequences of the plot device, which in this case is humanity’s new found ability to send people back in time (sort of) to restart civilization. At least based on the two-hour pilot, the series is going to follow the Shannon family who’ve managed to escape the laws of a crumbling present to make it through the time portal and start a new life.

Perhaps the highest compliment is that it has potential, mostly thanks to a very awesome Stephen Lang. Plus, the scenarios that the show is putting its characters in feel well fleshed out. Things like the introduction of a rival colony to Terra Nova are the kinds of plot lines that are going to carry the show through most of its run; on-going conflict in a series of this nature is beyond necessary.

That said, the show, at least for now, does suffer from a major case of pilot syndrome. There is a lot of exposition that needed to be given in this first long-form episode. Things like:

  • Why is the colony not worried about creating a paradox?
  • Why is no one worried about a giant asteroid that is supposed to be headed their way?
  • How is the colony dealing with the dinosaur issue?
  • Where did the time portal come from?
  • What is the problem with the current state of present earth?
  • Why is Commander Taylor trying to imitate that Col. Quaritch dude from that blue cat movie?

All kidding aside, the other job of a pilot is to set the characters up in their permanent positions throughout the series. For example, a majority of Terra Nova’s pilot is spent getting Jim from the role of stowaway to security guard for the colony. It’s involved character stories like that that make it difficult to completely write off the show so early on.

But let’s be honest, we all know the real reason everyone is tuning in: the dinosaurs.

Yes it’s true, Jurassic Park set the standard for realistic looking dinos on screen. And it’s also true that the bar set in 1993 has yet to be passed. But Jurassic Park had the equivalent of a $100 million budget by today’s standards. Terra Nova has $4 million per episode. In other words the money, and more importantly time, to create Jurassic Park level dinos is simply not there.

That said, the dinos in Terra Nova are some of the best post JP era I’ve seen on both the big and small screen. They are probably the second best looking ones put to screen to date. There are definitely moments where their weight of the animals isn’t truly felt, but then there are other times like during the JP homage scene in the woods with the kids trapped in the truck and the scene where Zoe is feeding the two Brachiosaurus (sorry if I have the species wrong) over the fence and then is lifted up by one of them.

Those two scenes work 100%.

I think that Terra Nova is a case where the series needs about five or six episodes to find its foundation and to get things rolling. Luckily, it’s been confirmed that this first season will only feature thirteen episodes (the time issue is that bad when it comes to post-production) so it will allow for a much stronger story and less time spent diddle-daddling around waiting for something to happen.

Terra Nova is one of the biggest series ever attempted by any network. It’s ambitious as hell and has all the elements required for success… It also has all the elements that when not instituted right, lead to failure. Right now all any of us can do is put on our CO2 filter masks and wait to see exactly what the show has in store for us.

Want to read more Channel Guide? Of course you do.

To listen to the latest episode of Merrill’s TV Podcast, The Idiot Boxers with Kevin Carr, head over to Fat Guys at the Movies.

From a young age, TV guru Merrill Barr has been obsessed with the small screen. And one day he decided to put that obsession to good use.

Read More from Merrill Barr
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