Last night we finally saw the two-hour premiere of Terra Nova, which, whatever I thought of it, will stun me if it is not the highest-rated drama debut of the fall season. I won’t bother restating my blog restatement of my print-magazine review, but I was surprised to see that most reviews I’ve read pretty much agree in their assessment: the visuals are awesome, the characters and writing flat. The difference is whether the reviewer decides that the stock characters are a dealbreaker, or can be overlooked because, what the hell–people from the future shooting dinosaurs!
Both of which, let me be clear, are totally valid ways of looking at Terra Nova! I’m not immune to a big, fun CGI-a-thon. To make the obvious comparison, I remember seeing Jurassic Park. I had a blast! It wasn’t a well-written script, and it managed to make the excellent Laura Dern look like a bad actress. But it was summer and I wanted to see a big movie, and damn! Dinosaurs!
But the thing was—and to me, this is the difference between TV and the movies—if you had asked me if I wanted to go back and watch another Jurassic Park, every week, I would not have. I don’t remember if I even saw the sequel; if I did, suffice it to say it wasn’t memorable.
Anyway, I do want to add to my review, now that you’ve seen the pilot, a few things I left out for space or spoiler reasons. Like examples of the bad dialogue: “A pretty girl and a chance to break the rules–you’d have done the same thing when you were his age.” “You should know. You were that girl.” The expository dialogue: “It’s the probe! You know, the one they sent through when they first discovered the time fracture. … No one knew at first how far back the fracture went or even when it led to. They sent this back with a beacon inside so they could find it however many millions of years later. Only they never did. That’s how they know they were dealing with a new timestream…” The bad-and-expository-dialogue delivered by a man while driving through the dark to hunt dinosaurs: “Just what I need right now!… I don’t know who sent them, I don’t know why, but I’ll tell you this: I’m not going to let them, I’m not going to let anybody stand in the way of what we are building here! Terra Nova will succeed!”
And for spoiler reasons, I left out some seeming logical holes and oversights, a surprising thing in a pilot with so much repeated exposition. (How many times did someone explain what “Sixers” were?) For starters: if the trip to Terra Nova is “one-way,” how can–as implied in his conversation with Jim Shannon–Taylor communicate with the future? (“I don’t know who in the future I can trust.”) How does home base in 2149 know what and who Terra Nova needs? How do they know anyone ever successfully go through, that each pilgrimage is not stepping through to instant death? And how, most important, would we be able to conclude that if you “control the past” you “control the future”?
Answer: they don’t say, but I actually emailed Fox to clear this up. I’m told that, though people can only pass from 2149 to the past, not vice versa, sounds can pass through the portal in both directions. (To answer your follow-up question: Because.) Is there radio contact? Do they stand at the portal and yell across the universes? I’m assuming a future episode will spell this out—maybe it will be an awesome revelation! it’s entirely possible!—but it’s an odd thing for the pilot not to address, when an outsider like Jim can take for granted that there’s a regular channel of communication.
Finally, an esoteric but important point: I’ve seen three versions of this pilot, and in each new one, the producers actually took out information that would make the characters more complicated and distinctive. An early version, for instance, hints that Jim and Elisabeth had a third child to fix a troubled marriage. Interesting! Apparently too alienating! So out it went.(My problem here, by the way, is not that the show took out something dark and replaced it with something upbeat. That might be great. It’s that they took out something interesting and replaced it with nothing.)
For that matter, the very idea that the Shannons’ arrival began with a crime—smuggling in a daughter—could be the original sin that hangs over them in the new colony. If we grant that 2149 was a polluted hell partly because of overpopulation, the Shannons were, well, part of the problem. An interesting show might acknowledge this! There could be consequences! There could be blackmail! Instead, Taylor just declares that it’s no problem, and the central conflict of the first half-hour of the pilot is, apparently, gone. My review accounted for the same pilot that you’ve saw, but from what I saw of its evolutionary process, the trendlines are not encouraging.
Anyway, I’ve held forth long enough. And for all my griping, I’m going to put Terra Nova on TiVo and keep watching, because I want it to get better—I like this Dagwood-sandwich of a sci-fi premise enough that I hope it will turn its characters into people and hold my interest. And there are elements of promise—the tease, for instance, about Taylor’s missing son and the secrets that he’s found. Plus, giant leeches. Give me more giant leeches!
But I also need this show to become more than Walking with Dinosaurs—for it to have original characters and a voice—if I’m going to stick around for 13 episodes. But how about you, pilgrim?