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Extinction-Level Event: Why You Should Care That Terra Nova Was Canceled

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Terra Nova is now fossil fuel. Well, let’s be precise: after a long deliberation, Fox canceled its expensive sci-fi/time-travel/future-conspiracy show, and the Steven Spielberg production is being “shopped to other networks.” Which, sure, maybe there’s a deep-pocketed philanthropic network out there that wants to buy a show with huge production costs, shot in Australia, with ample CGI involved, and which scored only mediocre ratings despite publicity that could only have been more intense were one of the dinosaurs played by Katharine McPhee. But yeah, poke it with a stick and I don’t think it’s going to move.

I did not, from the get-go, think Terra Nova was a good show, and it got much worse before improving, by the end of the season, to sometimes O.K. I will not pretend to miss it. And I could go on listing the reasons that it didn’t work creatively: the writing was B-movie grade; it tried to be every type of TV drama imaginable at the same time; and for whatever reason, it spent much of the season actively avoiding the conflicts and long-term story lines — the future conspiracy, the moral issues around the colony’s existence and Taylor’s benign dictatorship — that might have made it interesting. But it’s too late for that now.

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But while I didn’t like the show, I did want to like it. And while I’m not mourning it, I do mourn the idea of it, and I feel sorry that it didn’t work. And if you like ambitious TV, there are a few reasons that you should feel sorry too:

Terra Nova could have made room for sci-fi on the big networks. The networks do still occasionally do science fiction, of course; Fringe is still hanging on on Fox, for instance. But since Lost and the many failures to re-create its success, they’ve tended to focus on small-scale, real-world shows with little sci-fi twists (Person of Interest, Alcatraz) or fantasy (Once Upon a Time, Grimm). The epic-scale, effects-intensive sci-fi show has always been a tough sell on the networks, and to its credit, Terra Nova was trying a brand of sci-fi we hadn’t seen a lot on TV. Now big sci-fi will be an even tougher sell.

The purse strings may get tighter. Fox busted open its piggy bank for Spielberg and company (as NBC did, in a different genre, for Spielberg with Smash, which has its own difficulties). Each network has been trying to figure out how to break through and work out a business model in an era of smaller audiences, and Terra Nova could have proven that one thing networks do successfully is create big-event, big-ticket TV. And they may well again — TV is nothing if not good at un-learning lessons — but this failure did not make it any easier. (Lev Grossman — who, full disclosure, works with me at TIME — recently blogged about Fox’s passing on the pilot script for a TV version of his epic fantasy novel The Magicians. I haven’t seen the script and can’t vouch for its quality, but one likely reason, perhaps among others, was Fox’s experience with Terra Nova and concerns about the expense and risk of a full-blown fantasy.)

It’s one more reason not to be ambitious. This is in a way related to the first two, but it goes beyond genre or money. Say what you want about the new broadcast-network shows this season, but they at least involved some creative risks and premises that stretched beyond the standard genres. I may have liked some of the attempts better than others, but the fact that broadcast TV — which, cable notwithstanding, still has a lot of money to throw at show creators — was trying dramas like Awake, The River, Smash, Alcatraz, Touch and Terra Nova was encouraging. So far, though, there’s not one unqualified hit among them (Touch, maybe, but we have only one preview to go on), and that’s not going to make it easier to pitch a creatively risky project in the next development season.

It was trying to make actual “family TV.” If you read this blog, you know that I don’t have much patience for prime-time-decency crusaders who want the FCC to impose its values on America. I have no problem with there being shows for adults and shows for kids. But I have kids myself, and I think it would be great if there were also shows that adults and kids could enjoy together (really enjoy, as opposed to kids loving it while their parents tolerate it). Terra Nova didn’t succeed — maybe one reason for its storytelling flaws was that it tried to be everything to everyone, like a family show couldn’t be too sophisticated — but I do appreciate the effort.

Don’t get me wrong: I would never have argued, You should watch Terra Nova, good or bad, if you care about television. (I’ve heard a similar argument made, in all seriousness, about Smash — apparently it carries the fate of NBC, adult drama and live theater all at the same time.) It’s the TV show’s obligation to be good, not your obligation to watch it. And no one does anyone any good rewarding mediocrity out of principle.

So I will not miss Terra Nova, the actual series that appeared (or some weeks didn’t) on my TV. But I will miss the idea of it, which I wish had been better realized. RIP, ya big carnotaurus.

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