For half its first season, Terra Nova has felt like a series that was actively fighting against its most interesting qualities. You had a civilization starting from the wilderness to save humanity from extinction. You had a group of people who left modern-day (well, 22nd-century) society to live in what is essentially a military dictatorship, albeit a benevolent one. You’d think that might make for some conflict. You’d think that people might actively argue about whether it was best to essentially have Cmdr. Taylor call all the shots for them. You might have an interesting drama about whether humanity could best preserve itself by giving up a measure of freedom—plus dinosaurs!
Instead, Terra Nova went from week to week as a kind of TV cafeteria, a cop show one week, a medical mystery another, occasionally teasing with stories about the Sixers and the colony’s origins, but avoiding the kinds of stories that could make it interesting as opposed to just BOOM-there’s-a-dinosaur exciting.
So, credit where it’s due: “Vs.,” last night, was probably the best regular episode since Terra Nova debuted, and one that showed the series has the ingredients to be both a family entertainment and a thought-provoking adult show. But it also suggested why it may never get to that point.
The episode finally took a sustained look at what you’d think would have been an obvious question: How likely is it that a strongman running a colony by personal fiat is an entirely good guy? What are the odds that the personal myth that has grown up around him might be, say, a little shaky? Jim gets to an important truth about the colony’s founding—that Taylor killed his commanding officer and comrade because that officer, Philbrick, was working for forces in 2149 who want to exploit Terra Nova’s resources.
This is important not because Taylor needs to be a bad guy—the show is more compelling if he has elements of good and bad—but because it takes us away from the original setup, which is that he runs Terra Nova on his say-so, and everyone (except a few bad apples) pretty much accepts that that’s the way it is.
The meta-element in “Vs.” is that Jim comes to his epiphany about Philbrick’s murder by watching a children’s play about Terra Nova’s founding that depicts Taylor as a George Washington-like figure. In many ways, to this point Terra Nova has been that children’s play—a myth about a new country and new frontiers with any historical messiness pushed to the margins. The colonists are presumably, a well-educated elite; they’re generally skilled workers, technicians and so on selected for their ability to contribute to the colony. Yet as far as we can tell so far, they’re kind of like the children in the play, readily accepting Taylor’s paternalism (which we see made literal at the end of the episode, when he welcomes a new baby to the colony).
“Vs.” sets up some potentially strong complications, not just by giving us another download of mythology (most important, that the Sixers are basically part of a big land-and-resources grab) but by introducing the idea of the tradeoffs between freedom and security. Terra Nova doesn’t need to become a dark, serious Battlestar Galactica to do this; it just needs to be willing to face the obvious (and engaging) problems of its own setup. Taylor makes the argument that he’s lying to Terra Novans to protect them from the knowledge that their colony was founded on a lie, which he believe would lead Terra Nova to collapse. He may be wrong, but it’s a legitimate argument, one that intelligent adults would plausibly be having in this situation. Jim does not seem ready yet to make the counterargument—why not trust your people with the truth?—but we may be getting there.
Or not. A lot of Terra Nova’s original problems are still in place, in particular a level of writing and character-drawing that makes me wonder if it’s up to being a real grown-up drama. The flashback to Philbrick’s death was about as subtle as the Harvest Festival play itself (“There’s bigger players involved here, son!”) and the series still feels impatient with any investigations that get in the way of people-with-dinosaurs stories. (Jim’s impatience when asking Malcolm about the banyan tree felt like a statement of the show’s storytelling approach: “That’s the lore. Of course, sometimes the story’s more important than the truth.” “Malcolm–just, the tree.”) I’m still concerned that Terra Nova, like Taylor, just doesn’t think its audience can handle too much ugly truth without getting demoralized.
But at least “Vs.” showed that it’s still possible, should Terra Nova get another season, for it to be the kind of series it could be, ambitious about something besides its CGI. And it did all this without showcasing any prehistoric creatures more exotic than a dragonfly. This is the Terra Nova I’m hoping to see: one that can impress me with something besides its size.