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Terra Nova Watch: Party Like It’s 2149

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Jim Shannon runs to safety in the season finale of Terra Nova. Add a dinosaur and a fireball to that scene, and you've got something.

Spoilers for the season finale of Terra Nova below:

I’ve said before that Terra Nova seems to want to be every kind of TV show at once: a cop show, a sci-fi show, a family show, a medical show, an action thriller… For its season finale, as the mercenaries emerged through the giant shimmering bubble wand to invade the colony, Terra Nova settled, mostly, into action-thriller mode. But true to form, it gave us, in TV-budget form, a catalog of seemingly every familiar scene you’ve encountered in an action thriller. There were sneering villains; a captive cutting the bonds tying his hands behind his back; a hero stowing away (repeatedly) stowing away in vehicles and containers; a bar fight with someone getting a chair broken over his head. There was a guy running from a fireball! There was a guy running from a dinosaur! There was a guy running from a dinosaur that was running from a fireball!

In the end, your opinion of Terra Nova may depend on your opinion of all-you-can-eat buffets. If you’re happy enough that this series was able to pile so many different things on your plate, you might appreciate the value you’re getting and leave it at that. But from where I stand holding my tray, the mayo sauce from the macaroni salad beginning to leak over onto the Jell-O, “Occupation/Resistance” was like a little square of surprisingly decent meatloaf I wished I’d taken more of: a small taste of what the series could have been had it not tried to do everything and really committed to doing one thing well.

Because this episode, really, could have been an entire season of a better series, more dedicated to really facing the implications of its premise, a season in which a new civilization faced off against a conquering enemy and in the process, figured out what its identity and ideals were. (OK, that better series is basically Battlestar Galactica, but there’s no reason Terra Nova couldn’t have treated the issues in a more broadcast-friendly form.) The idea of what Terra Nova is for is interesting. The idea of whether Taylor is actually living up to those stated ideals is interesting. The idea of whether a dying civilization should use Terra Nova as a second chance (for a very select few) or as a trove of resources could be very, very interesting.

But here is the damn problem with Terra Nova: whenever it comes across an actual interesting idea, it goes out of its way to dispense with that idea as fast as possible. Ditto with interesting dramatic scenes: I have rarely encountered a series in which so much of the most interesting action happens off-screen when it should have been on-screen—and only some of that is explainable by likely budget constraints.

So in “Occupation/Resistance,” Terra Nova seems, in three days, to have gone through some deeply dark times. The colony was conquered. People were brutally murdered as “examples.” A tyrannical corporate leadership (with banners graphic-designed for maximum evil) has been installed. And it all happens while Jim Shannon is in a coma. By the time he actually gets on the scene, Terra Nova looks like—well, Terra Nova, but messier and everyone is a little shell-shocked. I get that this is a “family drama” and it’s only going to go so dark on us, but it all gets back to stakes: when the show holds itself at a remove from what is supposed to be a psychologically scarring experience for the colony, we can’t really feel it. We can only hear about it.

Still, we’re left with the second-chance colony having been turned overnight into a grim mining operation. Also a scenario with a lot of potential—and one that the show has to dispense of in one two-hour airing, lest the audience have to go to bed not believing that everything is basically right in dino-world. Which means that the problem of defeating a mercenary army and severing the colony from the world of 2149 is, narratively, placed on the same level as curing Elisabeth of the amnesia virus she caught in an episode earlier this season. It all feels too easy—the deaths, like Wash’s, notwithstanding—and it plays out easily too. I did enjoy getting to see Elisabeth turn badass with her brain-eating parasite ploy, and I like a rampaging carnotaur eating bad guys as much as the next guy. I am not made of stone! But this wasn’t a resistance, really; it was just another caper.

And it was handicapped, as Terra Nova often has been, by simple execution and flimsy character-drawing. Lucas Taylor was a strikingly caricatured bad guy. (I was going to call him a villain from a kid’s cartoon, but that would be unfair. Heinz Doofenschmirtz from Phineas and Ferb is far more well developed.) He has no excuse to be, either; his daddy issues with Commander Taylor could have been the stuff of a fascinating rivalry if Terra Nova didn’t just make Lucas an uncomplicated, snotty sociopath.

And in this finale, he’s surrounded by equally flat bad guys who talk like flat stock-movie bad guys. (“Ours is not to question why.” “No one will ever be the wiser.” “Next time I won’t be so forgiving.”) Note to Terra Nova writers: bad people, in the real world, don’t conceive of themselves as bad people, and thus, they don’t run around talking like Snidely Whiplash. Really, if this show gets renewed, I would sit its writers down in a room with Michael Emerson scenes from Lost playing on an endless loop.

For all that, I have to give credit to Terra Nova for making some bold narrative moves. In the last half of the season, it brought the 2149 conspiracy to the fore, even if it shied away from taking it too seriously. It took as back to the world of 2149, though I wish the season had had more of it. It brought Kara through the portal and then immediately killed her. And it took the bold step of changing up its game so that Terra Nova is now permanently on its own, severed for good from the world of 2149.

Oh, except it probably isn’t. In the last reveal, we find the prow of a 19th-century ship (The Black Rock?) that was discovered in the Badlands, which I’m going to guess, in one way or another, means that there’s another portal or some type of means connecting Terra Nova to Future Earth. (Who has money on a Bermuda Triangle connection? Guest appearance by Amelia Earhart?) And this, presumably, will figure into the second season, if there is one. (The ratings have not been terrible, but at this show’s price tag, Fox had to be expecting better than OK numbers. Whether a second season makes financial sense may depend on a number of other figures, like overseas sales.)

At the very end, “Occupation/Resistance” closed just like the pilot of Terra Nova did: with the Shannon family, order restored, staring at the night sky and its wonders. Well, if Terra Nova is going to end its season were it started, then I’m going to end this review on the same note as I did my review of the pilot. If Terra Nova gets another season—a second chance, just like its pilgrims got—the series’ makers need to ask themselves the same question that they should be having their characters confront: You’ve been given a world of wonders and endless opportunity. Why not do something better with it?