Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Trouble in "Terra Nova"

I knew "Terra Nova" had major problems the minute I saw that the Shannon family, who are our protagonists, had two attractive teenage children. You have a high concept science-fiction show about colonists from a post-apocalyptic future time traveling to the past to create a new society in the Cretaceous era, and half of your primary cast members are teenagers? Oh, hell no.

But as a genre fan, I had to give "Terra Nova" a watch. From the outset I wasn't expecting much. The pilot went through a lot of delays and production troubles, which suggests that all the special-effects on display in the opening two hours will mostly vanish for the rest of the season. Interviews with the creators have all emphasized that viewers should tune in for the characters and their relationships. Not the action scenes, the gorgeous tropical scenery, or the CGI dinosaurs, but the Shannon family, consisting of father Jim (Jason O'Mara), mother Elizabeth (Shelley Conn), son Josh (Landon Liboiron), older daughter Maddy (Naomi Scott), and little five-year-old Zoe (Alana Mansour). Please also note that all the female members of the family have ethnic features while the father and son look totally Caucasian, because that's just how TV genetics work.

The show doesn't start off too badly. We first find the Shannons living in the hellscape of 2149, where the environment has degraded to the point where everyone has to wear filtration masks to step outside and there are strict population controls. Zoe is a forbidden third child, and in trying to protect her, Jim is sent off to prison for two years. Elizabeth, being a doctor of sterling credentials, gets recruited into the Terra Nova program, which sends people back to the time of the dinosaurs (an alternate universe technically, to get around some time travel fallacies) to build a new human civilization. After she and the older children are slated to leave, Jim has to escape from prison and follow them, with Zoe in tow. This takes up the first twenty minutes of the pilot, which are dramatic and exciting. And then we get to the prehistoric paradise of Terra Nova, and start hitting road bumps.

The settlement at Terra Nova is run by Commander Nathaniel Taylor (Stephen Lang), who is a softened-up version of the bad guy he played in "Avatar." Jim joins his security force, fighting dinosaurs and the "Sixers," a splinter group of settlers who came through on the sixth expedition. The Sixers are led by Mira (Christine Adams), who hints with all the subtlety of a carnotaurus that Taylor is hiding something, and the real reason for settling Terra Nova remains unknown. Meanwhile, Josh decides he hates his father for being locked up in prison for two years, and wastes no time getting into trouble with a friendly girl named Skye (Allison Miller) and roughly a half dozen other multicultural teenagers. They sneak out of the settlement, jump off waterfalls, brew moonshine, and generally act like they're not on a show where a rampaging dinosaur could come out of the foliage and eat them up at any moment.

Of course the kids get caught out after dark and have a run-in with the Sixers, so Jim and Commander Taylor have to go out with tanks and guns blazing to save them. The last third of the premiere is a series of escalating action scenes, most of them in the dark, and hard to see. Earlier, there are a few good scenes of characters interacting with dinosaurs and other creatures in broad daylight, and a few people even get eaten by the big scaly carnivores in very satisfying fashion. The special effects team should be commended for pulling off CGI creations that look just as good as the ones in "Jurassic Park," but that doesn't mean that the action is staged as well or the story knows how to use them to proper effect. Some of the early advertising was also trying to evoke memories of "Avatar," but in spite of the lush scenery, "Terra Nova" isn't nearly as visually interesting.

The characters aren't terrible for a special effects extravaganza, but they don't display much potential to improve either. We have a cop father with authority issues, a busy doctor mother, a rebel adolescent son, a smart but socially awkward daughter, and a cute kid. Not much room for interesting transformations or developments there, unless it's through romantic entanglements or ideological splits. I don't see that happening anytime soon in a show this family-friendly. Also, if the pilot is any indication, we're going to be spending the bulk of our time with the father fighting Sixes or the son and his posse of new friends. I might tune in for the former, but the latter, with its promise of CW-style teenage drama, holds no interest for me whatsoever. If I were running the show, I'd send more morally ambiguous secondary characters into the picture to counteract the blandness of the Shannon family, or give them more interesting problems. Stephen Lang is great, but not enough. And a little comic relief wouldn't hurt.

FOX should be praised for putting its resources behind such a daring series, but in many important respects it's just not daring enough. Instead of seeing "Jurassic Park" or "Avatar" in "Terra Nova," I find myself drawing more comparisons to the minor charms of "Earth 2" and "Lost in Space." No matter how shiny the new effects are, they're no substitute for compelling characters and stories. So far "Terra Nova" is impressive, but it's only intermittently entertaining, and its future doesn't look so bright.

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