Stephen Lang of "Terra Nova"
Back in the 1980’s, Wendy’s ran a successful ad campaign based around a single catchphrase: “Where’s the beef?” You could apply the same question to “Terra Nova
,” which we can now safely say was a 4-hour television movie that managed to also have nine inconsequential hours between the season premiere and season finale
. (We might be able to eventually substitute “series” for “season,” but as of the time I’m writing this, that’s still up in the air.) It’s not that there wasn’t another nine hours of story here. It’s that the writers/producers of the series didn’t know how to fill those hours with compelling characters, interesting action, or philosophical inquiry. They knew the starting point, and they knew the ending point. Everything in between wasn’t an opportunity so much as an obstacle.
As for the two hours themselves tonight, well, “Occupation/Resistance
” acquitted themselves as the strongest two hours of the series. That’s faint praise, but praise all the same. The show went from “excruciatingly painful to watch” all the way up to “Syfy would be proud to air this on a Saturday night.” So, something! We start off with a fairly ingenious way to get around the fact that any future army could only come back to the past two or three soldiers at a time: by strapping an innocent civilian with a bomb and having him take out the front line of portal defense. That’s smart plotting on the show’s part, and smart planning on Future Evil Threat’s part. (We still don’t know who they are. So let’s call them the FET henceforth.) Moreover, the damage felt palpable in ways that the show had shied away from all season. People were bloodied, bruised, and sometimes literally burning from the explosion. All of this was solid stuff, and showed promise…
…and then Jim woke up in the hospital three days later, with the occupation of the colony already over.* I understand this show has limits to its budget, but even in the finale, the show’s tendency to talk about the cool stuff that happened during commercial break never ceases to make me sigh. Having us catch up with Jim certainly saved the show some money, but kept the Phoenix Group (the Blackwater/Halliburton of 2149) as faceless entities rather than specific enemies. All we learned about them throughout the two hours is that 1) they don’t like to pay for drinks and 2) they all run like seven-year old girls when in formation.
* For the first ninety minutes, I was CONVINCED what was happening was either a dream, or a chance for the show to manipulate timespace to Jim could go back to that moment in time at the portal and stop the explosion. Why else kill Kara seconds after she arrived? Luckily, that didn’t pan out. Still, tough luck, Kara.
Now, there’s actually some mileage to be had in an occupation of the colony. Having those citizens take back the camp is a perfectly strong, albeit overused, narrative device. But here’s a “where’s the beef” moment: for nine episodes, “Terra Nova” had the chance to actually flesh out the members of this colony, show them interacting with each other, and help us understand why the colony is so vital to them. Only by establishing all that does their rebellion have any weight behind it. As such, by the time the ragtag crew assembled, it was Jim, Elisabeth, That Dude In The Wheelchair that we’ve met two or three times, and…other people. Who were these people? What are their hopes and dreams? Hell, what are their NAMES?
Since any hope of having emotional investment in their eventual rebellion set sail about a third of the way through the season, what’s left? Well, the show finally got around to showing how living in this world without the protection of the colony walls would be extremely difficult. And I appreciated the way that Taylor and those with him in the jungle post-insurrection were like a prehistoric Robin Hood and His Merry Men, stealing from the Phoenix and scoring victories against the oppressive regime. But man, everything happened so fast in tonight’s two hours. The insurrection? Over within a night. The start of the rebellion? Within hours of Jim waking up from the blast at the portal. The destruction of said portal at Hope Plaza? Days after that. Dudes: put down the Five Hour Energy drinks and take a breath already.
Having the portal shut down seemed like a bold move for the show, and one I applauded for the thirty seconds that it seemed to mean something. This once again gets down to the type of life depicted on this show, which stands in stark contrast to the way everyone actually TALKS about that world within “Terra Nova.” Throughout these two hours, people talk about that world as their home, and how it’s worth defending. Elisabeth at one point recapitulates the themes laid out in the pilot: “It’s about hope and a second chance, and we can’t let them take that away from us.” And that slogan undoubtedly looks awesome on an inspirational poster underneath a picture of the baby dinosaur that Zoe wanted to keep. But it doesn’t accurately reflect the mindset, ethos, or actions of anyone on this show. It’s not enough to say this world is about hope and second chances…you actually have to SHOW how that applies.
* Perhaps they could describe Taylor, but the show has somehow segued from him being a problematic dictator to a beloved one. He’s like Kim Jong Il, but looks better in tight black turtlenecks.
How I would have structured the season, given the framework of the pilot: show “Terra Nova” as Eden, complete with its temptations. Everyone came with an ideal by which to live, but struggled with that in the face of the possibilities inherent in starting society anew. Doing so gives insight into the world left behind as well as the one onscreen. Layer these stories atop one another in a way that gives them dramatic resonance and echoes. Couple that with Taylor’s problematic rule over these people: do we need leaders like him to keep things organized? Do we deify men such as this or forge a new way of communal thinking? Were these people picked because they could contribute or because they could be controlled? Do that for, say, six episodes. Then strip all that away with the portal opening in Episode 8, and give the show five hours to make people realize what they miss, vow to truly live up to their potential, and forge the society always promised but never achieved. Oh, and add dinosaurs, liberally. Done. There’s your Season 1 of “Terra Nova.”
But there was no introspection at all throughout those middle nine hours. We learned that Maddie freaks out without her iPad battery, and that Zoe REALLY wants to know when there will be pie. But all of the complicated issues the Shannons brought with them from the future? Utterly dismissed, given as much lip service as a really cool mission that happened in the jungle forty miles from the nearest camera. Josh apologizes tonight for being such a jerk about his father’s jail time pre-pilgrimage, but none of that angst ever made it onscreen. Simply screwing your face up and acting like a douche doesn’t mean you’re mad at your father. It just means you’re a screwy-faced douche. (At least he wasn’t a semi-incestuous douche, like Lucas and his obsession with “sister” Skye. Ugh. )
Even the one death that actually mattered tonight was short-changed in retrospect. Of all the secondary characters on the show, Washington has gotten the most screen time. Mira and Lucas have received more character development, but Washington is someone we know enough to make her sacrifice mean at least a little tonight. But hearing Zoe talk about her relationship with Washington later that night with Taylor only emphasized how bad this show is at creating compelling characters. To hear Zoe talk of Washington, you would think she was talking about a woman that nearly rivaled her own mother in terms of importance.
And yet, did we EVER see a scene between them? Watching Washington teach the children how to read the stars isn’t inherently a hokey idea. It’s something that would have built texture into the world if done right, and made Washington’s final scene with the Shannons infinitely more powerful. Note how she doesn’t even look at Zoe before creating the distraction? It’s almost as if the “Terra Nova” script had a blank page that simply read “MOPPET MAKES TAYLOR CRY” and then filled in the blanks when it came time to actually film the scene.
With the portal down, “Terra Nova” seemed to finally be embracing its true nature: an adventure show about the formation of society without the trappings of modern technology. But no, that’s not the case. Before, we had the portal. Now? We have The Badlands, where things like 18th-century sailing vessels apparently reside. (Luckily, no one mentioned the words “Black Rock,” or I might have thrown my remote at the television.) The Phoenix Group hightailed it out there, along with the Sixers, after Jim destroyed Hall Plaza via explosions and a carnosaur. (The show once asked, “How do you kill a man with a dinosaur?” Like THAT, apparently.) My guess is that Season 2, should it exist, will explain things like the Bermuda Triangle as a way station to “Terra Nova” that always existed throughout the course of human history. What’s in the Badlands? Ships, treasure, all those black socks that somehow disappear inside my dryer…anything’s possible. Including a way back to 2149. With Lucas still alive, kicking, and scenery-chewing, you can bet The Badlands are Plan B to create a connection to the future.
So, the status quo will remain the same, albeit with slightly different parameters. I’d love to think that Season 2 would be a survival-based season, but I imagine that fence surrounding the colony’s perimeter would magically be back by the time the show returned to air. Everything appeared to change tonight, but almost nothing did. And that illusion will probably stick with the show for as long as it’s around. When there’s this much money going into the production, there can be almost no creative risk involved. I’ll say this for the last time: that’s a shame, because underneath all the dino-trappings are the makings of a smart sci-fi show here. But “Terra Nova” never wanted to be smart. It’s unclear what it ever actually intended to be. As such, something that was designed for everyone ended up working for almost no one. For me, there’s no hope here for this show, and it certainly won’t get a second chance from me.
Thanks for reading all season. On behalf of myself and Nyko, I humbly thank you.
What did you think of the season finale? Did it redeem your viewing experience, or did you watch it out of habit rather than enjoyment? Do The Badlands intrigue you, or do they seem like a Hail Mary? How would you improve the theoretical Season 2? Sound off below!