Few shows debuting this Fall have gotten more ink than “Terra Nova.” Its production problems? Legendary. Its proposed scale? Immense. The impulse towards schadenfreude? Even greater. But now, the time for analysis shifts away from everything behind the scenes towards what’s actually onscreen. And what’s there is…well, it’s more simplistic than many would like, yet offers some glimmers of potential promise underneath the Spielbergian gloss.
So much of the difficulty in analyzing the pilot comes from the fact that it offers little in the way of what a typical episode of “Terra Nova” might actually be. There’s a ridiculous amount of heavy lifting in tonight’s two-hour premiere to set the stage for events to come. Sure, there are hints of an overall mythology laid out that could form the narrative backbone of the series. But the majority of tonight’s two hours lays the groundwork for the dystopian future in which the show starts, the introduction of “fracture” technology that gets us 85 million years in the past, the various factions that exist there, and the interpersonal dynamics of the family that will serve as our view into this brave new/old world. That’s a lot of ground to cover, and there are only so many sweeping, computer-generated shots to cover said events that the show could produce in order to actually air this episode before 2149 in our own time stream.
So, what should be a two-hour pilot often feels like a two-hour film that will eventually have a television series produced in the same fictional universe. All of the “Blade Runner”/”Minority Report” shots look fantastic, and are rich with visual detail. But it’s unclear how often we’ll actually return to that world in the show’s future. Maybe the show will employ flashbacks that flesh out certain relationships, or maybe we’ll learn that the trip to Terra Nova isn’t as one-way as thought. But while all of those scenes in 2149 give us context, it also feels like a LOT of hand holding. It’s a future full of as much exposition as smog, with the audience often choking down scene after scene in which characters explain things to each other for the sake of the audience watching at home. (When Elisabeth Shannon says that she hasn’t seen an orange for ages, it’s not as if her family wouldn’t already know that.)
Setting the first quarter of this pilot might have been the most direct way to integrate the audience into the show, but it’s also the least interesting way to do so. This pilot has been reshaped many times, with vast sections being altered, recut, and re-arranged. I haven’t seen all of these versions, but I imagine there’s a far more interesting one in which we don’t know about Zoe Shannon until she emerges from a backpack in the jungle after going through the fracture. Laying things out in a linear fashion (from the perspective of the Shannon family) feels like it emerged from either focus groups or network interference, and robs the show of the central thing that will sustain it going forth: a sense of mystery.
Knowing about Zoe when Elisabeth visits her husband Jim in prison robs the entire endeavor of vital intrigue, which places the audience’s focus less on the mystery backpack and more on the incredibly bad security surrounding what should be the most heavily fortified place on the entire planet. Had the show started with Elisabeth meeting Jim in prison, everything changes about audience perspective as the show starts. Instead of starting on equal footing with the protagonists, we start slightly behind, forcing ourselves to try and catch up. But here’s the problem with the Shannon family, and it’s one that plagued another Steven Spielberg-produced show this year, “Falling Skies.” Both shows feature some really smart sci-fi ideas, but also feature families that are dumbed down for the sake of “family entertainment.”
It’s obviously impossible to accurately judge, without being in the room, how much direct involvement Spielberg had with creating the Shannons (“Terra Nova”) and the Masons (“Falling Skies). Putting a family at the heart of some potentially horrific situation can obviously create emotional stakes that link onscreen action with the empathies of the audience. But when done incorrectly, it can also create 1) situations in which normally rational people act out to spite a family member, or 2) create a false sense of security that is unearned within the context of the show. “Terra Nova” managed to tick off both boxes in the negative column: it’s got a son that makes Elizabeth Mitchell’s son in the late, not-so-great “V” look like an smart, obedient boy, and it has the type of pat, “hey, everything will be alright so long as we have each other, a really large moon, and some sonic cannons on the periphery of our camp” vibe that absolutely neutered the threat in “Falling Skies”.
It doesn’t help that our central family also represents the compelling moral aspects of “Terra Nova,” but also the show’s refusal to really address the questions it raises. Here’s a family that had a third child in a world in which, “A Family is Four.” They could be perceived, in some light, a distillation of the selfishness that landed Earth 2149 in the predicament it finds itself. People in this show talk all the time about “starting over” and getting a “second chance,” but no one ever asks, “Do we deserve it?” Now, that’s probably too dark a question to ask in a four-quadrant show such as this, but it’s impossible to have a concept such as the one in “Terra Nova” and not look foolish by ignoring the conundrums the concept creates. The show sidesteps any question of paradox by claiming Terra Nova exists in a different time stream. That helps explain why the first nine pilgrimages didn’t alter the future, and means we don’t need a Daniel Faraday-type figure to keep our noses from bleeding. But it also means humans have essentially abused one resource and are rewarded by getting the chance to do it all over again. Fun lesson for the whole family, right?
To be fair, by the end of the pilot, questions do get raised about the nature of the project: who is funding it, who sent The Sixers back, and the meaning of the strange markings left upon the rocks by initial Terra Nova citizen Commander Taylor's son. All of this creates a satisfactory sense of mystery so lacking in the initial parts of the episode. Unfortunately, any questions of injustice are assigned to an as-of-yet unknown organization. This places the moral blame of the endeavor not only man’s inherent weakness so much as the capitalistic urges of an unseen corporation. Again, this isn’t some indie film: it’s a monstrously expensive piece of entertainment FOX hopes will be a massive success. So pointing out humanity’s shortcomings on a weekly basis may not be the way to financial success. (Plus, they will already have Simon Cowell doing that over on “The X Factor.”) But it’s still disappointing that so many people will come for the dinosaurs and ignore the complex issues that the show tries to hide as much as Taylor tries to hide his son’s equations.
Oh, right: there are dinosaurs in this thing! Almost forgot. Maybe they look different on the big screen, but in terms of the online version sent for review, they looked pretty good. That the beats of the dinosaur reveals play like “Jurassic Park” isn’t unexpected, but the “slashers” make for an interesting replacement for velociraptors. Their long, whipping tails combined with their ability to hunt, track, and trap their prey make them compelling CGI beasts. The long sequence near episode’s end stems from a ridiculous premise (Josh skips out with other teens as an act of defiance), but it’s an effective sequence all the same. If the shots of the brontosauruses owe themselves to “Jurassic Park,” then the slasher sequences owe more to “Jaws,” with the barely-seen beasts all the more effective for being kept off-screen, in the shadows, or simply lit by the guns fired at them.
Still, a show like this can only work long-term if the dinos are icing on the cake, not the main course of the meal. Given how long it took simply to make the pilot, the creature work may be reduced out of necessity in order to produce weekly episodes for FOX. Indeed, if the amount of time spent on dinosaurs and the dystopian future are reduced, then that will certainly be possible. But therein lies the problem outlined at the outset of this review: there’s no way to know what an episode of this show will look like without those “wow” elements to buttress a fairly pedestrian B-movie starring a family filled with familiar archetypes. The idea that the Shannons are living and working with the wrong side is a compelling one. (I can see them living with The Sixers by season’s end, making Taylor the Big Bad for Season Two.) But simply having a compelling idea isn’t enough, especially if the family at the center of the drama isn’t worth investing in.
I don’t want to follow an idea while watching television: I want to watch people about whom I care. As of the end of this pilot, they were few and far between. There’s plenty of time for “Terra Nova” to correct that, so let’s hope they do. Otherwise, it’s sound and fury and FX, signifying nothing.
What did you think of the “Terra Nova” pilot? Are you fully on board, or curious what the fuss was all about? Will the Shannons serve as a good entry into this world, or are they too bland to follow? Sound off below!