It takes a special talent to make a show about people going through a wormhole to dinosaur-infested prehistoric times inside an alternate time stream…and then make it this spectacularly dull. I almost want to applaud the show’s writers for achieving something I didn’t dream was possible. There’s a lot of talent behind the scenes on “Terra Nova” that came from “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Had tonight’s plot showed up intact with the crew of the Enterprise standing in for our prehistoric heroes, no one would have blinked an eye. It would have been perfectly of a piece with that show. Here’s the difference: “TNG” would have at least known to tell this episode in its third season, not as its third overall offering.
After all, where’s the fun in watching several core characters lose their memories/personalities if we barely know them at all in the first place? Having Picard temporarily lose his mind after a few seasons of watching him kick intergalactic butt would have been great.* “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” once took tonight’s basic premise and spun it into a fun hour. But “Tabula Rasa” also came after five-plus seasons of deep character development, making their blank slate personalities both a treat but also an examination of some latent psychological impulses that rounded out their characters. But what do we really know about The Shannons? About Taylor? About Malcolm (in the Middle)? Nearly nothing, which speaks to either a miscalculation on the part of the writers to try this so early in the series’ run, or a scarier reality: this show spent so long on the pilot that they forgot to plan a series.
* Not being remotely encyclopedic in my “TNG” knowledge, I’m willing to wager such an episode exists, and that it was much better than tonight’s episode of “Terra Nova.”
In terms of long-term planning, there’s a little bit involving everyone’s favorite teenager, Josh. His plan to retrieve Kara from the future on the next pilgrimage to Terra Nova gets him involved with a member of the colony who has secret ties to the Sixers. But the majority of the hour was spent in a cave that makes its inhabitants mentally regress to an earlier point in their lives before ultimately going catatonic. And yes, in case you’re wondering: I did check for donkey wheels and purple energy inside the cave, especially with Jim serving as a wanna-be Constant for his wife Elisabeth. But whereas “Lost” solved its time-tripping hero Desmond’s mental unmooring with an epic, seasons-in-the-making phone call, “Terra Nova” solved its central problem with magic mucus. I wish I were kidding.
The producers of “Terra Nova” have gone on record as saying that if the Shannons didn’t work on an emotional level, then the show would ultimately fail. That’s a sadly accurate prophecy. I appreciate their desire to focus on the humans in the show rather than the animals, since that fully fits in with the type of television program I want to watch. But this is a B-movie that thinks it’s a serious drama. So much of an audience’s involvement lies in trusting the creators of the show to understand what they are actually producing. Any dissonance between what those creators say the show is and what actually appears onscreen gives any sane person pause while watching it. What little joy in tonight’s episode comes from the “silly” aspects the show would rather play down. Taylor seeing a brontosaurus and thinking it’s part of a hallucination is ridiculous, but it’s the right kind of ridiculous that “Terra Nova” needs to embrace in order to get out of its current rut. The show needs someone to point out not only how ridiculous this all is, but how ridiculously awesome it COULD be if everyone just stopped and smelled the prehistoric equivalent of roses.
Let’s conduct a thought experiment here: did this show need to go back 85 million years to tell the types of tales it’s currently spinning? I honestly don’t think so. You would never know these teenagers were living in the past, given their everyday goal of simply getting to first base with their respective love interests. Sure, the pseudoscience of the past two episodes has served to give the show a semblance of plot, but it’s nothing that couldn’t have also been accomplished in the dystopian future depicted in the pilot. “Jurassic Park” at least gave ample time to make that dangerous landscape wondrous for a time before unleashing hell. “Terra Nova” isn’t wondrous or dangerous. It’s mostly just ponderous.
So we have a show that doesn’t embrace the inherent coolness of its concept, and doesn’t have the skill to draw a three-dimensional family within those drab confines. If the Shannons actually spent five minutes together each episode, maybe we’d learn what these people have to lose. But the names on Elisabeth’s note cards serve as a literal representation of the biggest problem with tonight’s memory loss: it’s a shorthand trick to avoid doing real, hard character work. Rather than slow build up the Shannons’ affection for each other, or Taylor’s tragic past with his wife, the show just dumps heaps of exposition upon us thanks to the power of convenient mental regression. Taylor nearly killing himself rather than remember his wife’s death would have been a powerful moment in a few months’ time, especially if hints of her fate got sprinkled through various episodes. But tonight, his near suicide didn’t seem shocking so much as sudden. Without given time to properly invest, the audience can’t properly react.
Other thoughts about tonight’s episode…
*** Thank God Outpost 3 had a sign on the outside that said “Outpost 3.” Otherwise the Sixers would mistake it for Terra Wal*Mart, I suppose.
*** Somewhere along the way, “family drama” started to equal “stupid drama” in the industry. Please. There’s more intelligence in a single scene of “Phineas and Ferb” than has been on display in any episode of “Terra Nova” to date. Families are smart. They want to figure it out together. Having Jim sneeze every eight seconds isn’t doing anyone any favors.
*** Between this episode and last Friday’s “Fringe,” it’s a banner week for protagonists hanging around infected areas without masks on. It’s also a banner week for me writing down in-show notes that say “PUT YOUR #@^&#ING MASK ON!”
*** I’m super pleased everyone’s favorite character Josh will be the catalyst for the Sixers undermining things. The show really tuned his behavior down last week, which gave me hope they hated him in the pilot as much as the audience did. But apparently “Terra Nova” insists on making his loins the lynchpin for all that will unfold in the following weeks.
*** It makes sense that Taylor would go all Colonel Kurtz once infected. After all, I had been muttering, “The horror….the horror…” throughout most of the hour.
*** There were enough intriguing facts about the future (the brutal winter in Detroit, the Somalian war rife with psy-ops) that I can’t help but feel that 1) the show picked the wrong permanent setting for the show, and 2) we better get some flashbacks to their characters’ past/history’s future to contextualize things. I’d rather watch people trying to survive in the future than mope in the past.
What did you think of tonight’s episode? Am I being too hard on the show, or does this feel like a massive miscalculation to you as well? Does the show’s prehistoric setting inherently limit the stories it can tell, or is it just that these early stories simply haven’t been that strong? Sound off below!