"Terra Nova" Four Episodes In: Sticking with What Doesn't Work
I was perhaps overly patient with my review of "Terra Nova," surprising since I had become convinced that it would abysmally suck before the first minute. But then again, it did have about forty minutes of solid pilot in there, when it wasn't just focusing on moron teenagers being menaced by dinosaurs. My conclusion was that if the show runners stuck with what worked in the coming episodes, moving the ABC Family junk to the background and keeping the Sixers, and various other mysteries in the foreground, then they just might end up with an interesting science fiction story. Yeah, so that didn't happen.
By all appearances, they figured out what didn't work in the pilot and then made the entire damned show about those elements. Focus on the interesting elements of the pilot? I can see why so many producers and writers quit or got fired since the three episodes following the pilot have pushed anything compelling about the pilot so far into the background that those elements are somewhere in the jungle backdrop behind a badly CGI'ed fictional dinosaur.
The pilot features the home base losing contact with moron teenagers wandering off into the jungle to get eaten by dinosaurs. Rescue team! The second episode begins with home base losing contact with three guys driving through the jungle at night and then getting eaten by dinosaurs. Rescue team! The third episode begins with home base losing contact with a research outpost because the scientists got a memory loss virus and got eaten by dinosaurs. Rescue team! Of course the same thing happens to the rescue team, so you know what that means. Another rescue team! Lose contact! Dinosaur! Rescue team! The show is apparently so over budget that they actually use footage from other episodes for thirty minutes of each episode's run time.
The entire run of the series has been composed of mediocre monster-of-the-week episodes, the sort of filler junk that you toss in when you've only got fifteen episodes of material you need to stretch out to a twenty episode season order. "Terra Nova" only has thirteen episodes. There should be no filler, not even a glimmer of monster-of-the-week. The pilot sets up a variety of plot threads, and on not one of which has there been the slightest movement in the next three episodes. Those three episodes could have been shown in any order or not at all for all the impact that they had on the story. When monster-of-the-week episodes work it's because we care about the characters, and so side stories can still advance the overall development of the characters. We don't know these characters, and we sure don't care about them, and without the context of character such episodes are meaningless exercises. On occasion such stories can still be damned good science stories in and of themselves, but "Terra Nova" has neither the talent nor the ambition to be anything more than mindless family programming.
The series sets up a dystopian future, time travel, and a mysterious conspiracy. It throws modern people into a jungle filled with fifty foot predators and dares them to survive. And it proceeds to ignore all of these seething opportunities for conflict and story in favor of mining late-series mid-season "Star Trek" episodes for random context-free problems for the characters to solve with technobabble before the final commercial break.
There isn't the slightest tension or drama to the show. It approaches the sitcom level of disconnect in which a viewer knows with absolute certainty that everything at the end of the episode will be exactly as it was at the beginning.
Oh, but angsty mcDouche teen managed to have his not-girlfriend buy him a guitar. Will they? Won't they? If I cared whether a whiny seventeen year old strumming a guitar would stop moping over his girlfriend and make out with a new girlfriend I wouldn't be watching a show with time travel, guns, and dinosaurs.
The fourth episode was the one that I was waiting for, because it promised a return to the Sixers plot line that showed potential in the pilot. After two episodes that simply took up space on Hulu's hard drives, this one was getting back to what the pilot got right. And it struck out in every conceivable way.
Exotic growling Sixer leader intoned at least every other sentence that we had no idea what Terra Nova's real purpose was. In a moment of clarity our swaggering protagonist bothered to ask the obvious question of what the real purpose was then. "You'll see." She growls. I hate to split hairs here, but that's not really an explanation, ma'am. That's just very bad writing. I can't imagine why the population of Terra Nova didn't side with Sixers when they deployed that devastating line of reasoning. I know when I write a manifesto for the violent overthrow of the government, every answer on the revolution's FAQ is going to be "you'll see."
Everybody is wrong! About what? You'll see. No. No, you're incorrect there. I won't be seeing any more of this.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.