Few things are as frustrating as working yourself up into a froth for a show that you just know is going to be a monumentally expensive disaster run into the ground before a single episodes airs. Firing writers, changing show runners, bumped premier dates, rewrites after production finishes … these do not generally signify quality entertainment. I could just feel the dismemberment coming, ripping into the obvious plot holes from the multitude of trailers. Traveling to the past? Don’t they already know that they failed? If can go back in time, why not go to a time without fifty foot tall predators? Or maybe go back and prevent the rise of the current dystopia? Oh that review would have been a luscious exercise in critical evisceration.
And then the two hour pilot for Terra Nova wasn’t nearly as bad as it looked in advance. It fell far short of some of the great gut punch pilots like Lost or Battlestar Galactica, but it certainly didn’t embarrass itself.
The premise is simple. By the twenty-second century humans have managed to so thoroughly poison the environment that mankind itself is on the verge of extinction. The point is driven home quite beautifully with the episode’s opening shot, tracking up from the surface of the moon, over the tattered and ancient American flag, to an unrecognizable Earth rising above the regolith, a maelstrom of yellowed clouds entirely eclipsing the surface. The first twenty minutes were a thoroughly great introduction to the universe, the classic dystopia of overcrowding, noxious air, fascist cops, and an endless urban wasteland falling to pieces. From title card to first commercial was twenty minutes without a breath, which is a fantastic way to start a pilot.
We’re presented with a world overfilled with people, choking on their own wastes, the end result of always choosing the short term above the long term, of not considering the consequences. And yet our protagonists are parents who chose to break the population laws and have a third child. When asked why, the answer is an unsatisfying “it seemed like a good idea.” If that ends up being true, that there isn’t some secret yet to be unveiled, then that’s either the sign of an incredibly intelligent story choice, making part of the parents’ character development a microcosm for society’s identical arc, or it’s myopic storytelling at its finest.
Once the characters go through the gate to the past though, the story bogged down quite a bit. Everyone has beautiful and perfect IKEA houses, full of wondrous fabrics hanging from the ceilings, plastic paneling, stainless steel facades. All of which had to be shipped laboriously back from the future unless they’ve spent their time building foundries and refineries. It’s really too bad they couldn’t find any building materials in the middle of the forest. And then there is the food! There’s no shortage of it, a massive open air market with bizarre and exotic fruits. A character even notes that there is nothing to fight over since everything is provided for them. Self sufficient survival is not easy, and just writing it off is throwing away one of the most compelling parts of the setting. The only real danger other than the ennui of a leisure class is the presence of dinosaurs.
Oh, dinosaurs. There were a lot of concerns over just how good the CGI would be. There are three set pieces involving dinosaurs, with varying results. The first, with a child feeding monstrous brachiosauruses is fantastic, the CGI decent enough to suspend disbelief and just look on with wonder at the sheer size of the creatures. The second, is terrible CGI as a pair of Tyrannosaurus stand-ins run around roaring and getting shot at. Saying it looked like a video game is an insult to the level of immersion in video games. The third set piece features “slashers” which is the nickname given to an entirely fictional dinosaur called “Acceraptor,” and it fared better since it was mostly kept in the shadows. Two things here. Seriously, just call them raptors, millions of people have seen Jurassic Park and will know exactly what you are talking about. And secondly, making up dinosaurs? I get it if there’s something truly interesting that you’re going to do, but having some lazy writer decide that the only thing that would make velociraptors cooler would be to add a sword to their tails? Not a clever girl.
And even so, the threat of dinosaurs really only holds sway due to human idiocy. When they were dragging all that IKEA furniture back in time, it’s really too bad that they didn’t both bringing back some rocket launchers. If it can kill a tank, it can kill anything made of flesh and bone. Oh, and teenagers, yep no one could have foreseen the endless stupidity of television teenagers. Did the planning committee not bother screening the teenagers for severe mental defects? Hey, let’s sneak off base and set up a still in dinosaur infested woods! It was a stupid story, a pointless diversion that derailed a good chunk of the pilot. If that pilot had just cut the hour of dealing with the idiot teenagers, then there would have been one hell of a solid first episode in there.
The main problem is that the show falls into the trap of having an interesting set up, interesting side characters, and very boring main characters. There are piles of interesting side details that play second fiddle to main character cliches. Stephen Lang’s commander is well played and written for the most part, left enigmatic as to whether he’s really on the up and up. The existence of a break away group is set up well, with mysteries hanging as to who they actually are, and what their goals are. The episode quickly answers the question as to timelines, with the proclamation that this is a separate timeline, and then hangs us with the revelation that it actually isn’t and that the mission may be an attempt to control the future (which also means that the fantastic dystopian future should play a continued role in the series). The implications of being unable to trust the people in the future responsible for sending supplies and additional colonists. Mysterious mathematical equations scrawled on rocks in the wilderness.
These elements make for dense, intelligent, rich science fiction that performs wonderful set up for future stories. And that forty minutes is surrounded by forty minutes of idiocy and cliches. Despite all the initial bad rumblings, it’s science fiction worth giving a chance to in order to see which side of the show emerges on top. If it lets itself be Swiss Family Cretaceous, it’s going to be a trite waste, but if it lets the deeper elements and side characters take over the show, it could definitely be worth the watching.
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.