The year is 2149. The air is poison. The earth is depleted of natural resources and the moon has been obscured by pollution. Strict conservation laws are in effect, including one that limits parents to two children each: “A Family is Four,” reads one billboard.
This is our fate, according to Terra Nova. But for those future earthlings, there is hope. They’ve discovered a way to send people back to a prehistoric era. Lucky lottery winners and those deemed essential personnel make pilgrimages to Terra Nova, a carefully constructed colony (reminiscent of a Settlers of Catan board) for a second shot at forming a workable society. One important and convenient caveat: Terra Nova is, as one character explains, in a “different time-stream,” so that the pilgrims’ actions don’t affect their present.
“We are at the dawn of a new civilization,” says colony leader Commander Nathaniel Taylor (Stephen Lang, giving the antithesis of the Pandora-will-kill-you speech he made in Avatar). “The world you left behind fell victim to the baser instincts of our species: greed, war, ignorance. We blew it. But we have been entrusted with a second chance.”
Participating in that chance is the Shannon family, headed by Jim (Jason O’Mara), an ex-cop, and Elizabeth (Shelley Conn), a doctor. The couple is still sorting out the consequences of being caught with a forbidden third child and, after Elizabeth is recruited, they land in Terra Nova. Here they realize that, though their personal history is no longer an issue, the place is not as idyllic as it sounded. The terrain is full of unfriendly creatures, and a nefarious and violent group, called “the Sixers,” has set up a rival colony that promises trouble for the residents of Terra Nova.
In recent years—certainly since Lost, if not earlier—new dramas have announced their arrivals with splashy, cinematic pilots. Terra Nova‘s premiere certainly delivers on spectacle. The shots swoop and zoom, whooshing their way across CGIed planets, through dystopian cities, and over unspoiled hills. And, yes, there are dinosaurs. There’s the majestic brachiosaurus that looks like a graceful precursor to the giraffe, and there’s the gnashing, barbed-tail acceraptor, also known as “the Slasher.” The dinosaurs look great; the most stunning image in the premiere occurs when a child tries to feed a brachiosaurus a tree branch, only to be lifted up by the beast when she doesn’t let go. It’s a fun, playful moment that doesn’t make you look for the seams in the special effects.
Yet, for all of its visual flourishes and two-hour running time (with commercials), the Terra Nova premiere doesn’t feel like it belongs on the big screen at the multiplex, like the best drama pilots do. It doesn’t feel like a movie; it feels like a really, really long TV pilot. There’s a lot of clunky setup, a lot of piece-moving to send the main characters back to Terra Nova, and a lot of explaining of rules once they get there.
What’s obscured from the pilot is a sense of who—apart from Jim Shannon—these characters actually are. This is especially true for the three Shannon children. Josh (Landon Liboiron), the oldest, is a squeaky clean, dutiful son and brother when he needs to be, and a hell-raising troublemaker with daddy abandonment issues when it’s expedient for the plot. Maddy (Naomi Scott), his sister, is interested in science, which is helpful when there’s some explaining to be done; her most prominent personality trait so far is “provider of exposition.” Zoe (Alana Mansour), the youngest, is so far a prop whose purpose is to be hidden, stolen, endangered, or watched over. At one point, she’s actually shoved into a backpack.
Stephen Lang is the exception. He does a better job of immediately making his character’s presence felt. His grizzled looks and barking commands, plus the few conversations he has about his vision for Terra Nova, telegraph perfectly what Commander Taylor is all about, and you feel comfortable following him into the fray.
When the premiere ends, though, with only a couple of well-drawn characters and a lot of cool camera pans behind you, it’s hard to tell what’s in store for Terra Nova week to week. Will it be an intimate family drama centered on the Shannons? A survivalist story about colonists on a new frontier? A critique of current society and its “baser instincts,” paired with a blueprint for a more Utopian society? Maybe a war story based on the conflict between the Sixers and the pilgrims of Terra Nova? Or a science fiction epic that explores the mechanics and consequences of time travel? (Given the way the “time-streams” explanation is shrugged off without question, this seems the least likely.)
Then again, the show might follow all of these threads, the question being, in what proportions will they be balanced? The story could go in any number of these directions, some of which would be more worthwhile than others. And so for us, for now, much like it does for the Shannon family and the rest of the pilgrims, Terra Nova offers a world of possibilities.