“We’re not in completely unchartered territory here…”
Kevin Reilly, President of Entertainment at Fox Broadcasting, on Terra Nova’s lofty budget
ABC’s LOST was a rarity in major network television. Any program that manages to last six seasons taking a simple stranded-on-an-island narrative turned philosophical rumination on the very foundations of life can consider itself an incredible accomplishment, even if it didn’t make a lot of friends along the way. Its frustratingly open-ended storylines and big budgets no doubt ticked off many a network exec, not to mention the fans who couldn’t help but think that maybe J.J. Abrams was kind of winging it. But regardless of whether one was a detractor, a devotee, or somewhere in the middle (I count myself in the latter camp), LOST proved that high production value doesn’t just mean flashy effects and scary monsters: big budget can lead to well-executed big concepts.
Just a year after LOST concluded its open-ended storylines with the most open-ended conclusion possible, FOX decided that it ought to have its own big-budget spectacle. Instead of getting stuck in the philosophical quagmires that dragged down many parts of LOST, however, the folks behind Terra Nova opted for a simpler narrative. Well, as simple as the complexities of time-travel will allow it.
The year is 2149, and the Earth has been savaged by overpollution. Though no specific causes are delinated, it’s clear from its sparse, desert landscape and bleary skies that excessive production and consumption of crude and continued destruction of the ecosystem are to blame. In this near-apocalyptic state, where if one is to walk outside she must wear a mask so as to not breathe in the toxic air, strict measures have been taken to prevent any further damage to the Earth, lest the entire human race die out. The most significant measure passed involves strict population control; billboards all throughout the nameless metropolis shown at the beginning of the series read “A Family is Four”.
But, of course, not all families are. The Shannons, headed by Jim (Jason O’Mara, not quite nailing the Jack Shephard vibe he’s intended for) and Elisabeth (Shelley Conn) just didn’t feel complete without a third child. As a result, they live in constant fear of the state, who at any moment could come in and abduct their youngest daughter Zoe (Alana Mansour). Within the first ten minutes of the pilot, this happens, and after two years in the slammer Jim escapes, leaving the decaying Earth the only way possible: through a time-travel tunnel that takes those desperate to survive far back in time to Terra Nova, a new colony established during the Cretaceous period. In this fledgling commune, headed up by military man Nathaniel Taylor (Stephen Lang), people are forced to figure out how to adapt to the abundance of life that surrounds them, ranging from small beetles to giant, threatening dinosaurs.
Unfortunately, I can go no longer into this review without ridiculing this show. “Bloated” is but one of many words that describes the follies of Terra Nova, a show that confuses special effects and lazy sci-fi tropes for compelling television. Don’t let the dollar signs and Steven Spielberg executive producer credit fool you: this is as generic as a high-concept television program can get. Nearly every plot device feels like a rehash: the population control storyline is just like every dystopian narrative ever filmed or written, the conflict between the Terra Nova colony and the enigmatic “Sixers” is a straight-rip of LOST‘s Others vs. Survivors, and the ultimate twist in the story, wherein corporations from 2149 are actually only going to use Terra Nova for its resources, follows Lang here from the already hackneyed Avatar script.
As if all these weren’t bad enough offenders, the dialogue doesn’t do the actors any favors, either. From the awful attempts at hard-boiled quips in the pilot (“What you ought to do is give me a gun and a badge and let me do what I’m good at,” Jim says with a steely gaze to Taylor in the pilot) to gobs of expository dialogue that would even get a rise out of Christopher Nolan, this is a show trying to say a lot in the clunkiest way possible. This then leads to type characters that never develop anything beyond one-dimensional motivations: a lovelorn teenager here, a military general with a dark past there… what you see is what you get.
But calling Terra Nova clichéd or underdeveloped is too easy. Cliché is the most obvious, smack-you-in-the-face problem here; however, it’s the most superficial. Beneath the many issues one would expect from a multi-million dollar major network epic lies an insidious premise, a premise one could easily imagine being sneered by some network higher-up: “If we make it pretty, and have lots of explosions, we’ll get our viewers. We’ll laugh our way to the bank.”
This might appear tautological, and in some ways, it is: after all, Michael Bay did manage to have Transformers: Dark of the Moon get greenlit even after the cinematic excrement that was Revenge of the Fallen. Still, the dreck that is most of Terra Nova is reasonable proof that networks will do anything to cash in on a trend, even if the resultant product (yes, I said product, not work of art) is so clearly half-assed that not even big dinosaur fights can keep in viewership for more than eleven episodes. (Plus, it’s not as if the CGI always matched the series’ budget: a lot of the dinosaur scenes have CGI so bad they might as well have used MS Paint.) Terra Nova is a reflection of how anonymous network suits think of us, and if they’re right we’re idiots who go slack-jawed at the mere mention of time travel.
The culmination of this fact comes in one simple detail. Despite being able to bring back loads of futuristic technology with them, the colonists at Terra Nova surround their home with a wooden fence. Not walls, which could actually keep small animals from coming in and people from going out into the dangerous forest, but a fence, structured by poles that practically beg to be climbed. (Spoiler: Jim does in the pilot.) In a script rife with internal inconsistencies and bizarre logic, this is the weirdest example: apparently, dinosaurs that for the majority of the series are able to take gunfire like champs are inable to break past a wooden barrier. Presumably, we’re just supposed to look past that fact, but to anyone with an eye for quality will notice it right away. Even though the viewership of Terra Nova was nearly triple of TV’s reigning greats like Breaking Bad even in its short tenure, it is a true deconstruction of network cynicism that American audiences rejected this financial behemoth. The dinosaurs (somehow) may not have been able to break past the wooden barrier, but we did.
The bonus features included with this four-disc set don’t really add to the experience; there are some deleted scenes and a gag reel, as well as some featurettes that will only appeal to the most ardent of fans.