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Terra Nova: Genesis

"We are at the dawn of a new civilization. No pressure."

Time travel, dystopia, conspiracy, manifest destiny ... safe to say that Terra Nova isn't just a garden party with vegetarian dinosaurs grazing in the distance. There was a lot going on in this massive and obviously expensive two-hour pilot.

Chicago

The story began in Chicago 2147, a chaotic mess of environmental catastrophe, overpopulation and martial law, much like Blade Runner but without the rain and the replicants. Even though she's a doctor and he's a cop, Jim and Elisabeth Shannon were living with their three children in a tiny apartment and hiding their youngest daughter in an air vent when the cops stormtrooped by. After Jim Shannon went to prison for two years because of their illegal child (a science fiction crime staple), Elisabeth and the two oldest children were offered a spot in the latest pilgrimage to Terra Nova, 85 million years in the past. Improbably, the Shannons managed to miraculously break Jim out of jail and smuggle in their five-year-old in a backpack so they could all go together.

Terra Nova

The large, circular Terra Nova compound appeared at first to be a utopia with futuristic houses, friendly dinosaurs, and literally too much fresh air. But danger was lurking — well, not beneath the surface, but inside and outside of the impressive-looking fence. This pilot episode set up so many plot possibilities that I'm sure I didn't catch them all.

There were some lovely character moments in the first hour. The best was when the seriously adorable little Zoe had a petting zoo moment with a huge brachiosaurus hanging its head over the fence. Jim's first job of "weeding" led to another nice moment as he tore off his shirt and sat on top of the fence, exhilarated by the fresh air, exercise and the beauty all around him. Less fun were mom Elisabeth's bug-filled medical duties, while Maddy, the middle child, got the typical cute-boy-next-door scenes. Although I rather liked Maddy because she was smart enough to research the time period, and was cool about sharing a room with her little sister.

But then we had... extremely stupid teenagers

Although many shows haven't even returned yet, the eldest son Josh has already received my Fall award for most annoying character cliche. He didn't want to leave Chicago because he had to leave his girlfriend behind, and we all know that's a lot more important than the future of his entire family. Instead of respecting the sacrifice his father had made for them, or his mother's decision to give them a new life, Josh was sullen, defiant and insulting. Instead of going to orientation and drinking the liquid diet shakes necessary for the body to adjust to its new environment (I bet he'll be puking his guts out tomorrow), Josh went off to find something to eat, encountered a group of emancipated and/or orphaned teens, and promptly went off on an OTG (outside-the-gate) jaunt. And everything went wrong. What a surprise.

I'm probably being too hard on this, but did we have to get such a transparent story device about how dangerous the frontier can be? Doesn't anyone with half a brain know that when you time travel into the past, it's smart to follow the freaking rules? That huge creatures aren't called "slashers" for nothing? That you do not force an entire group of adults to risk their lives rescuing you from your stupidity? I'll probably despise Josh as a character forever unless they put some serious time into redeeming him as a character. And if the show catches on. And if I keep watching it.

The cast

The Shannons are somewhat engaging. The standouts so far are Jim, self-sacrificing parent and jailbreaker extraordinaire, and Zoe, who is a miniature scene stealer. The most intriguing character in the pilot, though, was by far and away Commander Taylor (Stephen Lang).



At first, I thought Taylor was simply reprising the hateful jerk he played on Avatar. But after a few scenes, I started to like him, and by the end of the episode, I thought he was the best character on the show. He could be good, he could be evil, and he's probably both. In fact, he was sort of their version of John Locke. It was quickly established that he has secrets, like the real reason for Terra Nova's existence, and what's going on with his son. But he was nice enough not to slam all those irritating, irresponsible teenagers into the stockade for a year. I probably would have.

Taylor was the first person to go through the time crack seven years ago, and even though others came after him, he was alone for 118 days and survived. Did he know where he was going when he stepped through? What did he bring with him? How did he survive? I want explanations and flashbacks, and I want them now. In fact, I'd be fine if they decided to drop the Shannons and shift the focus to Taylor.

Answers and questions

I liked that the writers put some science in their fiction. There are probably a zillion things they got wrong, but I'm a science fiction fan, not a scientist, and I loved that they addressed some real stuff. Like newbies needing a period of adjustment to the food, like the moon being significantly closer to the earth, and especially their logical discovery that they are creating a new time line. Because we can't have a butterfly effect, now can we?

Where did the time crack come from? Why 85 million years ago and not, say, just a few thousand? How do they communicate with the future if there is no way back? Is there no way back, really? Why is Taylor's missing son scrawling equations on rocks at the forbidden waterfalls? Do the equations have something to do with time travel?

The idea that we can just go back and rewrite the history of the earth is exceptionally arrogant. Yes, let's go back in time and fuck up the planet before we actually did fuck up the planet. How can they possibly keep it from happening again? Although if it were my family trapped in horrible future Chicago, I'd go. Wouldn't you?

The "Sixers," members of the sixth pilgrimage, rebelled en masse from Terra Nova and now live outside the walls with their very own dynamic leader, who reminded me of Auntie Entity in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. There are Sixer spies in the Terra Nova compound, but we don't know who they are, of course. Who sent the Sixers, and what is their agenda? Are the Sixers really the enemy, or do they just know something that we don't?

Homages

On top of the obvious rip-off of Jurassic Park that even included the famous dinosaur head-chomping moment, there were a number of other callbacks as well. Avatar, of course. There were aerial hovercraft ads right out of Blade Runner. When the Shannons arrived in bright, colorful Terra Nova after the grayness of Chicago, it reminded me of that iconic black-and-white to color moment in The Wizard of Oz. And Taylor's name has to be an homage to Charlton Heston's character in Planet of the Apes.

I'm looking forward to the next episode. Yes, we've been through this "is it the new Lost?" bit before. Terra Nova will probably lean more toward isolation, action-adventure, monsters and conspiracies, and a bit less toward heavy-duty character development, intelligent literary references, and obsessive detail, but if this show innovates and takes risks, it could be good.

I don't like to rate pilots, but feel free to click on your rating and/or post a comment. What did you all think of Terra Nova?

Billie
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Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

I thought it was a pretty good pilot. I also think you hit the nail on the head about the teenagers. I was rooting for them to get eaten (well maybe not the cute one in the bikini).

I think this series has some potential. I liked this pilot much more than Falling Skies.

Also, am I the only one that got a Lost-esque Others vibe from the Sixers?

CrazyCris said...

I really enjoyed it! Agree with you on the annoying teenagers, but they were necessary to show us those weird equations and so probably lay down the tracks for one of the season's mysteries (the other will probably be the Sixers).

I got slight megalomaniac vibes from Taylor. Supreme leader delusions? I'm betting democracy is a thing of the future in Terra Nova. And the moment he said the second person stepped through the crack 118 days later, I was thinking: CRRRRRAZY! As in "did he go a bit nuts during those 3 months he thought he was stuck alone in the Cretaceous period?" I'm sure it had to have slightly unhinged him in some way...

In any case I'm definitely looking forward to more of this! :o)

Patryk said...

They missed an opportunity to have Taylor be 108 days alone, really why thsoe 10 extra days. Make your Lost inspiration transparent, show! :)

Stupid teenagers would be more tolerable if someone died because of them. You know repercussions of some sorts. Waiting 2 seasons for an annoying teen to die sounds like a show ABC recently cancelled.

Sooze said...

Hm, I may have to check this one out. Is that the guy from Life on Mars (US)?

Mark Greig said...

Sooze, that is indeed Jason O'Mara, star of the US version of Life on Mars.

Mark said...

I'm thinking that annoying teenagers are necessary (but not desired) to make things "real". I was thinking about the early Jamestown settlement in Virginia, where too many of the settlers wanted food and resources, but were unwilling to work for them.

Josie Kafka said...

Mark, now I'm picturing rebellious teenagers in pilgrim hats and big belt buckles. :-)

I liked this but didn't love it--although it is definitely a "series recording" on my DVR for now.

A lot of my resistance (not counting teenagers) is how much cultural baggage the 22nd-century folk took with them into the past. Nuclear families, women taking their husbands names. (Frankly, I'm surprised that's the state of feminism in the 22nd century. Ladies, we've failed!) I'd love to see more science-fiction that takes risks with the stuff we consider "normal," like family structures and gendered identity.

I suppose that's just too much to ask, though. And it's me complaining about the show not being what I want it to be (which is not the show's fault) rather than what it actually is (pretty fun, all told). It is, of course, all about me. I am the center of the universe.

CrazyCris said...

Feminism failed? Or it's just that they're too ingrained in the US mentality with the names thing... There are many countries where women choose not to change their name upon marriage. In Spain we have never done so! You're born with a name and it goes with you until the grave.

Magook said...

Excellent observations on the "homages", Billie. I missed most of those references!

I loved the moment when the camera focused on Jim's eye upon his jungle, then up into the trees...very reminiscent of the scene where Jack wakes up on the island in the first episode of Lost. It was a great way for the writers to acknowledge they are aware of the inherent similarities and the fact that every new science fiction show is inevitably compared to Lost.

I wasn't blown away by the show, but it has potential. I will probably keep watching.

Anonymous said...

oops! Jim's *arrival in the* jungle..

Gus Brunetti said...

If the father were stupid, they'd be The Simpsons: the mother who is more competent, the elder rebellious son, the smart middle daughter and the baby youngest whose primary function is to be cute.

I didn't like the look of the show very much, but that's something I can forget if it gets good.

The fruit the girl in bikini opens to Josh is Brazilian. It's called graviola, and it's delicious. Too bad they grow pretty far from where I live, so they're kind of expenseve. But graviola juice is my favorite juice.

Anonymous said...

I thought it was mostly only okay except when they were trapped in the vehicle; That part was awesome. I had the same feelings that you had towards Taylor that you did. I also had the same feelings towards some of the more lame moments, plot devices, and science fiction ideas. The beginning felt so rushed too. They had two hours so maybe it didn't have? Just maybe.
-Trey

Olga said...

I kinda actually liked it.
The idea of a possibility to go back millions years to try and save the planet is scary and amazing at once. But bringing in tons of guns is not. It will for sure end the life even quicker than the first time around! Who deserves to go back? And who decides who deserves to go back? As usual the least deserving are probably the ones the planet needs, like in case of Jim for example....

The teenagers on the loose was somewhat annoying, the escape from prison totally not believable, but strangely all was quite watchable!