TV Review: Terra Nova
TV drama audiences can be hard to predict. People had claimed for a long time that no one would watch shows that were too science-fictiony or involved continuity-wise, but then shows like LOST and Fringe blew up. “Now audiences are ready for that kind of programming,” industry analysts declared, only to watch FlashForward, The Event (a personal favorite of mine), and countless other imitators crash and burn. Everyone begrudgingly accepted that it wasn’t about the genre as much as the quality of the show that (among other things) decided which shows lived and died.
Thus, FOX wasn’t taking any chances with Terra Nova, their new sci-fi drama series. The pilot was retooled numerous times and pushed back from a spring to a fall premiere. I don’t honestly know if all the fuss was necessary, since Terra Nova is going to live or die based on the answer to one question:
“Do primetime TV viewers want to watch people shoot guns at dinosaurs?”
For me, at least, the answer is a resounding HELL YES. But before we get into that, maybe I should fill you in on the premise devised to get us to this end. The show opens in the year 2149. By now, the earth has gotten so overpopulated and polluted that re-breathers are required outdoors, fruit is a rare commodity, and it generally sucks to be alive. Fortunately, scientists have discovered a portal which provides a one-way ticket to the Cretaceous period of a parallel earth. The series follows the Shannon family, who have chosen to journey to the past and live at Terra Nova, humanity’s colony on the prehistoric planet.
Some of the elements are a bit cliche (it’s hard to have “hardworking dad keeping the family together” and “angsty resentful teenage son” at the same time), but Jason O’Mara is relatable enough as Jim, the family’s patriarch. An ex-cop just coming off of a prison breakout (don’t worry, it was for a fascist population control law violation, a sweet little five year old named Zoe), he does a good job of being off-balance, both with his new surroundings and with the family he hasn’t seen in two years. High marks are also due for Stephen Lang as Commander Taylor, the head of Terra Nova and a man so badass he sits behind a glass top desk built from a T-Rex skull.
The first half hour of the hour and a half premiere focuses on getting the Shannons to Terra Nova and their new lives there. It’s interesting stuff, especially the contrast between futuristic weaponry and medical technology and the characters’ fascination with sunlight and fresh air. There are hints of an adversary group, the “Sixers,” but it starts to become a bit boring. And then dinosaurs show up. And then people shoot guns at dinosaurs and then a dinosaur eats a guy and then Commander Taylor stands down a goddamn Carnotaurus. It’s unapologetically fun and actiony, and the CGI on the dinosaurs is actually pretty good. Elements of this and other dino encounters in the premiere draw obvious comparisons to Jurassic Park, but it’s kind of nice to see the humans putting up a decent, planned defense for once.
A lot of reviews have criticized the writing in Terra Nova, and they’re not wrong. The dialogue is needlessly expository at times while still managing to leave some of the finer point of the setup unclear. Some of the family and friend interactions are pretty cheesy, and the ending bit, about “the secret true purpose of Terra Nova,” to “control the past to control the future,” is Heroes with none of the pith or self-awareness. But these critiques kind of miss the larger picture, a picture of people eking out a frontier life while shooting guns at dinosaurs. While genre shows like this can and have been great (The Walking Dead is a recent example), a network drama like this has to prioritize certain elements, and focusing on their hook is as savvy a choice as any. And compared to the usual kind of of dialogue you’d get on an outing like this, from The Asylum or something, it’s really not that bad.
Terra Nova airs Monday nights at 8 pm. If you want to watch people shoot guns at dinosaurs and still be somewhat interested when they’re not doing that, it’s a good show for you. I’ll be watching it, I can tell you that much.
RATING: THREE STARS (OUT OF FOUR)