This fall, we’ve got so many writers who’ve seen these pilots that we thought getting two takes on each show would be helpful to you. The first review is the “official” TV Club review, and the grade applies to it. But we’ve also found another reviewer to offer their own take on the program. Today, Rowan Kaiser, who’ll review the show week to week, and Todd VanDerWerff talk about Terra Nova.
Terra Nova debuts tonight on Fox at 8 p.m. Eastern.
Rowan: Todd, when you approached me about covering Terra Nova, you said there was “legitimately nothing like it on television right now.” I’d actually go a step further, and say that, as a science-fiction fan, I think there hasn’t been anything like it in a few decades, if ever. Terra Nova is the kind of science fiction that’s rare to see on television. But to get at why, we have to detail the premise, which seems to be confusing some people who’ve only seen the commercials.
The premise is dazzling in a “so dumb, it’s smart” kind of way. In the future, environmental collapse has led to a dystopian society. But some kind of time rift has given humans the chance to go back in time to the age of dinosaurs. Time travel is only one-way, the rift only seems to open at certain times in the future, and, thanks to a clumsy bit of exposition, we learn that even though it appears to be time travel, a probe sent through the rift reveals that it’s not the “real” timeline, so it doesn’t change the future.
Normally I dislike time travel as a narrative device, but Terra Nova quickly did three things that soothed my fears on the subject. First, if the time travel only goes one direction, then the focus stays on the colony of Terra Nova, instead of being fractured. Second, if the world isn’t actually the same, then we don’t have to worry about the constant bother of fixing the timeline that so often drags down time-travel stories. Third, it’s got people with assault rifles fighting motherfucking dinosaurs, y’all! Time travel exists for goddamn technology vs. dinosaur stories!
What this adds up to, and the thing that gives me the greatest hope for Terra Nova, is that this is a classic science-fiction premise. Normally, science fiction on television falls into two categories: “Space opera,” with epic stories of complex societies on starships (Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek), or more broadly termed “speculative fiction”—more accurately termed “a bunch of crazy unreal stuff that happens,” like The X-Files. Both of those tend to be focused on examining modern-day society, usually by taking certain aspects of society, stretching them to extremes, and using them as a mirror. While this is a great example of the potential usefulness of science fiction, but it’s not the only one.
Science fiction can also be used as an examination of humanity. It is, of course, impossible to fully detach the SF from the society that created it, but it is also possible to try. Terra Nova’s premise—putting a semi-random bunch of humans in what is, for all intents and purposes, an alien environment and having them build a new society—is one of the most exciting television premises I’ve seen in years. (Perhaps only Battlestar Galactica’s initial vision of a small fleet comprising humanity comes close.) Todd, I know you’re not quite as science-fiction oriented as I am, so what do you think makes Terra Nova unique and exciting?
Todd: I’m much more skeptical of Terra Nova than you are, I think, but I’ll gladly admit that there’s not much else on TV that’s attempting science fiction at this scale or at this level of intrigue. The show blends together a story of a family nearly torn apart by the dystopia they live in and given a second chance in the distant past with a burgeoning mythology that almost threatens to overturn the whole show at several points without ever quite doing so. It’s a nifty trick all involved have managed, to keep the story centered on the Shannon family (led by Jason O’Mara’s Jim and Shelley Conn’s Elizabeth). Now, are the Shannons the most interesting protagonists for a TV show you’ll ever see? No. They’re all pretty quickly drawn archetypes—the manly dad who does whatever it takes to provide for his family, the smart mother who’s nurturing and kind, the teenage son with father issues, the teenage daughter who’s whip-smart, and the little kid.
The show that you don’t mention, the show that hangs over Terra Nova like a dark cloud, is Lost. The pilot is both superficially similar to the pilot for that earlier show (which was also two hours, though split over two weeks), and it takes many, many story beats from the first two seasons of Lost (though we get our Ben Linus here much more quickly—and that’s all I’ll say about that). To a degree, this is fine. TV shows coast off of prior successes and find their own new territory to stake out (and I’ll talk about this in a moment). But there’s so much of a debt owed here—and the only person who seems like an actual character is Stephen Lang’s Nathaniel “Yes, I’m the same as the bad guy from Avatar, but damn, I’m good at that” Taylor, the head of Terra Nova—that it feels like the show won’t really be anything other than this season’s attempt to do a cover version of Lost until roughly half a season.
That said, this definitely feels like one of the more successful attempts to recreate Lost in a while. Part of that is because it relocates everything to a world unlike any other on TV. FlashForward might have had a fun pilot, but it very quickly turned into a police procedural. It’s hard to imagine a show with dinosaurs doing that at any point in time. And another part of that is because, ultimately, this is the story of a family, and so long as it sticks with the Shannons, you can feel the skeleton of a successful story about how going back in time builds a kind of togetherness starting to form. Is everything here well-handled in that regard? Heavens, no. In particular, the conflict between Jim and his son is clunky and overly expository. But so long as this remains a show about the Shannons and Taylor, it might be on to something.
We should talk about the big question everybody will have next, I imagine: the effects. What did you think of them, Rowan? They’re the reason this thing didn’t debut in May 2010, as it was supposed to.
Rowan: Well, there’s half a dozen different interesting things you brought up here, Todd, but I’ll take the last question first. The effects are… fine. They’re pretty much what you’d expect from a high-quality TV show, but I expect a fair amount of people to complain that they look bad compared to movie effects, but that’s not the proper comparison. They do work especially well when, late in the episode, the dinosaurs are shown in bits and pieces at night, going along with horror-movie wisdom that the monsters you can’t see are scarier than the ones you can.
I was also impressed with another character from the pilot, Skye, a confident young woman played by Allison Miller. Through most of the episode, she seems a straightforward brash teenager, but a scene with Commander Taylor, a surrogate father figure, gives both characters a compelling, human vulnerability.
To get back to Lost, part of the reason I didn’t mention it is that I haven’t seen it, which may strike some people as heresy from a fan of TV science fiction. But Lost, from everything I can tell, strikes me as the kind of “sci-fi” (and I use that word deliberately with its historical negative connotations* in mind) that I don’t like: alternate dimensions, twists and turns, retcons, and most of all, excessive use of mythology. But lest I turn this into a debate about Lost, I’ll bring it back to Terra Nova, because the idea of “mythology” is the thing about the show that, other than the ham-handed father-son bonding plot and weak characterization in the pilot, frightens me the most about the show.
Part of the way through the pilot, some of the characters discover a bunch of random equations scrawled on the cliff rocks. The characters don’t say what these markings mean, because they don’t know. Instead, they imbue these markings with mythological meaning—they exist just because that makes make the colony of Terra Nova and the time rift part of some bigger story. Likewise, a group of rebel humans, called “Sixers” since they arrived in the Sixth Pilgrimage to Terra Nova, is revealed to be motivated by some kind of conspiracy from the future.
And all this focus on mythology so early on just makes me wonder: Why? What purpose does this complication serve? Wouldn’t it be better storytelling if the rebels opposed Terra Nova because they thought Commander Taylor was a dictator? Isn’t there enough interesting stuff going on—family drama, dinosaurs, social engineering, rebellion, survival—that the show doesn’t need to lean on the crutch of having some mystery that will be solved disappointingly at some point down the line? I’d like much less Lost here, and much more Arthur C. Clarke.
In a sense, what Terra Nova reminds of is the show whose success it was supposed to emulate back in May 2010, with a pilot shown in the spring to build buzz for an epic series that fall: Glee. Much like Glee, there’s a lot to like here. But there’s also as many or more reasons to be wary. This is a show that’s trying to do a lot, and the ambition is attractive. But ambitious shows have, as you mentioned, showed a tendency to crash and burn. What do you think it will take to stop Terra Nova from turning into another FlashForward, The Event, Jericho, or Dollhouse?
Todd: Well, what made Lost work, even when its mythology eventually grew untenable, was that its structure all but demanded it focus on the characters. And that’s what I’d hope Terra Nova would also turn to going forward. I think we’ve both criticized the characterizations here as lazy, for the most part, but I don’t know that I’d say the character work in the Lost pilot was exceptional. It just promised that there would be more fun stuff with these people to come, suggesting lots of interesting secrets in their pasts. Terra Nova doesn’t really do that. Everything is so on-the-surface and direct about the characters that there doesn’t seem to be much to intrigue us about them. (The exception, as always, is Taylor, and it might just be because Lang is so good at playing this kind of character. Miller—who was quite good on another failed, ambitious series, Kings—isn’t bad, though I didn’t like her as much as you did.) The mythology, as you mentioned, is all external to the characters, and it’s difficult to imagine the show integrating it in a way that truly blows us away. My hope is that the show focuses far more on the family at its center and the problems of building a Utopia in a world where there are plenty of beasts just waiting to kill everyone who lives there. But the occasional flashes of some bigger, more complicated mystery behind everything didn’t exactly fill me with delight in this regard. (For that matter, the involvement of Brannon Braga doesn’t either.)
The effects, I’ll agree, are fine, though they’re not so great as to make me understand instantly why Fox waited so long to get them just right. The dinosaurs are fine, but the more you see them up close, the less convincing they are. My favorite effects shots, in fact, are of Terra Nova itself, seen in wide-shot. What’s interesting to me here is that the CGI is probably the most slaved-over and most expensive in TV history, but it doesn’t look appreciably better than, say, the CGI in Battlestar Galactica. I don’t think anyone’s going to be up in arms about the quality of the effects, but it’s also a bit curious to me that it took this long to get this.
I’d also say that I find the section set in the future—which takes a fairly astonishing 15 minutes of screentime—more or less useless. Is there anything here that couldn’t have been explained in Terra Nova proper or tossed into a flashback somewhere in the season-two première? The whole draggy section gives the premiere a sense that it gets off on the wrong foot, and it tries to explain way too much about the Shannon family backstory and the world they come from in a way that could have been handled far more efficiently somewhere down the line. The pilot is also very curiously structured, reaching one climax, then seemingly realizing it needs to fill another 30 minutes and coming up with another story entirely. It’s not the most graceful pilot in the world, lurching about like a, well, dinosaur.
That said, I sort of expect it to be a huge hit. As I said to you in that initial e-mail, there’s not really anything else like this on TV, and for all of the Lost similarities, the show also has a commitment to telling a story that might be enjoyable for “the whole family,” as the old saying goes. And it’s there where Terra Nova has the most potential to break through and the most potential to alienate the hardcore TV SF fanboys. What do you think of the series’ commitment to telling family-friendly stories that, nonetheless, involve dinosaurs eating people?
Rowan: I think the idea of the family actually one of the most intriguing parts of Terra Nova, although I might quibble a bit and say that I’m not certain that it’s aimed to be “family-friendly”—though it could be—but rather that it’s family-centered. This, too, is something that’s been missing from most televised science fiction, which almost always focuses on military or other organizations with established boundaries, or ragtag groups coming together.
That said, I’m not sure it’s a good distinction for Terra Nova. Lord knows I got burned last year by No Ordinary Family and The Cape, two theoretically geek-oriented shows whose forays into family drama were among their weakest aspects. Still, there’s no inherent flaw in using family to keep an ambitious story grounded. This family just could use some work—we’ve barely even mentioned the Shannons’ middle child, Maddy, who seems to exist primarily for exposition, or the youngest, Zoe, a doe-eyed, personality-free symbol of the hope of Terra Nova.
And speaking of The Cape, I found the first chapter interesting if you look at it as the origin story of Future-Cape. I didn’t think it was as bad as you did, perhaps, but I will admit that it was a relief when we got to Terra Nova. My fear, based on a throwaway line later on in the episode about how Taylor is still in communication with the authorities in the future, is that the mythology will lead us to seeing events on both sides of the time rift, and the future will become an important setting again.
At any rate, despite the slight differences between your pessimism and my optimism, it looks like we’re essentially on the same page here: Terra Nova has a lot of potential but as many or more potential problems. If it focuses on straightforward character development, human conflict, and the drama inherent in its premise, it could be something special—and a shorter 13-episode season should help with this. If it falls back on family clichés and lazy mythology, its failure will be special as well.
Todd’s grade: C+
Rowan’s grade: B+
- *To clarify about “sci-fi” from above: while “sci-fi” is generally a value-neutral synonym for “science fiction” these days, especially among fans of visual media, older and more literary science-fiction types understand it as a derogatory term for crappy B-movies, and generally dislike its use, preferring “SF” as an abbreviation.
- I wonder if there’ll be any political backlash to the future Earth scenes. While it does present global warming as real, it also presents the fascist world government that climate change denialists are most afraid of.
- Speaking of, given that the show presents future Earth as a nightmarish fascist dystopia, it’s really easy for Jim Shannon to sneak into the Pilgrimage queue and run by the guards.
- According to Wikipedia, the show hired a paleontologist to help create dinosaurs, since we believe that we only have about 10 percent of the fossil record. I think that’s really cool, but then again, when I was a kid I had a book about how dinosaurs might have continued to evolve had they survived the mass extinction event, so of course I’d think that’s cool.