Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Review: TERRA NOVA, 1.1 & 1.2 - "Genesis"

Tuesday, 4 October 2011
written by Craig Silverstein, Kelly Marcel, Brannon Braga & David Fury
(story by Kelly Marcel & Craig Silverstein) / directed by Alex Graves
starring Jason O'Mara, Shelley Conn, Stephen Lang, Landon Liboiron & Naomi Scott

Notorious for a troubled production that delayed its premiere by over a year (the Australian sets were flooded, writer-producer David Fury left over "creative differences", post-production time doubled, costs soared), Terra Nova finally arrives with a $20 million feature-length pilot that provides plenty of sustenance for the eyes, but starves the mind. The premise is a magpie's nest of shiny SF ideas. In the future of 2149, Earth's on the precipice of environmental collapse because of overpopulation and pollution, so people are sent back through a crack in time to prehistory, to give mankind a fresh start. One evacuated family, the Shannon's—ex-cop and fugitive Jim (Jason O'Mara), surgeon wife Elisabeth (Shelley Conn), teenaged children Josh (Landon Liboiron) and Maddy (Naomi Scott), and five-year-old daughter Zoe (Alan Mansour)—are part of the mass exodus to the late-Cretaceous period, where they form part of the "Terra Nova" colony led by formidable Commander Nathaniel Taylor (Avatar's Stephen Lang).

It's Swiss Family Robinson with dinosaurs. Or Lost In Space crossed with Jurassic Park? Maybe Outcasts meets Primeval? Um, let's stick with the former. There's no denying Terra Nova's ambitious, expensive, and could only have been achieved with a US network budget and the backing of Steven Spielberg (fresh from his other SF hit Falling Skies), but it's another of those shows with a high-concept idea best-suited to a movie. Clearly the scale, expense and logistical issues of making a TV show like Terra Nova has been causing big production problems, so it's hard to imagine Fox risking a second season unless the first is a Brachiosaurus-sized hit (which US ratings below 9m suggest it won't be). Of course, the one thing that kills a show is a lack of confidence from its creators, so expect lots of positivity from the writers, actors and network until the first season approaches its end and, almost certainly, Fox pull the plug on a logistical nightmare that's cost them $70m for a mere 13 hours of programming.

The show itself isn't totally disagreeable, it's just crushingly rote and predictable. The first hour's the best because there's a sense of discovery as we're introduced to the smoggy Blade Runner-esque future (where everyone has to respire through "re-breathers", fresh fruit's a rarity, and you can be arrested for having more than two children), and I even found myself warming to the Shannon family thanks to O'Mara and Conn's appealing performances. Even the kids struck me as cute and not hugely annoying. Then, having arrived in the Cretaceous period (via a time-portal "journey" that embarrasses Stargate), most of the budget is up there on-screen in the form of luscious location filming in a rainforest, a very convincing human settlement (far outstripping a similar idea in the BBC's recent Outcasts), and eventually some very decent dinosaurs (if slightly too cartoonish for my tastes). Unfortunately, once you quickly get accustomed to the gorgeous vistas and general feeling of the expense, the show has to start relying on its characters and story to keep its viewers hooked. It doesn't quite manage to.

There are definitely attractive elements about Terra Nova, beyond just the fun of having dinosaurs on a weekly TV series. The idea of escaping your life and starting afresh in a sumptuous antediluvian world (where the Moon sits massive in the sky, as it's approximately 530-miles closer to Earth at this time) is enticing, and I understand many of the show's creative decisions. The show's built as a Lost In Space-style family adventure, only with a colonial spirit and large community to interact with. Dangers come from the dinosaurs that roam the jungles around the compound, but also a dangerous band of pilgrims known as "Sixers" who separated from Terra Nova to start their own alternative society. Ongoing mysteries are introduced in the form of an area that's off-limits, and a waterfall where bizarre geometric shapes have been etched into surrounding stone by someone. (Although the vague explanation for these markings flies in the face of a previous scene, where it's made clear the colonists are occupying a different "timestream", so nothing they do can alter the future they came from.)

In its second hour, Terra Nova became surprisingly boring very quickly, and Landon Liboiron slipped into being just another annoying teenage character who, no surprise, has a tense relationship with his father, gets himself into serious trouble, then has to be rescued so his daddy's issues can be addressed. There's barely a single moment in Terra Nova that doesn't come from the Big Book Of Sci-Fi Clich├ęs, or unashamedly cherry-picks ideas from better shows/films. There was a chance that some clever writing, unexpected surprises, and a charismatic group of actors could have pulled this through the mire, but that doesn't really come to pass. I still like O'Mara, Conn and Lang, but they're working with material that's too thin and uninvolving.

Overall, Terra Nova offers plenty of spectacle (although the average episode of Primeval provides twice as much dino-carnage with a fraction of the budget), but there's nothing that feels fresh or interesting enough to latch onto on a deeper level. I won't write it off just yet, knowing the problems the production faced, but this was a very expensive pilot that desperately needed more attention on the story and characterizations, but instead looks to have made the age-old mistake of thinking visuals and CGI are all anyone cares about.

Aside

  • What is it with Spielberg-produced sci-fi and giant parasites attached to people's spines?
3 October 2011 / Sky1