The Terror of Terra Nova

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After a promising start, Fox’s dino-sci-fi series has started the slide towards extinction

By Matt Ross
Jan 05, 2012

You can’t really fault the executives at Fox for climbing over one another to sign up Steven Spielberg’s latest TV project. When the man behind Jurassic Park said he wanted to work on a dinosaur show for the small screen, it must have sounded like guaranteed paydirt. Add Life on Mars’s Jason O’Mara and Avatar’s Stephen Lang, and it’s no surprise that Fox skipped ordering a pilot and went straight to commissioning a 13-episode season. It was a sci-fi slam-dunk. A group of time-traveling colonists leaves the polluted, totalitarian 22nd century behind them, setting up a new civilization on the other side of a portal to an alternate past, where dinosaurs roam, and humans live inside Terra Nova – a beautiful bastion of fresh air, abundant natural resources and stunning vistas. For an audience still coping with economic crisis, global rioting and an uncertain environmental future, Terra Nova was a weekly window to an hour of unbridled escapism.

The first episode was plodding, sure, but there was a lot to set up. The central family unit, the Shannons, had to be fleshed out, as did the reasons for mankind’s decision to decamp to the lush, verdant past. The titular colony had to be unveiled in all its sprawling glory, and the new dinosaurs – no Tyrannosaurs or Velociraptors in sight, we’re talking the Cretaceous period now – had to be introduced. But there was promise. As the sense of just how isolated the human colony was began to sink in, and the politics surrounding the separation of the ‘Sixers’ – a group of settlers with altogether more sinister designs on the Earth’s undefiled resources – became clear, the show looked like the perfect jumping-off point for sprawling tales of man vs. nature and good ol’ fashioned frontier-carving.

But within the first couple of episodes, the show quickly reverted to the kind of sci-fi clichés that have hampered now-defunct franchises like Stargate. Dry narrative arcs (do we really need another colony-wide pathogen premise? Or a spy that might be someone we don’t expect? Or a figure from the past who might not be as dead as the colonists think?) gave the cast little to do with their shiny new characters other than look pensive. O’Mara and Lang, two accomplished actors, quickly devolved into stereotypical, one-dimensional screen fillers, scowling or barking their way through the first half of the season. The Shannon family, our touchstone and moral compass, developed into vapid non-entities (teenage daughter likes a boy, teenage son wants a guitar) that made audiences apathetic towards their plight. The Sixers, a real chance to cultivate some conflict amid Terra Nova’s picture-postcard landscapes, became nothing more than Mad Max cast-offs, and were about as savage as unruly toddlers. Even the dinosaurs disappeared. Perhaps foreshadowing their extinction several million years later, the herds of herbivores and packs of vicious raptors that littered the first episode were nowhere to be seen, as the show became little more than a character (melo)drama with a fancy setting.

But perhaps the most telling indication of how far Terra Nova has fallen comes from the network itself. Fox, who championed the new series as the hype began to build, have decided to hold off announcing a second season until the start of 2012. Which means that December’s finale, which admittedly showed a sliver of the show’s early potential, could very well be just that. Given the obvious investment the network has made (individual episodes are rumored to cost around $4 million) and the presence of Mr. Spielberg behind the scenes, they could green-light a second attempt. But audiences will need to be won back. Far better shows have been cancelled when viewers don’t stick around, and Terra Nova, for all its early promise, could very well follow in the footsteps of its Cretaceous brethren.


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