Detour: Terra Nova

Terra Nova
Fox Television
Premiered on Monday, September 26

Rating:  Class B (very large, very hot blue-white star).  With a ten million dollar budget and Steven Spielberg, how on earth could this one go wrong?  And it looks like it’s going to be a fun family adventure series with a nice batch of mysteries to intrigue, pretty people to watch, and stellar visuals in terms of settings and the dinosaurs.  Check it out!

Another detour, this time for a television show.  I think we’re far afield now, though at least we’re back into the territory of science fiction—even if it’s on the small screen.  And I have to add that for me, television science fiction is always a mixed bag; the last science fiction series I found truly engrossing was the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, which always had a strong emotional punch (though to be fair I never miss an episode of Dr. Who, either).  But for every BSG or Dr. Who, there are shows which are just flat out silly, or not terribly adept, or which seem to struggle to find their voice and pace, so I always approach television SF with a jaundiced eye…

So…a family drama set 85 million years in the past, with an attractive cast, talented and experienced producers, and one heck of a budget.  This one seems like a no-brainer to do well, but science fiction sometimes struggles to find an audience on television.  There’s no telling how this one will play out—but based on what I’ve seen so far, it’s got the potential to have a nice run and is well worth checking out.

We’ve got two episodes under our belts, by the way, and I’ll briefly address the second episode after a discussion of the pilot.

First off, the producers:  Brannon Braga, Peter Chernin, Rene Echevarria, and Steven Spielberg (!).  Any way you look at it, these guys have some serious success behind them.  I could tell you all about them, and how the four augur well for this series, but I don’t want to start any arguments with folks who think one or two of them ruined Star Trek.  It’s enough to say that the producers have some heavy-duty science fiction experience behind them…

Next, the setting.  In the year 2149, the ecology is in ruins, and the Earth is dying.  The wealthy live in isolated, climate-controlled domes, while the rest of humanity makes do in giant cities with ruined air and few living species other than man.  An orange is a rarity; leaving one’s climate-controlled apartment means wearing a breathing apparatus; and significantly, couples are limited to two children.

In all this mess, scientists in Chicago (Really?  Chicago?  Who would put a high energy physics research lab in the middle of the Midwest’s biggest city?) either create or discover a “fracture” in time which leads 85 million years into an alternate past, and someone comes up with the idea to save humanity by creating a colony on the other side of the fracture.  Fortunately, there’s some kind of sidestep involved—the time portal leads to another worldline, so nothing the colonists do can change their future (some scientists have speculated that if time travel is possible, the closed timelike curve would lead to another worldline, apparently under the influence of the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics).  There’s a little bit of drift involved, so people who step through the gate one after another do not necessarily arrive in the past one right after another.  It’s a one-way trip, as well, though there’s some method of communication through the portal (I imagine it’s like the time gate in Julian May’s Saga of Pliocene Exile, in which anything which goes through the time gate from the past to the future takes on the full span of years, so only certain inorganic materials can survive the trip, but we don’t know yet).

And that gets us to Terra Nova, the colony 85 million years in the past.  In the pilot episode, we meet the Shannon family:  father Jim, a policeman; mother Elisabeth, a doctor; oldest son Josh; middle daughter Maddy; and youngest daughter Zoe.  But wait, you say, I thought that families were limited to two children!

You’re right, and because of that little fact, in 2149 the police arrive to search for the third child.  Jim loses his temper and slugs one of the police, which lands him in jail.  Two years later, Elisabeth gets invited to join the tenth Pilgrimage to Terra Nova, with the two older of her children.  She accepts.  But she’s also got a plan, and smuggles a laser cutter to Jim, in prison.  He escapes, grabs their third daughter, and the family manages to escape through the time gate.

Once in the past, the Shannons face a strikingly different, and dangerous, world.  The Terra Nova colony is a giant fenced-in circular area enclosing farms and a living area—fenced in to keep the dinosaurs out.  In the pilot episode, Jim Shannon manages to thwart an assassination attempt, becoming a member of Terra Nova’s security forces, while son Josh hooks up with a group of teenage miscreants and winds up trapped outside the colony overnight.  Jim and Elisabeth accompany the security forces which ride to the rescue, and the pilot ends with the family gazing up at the moon and the stars in their first night in their new home.

The pilot sets up several mysteries and plot arcs that make it clear that this show will not just be a show about surviving in a hostile environment.

  • Why have the “Sixers,” a faction from the Sixth Pilgrimage, separated from the rest of Terra Nova?  What’s their goal, and who in the future is behind their efforts?
  • What’s going to happen when the true state of affairs is reported back to the folks on the other side of the time gate?
  • Who’s the Sixer mole in the colony?  We know there is one, since someone managed to communicate with Mira, the Sixer leader, and let her know that Terra Nova had her man in prison.
  • What’s the relationship between Skye, the miscreant but fearless girl, and Commander Nathaniel Taylor, the leader of Terra Nova?
  • Someone is carving mysterious equations on the rocks in the off-limits area frequented by Skye, which Mira, the Sixer leader, says are carved by Commander Taylor’s son and deal with controlling the future.  Is Mira right?
  • If Commander Taylor’s son is the one doing the carving, does Taylor know about it?  How is the son surviving all on his own in an area frequented by killer dinosaurs which can damn near take out a truck?
  • If nothing else, the possibility of fresh pilgrimages opens the door to further complications…

Next, the cast.  Wow, those are some pretty people.  Apparently the main criterion for getting to go back in time is being ridiculously attractive.  The men are lean and muscled, while the women are fresh-faced and athletic.  These people are really something!  But the majority of the actors are doing a fine job, led by Jason O’Mara, who plays father Jim Shannon.  He’s believable, likeable and clearly loves his family—but he’s not perfect, having a bit of a temper and a tendency to break the law.  Shelly Conn, who plays Dr. Elisabeth Shannon, brings an English accent to the table and a hint of an aristocratic manner, but she’s also a paradigm of maternal concern and warmth.  The rest of the performances are pretty solid, as well.  I found myself particularly fascinated by Skye (Allison Miller), a teenage orphaned by a disease outbreak in Terra Nova, and who displays unusual perceptiveness combined with a typical teenager’s recklessness.  One of the biggest problems the show may face is the middle daughter, Maddy, who is apparently going to serve as something of a genius who recites scientific facts (and provides exposition where necessary) at the drop of a hat.  Fortunately the show seems to be setting up a crush on her part on one of the other residents of Terra Nova, so maybe she’ll be more than just a plot device…

The show is going to be a treat from the visual angle.  The dinosaurs are rather well-done, though not perfect, and the producers have made the decision that since by some estimates, we only know about 10% or so of the dinosaurs in the Cretaceous Period, they aren’t constrained by the fossil record.  That’s a strength, in some ways, since it means that they’re going to be able to hit us with surprises pretty much at will.  So far, we’ve seen something like a brontosaurus, one of the larger (and herbiverous) dinosaurs; carnosaurs, which are something like fast running but small (about the size of a panel truck) tyranosaurus rex; and slashers, smaller thick-bodied nocturnal dinosaurs with bladed tails.  I have a feeling that there’s a lot more in store…I’ll add that during the Cretaceous Period, not only were there a lot of dinosaurs, but mammals had already made their appearance, as well as primitive birds and flowering plants.

It’s difficult to evaluate the science behind the show, and some of it is going to be unpalatable to some viewers.  That’s especially true of the notion of ecological catastrophe—Americans tend to believe that there is no scientific consensus regarding global warming, and a majority suspect that global warming does not exist and further that man’s activities do not contribute to climate change.  So there’s that issue, though the pilot doesn’t make any particular case for ecological collapse, and since the show’s set on the Cretaceous end of the time portal, there may never be any further explanation.

The time gate, on the other hand, looks to be an integral part of the mysteries, and I suppose we’ll have to brace ourselves for pseudoscience.  The jury is out on whether or not time travel is possible;  certain solutions of Einstein’s equations of general relativity appear to suggest that time travel into the past is possible.  On the other hand, no one can determine if those solutions are physically possible or not (for example, stabilizing a wormhole probably requires “exotic matter” with “negative energy density”), and some have suggested that the incorporation of quantum mechanics and relativity will close those loopholes…at any rate, it’s fun to speculate, isn’t it?

Before I close, allow me to describe the opening scene of the pilot.  It demonstrates a lot about what’s good about the show.

The pilot opens on the moon, and pans past the American flag at the Apollo landing site to show the Earth.  But it’s not the blue and white swirled globe we’re familiar with—it’s a tan and umber globe.  The camera pans in, past satellites and through the brown clouds to a futuristic city of high buildings, and it zooms into one of them, which turns out to be an apartment building.  Jim Shannon, wearing a breathing unit, walks through the dirty, darkened corridor to his home, where he opens a hermetically sealed door and greets his family.  There’s an easy cameraderie; they obviously love one another.  The only spot of color, though, in the entire opening sequence, is the orange which Jim has brought home for his family.  Josh, his son, peels the orange for little Zoey.  Then Maddy arrives, and warns that the police are coming…

In that one scene, you get glimpses of what the show might be:  the core of it is going to be the Shannon family and its interrelationships.  They love each other, but like any family, they’re going to have problems.  I also thought that the lack of color, but for the orange, probably means that the producers will be paying a lot of attention to how the show looks, which is all to the good.

Among all the positives, I have to say that in some ways the show is a little formulaic.  We’ve got the father, who is the typical hot-headed cop type who breaks the rules to make things work.  His son is a chip off the old block, and as Skye—who’s known him for only a few hours—points out, they’re too much alike.  Maddy is the voice of exposition, and while I welcomed the science I suspect that many others will find her irritating.

The pilot glosses over some things, too.  How did the Shannons manage to hide a pregnancy and a third daughter for three years in their apartment?  It’s not like Elisabeth wouldn’t have shown, and unless there’s something really startling about that pregnancy—I haven’t ruled that out as a major plot twist—it seems unlikely that they could have hidden little Zoe’s existence for three years.  I also found myself wondering why it was only Jim who got sent to prison, and not Elisabeth as well, unless—as the dialogue implies—Jim went to prison for hitting a cop.  If that’s so, then there was no punishment for breaking the child limitation, and if that’s so, why were they so keen to hide her, and why did Jim get mad enough to hit the officer?

Here’s the bottom line:  based on the pilot episode, if you enjoy family dramas this is going to be a show to watch.  I’ve already heard (in fact, even made) one reference to the bastard spawn of Lost and Jurassic Park, but if this show follows through on the promise displayed in the pilot, I don’t care.  So, on Monday night, settle in and watch; you’ll be glad you did.

Update on the basis of the second episode:  In the second episode of the show, we get a “monster of the week” style episode in which a flying dinosaur—or possibly a bird—emigrates to its spawning site right where Terra Nova was built.  They’re carniverous and nasty little critters which could cause huge problems for the colony.  But alongside the “physical danger” thing we also get some new character stuff.  It turns out Elisabeth was specifically requested by the colony’s chief medical researcher, who went to medical school with her and has a thing for her.  He was surprised when Jim and little Zoe turned up as well…Skye also figures out that Josh had to leave a girl behind who meant quite a bit to him, and he displays a talent for the guitar while Skye demonstrates an altruistic streak and the boy Maddy has a crush on may reciprocate her interest.  I was right about the family drama focus as well—the threat to the colony plays out with Elisabeth providing the scientific solution, which is implemented by Jim and Commander Taylor, while the children face danger in the swarm of bird-things.  It wasn’t a magnificent episode, but it was fun and it had some genuinely warm family moments.

I’ll be watching again next Monday.

Visit Fox’s Terra Nova website, where you can watch episodes a week after they air.


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