Pilot rapid-fire review: Terra Nova

The next couple weeks are going to be insane. There are so many new series debuting and unfortunately, there is only so much time in the day for me to write about television while balancing my “real” life. You know, the one I spend on Twitter. ANYWAY, I’m going to try to touch on each new series once it airs a pilot, but these posts probably won’t be too long or too in-depth unless they really need to be. And if certain things debut together, I’ll probably talk about them together.

Terra Nova is really easy to hate. The FOX event series has approximately 83 executive producers, including the generally-despised Brannon Braga and the kind-of-terrible-on-television Steven Spielberg. The series has had one production delay after another. It is expensive as hell. Those expenses are related to the production delays, which were partially due to the fact that FOX wanted to work further on the dinosaur CGI. It was supposed to debut midseason last year. Then in May. Finally, we’re here. If you’re interested in the television industry and follow critics and industry folks on Twitter and it feels like you’ve been hearing about Terra Nova for two years now, you’re not alone. This doesn’t include the wonky premise or the questions about whether or not Nova can work as a sustainable television series, business-wise or creatively.

So yeah, there are a lot of reasons to disregard Terra Nova as an over-hyped, overblown mess of a television series. Thankfully, the actual two-hour premiere provides about a dozen other, more concrete reasons why Terra Nova is an over-hyped, overblown mess of a television series. I had some pretty low expectations coming into the two-hour block last night and even then, I can’t say I truly enjoyed much of this. I know that people will spend a substantial amount of time talking about the porous quality of the CGI dinosaurs and while that element of the pilot is surprisingly tepid (especially considering the amount of time spent on it), this series has bigger problems than cheap, fake-looking dinosaurs and they’re almost all in the script. I’m guessing that the dinosaurs won’t be around so often in every single episode, but Terra Nova is going to have to sustain interesting characters, relationships and narrative developments in every single episode, something it doesn’t do entirely well in the pilot.

The good news: There are a number of compelling and curious ideas floating around in Terra Nova‘s pilot (which has surely been written and rewritten by 37 people). The bad news: Very few of those compelling ideas get enough time to make an impact because there are a dozen other things the series wants to explore. At one time or another in the pilot, Terra Nova is trying to be the following kind of series: adventure, family drama, science-fiction, medical procedural and police procedural. Worst of all, none of those five different series with Terra Nova are particularly good or interesting.

I understand the desire in wanting to establish your narrative as one driven by the Shannon family as to not intimidate viewers who don’t typically identify with time travel or any sort of science fiction storytelling. However, the pilot’s stringent focus on the Shannon’s internal issues, particularly the problems between father Jim and his obnoxiously annoying teenage son Josh, is a real detriment to the flow of the story. “Misunderstood” teenagers are probably the worst character trope around and Josh is certainly one of the most egregious representatives of the cliché. He’s upset with his dad…BECAUSE ALL RIGHT. He doesn’t want to be in Terra Nova…BECAUSE ALL RIGHT. He ignores his responsibilities and hangs out with a cute girl…BECAUSE ALL RIGHT. It’s just all so thinly and obviously developed and unfortunately, Josh’s issues with his father dominate much of these opening two hours. The tension between Jim and Josh might lead to some solid dinosaur action in the final act and it appears as though it all might be over for now, but good lord did their posturing drag this pilot down.

The focus on Josh’s problems with his father also choke off time that could have been spent developing some of the other characters. No one feels particularly excited that Jim has just escaped prison and joined his family in time traveling back to prehistoric times. He and his wife don’t have many scenes together and Jason O’Mara and Shelley Conn certainly don’t have much of a chemistry with one another. The two Shannon daughters have next to nothing to do, except when the little five-year old is called upon to be cute a few times. The young “cool kids” that Josh hangs out with are all weightless outside of Skye, who only feels real because Allison Miller turns in a solid performance. I know it’s a pilot and there’s a lot of exposition and shiny dinosaurs to get to, but don’t tell me this is a character/family story and then fail to make me care about any of the characters in this family.

The big mistake that so many series like this make is that none of the people are likable, relatable or compelling enough. Audiences aren’t stupid, they won’t show up just for dinosaurs, future cities and time travel. They want good characters as well. Terra Nova struggles in the outset because it doesn’t want to fully embrace its science fiction foundation but doesn’t really have the characters or actors to shift the focus elsewhere. This can obviously be fixed in the recent future, but very little in the character department instills me with much confidence.

There is some good news though: No matter how much the series wants to avoid it and focus on the family drama, the mythology hints here are intriguing. I might have waited a few episodes to reveal the rebel group known as the Sixers, but I’m still interested in how these two groups interact with one another and how it relates to Terra Nova’s true purpose and relationship to timelines and all that jazz. The assumption is that Terra Nova is part of an alternate timeline that can be used to start over, but I’m guessing that there’s a hell of a lot more going on and a handful of shadowy figures pulling the strings. The series also appears to be interested in exploring the social and political elements that are wrapped up in creating a new society, something I look forward to in the coming weeks. How are resources divvied up? Who has the final say? Are their class distinctions? Tons of interesting material in that regard.

And of course, Stephen Lang is pretty great here. I think most people are assuming he’s playing the same role he did in Avatar, but he’s really not. Commander Taylor is much more in control, calm and open than the antagonistic asshole from Avatar. There’s a good chance that Taylor is putting on for reasons unknown, but Lang does a nice job, even with all the exposition he’s asked to deliver.

If Terra Nova can figure out a way to rapidly develop some of the characters and their relationships to one another, it could be in business. The concept is both more and less complex than it initially seems, but in a good way. The science fiction-y elements could be easily de-emphasized for more character stories, the writers just have to make us care about the Shannons and everyone else in Terra Nova. The mythology is moderately compelling, the characters are not at all. Level things out a bit and Terra Nova could be legitimately good. I’m not holding out hope though.

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