REVIEW: Terra Nova
Any time Steven Spielberg comes to television, it’s always with something different. He honored the anthology series of his youth with Amazing Stories and lent his storytelling expertise to get ER launched, making that into a smash hit for NBC. So, when Fox heard of a series about humans and dinosaurs and Spielberg, it seemed like a no brainer. If anyone could get dinosaurs to work convincingly on the small screen, it was the director of Jurassic Park. What the network couldn’t count on was the full extent of Spielberg’s involvement and in time the series was placed under showrunner Brannon Braga’s control. Braga cut his teeth on Star Trek: The Next Generation and has gone on to do other genre fare, but he can’t seem to repeatedly sacrifice characterization in favor of conspiracy and that’s where Terra Nova fell off the rails.
Delayed by schedule issues as the massive CGI prehistoric creatures proved more difficult to execute on a budget, the series debuted last fall and for 14 episodes, we were treated to a series with tremendous potential, most of it wasted.
In 2149, mankind has choked the world so badly that time travel to resettle humanity in the past was the best hope for survival. A colony was established and those fortunate enough to be picked were sent in waves, controlling the impact of man altering the past. We follow the Shannon family from this wretched dystopia to the clean air of the past and see if people can do better when given a better chance. Jim Shannon (Jason O’Mara) is in jail for violating population laws and conceiving a third child but is broken free and joins his wife, Dr. Elisabeth Shannon (Shelley Conn), 17 year old son Josh (Landon Liboiron), 16 year old daughter Maddy (Naomi Scott), and five year old Zoe (Alana Mansour), as they join the Tenth Pilgrimage 85 Million years back in time.
Terra Nova is a thriving colony under the command of Commander Nathaniel Taylor (Stephen Lang) and contains enough raw power to protect the populace from the mammoth critters that wander the jungles just beyond their walls. While the thrust of the stories should have been the struggle to adapt to the environment and its deadly inhabitants, Braga had other ideas. Apparently, The Others, I mean the Sixers split back during the sixth pilgrimage and are working with unknown forces back in the future to seize the pristine world’s resources. Then there’s the mystery of Taylor’s son, a genius who was either part of the conspiracy or its pawn. Add in a blackmarketeer, a teen turned traitor to save her ill mother, young romance, and a few other threads, you get a crazy quilt of plots that could actually be told in any other environment.
The show failed to be different from its genre competitors because it avoided the most unique element going for it: dinosaurs! Man versus nature! How do the people adapt to diseases, microbes, and minerals they never encountered before? How do they ensure each step they take beyond the colony does not in some way create a vastly different tomorrow? Nope, the show skips all of those possibilities for conspiracies and soap operas.
The appealing cast does its best with weak material but by the end of the series, it was clear that there would be little progress in solving these dilemmas and when the plug was mercifully pulled in March, it vanished without much of an imprint in the genre or prime time television.
The complete series is presented on four standard definition discs from 20th Century Home Entertainment. In addition to fourteen hours of drama, the set comes with complete with some vaguely interesting deleted scenes and an extended version of “Occupation/Resistance”, the two-part finale (there’s also an audio commentary from Stephen Lang, Brannon Braga and Rene Echevarria). There are a handful of somewhat interesting “Director’s Diaries – Making the Pilot” with comments from Alex Graves, whose work I have generally admired. Finally, there is a brief look at “Cretaceous Life: The Dinosaurs of Terra Nova”, which should enlighten younger viewers who can’t get enough dinosaurs, and “Mysteries Explored”, delving into the less interest aspects of this failed series. Rounding things out is a gag reel.
A series with potential like this is all the more disappointing when it does not embrace its strengths in favor of a creator’s personal interests. Had Spielberg been more hands on, things might have turned out differently, but as it stands, the show is a mildly engaging misfire.