Why I Hope Fox's "Terra Nova" is a Hit


Over the past few months, I’ve talked briefly about the upcoming sci-fi show Terra Nova, both here on Professionally Incoherent and on Twitter. It’s the much-anticipated Fox series that follows a group of “time pilgrims” from the 22nd century, who travel 85 million years in the past. Their goal is to “reboot” human civilization after leaving the over-polluted Earth of 2149, trying to apply modern science and environmental practices to forge a better human society.

Terra Nova represents a chance for high-concept sci-fi to launch onto network TV in an epic fashion. Sure, sci-fi has always had a strong presence on smaller, niche channels like SyFy, HBO and TNT, but with Terra Nova, Fox looks to be promoting the sci-fi genre in a way that we haven’t seen for a long time. Read on to find out why Terra Nova has a good shot at success!

The show was created by Kelly Marcel and Craig Silverstein, and Steven Spielberg is serving as an executive producer. In a surprising move, Fox decided to skip ordering a single pilot episode, instead ordering 13 full episodes, averaging $4 million each. It was a practical decision to save money on set disassembly and reconstruction, but it also implies that the network has faith in the series. In a business where many new shows only survive for 3-5 episodes before cancellation, Terra Nova has an opportunity to develop its characters and strike a balance of dialogue, action and drama.

Because the show is set 85 million years in the past, the inevitable result is that the pilgrims from 2149 will be crossing paths with dinosaurs.  The humans are trying to start over from scratch, meaning they must build compounds and communities while fending off the natural fauna of the time period.

Fortunately, the show doesn’t appear to be turning the dinosaur action into a gimmick. Judging from advance interviews with the creative people behind the show, they’re trying to make the human characters a bigger focus than the dinosaurs. While each week will have some prehistoric content, there won’t be an all-out chase sequence every episode, just for the sake of it. (Check out a trailer for the show here)

In terms of the specific characters, Terra Nova mostly revolves around the Shannon family, who are part of the so-called Tenth Pilgrimage to Terra Nova. Jim Shannon accompanies his wife Elisabeth and their three children into the past, and once there they must not only adjust to the dangerous surroundings but find their respective niches in the new society.

There are a few faces on Terra Nova that you might recognize, namely Jason O’Mara as Jim Shannon and Stephen Lang as Commander Nathaniel Taylor, the militaristic leader of the settlement. O’Mara was the star of the single-season U.S. remake of British crime show Life on Mars, which was cancelled back in 2009. Lang was last seen in James Cameron’s Avatar, as the villainous Colonel Quaritch.

I liked what little I saw of O’Mara’s performance on Life on Mars, and Lang made for a good villain in Avatar, so I’m curious to see how these previous roles inform the actors’ characters on Terra Nova. I could see Jim Shannon becoming a bit of an interventionist in the Terra Nova community - much like his cop character in Life On Mars - something that could clash with Taylor’s safety procedures.

One of the encouraging tidbits to come out of the early buzz about the show is how the writers are avoiding a “Butterfly effect” scenario with the logistics of the time travel element. It’s an idea that's been present in time travel-based sci-fi for decades, contending that a small action in the past can unleash a set of devastating consequences in the future. To avoid confusing the audience with this sort of scenario, the time pilgrims in Terra Nova actually travel to an alternate timeline on the planet Earth, meaning their efforts to restart humanity will not change the reality of the people they leave behind in 2149.

Personally, I love this idea. There are enough sci-fi concepts at the moment that deal with the dangers of rewriting history, and unless writers embrace it in a humourous way à la Doctor Who, they can risk creating a tangled and paradoxical universe that only annoys viewers. A good example is Lost, which for all its good traits, only fully accepted its identity as a sci-fi show in its second-last season, and didn’t sketch out a cohesive approach to time travel or decide how actions in the past affect future events.

Terra Nova eschews this in favour of a straightforward side-universe, where stories can move forward without the need of sorting out the potential consequences on the time-stream. The Terra Nova community is described as a way of “getting it right” – accepting that the Earth of the 22nd century is lost, and starting fresh. That means that the show can delve into some interesting societal issues: if humanity is starting over, how do they handle concerns like government, religion and crime? In short, there are lots of options for crafting a deep universe for Terra Nova, bringing it beyond a mere Jurassic Park clone.

The lack of a Butterfly effect structure also gives Terra Nova little excuse for deviating from character development. It might sound a bit boring, but I firmly believe that the element that will make Terra Nova a success will be its characters. It’s not enough to have great dinosaur FX and a cool concept; if we don’t care about the characters, we’ll have no reason to keep tuning in week after week, and Terra Nova will always be referred to as a missed chance for science fiction.

I mentioned that the show is significant because it’s bringing sci-fi to a major network. Not that the genre needs to be legitimized in any way (we geeks are stronger than we’ve ever been!), but one successful, big-budget show like Terra Nova will give Fox and its competitors a reason to create more cool sci-fi shows. And if there’s one thing we can always have more of, it’s clever science fiction.

Terra Nova premieres on Monday, September 26th at 8/7c on Fox, and will continue airing on Mondays at 8/7c until December. Check out the show’s official website for more.

What do you think about what Fox is trying to do with Terra Nova? Will you be tuning in, or do you think the show will fizzle out? Post your reaction in the comments below, and check out some of my other TV-related articles:

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