First Thoughts on "Terra Nova"
Well – that was an impressive start to a sci-fi series. Last night I sat down and watched the two-hour pilot of FOX’s new sci-fi show Terra Nova, and I thought I’d bring you some initial reaction to the episode, including what I liked and disliked about one of the most anticipated premieres of the season.
Return readers may know that I’ve been keeping my eye on this show for a long time. I’ve tracked it ever since it first broke that Steven Spielberg would be executive producing a network TV series about futuristic “pilgrims” travelling 85 million years in the past to restart civilization. Read on for my full thoughts on the pilot, and to share your comments about Terra Nova!
The show begins with a long establishing shot of our world in the year 2147. We sweep past the Moon, and through the canyons of a city (which I believe to be a future version of Chicago). The planet has been completely overwhelmed by noxious clouds of pollution, and all citizens wear rebreather masks to avoid lung damage.
We’re introduced to the Shannon family: ex-cop Jim (Jason O’Mara), doctor Elisabeth (Shelley Conn), 17-year-old Josh (Landon Liboiron), 15-year-old Maddy (Naomi Scott) and 3-year-old Zoe (Alana Mansour). The Shannons are chosen to join the 10th piligrimage to Terra Nova, a community set up in an alternate time stream, 85 million years in the past. The idea is for settlers to take their knowledge about how humans ruined the planet and try to restart civilization in Terra Nova.
After some opening complications, the Shannons finally end up in the time of dinosaurs, and the viewer is treated to an introduction to the world: how the community works, who lives there, and (the dinosaur in the room) what lurks on the other side of the gate.
This is done effectively, without much pedantic exposition. The writers have broken up that material with a number of genuine (if slightly routine) character moments. It’s not as though a single brainy character unloads “all the info you need to know” in one speech.
The production is one of the most expensive ever produced, and it shows fairly early on. The landscape effects (exterior shots of future cities and wide shots of the Terra Nova compound) are convincing, and the set design and costuming is impressive. This is no bargain-basement B-movie stuff – the show oozes with money. The question will be, though, if the show can maintain its standards. The first season is already shot, but it would be annoying if the quality went downhill because of budgeting problems later on.
What everyone is asking about with regard to Terra Nova are the dinosaurs. In a show set 85 million years in the past, we’ve been expecting at least a bit of dino action early on, even though the team behind the show argues they won’t be putting the dinosaurs front and centre every episode. I can say that at least half the dinosaur shots work - namely the calmer shots of the brachiosaurs eating leaves over the compound walls. Where Terra Nova runs into some difficulty are the fast-moving carnivorous dinos.
Over the runtime of the pilot, we meet two meat-eaters: the carnotaurs, or “carnos” and the “slashers”. The carnotaurs show up during the day, and unfortunately, many of shots look a bit fake – the design of the creature is fine, but the lighting on the animal seems off – it doesn’t look like it actually exists in the same world as the actors.
The slashers are a bit more effective because they appear in a night scene, but some of the alternation between CG models and animatronics made it hard to suspend disbelief (Check out this article on EW for a more biting critique of the dino effects). Personally, I don’t believe Terra Nova needs to have appearances from dinosaurs every week, so I hope the show doesn’t fall prey to the “monster of the week” syndrome of some shows.
Disappointing dino effects are not a fatal flaw for the series, because where the show really excels is in its performances and pacing. I liked Jason O’Mara as Jim – he’s fallible and believable. O’Mara has good chemistry with Shelley Conn, playing his wife Elisabeth. There’s a scene near the beginning, before the trip to the past, that firmly establishes the bond in the Shannon family. I believe this will form important groundwork for the rest of the show.
I especially enjoyed Stephen Lang (Quaritch from Avatar) as Commander Nathaniel Taylor, the charismatic military leader of Terra Nova. Lang doesn’t overplay Taylor, and it’s refreshing to see him as a good guy after the villain he played in Avatar. The writers also establish a mysterious backstory for Taylor that I’m curious to dig into in the coming episodes (I’m still getting over Lost, bring on some mysteries!).
It’s important to remember that there’s only so much a pilot episode of any series can do. Writers are tasked with introducing an entire cast of characters and an overarching situation, along with hints at coming storylines. Almost all TV pilots feel rushed, so I’m waiting to see where Terra Nova goes before I decide to officially review it here. As it is, there are some promising elements in the pilot. We just need to see how the show is built from here.
What did you think of Terra Nova? Pleasantly surprised? Disappointed? What did you think of the dino effects? Have you decided yet whether you’ll follow the show for the season? Join the conversation about the show in the comments section below, and check out some of my related TV commentary: