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Terra Nova: Premiere Recap

So Fox’s prehistoric sci-fi epic Terra Nova, which has been in production forever and whose premiere cost a reported $20 million, kicked off last night.  Despite obvious Lost aspirations, the pilot fell well short of achieving what the Lost premiere achieved.

“Terra Nova” is the name of a prehistoric settlement, populated by people originally from the year 2149, by which point the Earth is in even worse shape than it is today.  The air is so poor that people need to wear a breathing apparatus just to walk outside (although they were inconsistent in this) and the sky has been totally blocked out by smog.  Sort of like LA, but less fashionable (the characters look like they were plucked out of the early 90s, making me think the costume department didn’t get too much of that $20 million).  Arid conditions like this are visual shorthand for “this place sucks.”

Our story revolves around the Shannon family, a multicultural fivesome headed by F-the-book police officer Jim (hereafter Shannon), medical doctor extraordinaire Elizabeth, flannel wearing bad boy Josh, science trivia maven Maddy, and cute but probably unnecessary three-year old Zoe.  The family seems happy in their dingy apartment (trash in the hallway is visual shorthand for “we’ve lost hope!”) except, uh oh, families are only allowed two children!  Which is storywriting shorthand for “fuck you, China!”  Maddy alerts the family that the gestapo (also clad in styles that haven’t evolved over 150 years) are coming and the family hides Zoe in a crawlspace, which, one gets the impression, they probably have done before.  Despite Shannon’s attempt to send the baby patrol away with the usually foolproof “I’m a cop, too,” the cops let themselves into the apartment and, after tossing the place with a totally unrealistic amount of anger, discover the Contraband Kid.  Shannon, needing to establish himself to the audience as a renegade, punches the cops and ends up spending two years in the questionably named Golad Prison.

Fast forward two years and Elizabeth visits her man in the clink to tell him that – surprise! – she’s been selected to participate in Terra Nova, meaning that she and her two non-illegal kids will be sent on a one-way to the year 85 million BC to begin building a new civilization.  Shannon is pumped, except – surprise! – Zoe is still illegal and won’t be able to join her.  Guess who’s about to break out of prison?  Shannon, that’s who.

After an elaborate and apparently expensive game of capture-the-flag where the “flag” is “Zoe in a backpack” (aside: brown child smuggled in a backpack?  Really, FOX?), Shannon is ready to meet up with his family and head 85 million years in the past.  But wait!  One of the security guards’ Spidey senses sounds a red alert, because he asks Shannon to step out of line (and, knowing Shannon so far, you can bet he’s gonna “step out of line,” alright!).  After seeing the rest of his family go through, Shannon pistol whips the guard and runs through the portal, landing in the sweet, clean paradise of the late Cretaceous.  The guards see the gun, though, and everyone starts freaking out.  ENTER the now five-years-old-but-still-technically-illegal Zoe, whose presence here is apparently not a problem for anybody (nor does anyone seem to care that Shannon is a fugitive), making the first thirty minutes of this pilot seem like an incredible waste of time.  But now, I suppose, Terra Nova begins.  Let’s analyze what appear to be the major plot threads.

TEENAGERS: FALLING IN LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT SINCE 85 MILLION BC

On their first day in Terra Nova, both Josh and Maddy meet their obligatory love interests.  Josh meets Skye, a rebel-without-a-cause-alpha-female type who encourages him as he skips orientation (am I a sensing a like-father-like-son theme?  I think I am!) and introduces him to her badass and also multicultural gang.

Maddy, on the other hand, meets a guy who I at first thought was Jacob Lautner but turned out to just be similarly wooden, but apparently taller (I’m guessing).  He talks to her and Zoe after orientation, which I think is related to school although that wasn’t really explained, and Maddy immediately starts spouting off factoids about the dietary habits of Brachiosaurus altithorax, because guys like that sort of thing!

WAITING TO INTRODUCE “THE OTHERS” IS SO 2004

You thought these guys would be alone here?  THINK AGAIN!  A group called the “Sixers,” because they were all from the sixth pilgrimage to the past, has splintered off from the Terra Nova colony (which, given the presence of FLESH EATING DINOSAURS seems like a really, really bad idea).  Think their motives are pure?  OH FOR TWO!  The first things our first Sixer friend does is hold a laser knife to Dr. Elizabeth’s throat and then try to assassinate Commander Taylor, the leader of Terra Nova (who is played by Stephen Lang, who played essentially the exact same role in Avatar), making me think that these guys are BAD TO THE BONE.  Shannon, who saved a surprisingly unthankful Taylor’s life, seems to be on the same page as yours truly and wants answers.  Now.  Taylor explains the origins of the splinter cell, saying that nobody knows who they are or why they’re there.  Whether or not it involves Jacob and/or the Dharma Initiative remains to be seen.

After a chase involving the Others – erm, Sixers – and a couple of dinosaurs who have never appeared in the fossil record (this wasn’t pointed out, for obvious reasons, but those dinosaurs are not real), there’s a showdown between Terra Nova Security and the Primary(?) Antagonists.  Because the Sixers used to be members of the colony, everybody knows everybody, which doesn’t prevent anyone from aiming automatic weapons at one another.  The Sixers are led by Mira, who doesn’t believe in acting well, but does believe she can trade some mineral (didn’t catch the name, but assuming it’s unobtainium) for the would-be assassin, medical supplies and ammo.  And she’s almost right!  Except Taylor isn’t going to give her any ammo…but he has no problem handing over the guy who tried to kill him.  Nor do the Sixers have any problem not killing Taylor, even though that’s apparently a goal for at least some of them.  What could be behind these wacky motivations?  You think it’s bad writing?  I THINK YOU MAY BE RIGHT!

CAVE PAINTINGS: NOT JUST BY CAVEMEN ANYMORE

Skye and Josh, during their OTG (outside the gate) sesh, go cliff diving, which is awesome, and check out some strange symbols carved on rocks under the falls.  When I first saw these, I nearly hyperventilated because I thought that the writers might be going on some ancient astronaut theory path.  Or that maybe Cy Twombly went back in time and found some chalk.  I would have been down with either of these explanations.  Later in the episode, though, some of the Sixers suggested that Taylor’s missing son (PLOT ALERT) is behind the drawings.  They also intone that – surprise! – everything might not be what it seems in Terra Nova!  Do you think that maybe the whole “this is a fresh start for humanity” theme is just a cover?  COULD BE!

BURNING QUESTIONS

  1. How do they know that the trips to the past were successful if, as Maddy says, they’re in a new time stream (and therefore, presumably, unable to contact the future)?
  2. If the time machine in 2149 is less a time machine in the dial-a-date sense and more a way to exploit a “fissure” in the space-time continuum, as Maddy suggests, why does the destination point/time advance in lockstep with the apparent present of 2149?  Wouldn’t it be just as likely to drop each pilgrimage off at the exact same point?
  3. Given that one can’t connect with the future, does nobody in the future have a problem with sending all these people and equipment into the void with no assurance whatsoever that anything exists on the other side?  The voice on the loudspeaker as they’re embarking says that “medical staff will be on hand to provide assistance,” but how do they know that?
  4. When Shannon shows up on the other side with a gun, why isn’t he immediately shot by the armed guards?  Especially given the dubious origins of the Sixers, and how they smuggled weapons over, wouldn’t they at least arrest him?  WTF?
  5. Taylor said that when he came through, what seemed like a “blink of an eye” for observers in the future was actually 118 days for him in the past.  Why was this dilation not replicated when the Shannons went through?
  6. Why are there not a billion mosquitos everywhere?  I’ve been to the jungle.  There were mosquitos.
  7. Carnosaurs?  Slicers?  Screamers?  Were real dinosaurs not available?
  8. How are the producers going to justify the budget necessary to put dinosaurs on screen every week when only 9 million people tuned in for the premiere?  Have I just wasted all this time on a 1500 word recap for a show that isn’t even going to exist in three weeks?  And how the hell does Two and a Half Men pull in 20 million viewers still?
  9. Given the fact that even if the new human race survives the next 20 million years it’s a near-certainty that they’ll be wiped out in the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event, is nobody concerned about how badly this is going to fuck with archeologists one day?
  10. Following on from earlier questions, isn’t it ridiculous that they’d spend so much time, energy and resources creating ultra modern homes for the colonists?  Also given that they don’t get any information from the future, how do they know how many people are coming in order to prepare?

Hopefully some of these questions are answered, although I have a feeling they won’t be.  Still, the show has enough promise that I’ll tune in next week, but the writers had better get their act together quickly.  Given the disappointing numbers from the premiere, the staggering cost of this episode and the so-far lukewarm reviews, they might not get it together in time to save the show.

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