Terra Nova: It’s Swiss Family Robinson meets Jurassic Park
Everybody’s looking anxious, except Stephen Lang, obviously
While having Steven Spielberg attached as an executive producer may have carried some weight before, after the unwatchable Falling Skies television series, expectations of Terra Nova have been significantly lowered. This is a very good thing, because people certainly shouldn’t tune in to this new fantasy science fiction series expecting anything other than b-movie quality. However, that is not to say Terra Nova is anything short of spectacular, the first episode (double bill) was a big, clumsy behemoth; an action adventure family drama set in a beautifully realised fantasy and inhabited by dinosaurs.
The story starts off in an overpopulated future city, the air thick with pollution and lit up by holographic advertisements reminding everyone “a family is four”. Jim Shannon’s family is actually five; his youngest daughter being technically illegal, and it’s not long into the program before he’s paying the price for it.
Jim’s wife, Elisabeth, is a rather talented trauma surgeon, and is asked to join the Terra Nova tenth pilgrimage, which is a one-way trip through a time portal, 85 million years into the past. Elisabeth can bring her two legal children, Josh and Maddy, but not little Zoe, because the Government can’t be seen to be giving favours to families who break the law. Jim himself can’t go either, as he’s in jail, serving a long sentence for assaulting a couple of unpleasant police officers. This presents somewhat of a dilemma, and even before we see our first dinosaur the show has all the makings of a cheesy Sci-fi epic. Naturally things work out for our Swiss Family Robinson, and soon we’re travelling through the crack in time, to a wonderfully imagined colony, surrounded by a huge fence and a dense jungle beyond.
The new world is presented as a separate timeline, with an alternate future, this means the pilgrims can step on as many bugs as they want, but it also means they can never return to the Earth they knew (probably for the best). The show takes it’s time establishing the new world, although it’s fair to say the details are in the props and locations, not so much the characters, who are all fairly generic at this point. To be fair the show has more than made up for it’s flat characters with a lush, fantastical world. Everything has been well thought out, from Obama’s face on the currency, to Jim’s futuristic phone, which is simply a screen embedded in the fabric of his coat arm.
Unfortunately, Stephen Lang isn’t in this picture
Pleasingly, Stephen Lang is the man in charge of the Terra Nova colony, and he chews the scenery wonderfully. He plays grizzled old Taylor, and looks and acts exactly like his character in the Avatar film, it’s as if Quaritch had survived Pandora and become an environmentalist. At one point he actually yells “Damnation”, hopefully this will be a recurring catchphrase.
The actors are all solid, if unremarkable, apart from Lang who easily steals the show, but Terra Nova’s main appeal is, of course, the dinosaurs. It’s clear a good deal of the show’s big budget has gone on making sure the dinosaurs don’t look dreadful, and it’s fair to say the FX guys did a pretty good job. Naturally they could never compare to Jurassic Park, they don’t have the money, time or industry professionals to pull off something of that quality, but as far as CGI beasties go, these ones are really effective. Cleverly, the Terra Nova people have gone a long way to make sure these dinos are different to Speilberg’s creations. The show is set in the Cretaceous period, not the Jurassic, and the writer’s have been very creative with the depiction of the creatures, going as far as making some of them up (though always with the blessing of John Horner).
Terra Nova may not be an intelligent, serious drama, but then what do you expect from a series that has a pun in its title? It’s big budget, b-grade fun, an exciting ride and a fantastic spectacle. It slipped up in a few places, not least when it decided to ruin a perfectly good mystery at the end of the double bill, but then I’m guessing ‘Genesis’ was made to be a pilot, and the writer’s felt they needed to set up some kind of grand story-arch to hook their audience. The dialogue is often pretty clunky, but that adds to the appeal, it’s an absurd fantasy epic about a family trying to get along in the Cretaceous period, don’t expect Shakespeare.
It’ll be interesting to see how Terra Nova evolves, the family drama element is actually quite appealing in the dinosaur infested setting, and the thought of seeing what new misadventures the Shannon family get themselves into each week is very intriguing. Terra Nova is really silly, but when you make a science fiction drama about living with dinosaurs, you kind of need to be.
Terra Nova is currently being broadcast on Sky1.