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Terra Nova Pilot Review

By on September 30, 2011

Terra Nova’s Monday night debut on Fox was a source of interest to many people.  Time traveling and dinosaurs aside (but don’t worry we’ll get right back to those in a moment) the show made waves long before it premiered, for both it’s enormous production commitment (over 250 sets and each episode requiring over 6 weeks in post-production) and its equally enormous budget of $4 million per episode.  Given the fact that Steven Spielberg doesn’t have the greatest of track records for producing successful scifi for the small screen (Earth 2, Taken) come Monday night, some reviewers were sharpening their pencils in anticipation of failure with a distinct sense of schadenfreude.

However the ambitious two hour pilot of Terra Nova managed to acquit itself quite well, with the first half hour in particular showcasing where exactly the FX budget was spent. Set in the year 2149, Earth is a choked, over-populated and over-polluted world.  The only respite from the harshness of daily existence is to be chosen by lottery or otherwise to pass through a rift in space-time to Earth’s Cretaceous period where oxygen and real food are plentiful.

The rather impressive rift gateway to Earth's past

The Shannon family are hiding the fact they have a third child from Population Control.  When their daughter is discovered, Jim Shannon (Jason O’Mara) attacks the policemen who discover her, earning him a two year prison sentence in a gulag, and leaving his family to fend for themselves.

Jim’s wife Elisabeth, (Shelley Conn) a doctor with a penchant for pro bono cases is then offered a once in a lifetime deal: leave Earth with her two registered children as part of the tenth pilgrimage to Terra Nova, a colonial outpost 85 million years in the past, but with the caveat that Elisabeth must leave her third child and her prison-bound husband behind.

The chance at a new life in Terra Nova is too good an offer to pass up, and Jim and Elisabeth soon hatch a plan to break Jim out of prison and find a way for the entire Shannon family to make it to Terra Nova together. One prison break, bribe and last minute scuffle later Jim is a free man, 85 million years in the past.

Almost straight away, the family begin to experience a host of new difficulties – from acclimatizing to the oxygen-rich air to acclimatizing to the fact that they are sharing their new home with many dangerous species of dinosaurs.

Jim Shannon (Jason O'Mara)

Help is on hand from the gruff but astute Commander Nathaniel Taylor, Terra Nova’s first pioneer and now leader of the settlement. After a shaky start, Taylor puts Jim to work as a farm hand, while Elisabeth goes to work in the local hospital.  However when a renegade group of Sixers (rebel outcasts from the sixth pilgrimage) infiltrate the settlement, Jim saves Taylor’s life, and earns himself a spot on the local law enforcement team.

But Jim cannot catch a break.  Just as life seems settled, new stresses begin to assert themselves in the form of Jim’s teenage son, who is resentful and angry about life in the new colony, and his perceived view that his father abandoned the family. Additionally, Jim’s youngest daughter doesn’t remember him from before his time in prison, and his now estranged wife cannot find a way back to their former intimacy. Toss in a few man-eating dinosaurs (Slashers) a group of stranded teenagers, a hard as nails rebel militia and Jim’s life is suddenly a whole lot more complicated.

The Shannon family survey their new home

Terra Nova deserves praise for its lavish sets, top notch visual effects, a diverse cast of characters with the potential for rich story lines and for the imagination and scope of its premise, which is highly reminiscent of Julian May’s classic scifi novel The Many colored Land.  There is real ambition here and the desire to take viewers in a new direction.

However, a couple of key areas deserving of more care and attention include character dialogue and motivation, both of which appeared both forced and clumsy at times throughout the pilot’s double episode. Jim’s relationship with his teenage son Josh has clearly been earmarked as a point of contention for future episodes.  However, their angry exchanges seem heavy handed and coerced and more often than not serve to jar the viewer from a sense of immersion.

The curmudgeonly Commander Taylor hides a softer side

Along the same vein, there are a couple of excruciatingly unrealistic exchanges between Jim and Elisabeth including one where Jim, with moments to spare before his son is eaten by a hoard of ravening Slashers, and in the midst of mounting a rescue mission, is stopped in his tracks by Elisabeth who feels the need at that moment to admit that maybe she was wrong about things and that perhaps Jim was right to choose law enforcement as a career after all.

In another scene, Elisabeth berates her husband over his feelings of frustration towards their son, reminding him that Josh has had a hard time these past few years.  Is Jim, who spent years wasting away in a gulag for the crime of protecting his family, really going to find this information helpful?

Additionally, Jim’s wife Elisabeth has somehow managed to draw the short straw in the personality stakes, coming across as aloof, cranky and distracted.  There is little on display for viewers to warm to.

The likable Jim Shannon: Things may have been easier in the gulag.

Overall, Terra Nova is an ambitious project with bold visuals and a big audacious story to tell.  But it needs to pay more attention to the finer details involving its characters and resist the temptation to opt for cliched exchanges and predictable behaviors leading to predictable end results.  If it can manage to combine the larger elements with some nuance, then it may just hit a home run yet.

Catch Terra Nova on Monday nights on Fox at 8/7c.



One Comment

  1. Childs

    October 7, 2011 at 5:34 pm

    I think the problem with this show is the character story lines are not on par with the universe they’ve created. I want to see more of the world, not some punk kid being mad at his father for trying to protect his family. One second he doesnt want to leave earth prime because his father wont make it, and when he does and they are all together he turns into a twat. The rest of the family is likeable, but the son doesnt belong. He even seems like he must have been from a first marriage or something, as the daughters seem like they would have come from the parents, but not him. I really dont like that character. lol

    Hopefully Fox will give it some time to develop. They should be pot committed for at least 13 episodes.