Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Long-Awaited Terra Nova

After what seemed like years since it was first announced that Steven Spielberg was producing a television show about a family that travels back to the time of the dinosaurs (okay, it technically was indeed a few years ago), Terra Nova finally premiered. 

Here are my thoughts on the first episode, "Genesis."  (Warning: Spoilers ahead.)

The opening scenes set in the future were quite good, showing a world that is every environmentalist's worst fear realized -- a barren, arid globe with pollution so thick the moon is hidden from view.  Yet, technology seems to have advanced, so some resources must still exist to power all those cool-looking electronic devices -- digital identity scanners; thumb-sized super-powerful lasers that can be used to break out of a high-security prison; Blade Runner-esque giant video billboards towering over futuristic cityscapes; and the key plotpoint: an alternate-timeline-hopping transportation portal.  I hope we have the chance to see more of this dystopian world in future episodes.

The Shannon family is selected to participate in the latest pilgrimmage (we learn that there have been nine prior ones) to the prehistoric past in what seems to be an effort to start fresh and repopulate the earth.  Time travel tales are usually wrought with paradoxes and plot holes galore, but the writers circumvent those storytelling hurdles by making it a journey to an alternate reality rather than the place in Earth's past that can change the course of history.  So that hellish future seems to be unable to be altered and the purpose of the mission apparently is to find a new home.  Hints are given, however, that the true purpose of the project might have an altogether different goal. 

The alternate reality scenario is a good one, allowing the writers more liberty without having to tread carefully around the "butterfly effect" hypothesis that could feasibly erase the future from which the pilgrims come.  It also possibly nullifies the upcoming threat of a mass extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs.  It arguably enables the showrunners not to worry about being completely scientifically accurate with the true stars of the show, the "terrible lizards," and maybe even feature some new ones. 

Apparently, Steven Spielberg has decreed that no dinosaurs from his Jurassic Park movie series be used in Terra Nova, hoping to differentiate the two franchises.  Even though we don't technically see a Tyrannosaurus Rex, a Velociraptor, or a Brachiosaurus, we do see the very similar but smaller T-Rex cousin, the unnamed "Slashers,"  and the Apatosaurus. If you like dinosaurs stomping around, this is the show for you -- the effects might not be big screen motion picture caliber (especially week after week), but they're better than the decent British TV show Primeval and head-and-shoulders above past dino depictions on television (like Land of the Lost or the more recent Dino Dan.)

Jason O'Mara is great as the flawed hero Jim Shannon.  Like William Shatner's Captain Kirk or Bill Bixby's David Banner, he brings volatility and emotion to the role -- unpredictable passion that can often get him into trouble even if his heart is in the right place.  Stephen Lang does a fine job as Nathaniel Taylor, even if the part is eerily similar to his performance as Miles Quaritch on Avatar.  The rest of the cast holds its own, considering they will be upstaged every week by those computer-generated dinosaurs. 

The show takes some interesting turns as we see conflicts with another warring faction made up of earlier pilgrims and some intriguing rock inscriptions.  Unlike Lost, the writers reveal right away by the end of the first episode some of their secrets, but more mysteries pile up.  Plus, they do their best to address the questions that sci-fi nerds like me will ask, such as, "How do the pilgrims avoid becoming ill from the prehistoric bacteria that their bodies are not accustomed to combat?"  (The answer is they drink some enzyme beverage -- problem solved.)

The expensive pilot episode did its job and enticed me to tune in again.  The premise of the show demands high production values and good special effects.  Viewers will no doubt want to see those promised dinosaurs in action.  The fate of the series will lie, as always, on the quality of the storytelling and the development of the characters.

Terra Nova airs on the FOX network every Monday night.

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