I went into Terra Nova without any dedication to the project. Don’t get me wrong—I’m no enemy to science fiction. But dystopian future society/time travel/dinosaurs/survivalism/apocalypse prevention seemed like a pile of all the winning sci-fi scenarios they could think of and in hopes the styles melded together well. It seemed all too convoluted, way too derivative, and not promising. But now, I see the potential in the series.
The opening scene sees family man and honest cop Jim Shannon (Jason O’Mara) bringing an orange home for his family to marvel over—natural fruits are a tremendous rarity in their 2149 society (immediately reminiscent of Soylent Green). Jim and his multi-doctorate wife Elizabeth (Shelley Conn) –and yes, her name is Elizabeth Shannon and I really hope I’m not the only person who finds that funny –are proud and loving parents to three kids. The stubborn but good-hearted Josh (Landon Liboiron), the awkward brainiac Maddy (Naomi Scott), and the three year-old Zoe (Alana Mansour), who, merely by existing, violates the society’s strict “two kids only” population control laws (reminiscent of The Giver). Jim and Elizabeth are forced to hide her when the tyrannical law enforcement who perform unsolicited apartment inspections (reminiscent, to varying degrees, of 1984, Logan’s Run, Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange…just about every future society is shown to have pretty rude policemen).
But somewhere around the 10-minute mark, the plot is set in place: the Shannons are going back in time to prehistory. Elizabeth visits Jim in jail to inform him of this (he has been there for two years for assaulting one of the cops who tried to remove Zoe—I don’t think it is ever explained how, during his arrest, Elizabeth managed to maintain custody of her illegal daughter, but whatever), and to devise a plan to break him out so that he, Zoe and the rest of the family can be part of the Terra Nova expedition project (Launch Number Ten, so this is becoming an increasingly prevalent part of society) and live together in a preferable time period where things like grass and light exist. Another ten minutes pass, and the goal is achieved. Through a little futuristic technology, some bribery, fancy footwork and double-talking, the Shannons are all sent back in time to the Terra Nova campsite of dinosaur times.
Up until this point, the series seems a bit schlocky. It hasn’t lost my interest yet, although this is more than anything due to the imaginative designs of future machinery and architecture. Jim’s trickery and knick-of-time-escapes from the fleets of armed security agents are nothing impressive. But then, we enter the world of Terra Nova (that’s what we’ll call the past, for all intents and purposes). And here’s where a bit of surprise comes in: the show starts to get good. Now, it’s not brilliant. The situations, conflicts and relationships are all still pretty derivative and the dialogue, more than anything, leaves something to be desired. So what is left to praise? Simply: the Spielbergity.
But first, it’s important to note that once the Shannons arrive back in Terra Nova time, the genius Maddy explains to her siblings that they are existing in an alternate linearity of time, which means they cannot prevent their own existence (or anything of the sort) with their actions. This will probably come up again…
I first noticed how much I liked this show during a pretty lighthearted scene wherein Jim, assigned to agriculture duty, is asked to take care of the weeding. Seeing as how plants are about nine hundred times the size of their future incarnations, this proves to be a more arduous task than he suspects. Jim perches atop a fence, hacking away at the trunks and branches of gigantic weeds—the direction handles this rhythmically and a little comically. It feels just like a movie — a moreover family-friendly adventure movie. And from this point on, this sentiment carries.
It carries through son Joshua’s rebellious resistance of his “been-away-too-long-to-deserve-my-respect” father. It carries when Joshua and some new Terra Novian friends, a bunch of wayfaring teenagers, head into the forbidden wilderness and take a look at the mysterious markings written on the rocks beside a waterfall.
It carries when Jim develops an unlikely camaraderie with Terra Nova’s de facto leader Nathaniel Taylor (Stephen Lang), the first of the time travelers who runs the society rigidly but more or less justly. Taylor doesn’t take a liking to the stowaway Jim immediately, but comes to respect him after Jim saves Taylor from a malicious gunman—a representative of the Six: members of the sixth time traveling crew who seemed to have come back to Terra Nova with hidden intentions; they live separate from the society now and often act as a terroristic militia. Nathaniel does seem to have some hint of a relationship with Six leader Mira (Christine Adams)—I’m going to go out on a limb and say that she’s the mother of his child, but that’s a huge leap in logic.
Speaking of which, Nathaniel alludes to his son having gone missing a few years back. We also learn at the end of the episode that his son is the one leaving the marks on the waterfall rocks, and that they somehow — and this is the really juicy part — are a type of code or key to the controlling stake of the past, present and future. So, you know, heavy stuff.
This is actually the aspect that really drives the pilot home. Throughout, we deal with the Shannons’ interfamily relationships: primarily, Jim trying to win over his son and, to a lesser extent, youngest daughter. We get to know the world a bit—Terra Nova is a socialistic (as far as my limited knowledge of what socialism really is can tell me) society wherein everyone “is pretty much provided for” (to quote Jim). Dinosaurs, both friendly and not, roam freely outside of the community fences (the long-necked leaf eaters have the opportunity to interact gently with some of the more trusting humans, i.e. young Zoe). The climax is a traditional father-rescuing-wayward-son adventure that we’ve seen in everything from Hook to The Day After Tomorrow (although are those two really all that different? I’m sure there is a better pair of examples of two extremes) when Jim, Elizabeth, Nathaniel and others head into the woods to save the gang of teens from carnivorous dinosaurs. We also get to see a budding romance between the nerdy Maddy and a hunky Terra Novian. So, after a pilot that is in large part setup, relationship establishment, and world introduction, the unveiling of a mystery at the end sort of makes it all worthwhile—not that it wasn’t a fun watch up until that point, but it does help to realize that there’s way more going on than we thought.
All in all, two things save the pilot: the mysterious ending (that seems to be a genuinely interesting mystery, and seems to possibly contest Maddy’s conclusion at the beginning of the episode about not being able to destroy the future, or anything), and the “cinemagic” of it all. Seeing as how Spielberg is behind the series, it shouldn’t have been so much of a surprise to feel like you’re back in your bunk bed in 1993, watching Jurassic Park and feeling both terrified and amazed by everything. A good choice was to show the differing degrees of familiarity with the new world. Jim and Elizabeth remember a healthier Earth from their childhood. Josh and Maddy are aware of the concept, but haven’t had any experience with it. And Zoe is enamored by this incredibly new phenomenon. The pilot is filled with magic like this—in scenes as simple as weed-cutting to those as grand as dinosaur-befriending. Sure, it has some kinks to work out (dialogue — please fix the dialogue), but above it all, this show is enjoyable.