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Terra Nova: TV Review

Jason O'Mara
FOX

The Bottom Line

For every eye-rolling appearance of a dinosaur causing Jurassic Park redux, there is a morsel of hope in some other, mythological strand that pops up in the pilot.

Airdate:

Sept. 26, 8 p.m. (Fox)

Cast:

Jason O'Mara, Shelley Conn, Landon Liboiron, Naomi Scott, Alana Mansour

The Fox show "will likely appeal to the entire family," writes Tim Goodman.

It might be impossible for Fox’s new drama series Terra Nova – one of the most hyped and anticipated of the fall – to either meet expectations or, more damning, its hoped-for Nielsen ceiling, but the show has a lot to get fans excited about. It’s ambitious in scope, has a likable, far-ranging cast and appears to be planting enough storylines to lure in fans who are having Lost withdrawal.

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The show only runs into trouble when it involves dinosaurs and, since Steven Spielberg is the main name attached to the program, will undoubtedly go Jurassic more often than not.

But before we get to the dinosaurs, we need to go into the future, where Terra Nova (premiering Sept. 26, 8 p.m. on Fox) is at its best.

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The series is set in the year 2149 and the world is suffering from overpopulation and an environmental disaster. People need help breathing. The air is choked with blackness. Plant and animal life are nearly extinct. Buildings are soot-stained. The government is brutally enforcing a two-child policy for every family. The Terra Nova scenes here have a faint Blade Runner quality to them.

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Right there, in those moments, is a series that a lot of people would want to watch. But the producers have chosen a different course.

See, the hook in Terra Nova is that desperate scientists discovered a “fracture in time,” a portal to the past. This is a tricky element to the series, but the main idea is that nine expeditions have so far been sent back in time – 85 million years in the past, to be precise – to what is being described as Terra Nova, a new civilization that just might be able to save the current one.

The producers explain that this new wormhole to the past isn’t allowing people from 2149 to retrace man’s steps (which would, given a wrong step, change the life course of everything that came after it). But what the ultimate purpose of Terra Nova is instead – providing safe haven for people in 2149 or somehow altering the course of history in some other way is unclear.

Not frustratingly unclear, but excitedly unclear. A series like this needs intrigue. Terra Nova the place is kind of like a utopian do-over – a chance for new age pioneers to go back in time and get it right.

The show ostensibly revolves around Jim Shannon (Jason O’Mara), his wife Elisabeth (Shelley Conn) and their kids Josh (Landon Liboiron),  who is 17, Maddy (Naomi Scott), who is 15 and Zoe (Alana Mansour). If you’ve been paying attention, you know that’s one child too many in 2149. Even though Jim is a cop and Elisabeth is a trauma surgeon, there is no leniency when they’re found out. Jim is put in jail for two years for resisting arrest. When he finds out, in prison, that Elisabeth has been selected for the 10th Pilgrimage to Terra Nova (most people are in a lottery and getting to go is like saving your own life), Jim is ecstatic until he finds out the government will only let Josh and Maddy go with her. They hatch a plan to break out Jim, who hatches his own plan to bring Zoe along and, well, chaos ensues.

Again, that’s the part of Terra Nova that is most intriguing. Here’s hoping they return there for some parts of the show (although they don’t in the two-hour pilot).
Once the family gets to Terra Nova, they meet the settlement leader, Commander Taylor (Stephen Lang, Avatar), who was part of the 1st Settlement. Even though he’s brusque and militaristic, the Shannon family is settling into their rather spacious new digs and learning to enjoy the clean air and clear skies of Terra Nova.

And then things get odd. The reason Terra Nova is a gated community – big gates – is that there are some very vicious dinos outside the gates. And in a nice Mad Max-ish twist, there are some renegade forces out there as well, trying to take down Terra Nova. They are the Sixers – so called because they came in the 6th Pilgrimage.
This is another welcome element to Terra Nova. Who sent the Sixers from the future? Why do they want to kill Taylor and stop Terra Nova?

The pilot has a few other welcome twists as well. And then there are the dinosaurs, who play a major part in the two-hour pilot. Their presence makes Terra Nova feel like Jurrasic Park meets Avatar.

That’s not a good thing.

Both of those movies were sappy. Plus, they’ve been done. Cobbling bits of them for a TV show is not exactly progress.The dinosaur CGI is probably better than the dinosaur CGI of just a few years ago, but you never think, "Boy, that's a dinosaur that's coming after these people." Although it would be nice if Terra Nova kept its futuristic elements and grit, it’s pretty clear that this is going to be a family show. The writers have given entry points for pre-teens, teens and soft-hearted, family types. Nothing wrong with that other than it cuts the edgier elements right out.

However, for every eye-rolling appearance of a dinosaur causing Jurassic Park redux, there is a morsel of hope in some other, mythological strand that pops up in the pilot.

Which means that, yes, you should definitely jump on this bandwagon. Terra Nova will likely appeal to the entire family. And if it can keep up the mystique, may satisfy the sci-fi crowd as well. There is a lot of potential in this series. It’s just a shame that it appears to be veering away from something completely different – something darker and more sci-fi and ambitious, and settling into the feel-good, be-safe vibes of both Jurassic Park and Avatar. Given the numbers those films pulled in, it’s no wonder Spielberg probably thinks that’s the sweet spot of the series.

But there’s a hole post-Blade Runner that could be filled on television – with lots of awesome sauce poured on top – and it’s a little disappointing to realize that window probably closed at the middle point of this pilot.

The advice here is stick with Terra Nova in hopes it avoids repeating for the small screen what we’ve already seen on the big one.

Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine