'Terra Nova'

Brook Rushton/Fox

Darker elements of the new sci-fi drama outshine the dinosaurs. Here's hoping the show avoids repeating on the small screen what we've seen on the big one.

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 excited about.

It's ambitious in scope, has a likable, far-ranging cast and appears to be planting enough storylines to lure fans who are having Lost withdrawal.

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 is at its best.

The series is set in the year 2149. 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 scenes here have a faint Blade Runner quality to them.

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 so far have been sent back in time -- 85 million years in the past, to be precise -- to what is described as Terra Nova, a new civilization that just might be able to save the current one.

The producers explain that this wormhole isn't allowing people from 2149 to retrace man's steps (which would, given a wrong step, change the course of everything that came after it). Still, what the ultimate purpose of Terra Nova is now -- providing a 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 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), 15; and Zoe (Alana Mansour), 5. 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 to have broken the two-child quota. Jim is put in jail for two years for resisting arrest. When he finds out from prison that Elisabeth has been selected for the 10th Pilgrimage to Terra Nova (most people are chosen by lottery, and getting to go is like saving your life), Jim is ecstatic, until he finds out the government will only let Josh and Maddy go with her. They all hatch a plan to break out Jim, who hatches his own plan to bring Zoe along and, well, chaos ensues.

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, the brusque and militaristic Commander Taylor (Stephen Lang of Avatar), who was part of the 1st Settlement.

The Shannon family settles into their new digs and is learning to enjoy the clean air and clear skies, and then things get odd. Terra Nova is a gated community -- big gates -- because there are some very vicious dinos outside, and in a nice Mad Max-ish twist, there also are some renegade forces out there, trying to take down the colony. They are the Sixers -- so called because they arrived 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 dinosaurs play a major part in the two-hour pilot. Their presence makes Terra Nova feel like Jurassic Park meets Avatar. But that's not a good thing. Both of those movies were sappy and have been done. Cobbling bits of them for a TV show is not exactly progress. Although the dinosaur CGI is probably better than the dinosaur CGI of a few years ago, you never think, "Boy, that's a dinosaur coming at these people!"

It would be nice if Terra Nova kept its futuristic elements and grit, but it's pretty clear this is going to be a family show. The writers have given entry points for preteens, teens and soft-hearted, family types. Nothing wrong with that, but it cuts the edgier elements right out.

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

Which means that you should definitely jump on this bandwagon. Terra Nova likely will appeal to the entire family. And if it can keep up the mystique, it might 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 Jurassic Park and Avatar. Given the numbers those films pulled in, Spielberg probably thinks that's the sweet spot of the series.

But there's a post-Blade Runner hole that could be filled on television, and it's a little disappointing to realize that window probably closed at the middle point of this pilot.

And yet, 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.

Airdate Sept. 26 at 8 p.m. (Fox)
Cast Jason O'Mara, Shelley Conn, Stephen Lang
Executive producers Brannon Braga, Rene Echevarria, Craig Silverstein, Steven Spielberg