'Terra Nova': Will Fox's Dino-Sized Gamble Pay Off?

Brook Rushton/Fox
"Terra Nova"

Steven Spielberg’s time-traveling new series is one of the TV season’s most ambitious and most expensive, and the network is banking on their big bet.

Steven Spielberg and dinosaurs? What's not to love?

That's what Fox is betting on -- and betting big -- when its new series Terra Nova debuts Monday night.
The high-concept story of a world set both 85 million years in the past and nearly 140 years in the future comes to life with a two-hour premiere that has almost as many twists and turns as the drama’s creative path to the screen.

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Monday’s two-hour debut alone has been pegged at a price tag between $10 million and $20 million, a fee Fox brass argues will be amortized over the course of the show's first season. While it’s likely the most expensive new series effort of the series, Fox brass argue it’s not the priciest series ever. What’s more, it’s international appeal will help subsidize the large sums the studio has shelled out.

In comparison, last year’s Boardwalk Empire bow cost HBO close to $18 million (though a $50 million price tag was rumored because of the show’s marquee names: Martin Scorsese directed star Steve Buscemi). Before Empire, ABC’s Lost held the spendy title, with reports citing J. J. Abrams’ sci-fi show cost between $10 and $14 million for its first episode, which featured plane crashes, CGI (remember that polar bear) a Hawaiian location shoot and a large ensemble cast. Unlike, Fox’s claims, the show’s spending didn’t decrease much over the course of its six-season run, each episode cost a reported $2.5 million to $2.8 million.

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But if you're expecting a straight rehash of Spielberg's blockbuster Jurassic Park, don't hold your breath. The series is set in the Cretaceous period, not the Jurassic period. As producer, Spielberg made sure Terra Nova's dinos were distinct from his own big screen rampaging herd.

"He didn’t want people to see a show affiliated with his name where they follow the same dinosaurs they saw in Jurassic Park -- like a T. rex running around,” said Brannon Braga, who shares showrunner duties with Rene Echevarria.

Spielberg also made his influence felt on one key bit of casting, picking Avatar's Stephen Lang to play paramilitary leader Nathaniel Taylor. "He was always an advocate of Stephen Lang -- and he was right," Braga says.

"It's an ambitious idea, but the small screen is no longer such a small screen," Justin Falvey, a co-head of DreamWorks TV and one of the series' nine executive producers, said of advancements in HD and visual effects technology. "Audiences want a filmgoing experience, and the budgets available for TV are letting us do that now. Five years ago, dinosaurs like this weren't possible."

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The network brought in studio counterpart 20th Century Fox Television and four months later Kaplan was told news that would change everything. Because of the size and scope of the project, the network was bypassing the traditional pilot stage and ordering a 13-episode season of Terra Nova – and that's when Spielberg and former News Corp. president and COO Peter Chernin joined as executive producers. (Spielberg would offer expertise in the era and special effects, while Chernin brought with him the experience in genre-defining television.)

After a series of behind-the-scenes comings and goings, and a pair of delays – the project was initially slated to premiere in January following American Idol but was pushed back, with executives noting the production was short on material and needed more time for complicated visual effects to be realized. A May preview was set and ultimately pushed back to September as the project lacked the emotional hook they’d hoped to achieve.

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The show's executive producer Rene Echevarria admitted that the pressure to deliver has subsided now that critics have screened the complete two-hour premiere and “we have something to talk about.”

“Before it was, ‘Why was it delayed?’” he told THR this month. “Now it’s, ‘Did you like the show?’ It’s a relief not to be there. The dye is cast, the show is what it is and people are either going to dig it or not.”

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Reviews so far have been positive, with THR’s chief television critic Tim Goodman saying the family drama “will likely appeal to the entire family” and “has a lot to get fans excited about.”
“It’s ambitious in scope,” he writes, “has a likable, far-ranging cast and appears to be planting enough storylines to lure in fans who are having Lost withdrawal.”

While production in Australia is nearly complete on the series’ initial 13-episode order, Echevarria says he hasn’t heard what the “magic number” the studio and network are looking for. “That takes getting somebody drunk,” he joked.
Whether Fox’s big, expensive gamble has paid off or not will start to come early Tuesday when Nielsen numbers come in - though a decision on its future will not be made until several weeks into the season. "The one thing I know for certain," Kaplan said, "is that there's nothing like it on television."
Lacey Rose contributed to this report.