It must be getting harder to make new genre shows for television. Think about it for a moment and see if my point makes sense to you: suppose you're a TV creator and you've thought up an idea for a new sci-fi series set on a spaceship. Now you're going to be compared to Star Trek. What about a scientist that travels into the past? Quantum Leap fans are going to curse you out. Investigators of the paranormal? The X-Files did that a decade ago (though don't tell the Fringe guys – although they're doing OK by replacing the alien meme with parallel Earths.)
The point that I'm trying to make is that it's hard to be original, and the problem is that TV can't be too original either; if it's something never seen before then you’ve got a Twin Peaks, which works fine if you create Lost 15 years down the road, but not so good if you're David Lynch and Mark Frost.
The creators of Terra Nova obviously have wrestled at night with this dilemma. How to create a TV show that echoes themes from other popular shows but at the same time explores them in a new and novel way? Their approach was to take the coolest aspect of Jurassic Park – dinosaurs and humans together in the same space – but to add another sci-fi ingredient in the form of time travel. What if in our future the only way for the human race to survive was to send people to our distant past where there isn't any overpopulation, pollution, environmental collapse, food shortages, water wars and energy depletion? It kind of sounds like a cool place to begin a TV show, right?
In a nutshell, that's Terra Nova. It's not revolutionary television. There's no flash-forwards revealing character backgrounds like Lost, no weird black lodges for Agent Cooper to investigate and no fog-enshrouded Vancouver exterior set for Agents Scully and Mulder to search. Instead Terra Nova seems to be shaped like a western where we follow a pioneer family trying to make themselves a new life one hundred and fifty-four million years in our past. Instead of having to worry about Indians our settlers have to fret over the encroachment of dinosaurs. And there are other western tropes thrown into the mix, like a corrupt sheriff (here he's a military commander), a barter town atmosphere and hunting posses. However, if you were hoping for an Al Swearengen, a saloon and prostitutes then I'm sorry to say that those Deadwood elements aren’t included here – or at least not in the pilot's script.
As written by Kelly Marcel and Craig Silverstein, Terra Nova begins one hundred and fifty years from today. The world is teetering on total ecological collapse. Scientists have found a way to expand a crack in the fabric of space-time that exists only at a single spot on the planet (the Ozarks – hey, why not there?) where a singularity can be formed. At one end is the world as it exists in 2154 A.D. On the other side of the portal lies Fort Taylor, a colony established less than a decade ago that exists on the supercontinent of Pangaea in the distant prehistoric past. For nine trips colonists have embarked on a one-way trip to Terra Nova to start a new life, one where they can eat real food, breath in unpolluted air and have a chance to begin the human race again. The plan is for millions more of people to make the trip to Terra Nova from 2154 once more colonies have been established and the land cleared of dangerous predators.
For you science nerds out there already wondering how they get around the time travel paradox in Terra Nova, there's a bit of throwaway dialogue said by one of the main characters. By traveling to the past humans are in fact creating an alternate Earth, one that branches off of our own timeline. That means in non-geek speak that there's going to be no distant sound of thunder happening in Terra Nova; you can kill as many dinosaurs as you want and not mess up the future because in this world, it's a parallel Earth. Sorry Ray Bradbury.
Our hero is a man by the name of Jim Shannon, a former bad boy who's done some time in the joint but who is now trying to be a straight and proper family man. The problem is that Jim has to bend the rules a bit to bring all of his family with him to Terra Nova and it gets him in a little bit of hot water with the military leader of Fort Taylor, Commander Taylor. Once Jim and his family get to the past, they and the rest of the thousand immigrants soon realize that life in Fort Taylor is a little more harder and meaner than they expected. The Commander, who everyone back in 2154 figures was killed by dinosaurs years ago, has taken control of the settlement from the General who everyone back in the future still thinks is in command. Taylor tells the new troops that he's had to take charge because the animals here in the past are a lot more aggressive than everyone expected, and without his leadership, there would be a lot more dead civilians. To back up his statement Taylor claims that all of the settlements outside of Fort Taylor have been overrun by dinos. A nice hungry pteranodon then decides to swoop down and pluck off a colonist, proving Taylor’s point that the pest control problem is an issue around here.
Shannon, his wife and children try to find their place in Fort Taylor. Each of the two older Shannon children look for jobs where they can earn barter points used for clothing, tools or more food. Shannon’s oldest child is Josh and he wants to join the Raptors, supposedly the best hunting clan for young men to show off that they're the top of the food chain. Maddy, Josh's younger sister, takes the social route and soon finds out that there’s an underground of people that don't like the military dictatorship Taylor is running, and they suspect that all of what the commander is telling the residents isn’t on the up-and-up. Hey, no kidding, even in the future people have seen Avatar!
There's a central action piece in the pilot where we see firsthand how dangerous going outside the compound (which is surrounded by mines) really is. Of course, this being a sci-fi series made after Babylon 5 and The X-Files there are two mysterious elements introduced in the pilot that seem to be set up for long-form storytelling. All isn't as it seems outside Fort Taylor and the dinosaurs may hold an unusual secret as well.
Reading a pilot like Terra Nova at this stage is a lot like looking at the recipe list for your dinner and then being asked to imagine what it'll taste like. As with all my script reviews you must bear in mind that things are in creative flux until the show is broadcast. Last minute script alterations to the storyline, casting decisions, the showrunner's opinion, the studio's opinion and a hundred other influences can have bearing on how a pilot bakes and turns out. Look at last summer's Virtuality, the show that was co-created by Battlestar Galactica's Ron Moore. Its two hour premise: a crew heads out of our solar system to check out a nearby star because humanity needs a new place to live. It introduced a Big Mystery (the virtual reality system seemed to contain something sinister), it gave us a long-term hook to follow (can people stay sane cooped up within the confines of a spaceship for a decade) and it did something novel from a creative point-of-view: it killed off the hero character at the end of the show. Unfortunately for all of its creative assets and entertaining execution of its story Virtuality never got picked up for a series commitment by Fox (ironically, the same broadcaster making Terra Nova).
But there's nothing extraordinary about Marcel and Silverstein's script, nor is there anything weak about it. So much of what will show us whether Terra Nova is a good show to follow will come in the following weeks when the show’s mythology is built. We've seen stock villains like Taylor before, so we understand immediately the hard situation that Jim Shannon finds himself in. But what will the show’s team of writers do to give us something more with Taylor and his command? Will the writers be creative and show us that perhaps there are things happening in Earth’s past 154 million years ago that we never expected to see? From a science point of view, little things like having a different, heavier atmosphere might make a huge difference in how humans adjust to living in Terra Nova. The moon should also be closer to the planet and that should have some bearing on life on the world. The question of what kind of never before seen dinosaurs and plant life on the outside of the Fort should also come into play at some point, if the writing team wants to build on the concept of a whole new world.
FlashForward had a similar potential when it was aired last season. Unfortunately that show's creative team couldn’t capitalize on where to take the series and its hook and now it's not coming back. With Terra Nova the hook to get you to look at it will be the dinosaurs, but the long term strategy to convert those initial viewers into people that become fans is to build the world of Terra Nova and the characters. Wouldn't it be unexpected if one of the show's characters was brought up with the religious belief that there shouldn’t be dinosaurs and an Earth millions of years old? How would confronting the reality of that situation change the person and their faith? There’s a nugget in the Terra Nova pilot where this direction could be introduced and perhaps it's in the minds of the show's makers.
Steven Spielberg is an executive producer on this thing and that will get the show mentioned in the press when it's closer to air time. John Cassar, producer of 24, is also an exec producer on Terra Nova along with FlashForward/Star Trek: Next Generation's Brannon Braga. On the casting front Jason O'Mara from the US version of Life on Mars has been cast as Jim Shannon, and I think he's a good choice for the character's good and bad boy qualities.
Bottom line: it’s an OK pilot, Lost in Space meets Jurassic Park by way of time travel. The pilot will air next spring, likely in May or June, and the series hits Fox in the fall of 2011. That gives the show’s makers plenty of time to assemble a writing staff that starts to think about fleshing out the backgrounds of the characters and the Terra Nova world. This show can't rely on giving us the dinosaur of the week; it needs to be more than that. Build it out. Give us more to care about seeing than dinos wanting to eat people. Don't be afraid to be unconventional and break the occasional creative rule when it serves the story.
And show me a plesiosaur. I want to see one of those guys swimming in the ocean since I was four-years-old.