With the Steven Spielberg name attached along with some fairly serious acting talent, dinosaurs, time travel and rumours of a budget in the millions per episode, Terra Nova seems like it might be the next big thing. It promised so much, yet the two-part series opener "Genesis" delivered so little.
The episode opens with a CGI ariel sweep across a smog-filled dystopian cityscape as the audience is introduced to the Shannon family: Jim (Jason O'Mara), Elisabeth (Shelley Conn), and their three children, Josh, Maddy and Zoe. However, the happy family is quickly torn apart in an altercation with the authorities; Zoe, the youngest Shannon sibling, is 'illegal' because of a limit on the number of children per family. Two years later, Jim is in prison and the family faces permanent separation as Elisabeth has been recruited to join Terra Nova - a colony living 85 billion years in the past. Not only must she leave her husband but also her illegal youngest child. Action ensues and ultimately the family is reunited in the past.
The idyllic Terra Nova colony is run by Commander Nathaniel Taylor (Stephen Lang) who welcomes the newcomers with a stirring speech. The family starts to settle into their new life consisting of light, space and wholesome hard work. But paradise is not as perfect as it seems, with dangers and mysteries lurking in the jungle.
Like a new-born Bambi struggling to find his feet, Terra Nova stumbles clumsily as it establishes the characters and the rules of the fictional world they inhabit. The imprisonment of Jim and the resulting jail-break is tagged on simply to make the family's transit to the past more dramatic, yet an exploration of how the family might feel conflicted about going back in time is almost completely ignored, with only a fleeting goodbye between the eldest son, Josh, and his girlfriend to hint that it is anything other than an easy decision. As a result, "Genesis Part 1" falls flat and seems like an uncessary afterthought that represents opportunities missed in the rush to get to 'the dinosaur bit'.
"Genesis Part 2" is somewhat more successful, hinting at possible future plot developments and introducing 'The Sixers', a band of rebels who were once part of the Terra Nova colony, that have struck out on their own. There is a suggestion too, that Commander Taylor knows more than he is revealing and that there is a wider mystery to be solved. "Part 2" also introduces some potentially intriguing characters, including the leader of The Sixers, Mira (Christine Adams), and Skye, a young independant loner who lost her family to illness after coming to Terra Nova. To its detriment, however, the second episode continues some of the awkward storytelling of the first, as the audience is subjected to a chain of trite scenes, including the 'stroppy teen' scene and the 'feeding the Brachiosaur' scene. These meaningless, off-the-shelf storytelling modules occupy screentime that would have been better spent giving explanations for some of the characters' actions: even by the end of the second episode, it's unclear why a Jim and Elisabeth Shannon, a respected police officer and successful doctor, would break the law and have their third child. My only hope is that this, and other unanswered questions, might be explored in later episodes.
There are also a few wider problems that go beyond plot and characterisation. Unfortunately, Jurassic Park is so ingrained into pop-culture that it dominates the sub-genre. As a result, it's difficult to watch Terra Nova without expecting Jeff Goldblum to coming running out of the tree line with a flare in his hand. In addition, while Stephen Lang is an accomplished actor, in the same way that the ghost of Jurassic Park is ever-present, so the spectre of his character in Avatar hangs over Lang's performance. The character is, in many respects, very different - Taylor is less brutal and more developed than Avatar's Colonel Quaritch - but it is hard not to see the latter in Terra Nova. Similarly unsettling is the casting of Jason O'Mara as Jim Shannon. His face is now so closely associated with the failed US version of Life on Mars, that it's Sam Tyler on the screen instead of Jim Shannon. Only time will tell if Terra Nova is able to step beyond the shadow of it's bigger Jurassic brother, and if Lang and O'Mara are able to shake off their past performances to make their roles distinctive.
In one final disappointment, while the creatures of Terra Nova are brought to life using superb computer imagery this quality of CGI is strangely lacking in other areas; one particular scene used some of the worst green-screen effects of recent years and at times the experience was like watching a computer game rather than a big-budget TV show. Indeed, some of the CGI has more in common with Stargate SG:1 episodes from the late nineties, than with the bang-up-to-date effects used for the dinosaurs.
So all in all, a rather disappointing first outing for Terra Nova. However, none of its problems are insurmountible and it shows signs that it can improve. The concern is that if Bambi doesn't find his feet quick enough, he will face the axe. TV execs are reknowned for their lack of patience, which is particularly worrying if rumours about the amount of money being plowed into Terra Nova's production are accurate.
Terra Nova is currently being aired in the UK on Sky1 and Sky1HD on Mondays at 8pm
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