FOX’s Terra Nova has already been in the spotlight for its massive budget (its pilot budget stands somewhere around $20 million) and for multiple changes to its premiere date due to post-production issues. But the Speilberg-produced sci-fi giant finally made its premiere Monday night.
Now it’s hard to know exactly how involved executive producer Steven Spielberg actually was in terms of production, but the final product reeks of the classic Spielbergian family drama. Terra Nova strongly echoes previous Spielberg products, by attempting to ground fantastical “movie magic” premises in relatable family drama.
In this case, our story opens on the Shannon family living in a dystopian future—the year 2149 to be exact—where people have to wear re-breathers just to be able to breathe the Earth’s air. It seems that humanity has little time left. But wait! There’s this time rift thingy that we don’t really feel like explaining or even acknowledging as anything other than a plot contrivance because, well, we just wanna get to the dinosaurs, don’t we? The time rift sends the Shannons back some tens of millions of years to the era of the dinosaurs. DINOSAURS! Are you excited yet? They arrive at Terra Nova, a colony from the future aiming to rebuild humanity anew, and to shoot rifles at lots of dinosaurs and stuff.
Terra Nova’s large-scale sci-fi plot is like nothing else on TV. The production values are top notch for network television, but there’s really no telling what kind of a series it will be. The 2-hour premiere episode feels more like its own closed off film than a demonstration of what the series will be like on a weekly basis. There are many directions in which Terra Nova can go in future episodes, some more appealing than others.
The biggest problem with Terra Nova in its debut is its central family. From a writing standpoint, the Shannons are the prototypical Spielberg movie family: the man who works to do anything for his family; the cute, doe-eyed daughter who represents the endless possibility of the future; the angsty teenage son; etc. The characters are drawn in broad archetypes, not helped by the generally wooden performances from Jason O’Mara and Landon Liboiron in the father and son roles respectively. The family scenes felt stiff while Brian Tyler’s bombastic score constantly blared to do the work the actors couldn’t pull off.
Terra Nova’s future is unclear. In addition to the focus on the Shannon family, we are introduced to the possibility of a larger mythology concerning Terra Nova camp leader Nathaniel Taylor (Stephen Lang, who, by the way, played this exact role in Avatar) and a rival colony known as “the sixers.” Taylor regularly fights off these hostiles (if they really are hostiles) while trying to keep some mysterious equations scribbled on rocks hidden from the rest of Terra Nova.
So is Terra Nova a serialized, mythology based sci-fi show in the vein of Lost (a show from which Nova also heavily borrows)? Or is it a family drama framed within the backdrop of a society in the process of rebuilding itself? Or is it a roller-coaster action adventure show about survival in a world of hostile beasts? Terra Nova seems to want to be all of these things, most likely because FOX needs the show to appeal to various demographics.
Hopefully series creators Craig Silverstein and Kelly Marcel will focus the show to fully commit to one tone. If they want a Spielberg-type family-oriented adventure ride, then why waste time dangling clues about an overarching mythology? If they want a more Lost-y serialized mystery sci-fi show, why play really loud and cheesy music while the Shannons tell each other they love each other for the five hundredth time? Either direction the show goes in is fine as long as the show fully commits to it. Terra Nova wants to have its cake and eat it too, but for this sci-fi giant to get to the next level, it needs to narrow down and focus its storytelling.