Terra Nova: Fight the Future

In the future, everything is gross. Is the future ever awesome? No, never. It’s craptacular. Even when the future manages to be utopian instead of dystopian, it’s a safe bet there are a bunch of jerks living underground who eat the utopian people. In the premiere of Fox’s Terra Nova, it’s 2149 and the Earth is overpopulated, overpolluted and on the verge of environmental and societal collapse. They haven’t explained why or how it got that way yet, but I’m going to assume the Tea Party had something to do with it.

In the middle of this brown and smoggy version of Coruscant, we meet the Shannon family, who are all very attractive. Jim (Jason O’Mara) is a cop and a total DILF. Mom Elisabeth (Shelley Conn) is a doctor, and while she’s also a hottie, I haven’t yet decided if she deserves such a sexy husband. We’ll see. Kids include angry teenaged Josh (Landon Liboiron), brainy tween Maddy (Naomi Scott) and adorable Zoe (Alana Mansour). Wait, that’s three kids. Helpful billboards around Coruscant tell us that “A Family Is Four.” The Shannons may be very attractive, but they’re still filthy law-breaking criminals in the eyes of the population police, who show up on their doorstep pretty quickly.

I’m impressed that they were able to hide the pregnancy, birth and first 2-3 years of the kids’ life. I’m guessing she gets shoved in the ventilation system a lot. This time, however, their luck runs out. The population police find the kid, and dad goes nuts and ends up in prison, where it’s even suckier than the rest of the sucky world they live in, which is fair, I guess. It is prison, after all. Just as things get as dystopian as they can, Elisabeth finds a possible way out: Terra Nova.

Twenty-two years ago, a fracture in time was discovered, leading to 85 million years in the past. It’s a different timeline, though, so anything that happens in the past won’t affect the current timeline. Seen as an escape from the craptastic future, they start sending waves of pilgrims back in time to start over, breathe some fresh air and run from dinosaurs. If given the choice between dying of lung cancer in the future or being eaten by a raptor in the past, I’m not sure what I’d choose. I am a total dino geek, yet I could at least watch TV while dying of lung cancer. As for the big meteor heading their way? They’ve got about 20 million years to build a big laser to shoot it out of the sky.

The other question I have is purely political, and it could very well get explained as the series goes on. They tell us that admittance to the Terra Nova program is done by lottery and recruiting. The Shannons are recruited because mom’s such a kick-ass doctor. Realistically, though, if you’re on the Titanic and it’s sinking fast, you’re not going to find a bunch of random lottery winners in the life boats. Those boats are going to be full of the most powerful, wealthy and influential. So, I’m curious what logic is behind the benevolence of the lottery. Or are people being sent back to build the infrastructure, so the powerful can just stroll in and take over when it’s done? Plus, does the US own the time fracture? It’s that sort of nitty gritty detail that I crave in sci-fi.

Anyway, back to the story. Mom helps dad break out of prison in time to join the family on their excursion to the past. Things don’t go as smoothly as they’d planned, of course, and there are some genuinely tense, emotional and exciting moments as the family makes their way through the portal and back in time. The past is lush, green and gorgeous, and before you can say Pandora, guess who shows up? Yes! The hot military daddy from Avatar (Stephen Lang)! Here, he’s playing Commander Taylor, and he welcomes the new people to Terra Nova with an impressive rippling of his triceps. Plus, instead of throwing the Shannons and their illegal, but adorable child into the slammer, he offers them a second chance.

I will tell you right now, there is some crazy hot chemistry going on between Jim and Taylor. Things could get freaky in the Cretaceous, if you know what I mean. Taylor puts Jim to work clearing weeds off the anti-dino sonic fence, and Jim, being hot and sexy, takes his shirt off, as Taylor watches his every prehistoric move via binoculars. Yabba dabba do him!

Up until this point, the show has done a remarkably good job with the exposition, keeping it light, tight and subtle. That falls apart a little in the second act, as Maddy establishes herself as Exposition Sister. She explains the timestream stuff, the dinosaur stuff, the food stuff, etc. She’s the Lisa Simpson of Terra Nova. Josh, meanwhile, thinks that maybe people have been missing Tyler from V, so he quickly takes on the mantle of the most annoying teenage boy in the history of this timeline or any other. He refuses to go to orientation, because, you know, “We’re 85 million years in the past. So?” He meets some other rebel teens and they go joy-riding outside the safety of the compound. Genius. He drinks, he skinnydips (which he’s really bad at, since he keeps all his clothes on), and he stays out way too late and gets stranded in the middle of a pack of slashers (aka punk rock raptors). His rescue makes up the third act of the premiere. 

But a teenaged rebel without a clue isn’t the only problem in Terra Nova. There’s also a roving band of Terra Nova expats called the Sixers. They were part of the sixth pilgramage, and they’re not so happy with Taylor nor Terra Nova. Who they are, who sent them and what they know promise to be the season-long (or series-long) mystery to be solved by the Shannons. Honestly, even with all the annoying Josh stuff, I’m still intrigued and want to know more about the fracture, the Sixers, the timestream, Taylor’s attraction to Jim, plus all the dinos.

And what about the dinos? Terra Nova was supposed to air earlier this summer, but was delayed so the special effects could be polished. The dinosaurs make brief, cost-effective appearances, and it’s surprisingly enough. They’re not the point of the story anyway, just an additional obstacle in the environment. The effects aren’t stellar, but they’re good for network television and are slightly better than any of the CG stuff you’d see on Doctor Who, Primeval or anything on the Discovery Channel.

What’s really plaguing the show is the overall sense of familiarity and predictability. The story of a family (or any Earthicans) trying to start over in a new environment has been told time and time again for the past 85 million years. Television has also been keen to put people on islands or on space ships or in tree houses, all for a chance at renewal and adventure. This time, there are definitely political implications to the relaunch of civilization. In his welcome speech to the new arrivals, Taylor promises a new dawn of civilization, without the ignorance and vice that led to its destruction in the future. But how do you weed out the ignorant and the wicked? How do you remove that from human nature? As the Shannons have already discovered upon their arrival, you can’t. There are still thieves, rebels and stupid teenagers, even in paradise. But at least it’s pretty there.

One more thing I’d like to acknowledge, because I’m always complaining about it, is casting. How many times have I called for more females of color in these kinds of roles and shows. I’m pleased to report that the cast is refreshingly multi-cultural, and two leading female roles, including Elizabeth and Mira (the leader of the Sixers), plus the two Shannon daughters, plus one of the teen rebels, are all played by women of color. That is awesome, and it also adds a layer of depth to the conflict between Taylor’s benevolent dictator and Mira’s band of renegades.

Even with the sense of familiarity, the sort of imagination and questions a show like this inspires is enough to keep me tuning in for a few more episodes, at least.

Terra Nova airs Mondays on Fox at 9/8c. The premiere, “Genesis,” is available for free on iTunes. 

Read all of FBOTU’s Terra Nova recaps, 85 million years in the making, here! Enjoy!

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