Terra Nova: The past’s so bright, I gotta wear shades

TerraNova

In uncertain, frightening times, it’s always been human nature to hark back to a better, brighter past. Heck, that’s virtually the mantra of the Republican Party. Thus it was that, in a world choked by overpopulation and pollution, a group of scientists and idealists hatched a plan. With time travel tech, they would project a select group of humans back to an unspoiled Earth in a Golden Age before humanity evolved to wreck everything, and give them a second chance to remake the world.

Sound familiar? That’s right, it’s the plot of 1973 Doctor Who story Invasion of the Dinosaurs. But fast forward to 2011 and it’s also the plot of glossy, expensive new Fox TV show Terra Nova, the first two-part story of which was shown on Sky last night. Evidently someone at Fox remembered Invasion of the Dinosaurs. Equally evidently, they remembered how terrible the dinosaurs in it actually looked, and went running to Steven Spielberg – after all, Jurassic Park was pretty popular, so that guy must know how to do dinosaurs, right?

Onboard as executive producer, with Amblin Entertainment getting a co-production credit, Spielberg must have had some creative influence here. Unfortunately, like previous Spielberg ventures into the world of television, Terra Nova is a case where throwing lots of money at the production is no substitute for originality and decent writing. It’s exciting enough, but so formulaic it could have been written by a computer. Or, as in the case of this opening story, by a team of four writers – and drama writing by committee is never a good idea.

Unlike Invasion of the Dinosaurs, which took the view that our present world was nasty enough to want to escape from, Terra Nova opens in “The 22nd Century”, which anyone would want to escape from since it’s basically a Greatest Hits compilation of every sci-fi dystopia you ever saw. There are vast, sprawling high rise cities (like in Blade Runner), choked by overpopulation (like in Soylent Green) and pollution (like in No Blade of Grass and, er, Soylent Green again). Families live crammed into one room apartments, into which at any moment black-clad secret police (like in Blake’s 7) may burst to search for illegal third children (like in Zero Population Growth). They’re only lucky they’re not being troubled by rebellious super-intelligent apes.

One of the illegal families is Chicago’s Shannon family. The Shannon family are like a perfect combination of every stock character American TV can offer. Dad Jim (the stolidly bland Jason O’Mara, last seen in the equally bland US version of Life on Mars) is a cop. Mum Elizabeth (Shelley Conn out of Casualty and Mistresses, thankfully allowed to retain her British accent) is a doctor. They have a rebellious teenage son, Josh (Landon Liboiron out of Degrassi: The Next Generation, and a more studious shy teenage daughter, Maddy (Naomi Scott out of… nothing I’ve seen, actually). The only way they could be a more perfect balance of stock TV characters would be if illegal third child Zoe (Alana Mansour) was a lawyer. Which she isn’t, thankfully, because as a five-year-old she has too much integrity.

Having established the most formulaic TV family they could find (compared to these guys the Robinsons out of Lost in Space were punk heroes), the writers then have Jim put in jail for a couple of years for illegally fathering a third child. It seems odd that the child itself isn’t punished by say, death, as would be logical in such a dystopia, but that kind of darkness has no place in such a breezy family show. After two years, his wife comes to visit and drops him a laser cutting device inside a thoughtful present. Plainly the guard haven’t been watching enough prison movies, as this age-old cliche has Jim out of the futuristic hi-tech prison by the next scene. Stopping just long enough to exchange a conveniently available large sum of cash for his little daughter stuffed inside a backpack, he hotfoots it to join his family.

Because all of this – the stock family, the dystopia, the not-as-good-as-Blade Runner CGI metropolis – is just the setup. Jim’s family have been selected to join the “Tenth Pilgrimage”, the tenth group of humans to take advantage of an oh so convenient time anomaly that can take them on a one way trip to the Cretaceous period. Casually knocking aside a few suspicious (and inept) security guards, Jim joins his family in leaping through something that is presumably legally distinct from the Stargate, and hey presto! they’re in dino world.

Because that’s really the point of Terra Nova. There’s nostalgia, there’s science fiction, but most importantly, there’s bloody huge dinosaurs. With the recent re-release of Jurassic Park, and the neverending slew of dino-related shows that have dominated the airwaves since its 1993 debut, this is clearly still very marketable. What better then, than to have a safely formulaic sci fi drama in which you can have guns, jeeps, timey-wimey complexity and dinosaurs? Oh wait, that’s Primeval.

Terra Nova is presumably far more expensive than Primeval, but the CG dinos on display here are of very varying quality. The first we see are (exactly as in Jurassic Park) a herd of brachiosaurs, as little Zoe feeds them over the fence of the settler’s vast compound. And yes, they’re as unconvincing as the ones in Jurassic Park, where they were one of the worse effects. Later, we see some jeeps being chased by carnosaurs which blend into the rest of the picture less than convincingly. Somewhat better are the ‘slashers’ which besiege the rebellious teens of the settlement in a jeep in the second half of the story; this is because, wisely, they’re only partially shown in the darkness.

So it’s fifty-fifty on how good the dinosaurs are, already a bad sign in a show which has them as its raison d’etre. Unfortunately, the ‘thriller’ aspect of the plot is as formulaic as the family that form its main characters. There’s a dissident group of earlier settlers, the ‘Sixers’ (from the sixth group sent back in time), who control the local mineral supplies and are in a Cold War situation with the main camp. Why their controlling the minerals should be a problem is less than clear, as stuff seems to be getting sent back from the future all the time. But apparently it is a problem, and there’s more out there – camp commandant Nathaniel Taylor has a Big Secret. His son has been missing for years, but he seems curiously unconcerned. Could he have anything to do with the rather incongruous geometric graphs and equations seemingly scratched into the rock of the local waterfall some years ago? What could they mean? And have the Sixers been deliberately sent back to cause trouble by persons unknown in the 22nd century?

Unfortunately, with characters and writing this formulaic, it’s hard to care. Predictably, within hours of arriving at the settlement, rebellious Josh has sneaked off to the world outside the fence with the local teens and gotten into trouble. Dad Jim has saved the life of Colonel Taylor from a Sixer and been hired as a cop, and shy daughter Zoe has already pulled a hunky young army type who popped round to see if she was ok. And of course, there’s plenty of learning about how great families are, as Jim builds bridges with Zoe after his two year absence and struggles to bond with Josh as his daddy issues cause him to rebel, while Josh realises that, hey, his dad and him aren’t so different after all.

Struggling with the nausea this all induced, I still found time to wonder about the temporal and causal implications of the concept overall. If our heroes succeed in making a new world in the past, won’t that mean that their future has never existed, and that therefore they themselves will never have been born to come back in the first place? Jon Pertwee would have just muttered something about the Blinovitch Limitation Effect, but here we’re told that, by a convoluted bit of reasoning, the settlers trip to the past has caused them to found an entirely new, separate timeline. Somehow they still must have links to our own though – otherwise how would anyone in the 22nd century know where the not-Stargate led to? This is glossed over, but since the narrative itself was so staggeringly predictable, it was this kind of thing that occupied my mind as I watched.

I must say, with the concepts and people involved, I didn’t have high hopes for Terra Nova. In the past, this has on occasion led to me being pleasantly surprised when my low expectations were surpassed. Here, though, I had the far worse sensation that this was even more bland and unoriginal than I expected. It’s saying something to comment that the similarly themed Primeval is, by dint of its own low standards and lack of pretension, far more fun for far less money. I’ll give Terra Nova a couple more episodes to see if things liven up, but I suspect that if I want to see this concept in the future, I’ll just watch Invasion of the Dinosaurs.