Last night's Terra Nova episode was a definite step forward in a few areas — but especially in the absolutely vital realm of giving us some stakes and a sense of just what the Sixers want to accomplish. The above moment, where Taylor finishes explaining to Jim Shannon just what happened with his son, and why he's kept it secret, is the closest this show has come in a long time to a "fuck yeah" moment, ending as it does with Shannon vowing to fight with Taylor. At last, Terra Nova has a bit of a mission statement.
After weeks of hearing that the Sixers are bad, bad people, and seeing that they mostly have bad fashion sense, we finally get a fairly simple explanation of what the Sixer agenda is. Turns out that certain powerful people in 2149 — evil megacorps and the like — want Commander Taylor's megagenius son Lucas to make the portal into a two-way tunnel, so that they can use it to funnel raw materials and supplies back to the future. They'll strip-mine paradise in exactly the same way Stephen Lang tried to in Avatar.
When Taylor saw what Lucas was up to and pulled the plug on his experiments, Lucas somehow contacted the future, and they sent Taylor's former mentor, a one-armed general, back in time to assume command of Terra Nova. (Although, why didn't the General simply come through on the Third Pilgrimage, in full view of everybody, making it much harder to deal with him?) The General tried to kill Taylor when he resisted the "palace coup," and Taylor was forced to kill his former friend. Then he banished Lucas — who kept drawing his equations for two-way time travel on rocks all over the place, taunting his dad.
In this episode, Shannon digs up the General's corpse, based on a tip from Quark while Quark is still locked up for working with the Sixers. And Shannon eventually figures out who the dead body was, and learns that Taylor buried the body secretly. So Taylor decides to frame Shannon as the Sixer spy, using Malcolmus' work on the "homing" dragonfly, so he can try and blackmail Shannon into dropping the whole business — because Taylor feels as though Terra Nova is "built on a lie" and the whole enterprise is probably doomed because Lucas is bound to succeed in creating a two-way conduit. (In fact, he probably already has, based on what we've already seen.)
The episode has a nice fake-out, in that you think that there are two plotlines — the search for the Sixer spy and Shannon investigating the dead body — that just happen to be climaxing at the same time, because that's how things happen on television. But in fact, the search for the Sixer spy has stalled out, because the spy has probably long since turned off his/her transmitter. All that's happening is that Taylor is trying to strong-arm Shannon, the way he strong-arms everybody.
It's a testament to Taylor's skill as a manipulator, as well as the fact that he actually does have a real reason for fighting, that he fails to blackmail Shannon — and yet he winds up having Shannon more on his side than ever. In fact, even though we learned a lot of unsavory stuff about Taylor this time around — he drugs prisoners, he sneaks around, he'll do anything to get his way — he winds up being a more sympathetic character now than he was in the past.
"Vs." was the work of Jose Molina, who also wrote the Firefly episodes "Ariel" and "Trash," among other good stuff. And he seems to have brought a bit more of a character-based focus to this episode, zeroing in on the Taylor-Shannon relationship in a fun way. All of a sudden, a lot of the characters are a bit funnier, and the Shannon kids talk to each other as if they're actual siblings. It's still cloyingly sweet, of course, but the cutesiness of Zoe Shannon dressing up as Nathaniel Taylor and giving fancy speeches is offset by the fact that we're learning just what a bastard Taylor actually is, at the same time.
Oh, and all of a sudden, I couldn't help noticing a 100 percent reduction in pouting and scowling from Josh Shannon. (He should be making nice, considering that he ought to be banished for what he did. People could have died.)
(Although one thing bugged me in this episode — was it just me or was the ADR especially bad? Any time you can't see a character's mouth on screen, their voices suddenly sound weird in this episode. It was like someone was mixing in a huge hurry, or cutting rather a lot of corners. Plus the CG dragonfly looked unusually cheap.)
All in all, this was a definite improvement — we told you back on Oct. 21 to "check back in a month" for Terra Nova to pick up a bit, and now it has. And now that we have an actual mission statement for this show — keep the bastards in the future from plundering the past — maybe that will lead to some more good storytelling? A lot of shows take most of their first season to hit their stride, so it's by no means too late to expect greatness (or at least goodness) from Terra Nova.