The big promise of Steven Spielberg's Falling Skies was that we'd get to see people trying to rebuild society after an alien invasion. How would you start over, and what would you do differently? Those questions go to the heart of the larger issue of what makes a good society — which is sort of the ultimate political question.
Falling Skies had a hard time grappling with those issues, because the aliens were still invading, and the more interesting question was always going to be, "How do we fight back?" But now, Spielberg has a new show on the air, which is much more focused on the issue of building a new society from the ground up. In Terra Nova, the world has been trashed, as surely as if aliens had inflicted major damage on us. And a few people have the chance to go back in time and start afresh. What are the chances that we won't screw it up a second time?
If Terra Nova follows up on the themes explored in its two-hour pilot, airing Monday, it'll be the most political show on television. Spoilers ahead...
In Terra Nova, it's the future, and everybody's living in an old-school environmental dystopia, where you can't even go outside without a rebreather and nobody's even seen the sky in decades. It's not a "global climate change" apocalypse, more like one of those eco-nightmares from the 1970s, where pollution has rendered the world un-livable. It's like the future Earth in Avatar, except not deleted. And then scientists somehow create a crack in time, which leads back to the dinosaur era, and they start sending people back to colonize the past. (There is hand-waving to explain why changing the past doesn't affect the future. Best not to think about it.)
In the show's two-hour pilot, which you're going to see on Monday, we follow the Shannon family as they go back in time and adjust to their new surroundings, which have 100 percent less pollution and 100 percent more carnivorous dinosaurs. (Actually, the first 15-20 minutes deal with how the dad, Jim Shannon, gets sent to prison for having one child too many and punching a cop, and then escapes from prison, rescues the surplus child, and sneaks into the time tunnel to be with his family. This sequence is engineered to make you root for Jim, who's very much a sympathetic family man/action hero.)
In addition to the whole idea of the future environmental disaster which we humans caused with our greed and our worst impulses and our disrespect for the planet and so and and so forth, Terra Nova also has a lot of potential to explore questions about government and society. The time-traveling colonists (or "pilgrims") are trying to build a new eco-friendly civilization, to avoid making the same mistakes we made the first time around. And to some extent, the new settlement feels like a friendly Star Trek-y enlightened community.
The irony at the heart of Terra Nova is that this is a completely autocratic society, in which Nathaniel Taylor (the baddie from Avatar) wields absolute power. Your work assignments are determined by Taylor's whim, and all of the colonists pretty much live by Taylor's law — except for a splinter group, who are one of the big mysteries that's seeded in the opening episode. You wind up wondering if building a utopian world necessarily requires giving up some freedom — after all, Star Trek never showed us much democracy in the Federation, either.
Like Falling Skies, Terra Nova is predominantly a family show, about one man and his family. And all of the questions about society are going to wind up being filtered through the lens of keeping your children safe and keeping the family unit together. This is clearly a central Spielberg preoccupation, and Terra Nova advances it in very different ways than Falling Skies. Want to see how a society functions, and whether it's a worthwhile society or not? Look at how it treats its children.
In Terra Nova, the future is dystopian for a few reasons — but the one we hear the most about is the repressive two-kids-per-family rule. The utopian past seems a lot friendlier and more nurturing to kids — even if they do have the habit of wandering off and almost getting nommed by dinosaurs.
The big advantage Terra Nova has over Falling Skies is one of budget — Falling Skies originally set out to do a giant war movie, along the lines of Saving Private Ryan. But the big battle sequences all too often looked like they were happening on a tiny soundstage, and the CG was often a bit patchy. Terra Nova really does look freaking expensive, and especially the pilot has a very widescreen "summer tentpole" feeling, at least as far as the effects work goes. (And here's hoping they perfected some CG that they can keep using for the rest of the season.)
As I wrote when I watched the first hour of the pilot at San Diego Comic Con, the show's weakest link is the kids — especially the oldest, Josh, who's like Tyler from V on steroids. He's almost supernaturally whiny and annoying, and a lot of the pilot revolves around Josh making obviously dumb decisions that his dad has to rescue him from the consequences of. The good news is, the older Shannon daughter, Maddy, gets more engaging over the course of the two hours, and she's clearly set up to be the nerd of the family. She might actually wind up being one of our favorite characters.
But the strong point of the pilot, and I suspect the series overall, is the bromance between our hero, Jim Shannon, and his fearless leader Nathaniel Taylor. The scene where they almost kiss in front of ten waterfalls has been tweaked in the final version of the pilot — they no longer stand in front of ten waterfalls, but a really cool-looking vista looking out over the colony instead. The relationship between the two men has tons of chemistry, and Taylor/Shannon could almost be the new Kirk/Spock.
All in all, Terra Nova is visually stunning enough to make you overlook the flaws in its pilot — and at least some of the characters are fascinating enough to make you want to stick around for more. Like Falling Skies, this is a flawed show that has its heart in the right place. The questions that Terra Nova wants to ask, about the environment and about how we balance the rights of the individual and the needs of society, are definitely worth asking — and if the show can get you to care about the Shannon family, then you'll be invested in those questions, too.
There's also the fact that Terra Nova is pretty much the only pure science fiction show debuting on television this season — you could make a case for Person of Interest and one or two other shows, but Terra Nova is the only show that actually wears its science fiction trappings with pride, from the future city to the time tunnel to the dinosaur battles. It's hard not to feel like we all have a vested interest in seeing Terra Nova succeed, to keep science fiction happening on network TV.
The two-hour pilot of Terra Nova airs Monday at 8 PM on Fox.