The last hope for the future of the human race depends on a handful of settlers traveling back into the distant past and building a brand new world. And from what we've seen so far in Steven Spielberg's Terra Nova, the human race is doomed.
Seriously. We keep hearing that only the best and brightest are sent back in time on the "pilgrimages" to prehistoric Earth — but most of the main characters we meet in the prehistoric settlement seem too stupid to live. Especially most of the poor Shannon family. Spoilers ahead...
The truth is, I still have a love/hate relationship with Terra Nova. I've already written a lot about the pilot episode, and I still feel like it has a lot of strengths. The special effects are pretty amazing, and the gorgeous visuals go a long way towards making up for the shallowness of the world-building in the first episode. I do love the relationship between Nathaniel Taylor and Jim Shannon, and the basic concept does have tons of awesome potential. But.
It has to be said, when you watch the whole thing as a two-hour bloc, it does get awfully bogged down. The first half hour is mostly reasonably solid — the story moves insanely quickly, as the Shannon family gets separated, reunited, zapped back in time and introduced to the world of Terra Nova.
I still think that opening sequence is mostly pretty terrific — in the dystopian future, everything is polluted and horrible, and we glimpse a yellowy, nasty Earth from the Moon — our planet looks like a decaying tooth. The future city is so polluted you can't breathe without a special mask, and the repressive authorities crack down on anyone who has more than two kids — like the Shannon family, who've risked everything so they can have the so-cute-it-hurts Zoe. In short order, the population-control police catch the Shannon family in the act of being too fruitful, and take Zoe away, and when Jim Shannon tries to fight, he gets locked up in
Rura Pente Golad Prison, where escape is impossible. So of course, he escapes within three minutes, thanks to his wife bringing him a secret laser. (Secret Laser is my new band name.)
We then rush through a sequence of Jim Shannon finding a man who has his surplus daughter, Zoe, giving him a ton of cash in return for the little girl, and then sneaking her into the top-security time tunnel installation where the rest of the Shannon family is going back in time. It's all a bit too easy, but that doesn't mean it's not still exciting or suspenseful — and the whole thing does do a pretty good job of making us bond with Jim and see him as the hero of the piece.
It's once we get back in time, and start hanging out in the supposed paradise of Terra Nova, that things get a bit more dodgy.
For one thing, because we're no longer rushing though the exciting "escape from dystopia" sequence, the show has time to delve into its characters a bit more. And that turns out to be a mixed blessing.
The most annoying teenager on television?
Let's start with the biggest problem with the episode — and most likely, with Terra Nova as an ongoing show. Josh Shannon is quite possibly the most annoying character we've seen on television in ages. After just a few scenes of Josh opening his weirdly huge mouth and saying the brattiest thing that popped into his head, I wanted Peter Dinklage to guest star so he could smack Josh in the face a few dozen times.
Here's our medley of all the greatest Josh moments from the episode. Josh tells his girlfriend that he'll come back to the future and get her, even though he knows that's impossible. Josh yells at his mom in the time tunnel, after they've been told to avoid attracting attention. Josh freaks out at his dad, and generally sulks about how terrible it is that they've come to this idyllic, non-polluted wonderland together. Josh goes skinny-dipping with all his clothes on. And Josh dumps on his new girlfriend about how dumb it is that his dad wants him to learn basic survival techniques on his first day in a world full of carnivorous giant monsters.
After a while, you begin to think there's a really easy solution to the problem of the Shannons having one kid too many.
It also doesn't help that the whole plot of the second hour of the Terra Nova premiere revolves around Josh and his new friends being such total idiots that they nearly get themselves killed by slasher dinosaurs — and one or two of them do actually get badly (perhaps mortally) injured.
But the other two Shannon kids aren't quite as annoying. I mean, little Zoe is pretty insanely cutesy, and the whole running subplot where she doesn't remember her daddy, until she does, is kind of obnoxious. And I do have to admit that when she was feeding the cute dinosaur, I kept hoping the dinosaur would overreach and accidentally tear her arm off. But she's not that bad, as cute little kids go. And Maddy Shannon, whose single characteristic seems to be "dorky but lovable nerd," did grow on me a bit — and I'd way rather watch her than the other two Shannon kids. Even with her crush on the poor man's Taylor Lautner.
(That said, watching Terra Nova really drives home how good a job Falling Skies mostly did with its own batch of kid characters. All three of Noah Wyle's kids on Falling Skies managed to be either sympathetic, or at least not painful to watch, apart from one or two scenes early on.)
Meanwhile, Elizabeth Shannon, the mother of this brood, is reasonably engaging — I like her pluck in sneaking a laser to her husband, and then her picking up and treating patients using giant leeches and stuff, on her first day. She's not exactly the most memorable character, yet, but she's at least shown to be good at her job, and not intimidated by prisoners threatening her with knives and stuff. On the other hand, she's sort of a third wheel to...
The Bromance of the Century
Honestly, I really think the reason to watch Terra Nova is going to be the relationship between Jim Shannon and his new leader, Nathaniel Taylor. An hour into the pilot, they're already holding hands — see screencap at left. I honestly can't wait to see the shmoopy fanvids that people are going to make about the Nathaniel/Jim relationship. And what's great about it is, they both really are interesting characters who seem to have a healthy respect and distrust for each other. It's not just that they seem to throw sparks whenever they're together.
But yes, there are lots of sparks — as soon as Jim arrives in the dinosaur land, he and Nathaniel come into conflict over whether Jim can be a cop. And Nathaniel is like, "You can't be a cop until you prove yourself by taking off your shirt and climbing the fence so I can watch you cut vines with a big machete." So Jim does, and Nathaniel takes the rest of the day off so he can watch shirtless Jim climbing around. Because that's part of what Leadership is about. Then Jim saves Nathaniel's life from a random shooter guy, and Nathaniel decides to make Jim a cop after all — but first they trek into the wilderness together so they can stand on a mountaintop and talk about the future. Finally, the two men go dinosaur jousting together, and then Nathaniel helps Jim save his dumb kid. It's the bromance of the century!
Oh, and here's the scene where Nathaniel Taylor looks at Jim Shannon's crotch and then looks back up at his face, before saying, "Come on. Let's take a drive."
I have to admit, I am completely enthralled by these two and their kooky adventures together. For one thing, the episode puts most of its good ideas into making the two of them seem like the Most Heroic Men in the World, circa 85 million years ago. Jim escapes from prison, fights dinosaurs and defeats assassins, all without breaking a sweat. Meanwhile Nathaniel faces a charging carnotaurus, dispenses gritty wisdom and leads the fight against a whole pack of slashers, with the power of his mighty beard.
The fact that Jim is kind of a lunkhead, and Nathaniel is clearly lying through his nice teeth about a lot of stuff, only makes it better. Which brings us to...
What's this show about?
After rewatching the premiere, I'm not sure if this show is a conspiracy show or a show about the struggles to rebuild civilization in the distant past. There were tons and tons of mysteries and hints thrown out there, enough to spawn a ton of storylines, but it's hard to say what's going to wind up being significant.
I still think this show has an interesting political theme — the idea that in the future, we mess up the environment so badly that we basically can't live on this planet any more. And when we get another chance to start over, we may try to do it differently, building in a sustainable fashion and creating a more responsible world. But in order to have that more enlightened society, we may need to accept the autocratic leadership of Nathaniel Taylor. It's not a bad conflict to explore.
And then there's the mystery of the carvings by the waterfall — which are old and complicated, but apparently are the work of Nathaniel Taylor's estranged son. Taylor is so freaked out by those carvings, he wants to make sure that nobody sees them. But Mira, the leader of the Sixers, says they're "the key" and that they remind Taylor of the "real reason for Terra Nova: control the past, control the future."
So how exactly does Terra Nova allow you to control the future? We get some hand-waving early on about the idea that this is a different timeline, because they never found the probe they sent back in time through the Time Crack. (Although there are a million possible explanations for that, like the probe got destroyed or buried someplace that they can't locate it.) In any case, this explanation automatically seems fishy — if the past in Terra Nova is a different timeline, how come they can keep sending people back to it from the original timeline? Is the Time Crack crossing universes as well as time?
In any case, there appears to be a hidden agenda behind Terra Nova. And someone in the future is working against that agenda, which is why the Sixth Pilgrimage was made up of saboteurs and dissidents. As soon as the "Sixers" arrived, they started stockpiling weapons and trying to learn too much about Terra Nova's security and defenses. What's their secret agenda — and more to the point, why weren't the Seventh, Eighth, Ninth and Tenth Pilgrimages made up of saboteurs as well? Why wouldn't whoever sent the Sixers keep trying?
All in all, it's a pretty fun ride, if you can ignore the "annoying kid" factor, and the fact that Taylor's supposedly iron grip on the community doesn't prevent people from running off and almost getting eaten by dinosaurs. And the fact that none of the community's security people, apart from Jim Shannon, seems to be any good at their jobs. So far, Terra Nova is as good as a lot of summer tentpole movies, both in the dinosaur action and in the attempt at bringing up Big Questions. There's a lot of room for this series to grow.
Too bad the show debuted to disappointing ratings. Unless Terra Nova can actually build its audience over the next few weeks, I wouldn't get too attached to the Shannon family.