Terra Nova is our last great hope for big-scale science fiction on television. The show launched out of a blasted network TV landscape, littered with the corpses of other science fiction shows and choked with an atmosphere that suffocated any attempt at telling stories about space travel, time travel or the future.
We really want Terra Nova to be great, and to be a success. But it's hard to have faith after the rough beginnings the show has had — especially last night's episode, which really felt like a dreadful mess. But it's too soon to give up hope — this show could still gel and become a terrific piece of television.
I keep reminding myself by this point in sister show Falling Skies' run, I was bored and horrified. The early episodes of Falling Skies episode one were severely uneven, to say the least, and then the show started to come together about halfway through the season.
Still, it's hard to watch an episode like "What Remains" and not feel a bit revolted. This was basically Terra Nova's version of the Star Trek "Naked Now" episode, crossed with that Buffy episode where everybody loses their memories. None of it entirely made sense, and the whole thing had a bit of a half-hearted feel — I almost never notice editing on television, but this time it was hard to escape the sense that scenes were being ended randomly in the middle, sometimes in the middle of someone's line, just to cut away from something that wasn't working. This kept happening, and felt weirdly jarring.
And the episode was flawed at a deep conceptual level — I understand what it was supposed to be about, but it didn't actually manage to tell that story. Jim Shannon is having trouble re-establishing his connection with his wife, after his two year stint in prison, and meanwhile there's this dick named Malcolmus from her past. So in an ironic twist, they get stuck in a situation where the wife loses her memories of the past twenty years, and she thinks Malcolmus is her boyfriend. At first, Jim Shannon just runs with it, because the most important thing is for Elizabeth and Malcolmus to work together to cure the forgetting disease — but in the end, the only solution to the problem turns out to involve re-establishing the all-important bond between Mr. and Mrs. Shannon, so that she can notice what the viewers picked up on in the first five minutes of the episode. (It was obvious from the first mention that Jim's cold was going to save the day.)
There's nothing wrong with any of that, as a story — if you do the hard work of establishing that the Shannons have marital problems, and that Elizabeth's interest in Malcolm isn't just a figment of Jim's imagination. Preferably in the same episode, so the casual viewer can pick up on it. Unfortunately, the episode doesn't bother, and we get some easy-going, comfortable scenes between husband and wife before she goes off to Amnesiatown without him. Thus, the episode never quite gets any sense of the stakes, or what larger problem we're setting out to solve.
(There's also the extreme contrivance of the episode — so the amnesia virus came about because one of the researchers had a recessive gene for a type of dementia, and decided to do crazy-pants research to find a cure without telling anybody? And instead he created the perfect memory-blocking pathogen? Damn you, science!)
There were definitely some cute moments in the episode — I liked the amnesiac Nathaniel Taylor going all ninja and attacking his own headquarters. I liked the joking about Elizabeth Shannon sewing up her wedding ring inside a surgery patient. Jim Shannon narrating his awkward first date with Elizabeth Shannon was also cute — I actually think nobody does "cute and affable" better than Jason O'Mara, it's sort of his signature. I also liked Malcolm's little joke about Jim Shannon trying to use a siren without his own car. Oh, and for some reason the dinosaurs that think nickel is like catnip seemed outrageously cute as well. There was definitely some cuteness here and there.
Meanwhile, there were the two subplots, involving the two older Shannon kids dating. Josh Shannon actually kisses Sky, and it's the most awkward thing I've ever seen. I think Josh is supposed to look like he has mixed emotions, but instead he looks like he's just sat on a stegosaurus. Or like he needs to go to the bathroom. It turns out Josh's distress is actually because of his girlfriend that we saw for 30 seconds in the pilot, whom he wants to bring back in time to join him. Sky takes Josh to meet the evil black marketeer/moonshine peddler who offers to help, if Josh pledges his soul to evil. Being a teenage boy on television, Josh says yes, of course.
Meanwhile, Maddy Shannon is "endearingly awkward." That's the phrase used to describe her on Fox's official website, and it's clearly as far as anybody's gotten in figuring out her character. Oh, except that she storms in and confronts Wash in the end, proving that she's a lot more on the ball than Josh, who doesn't even seem to notice that his parents are both missing.
One thing is jumping out at me here — we're getting almost no scenes between Jim Shannon and Nathaniel Taylor, despite the fact that the two men have the best chemistry of anyone on this show. And not coincidentally, this show also doesn't seem to be about anything. Not only could last night's episode have come from any science fiction show of the past twenty years, it also didn't tell us anything interesting about Terra Nova, as a place.
So I think that the two things that have to happen, for Terra Nova to start gelling as a show, are:
1) Dig a bit deeper into these characters. This doesn't have to be Game of Thrones, but it would help if the Shannon family (apart from Jim) had some more quirks and more than one characteristic each. After last night, I'm also even more curious about Taylor's dead wife. And I'm more curious about his long-time second-in-command Wash — is she a lesbian, as the peeps over at AfterEllen hope? (This show could use a non-teen romance, maybe Wash could get a girlfriend?)
2) Dig into what this show is actually about. There's nothing wrong with being episodic and newbie-friendly — but there is something wrong with having episodes that feel totally irrelevant. Last week's "dinosaur invasion" story was at least about dinosaurs, but this week's was kind of a waste. The pilot sort of promised us that Terra Nova was a politically unstable place, with saboteurs within and Sixers without, and that Taylor's autocratic leadership would be getting challenged. More episodes that start building a picture of the problems facing the colony — and maybe more people questioning wacky edicts like "No lethal force against dinosaurs" — would be a lot more interesting.
I'm still quite hopeful that this show is going to find its groove in the second half of the season, the way Falling Skies sort of did. All we really need is bolder character-development, and a bit more focus on story. Sadly, this expensive show may not have the luxury that Fringe and countless other shows have had, of finding their voice in their second seasons.