Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Terra Nova: More TV Like This, Please

When I first heard about Steven Spielberg's Terra Nova, I thought the concept was ambitious for a TV series to try to pull off.

Of course, a good concept isn't enough on its own. Terra Nova might have the potential to be a fantastic adventure odyssey, but without well-written dialog, strong characters and an effective blend of CGI and real action, we might be looking at a modern-day Land of the Lost flop instead.

Still, I love me some Sci-Fi. And a futuristic colony, set in a prehistoric land?  Sign me up. 

So the Rhino and I saw the pilot episode together, and I took notes as we watched. Here's our take on the show.

Warning: There be spoilers here!


The Shannons are...interesting. 

They're flawed, and have a MAJOR secret to hide: An extra kid. 

Someone's at the door. Quick, put the kid in that conveniently oversized air duct!

Uh oh. Didn't take long for that secret to get out. 

Okay, it's 2149 AD now...

Wait, Dad is in jail?! Where's third kid?

Okay, here's Mom. She's telling him about Terra Nova

So, the Earth is dying and over-populated (why everyone can only have two kids), and a temporal vortex-type deal (think wormhole + time travelling) offers a chance to start over in an alternate prehistoric version of our world, Terra Nova. And only Mom Shannon and the two legal kids can go there.

Yeah, right. Time for a jail break! 

Okay, baby in the backsack? Awesome action scene.

And now, at last, we arrive at Terra Nova.

The first thing you notice about the Terra Nova colony is those fences, and how flimsy they look. Why even build them if they obviously weren't large enough to hold out dinosaurs? We see the brachiosaurs towering way over them, and they obviously aren't going to keep any serious threat away.

Yes, I know brachiosaurs are not carnivores. But a predator startling brachiosaurs into a stampede that takes down those fences is not beyond the realm of possibility. You'd think physical barriers would be replaced by some kind of electrical or power-generated option by 2149, anyway, especially if over-population made building resources scarce.

Which brings me to the reason for the colony. How is Terra Nova going to be different from whatever messed up the existing world? Obviously, the colonists should be guarding against this eventuality. But the only (simplistic and obvious) changes I've seen so far are more living space for families and natural food sources. Those armored cars are decidedly out of place. They seem like old technology that should have been disposed of based on their drain on natural resources.

The protagonists who come to Terra Nova to start anew, the Shannon family, are honestly not my favorite people. Why? Because Doctor Mom and Cop Dad chose (it appears to be a choice rather than an accident, anyway) to break the law and have a third child in an over-populated world that by necessity allows for only two children per family.

So, guy who should uphold the law, and woman who should see the logic behind the need for it, nevertheless make the choice, for some reason we do not understand, to act in what seems a very selfish way. Everyone else has to obey the law, but their whole family is paying the consequences for their decision not to. They are forced to hide the third kid, obviously the kids can't have a lot of friends over who might give the secret away, they all have to share rations meant for a smaller family. 

There's a stereotypical Super Military Father character, whose daughter the Shannon teen boy naturally falls for. I'd like to see more depth from this character. At one point, SMF is really obviously trying to hide a Big Secret--basically asking his daughter, "So, did you go by the forbidden waterfalls? That's just stupid, and as a father and a Super Military guy, he should know better. You might as well draw the daughter a map with a big X on it by the forbidden waterfalls.

SMF should also not trust Mr. Shannon, the former cop who had the third child. Now, we have a standard plot device that leads into this, where a bad guy goes after SMF and former cop brings him down. But it.shouldn't matter if Shannon helped take down one bad guy; he never should have had the chance in the first place.  He broke the law, broke out of jail and then broke into Terra Nova, a colony with restricted access to specially chosen candidates only. SMF should have shot Shannon's ass on day 1. It fits better with his stereotypical, gun-happy character, anyway.

But logically, the Shannons' third child, the real reason they want to start over in Terra Nova, should be long dead anyway. This future Earth society bans extra kids because of over-population. Why would imprisonment exist at all? That's extra mouths to keep feeding. I doubt future us would be compassionate enough to feed prisoners when our own families don't have enough to eat, no matter how nice it would be to believe this. 

Plus, not making an example of the Shannon family sets a bad precedent. If a cop can break a law and all that happens is that he and that child end up behind bars, others might feel that breaking that law is worth the risk for them. Logically, 3rd kid should have been executed along with Dad back when the family was discovered.

I know, as a parent I hate the idea of killing off children. But Spielberg set up the two-child law here, and he needs to keep the narrative consistent. So if Spielberg can't deal with Dad and third kid being killed off, maybe he should have written this pilot so that criminals are banished to Terra Nova as part of some initial, very dangerous colonization strategy, where they are not expected to survive. 

Resourceful Dad cop protects his child as Doctor Mom fights to get the rest of the family assigned to Terra Nova, too. 

Finally, colonization is considered safe enough, and the other Shannons join Dad and third child, who now does not recognize Mom. That makes for a tearful moment. You could even have the new colonists co-exist uneasily with the surviving ex-cons from the original settlement, who have their own colony set up. Maybe Doctor Mom tries to integrate Dad and 3rd kid into the "good" colony and meets resistance.Wow, can we do a rewrite on the pilot? That scenario really works for me.

Anyway, even if I am not sure I like the characters, I do like that the Shannons have issues. Most TV families are just outrageous in their perfection.  Young, incredibly good-looking and fashionably dressed parents are wise beyond their years. Sibling rivalry, when it even exists, is funny rather than cruel and we are always made to understand that behind the playful banter, genuine love and respect between the kids abounds.

It's absurd. Real families have flaws.

So, yes, the Terra Nova Shannon family is pretty to look at, but they aren't perfect, and that's a step in the right direction. The selfish choice to have another child (her name is Zoe, by the way. I'm getting tired of typing "third child") is never really explained, and we wonder what secrets they may be hiding [Since Mom is a doctor, it occurred to me that one of the older kids might have an undisclosed medical issue and so Zoe presents some kind of hope for a cure or at least an organ transplant, but that's probably too edgy for Spielberg et al].

I  really hope that there is more behind the choice to willfully break the law than an emotional draw for the audience to sympathize with the Shannon family.

I liked that the teens in the compound were independent earlier than their city counterparts, because they were productive members of the group. That makes logical sense. You have to be tougher to survive in that kind of environment, so you grow up fast. And privileges would naturally be doled out based not on age, but on how valuable a commodity you are relative to the collective survival of the colony. So young, strong, contributors, old enough to reproduce and make more colony members? Top of the heap. 

I didn't like that Super Military Father and Mr. former-cop Shannon had to come and rescue the kids when they got into trouble, though. I mean, the Shannon teen, who has some issues with Dad having been locked up in jail for years and thus entirely missing from his life (understandably), rebelliously skipped orientation, so it made sense that he was way out of his depth when the threat showed up. But the other teens should have been resourceful enough to save themselves, as they lived in the colony and these were known threats. 

But I recognize the need for characters the audience can relate to, and this is a major departure for a network TV series.

I'm hoping that the kind of people who say they "Don't like science fiction" will be drawn in by the names and big budget behind the series. Terra Nova's a top-budget, high-quality science fiction show. And it's on Fox! There's even a suggestion that climate change and plundering natural resources is actually a bad thing. Wow. That's a step in the right direction for such an ultra-conservative network.

Plus, the action and effects in Terra Nova rocked. And we have lots of potential conflicts set up with a rival group, the Sixers.

Finally, CGI dinosaurs! Family secrets and strange alien markings!  What does it all mean? I'll be tuning in to find out.

And I hope you give Terra Nova a chance, too I'd like to see more quality science fiction on network TV.

So, did you watch the pilot Monday? What was your verdict?

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