Terra Nova: You Can't Please Everyone, But You Can Try

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OMFG there were friggin' dinosaurs on my TV screen last night! And one annoying teenage boy. That pretty much sums up Terra Nova, Fox's gigantic-budget sci-fi series about a dismal future, promising prehistoric times, and teenagers doing stupid things. Last night's two-hour premiere suffered from a near-fatal case of pilotitis—the sci-fi exposition regurgitated by the smarty-pants bookworm daughter had me scrambling for the MUTE button—yet delivered enough excitement that I'll still make an appointment with my television next Monday night.

Let's start with what didn't work. Fox is investing a ton of money in this series (the pilot reportedly cost $20 million to make), which means the returns on the show have to be huge. That means getting everybody—you, your little sister, your dad, your grandmother, a salty sea captain, a sexy cat burglar—to watch. Terra Nova is "family entertainment" in that it's trying to provide a different type of entertainment for each member of the family; this puts the show in danger of losing its identity while trying to please everyone. So far we've got sci-fi epicness, a mom-and-pop-repairing-their-love story, dinosaur action, a rebel-teen love story, and then another teen love story in-the-making. It's family entertainment, I get it, but does it have to be so family entertainment-y?

The Shannons have spent their entire lives on a dusty rock that hasn't seen blue skies or lush foliage in decades, yet when they're zapped 85 million years into the past to help give mankind a second chance, all Josh (the son) can do is throw hissy fits about his dad punching a cop in a forced plot to create family tension. I feel sorry for young actor Landon Liboiron (who plays Josh), because he's being asked to shoulder the weight of conflict in the most annoying way possible. I can believe that science has found a way to teleport people back in time; what I can't believe is that a kid would be such a dick to his dad after having mind blown because he just TRAVELED BACK IN TIME TO A LAND FILLED WITH DINOSAURS. The Daddy-doesn't-love-me plot should have slowly bubbled to the surface, but instead it exploded in our faces. The same can be said for much of the family drama we've seen so far: Jim Shannon's family went to extreme measures to get him out of jail and into Terra Nova, and once he was there, they kind of pooped all over him.

But come on, what did you expect? This is a Steven Spielberg project, and this is what Steven Spielberg does. Of course Josh is going to meet the hottest his-age girl within ten minutes of arriving. Of course Maddy is going to trade batted eyelashes with a handsome Taylor Lautner lookalike. Of course Commander Taylor's son went missing a long time ago and Taylor thinks he's still alive but probably part of the Sixers. It's cliché, passé, and blasé, but it's the formula the network-television production machine sticks to because execs (and advertisers) would rather have 10 million kind-of interested people than 3 million very interested people.

I'll blame most of the above complaints on Monday's two-hour episode being a pilot, because once you get past them, there's a series here with true potential. I like the idea that the Others Sixers really extend the universe and could lead to the old "actually, they're the good guys!" storyline. Wacky hieroglyphs or something-glyphs painted on rocks always thicken mystery. There are a lot of opportunities for characters to butt heads with Taylor, who is more of an all-powerful despot than an ambassador of the Paleozoic. And of course there are dinosaurs and guns. These are the ideas I hope the show focuses on moving forward, rather than trying to make us care about whether or not little Joshy gets laid.

As for the effects, I had originally screened the first hour of the premiere in a 600x450 standard-definition browser window on my computer, so I had hoped the final HD version would look great. It had its moments, but always remained in "television special effects" territory. The first hour tried too hard to wow the audience with grandiose shots of the world and the giant dinosaurs within in, and anyone who's played a video game in the last five years was probably unimpressed. The second hour did a much better job with effects by using them less and using the cover of darkness to their advantage. For example, the velociraptors slashers looked a lot better than the sunlit dinos of the first hour. Still, the setting itself managed to convey the idea that we were in a far away land, and for two hours last night, I felt as though I'd escaped my living room (at least, as much any TV show ever could). Major points for the audio as well; both myself and my cats were delightfully freaked out by some of the atmospheric surround sounds, courtesy of whatever prehistoric monsters were lurking in the shadows.

Though I had problems with both the dialogue and the hackneyed characters and their actions, Terra Nova gets a recommendation from me based on pure potential. The premiere delivered on its promise to be a television event. Now it just needs to deliver on our hopes that it will turn out be quality television.

Notes:
– I thought the second hour was a lot stronger than the first, once all the awkward set-up was out of the way. Hopefully that's indicative of where the series is headed.

– Stephen Lang may be playing the same guy he played in Avatar, but it's still a perfect role for him. I've talked to him in person, and I can attest that the guns stretching his T-shirt sleeves are legit.

– The premiere's spotty editing and uneven pacing lead me to believe that the show has undergone a major overhaul, and that studio notes took a lot of bite out of the original.

– I will defend the idea of Josh meeting hottie Skye early on by comparing Terra Nova to a college campus. Whenever new freshman arrive, the seniors line up to check out the fresh meat. We all did that, right?

– The story would have been better served if one of those kids had died. How are we supposed to fear the slashers if they can't even kill a 16-year-old girl?

– Troublesome dad, family-centered mom, rebellious older son, bookworm daughter, cute toddler... remind you of any other Fox family? Maybe one that's yellow and has four fingers?

Lots and lots of questions:
As Lost taught us for a while, unanswered questions can be a good thing. But sometimes we find ourselves asking questions that don't relate to island mysteries—they're just questions that should have been answered. Terra Nova's pilot gave us plenty of those:

– Why did Jim and Elisabeth sleep in separate beds? It's okay, Terra Nova, you can tell us.

– Why did the Shannons have a third kid when they knew it was against the law? If you're going to make a big deal of it, you need to give us a clue.

– Why did Skye strip down to her bikini when they were waterfall diving, but Josh didn't even take off his button-down? How did Skye get her clothes back?

– How did Jim escape prison with just that one laser-cutter? And who left all those supplies around for him to make his escape?

– What happened to Zoe after Jim was imprisoned? "It seemed like a good idea at the time" is not an acceptable answer. And why did Jim really punch the cop? Surely he knew that was a no-no.


Let's hear your best answers in the comments!


Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom

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