Time travel, dinosaurs, scheduling changes—it’s no wonder people can’t stop talking about Fox’s upcoming series Terra Nova. But as the cast and executive producers explained at Wondercon on Sunday, there’s more to the sci-fi adventure show than its high-minded concept. And while the wait has been long, it should prove worthwhile: Terra Nova is assembling a production design and special effects never before seen on television.
The series begins in the dark future of 2149. In order to save the human race, a select few must travel back 85 million years to prehistoric earth. The colony they create, Terra Nova, offers the hope of salvation amid the dangers of life in the Cretaceous Era.
Before the Wondercon panel, I spoke to cast members Jason O’Mara and Stephen Lang, along with executive producers Brannon Braga and Alex Graves, who also directed the pilot.
“I only do shows now that have time travel in the premise, and the more far-fetched the better,” O’Mara joked. His last series was the U.S. adaptation of Life On Mars, in which he played a detective sent back to the ‘70s. Of course, prehistoric times is more of a leap.
In Terra Nova, O’Mara plays Jim Shannon, a narcotics cop in 2149 Chicago. He’s not exactly invited to join the colony, but he does what he must to reunite with his wife and children.
“He has to achieve so much just to get to the point where he’s going through the portal and entering this new world,” O’Mara said. “He has to escape from prison—and he’s there for reasons that will be disclosed later. He’s trying to meet up with his family before they go through. And once they’re there, he has to try to bring his family back together.”
O’Mara alluded to the reasons Jim is in prison, but he won’t say much. In his defense, there’s also a lot he doesn’t know. O’Mara noted that part of the challenge of playing Jim was not knowing his character’s complete history.
“It’s a very tricky area, because a lot of the mythology and the story of the series initially, at least—I’m sure it’ll deepen and get more complicated—involves [Jim’s] backstory,” he said. “Some of the stuff they could tell me; some of the stuff they couldn’t. They had to say, ‘Trust us, we know what we’re doing,’ which always makes me nervous.”
Before the viewers start asking questions, O’Mara has several of his own: “Why me? How did I really get here? Who helped me get here? Did I do it by myself?”
Sci-fi fans are likely to recognize Lang from his villainous turn as Colonel Miles Quaritch in Avatar. In Terra Nova, Lang is once again playing an authority figure with a military background. But Lang’s Commander Taylor has a different role here, as the first colonist to arrive in prehistoric times.
“He is the Founding Father in this situation,” Lang explained. “He’s the first through the portal and he really sets about creating Terra Nova. … He’s the guy who’s really setting all the rules and the standards. That carries with it this tremendous responsibility.”
Also unlike Avatar’s Colonel Quaritch, Commander Taylor has only the best intentions. Lang was willing to concede that his tactics might eventually become controversial, but Taylor approaches his leadership position with the necessary respect. After all, the fate of the human race rests on the success of Terra Nova.
“Everything he does and has done is based on really, really righteous—which is not to say self-righteous—idealism,” Lang said. “He really is interested in bringing about a better world. I think at some point how one achieves that is open to discussion.”
And of course, Taylor has to contend with the arrival of O'Mara's Jim Shannon, an interloper. Lang hinted that the interplay between his character and O’Mara’s will be a major aspect of the series as it progresses—although, he was quick to note, the two men start off as allies, with Jim serving as Taylor’s second-hand.
“To me, the relationship between Taylor and Shannon is crucial and central,” Lang reflected. “The idea of a successor or someone to share the responsibility is both very alluring and welcome, and at the same time, not something that sits very easily with the character.”
Where have we heard that before? As was the case with Lost, the cast and crew of Terra Nova insist that despite the complex concept, the real heart of the story lies in the characters and their relationships.
“The people who come to Terra Nova, who are drafted to come to Terra Nova … are powerful people,” Lang noted. “You want strong people as colonists. So you postulate that the people who have come through here have come through with specific tasks, specific skill sets, and a real sense of themselves, their own power.”
Part of Terra Nova’s thrill is in seeing how these strong personalities interact with one another. But it’s not all about the big fights and power plays—there is simple human drama, too. In the pilot, Jim struggles to reconnect with the family who was forced to leave him behind.
“[My wife and I] have been apart for a long time, and we’re going to have to again lay out the rules of engagement for the marriage, and lay out how it’s going to work in this new place,” O’Hara said. “And also the relationships with the children. There’s one child who I barely know. There’s another child who’s extremely angry that I haven’t been present for the formative years of his life.”
It might seem like the personal dramas would fall to the wayside when the characters are confronted with, well, dinosaurs. But Lang pointed out humanity’s ability to adjust and adapt to new surroundings. And once the colonists of Terra Nova are used to their environment, their problems remain largely the same. In his mind, the show works better that way.
“In the end, it really comes down to, do you care about the people?” Lang said. “You can love the creatures but if you don’t care about the people, if their fate is not really important to you on a week-to-week-basis, then we won’t succeed.”
One of Terra Nova’s most unique features is that the series begins in the future and moves back to the past. In directing the pilot, Graves appreciated the challenge of helping create two very different worlds.
“I got to do 2149, which is sort of our version of Blade Runner,” he said. “It’s overpopulated, it’s polluted. So that was a blast to create. And then you go back to one of the most beautiful eras in the earth’s history, and you’re creating that.”
But Graves noted that the time travel itself is not a large part of the pilot. The focus isn’t on how Jim Shannon makes it back in time but on what he does when he gets to Terra Nova. However, Graves promised that the show’s history and mythology will be revealed later in the season.
“There’s no time in the pilot because of what they go through to deal with the time travel,” he explained. “The time travel’s a very, very small part of it. It’s much more about what happens if you get thrust back under very dramatic circumstances.”
Graves’ fellow executive producer Brannon Braga agreed with this assessment, though he was even more vague about how the big questions will be answered. It’s a good thing genre fans are accustomed to long waits and frustration.
“The time travel is a fundamental part of the show, and we will answer your basic questions,” Braga said. “What’s the plan? Are they changing the future? … We will answer those questions in a slightly unorthodox way that we think is really cool. We’re doing a slightly different approach to time travel that will play out in the series with some twists and turns.”
He conceded, “It sounds like a dodge, but it’s not.”
Dinosaurs are awesome—from a distance. We probably wouldn’t have such fondness for these prehistoric beasts if we actually had to interact with them, especially if those interactions involved running in terror. Lang’s character Commander Taylor has been in Terra Nova for seven years, so he has a somewhat casual opinion of his dino neighbors.
“You take the reality that you’re presented with on its own terms, and you deal with it,” Lang said. “Not every dinosaur is there to eat you, but I think whenever you’re in an environment that is a lethal environment, you are always kind of on guard.”
You can’t think about the relationship between humans and dinosaurs without thinking about Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg’s iconic film based on the Michael Crichton novel. And wouldn’t you know it? Spielberg is one of Terra Nova’s executive producers.
“In the execution of the visual effects, I think [Spielberg’s] probably much more involved, because he cares so passionately about the subject—and also his association with it,” Graves said. “Also making sure the dinosaurs are a progression from Jurassic Park. … They know a lot more about them now than when they did Jurassic Park.”
In fact, some of Terra Nova’s delays have been caused by the dinosaur effects. (“We’re doing feathered dinosaurs,” Graves gushed. “People in features aren’t doing feathered dinosaurs.”) To keep up with the most current knowledge about prehistoric times, Terra Nova brought on another expert associated with Spielberg.
“Jack Horner’s involved,” Braga said. “The great paleontologist Spielberg’s been working with since the first Jurassic Park is our dinosaur consultant—or our Cretaceous consultant, ‘cause it’s not just dinosaurs. It’s a whole ecosystem. He’s been involved since the first day as well.”
For a show as original as Terra Nova, it might seem strange to try comparing it to anything else. Nevertheless, some have. Avatar is frequently namechecked, and not only because of Lang’s presence in both sci-fi epics. And for his part, Lang doesn’t mind the association.
“Thematically they are similar in the sense that both [are founded] upon the possibility of a second chance, of creating new life out of a life that was not so good,” he offered. “So I think Avatar being as successful and wonderful as I feel it is, I’m delighted that comparisons will be made, and there’s no doubt in my mind at all that given the team that we have, we’re going to be able to measure up to Avatar or any other standard we might be measured against.”
And while O’Hara expressed a distaste for comparisons, he was able to see some other similarities between Avatar and Terra Nova.
“They both seem to be inspired by stories from the old west,” O’Hara said. “They’re stories that have been part of our stories as humankind for a very long time … In that sense, they’re timeless, and I really like that.”
Lang brought up the John Ford film Fort Apache. Graves referred to the future as looking like Blade Runner, and of course, there are the Jurassic Park associations. A veteran of Star Trek: The Next Generation and several Star Trek films, Braga was able to tie Terra Nova back to the classic sci-fi franchise.
“It’s a very humanistic show,” he reflected. “It’s about second chances for humanity. The episodes will be mostly standalone episodes that tell metaphorical little sci-fi parables in this frontier western—post-modern science fiction western town. So it has a Star Trek feel to it.”