Fox’s uber sci-fi project Terra Nova was out in full force at the 2011 San Diego Comic-Con, but the real fireworks didn’t start until the live panel featuring Avatar‘s Stephen Lang.

Before the short panel with the star and producers, Fox showed off almost a full hour of footage from Terra Nova, easily eclipsing the brief looks we’d been given before. While this is still only half of the two-hour premiere currently slotted for September, it’s more than enough for an initial story breakdown and impressions.

Warning: Major Terra Nova pilot spoilers  follow!

The series opens with a fly-through of a devastated Chicago, crumbling and decaying after centuries of being battered by global war and the now-toxic environment. A completely totalitarian government protects and polices the citizens as they travel to and fro with re-breathers firmly in place on their faces.

We see our first glimpse of the Shannon family in father Jim (Jason O’Mara) as he comes home from his job as a police officer to meet his doctor wife Elizabeth (Shelley Conn). The pair have two adolescent children (Landon Liboiron and Naomi Scott) as well as a toddler. A group of policemen strong-arm their way into the meager apartment, but not before Elizabeth can secret away the toddler. Before long she’s discovered, and we learn that in the future couples are restricted to two children. Jim assaults a policeman to protect his daughter, but both are taken away.

Two years later, Elizabeth visits Jim in a Château d’If-esque prison to tell him that she’s been selected to travel to Terra Nova, an unspoiled paradise settled after scientists find a way to enter an alternate timeline millions of years in the past. The children will come with her… but not Zoe, their illegal daughter. Elizabeth slips Jim a rebreather – with a laser to facilitate his escape.

Jim dashes through the ruined streets of Chicago and meets with a contact who gives him forged ID papers and a large bag. He meets up with his family just as they reach the the time portal (which looks a lot like an exaggerated/industrial Stargate) – but gets detained by the police. Breaking free, he runs through the one-way portal after his family – to emerge in the Terra Nova settlement along with Zoe (Alana Mansour) who was hiding in his bag.

The family is lead to an initiation from Commander Taylor (Stephen Lang, giving a more upbeat version of his “you are on Pandora” speech). Afterward Elizabeth is led to her medical duties while Jim is brought before the commander to answer for his subterfuge. Taylor isn’t all that concerned with his breeding violation, but is hesitant to trust him. Instead of using his skills on the security force, he assigns him to agricultural detail.

When the Shannons reach their tiny fabricated home within the compound, family drama immediately ensues. Son Josh is despondent and angry at Jim for abandoning them, while Zoe (in an impressively tender moment) recognizes her father and embraces him.

From here the Shannons split into their various duties. While Jim is set to weed-whacking, the children explore and Elizabeth tends to wounded at the hospital. The kids have some disappointingly trite interactions with the more seasoned Terra Nova teenagers, and Zoe introduces the audience to their very first dinosaur: in a nod to Steven Spielberg’s other prehistoric magnum opus, it’s a Brachiosaurus. Zoe feeds the CGI dino a branch (they’re domesticated – “it’s like a big cow”) while the rest of the family looks on in wonder.

At the med clinic, Elizabeth is tending to a wounded man when he grabs her scalpel and holds her hostage. Quickly securing a gun he runs off to assassinate Commander Taylor, but is thwarted a by an alert and quick-thinking Jim. Taylor takes Jim aside, explaining that one of the pilgrimages was full of separatists called “Sixers,” who formed their own colony after looting supplies and weapons. Jim is given a spot on the security force for his heroism.

Meanwhile, Josh goes to the prehistoric lake with the cool kids who sneak out of the compound on a regular basis. After some quick bikini-clad frolicking, Skye (Allison Miller) shows Josh a series of runes and pictograms etched into the side of a waterfall. No explanation is given, and their existence is not known to the higher-ups at the camp.

Jim and Taylor go out on an expedition of their own, wherein Taylor divulges more information about the Sixers, culminating in a green-screen moneyshot of the prehistoric valley. Right on cue, they see a pair of Sixer scout vehicles running hot towards the compound. Jim and Taylor intercept them, only to find that all three vehicles are being chased by a Carnosaur. When the separatists manage to slow one down with a laser cannon, another emerges to rip the man out of the turret.

After a tense showdown between Taylor and the remaining Carnosaur, we’re given yet another Jurassic Park nod as the surviving Sixer vehicle escapes and slams into the compound. Mira (Christine Adams) and a team of heavily-armed soldiers get out, stating they wish to speak to Taylor. Noticing Jim, Mira says, “Welcome to paradise.” The preview ends.

There’s good and bad to be said about the footage shown. With just a couple of months left to go until the long-awaited premiere, the effects are almost close-to finished, and they are breathtaking. The CG on display is certainly the best ever seen in a television series, bar none, and the filming locations in Queensland look every bit as convincing as Lost’s tropical paradise. The scenes from the desolate and grimy future are particularly impressive.

That said, the man-made portion of the Terra nova compound looks a little too clean and perfect, almost like a more earthy Star Trek set. The switch from on-location shooting to soundstage scenes is jarring. The post-apocalyptic future is much more convincing, but unfortunately we only see a few minutes of that. According to the producers, we may see more, even though the portal is a terminator-style one-way trip.

The dinosaurs themselves are great fun to watch, and about as good as one could hope for – without the aid of expensive practical effects. They move in a quick and fluid fashion, and the subtle interactions between real actors and CG beasts are flawless – with the exception of the green screen shot noted above.

I only wish I could say as much for the acting. I won’t fault the teen and child actors for wooden performances, but O’Mara was definitely better in Life on Mars. Land and Conn deliver better performances, with the latter giving some heartfelt interaction between herself and the rest of the Shannon family. It’s important to note that it takes a while for the cast to get a feel for a series, so hopefully this will improve as the season progresses.

The action itself feels a little stiff. While the brief dinosaur chase is thrilling, it’s mostly CG, and the fights between actual people seem forced, again, like an average Star Trek episode. Of course, those just looking for some dinosaur action will not be disappointed.

Overall, the first half of the Terra Nova pilot is promising in its uncompromising sci-fi setting, while being a little underwhelming in the more human details. Audiences just hoping for an thrill ride will be delighted, if only for a few minutes – but expect the action setpieces to rise exponentially as the story’s various factions begin their power plays.

You can watch the footage from Comic-Con along with the other half of the pilot when Fox premieres Terra Nova on Monday, September 26.

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