Fox's bank-busting showpiece Terra Nova finally lands tonight, with the eyes of sci-fi and action fans the world over resting upon it. Will it be the Avatar-meets-Lost extravaganza the network is hoping for, or will it simply die off come the next seasonal extinction event?
I won't bore you with a lengthy explanation of Terra Nova's time-travelling origin story – for that, check out our impressions of the footage presented at this year's Comic-Con. It'll give you an in-depth look at the first hour of the premiere without spoiling the second half.
To make a long review short: if you've been looking forward to this show since the Super Bowl teaser trailer, you won't need any encouragement to sit down and watch the two-hour premiere. Close your laptop, turn off your iDevice, start the microwave and enjoy a popcorn-worthy night of television. Terra Nova is far from perfect, but it's a joy to watch and just about anyone should find something to like.
At its heart, Terra Nova wants to be equal parts Avatar, Jurassic Park and Lost. The unspoiled sci-fi setting gives the characters (if not the audience) the exploratory wonder of Pandora, while the monsters share a lot of creative DNA with Stephen Spielberg's prehistoric opus. But these things do not a serial story make, and that's where the Lost-style mystery comes in.
There are several questions and conflicts established in the pilot, with the best among them being the rebellious Sixers. These anti-establishment pilgrims have their own agenda, and while not exactly evil, their past and present intentions could certainly be considered insidious. Since you can't have all dinos all the time, look for this group to provide a lot of the human conflict throughout the first season.
The mysterious apparitions that point towards previous settlers of the supposedly uninhabited timeline can be taken one of two ways. It's either a promising beginning towards a multi-season mystery... or a groan-inducing start to a multi-season mystery. While intrigue is always welcome, I fear that science fiction fans jaded after disappointing ends to Lost and Battlestar Galactica may be tired of the suspense-payoff game. You be the judge.
The more subtle aspects of the pilot are hit-or-miss. The squabbling between protagonist Jim Shannon (Jason O'Mara, Life on Mars) and his teenage son Josh (Landon Liboiron) falls flat, as do pretty much all of the adolescent performances. But the interactions between Jim, wife Elisabeth (Shelley Conn, How Do You Know) and their illegal daughter Zoe are genuinely touching, and given the events in certain parts of the world, surprisingly timely.
As a matter of fact, the Dystopian future world that the Shannon family is escaping seems at least as interesting as their past paradise. While the world of 2149 is collapsing, the civil authority still has control in some terrifying ways. The crumbling, Blade Runner-inspired sets and cityscapes are breathtaking. I hope there's more communication between Terra Nova's separate worlds in the coming episodes.
As far as speculative fiction goes, the show plays with some established big ideas without adding anything new. The bifurcated time travel idea is well-trodden, but not unwelcome (the show deals with A Sound of Thunder-type paradox quickly). The intrigue will come organically from the characters and the setting – while Doctor Who is throwing around fresh ideas every week, a more tame telling is probably appropriate for a broadcast audience.
Headliner Stephen Lang lights up the screen whenever he appears, and his character is complex enough to hold the viewer's interest in its own right. Unlike the gruff marine from Avatar, Commander Taylor is hard, but strategically sympathetic. Likewise, the rebel leader Mara (Christine Adams, Tron: Legacy) is fun to watch. The interaction between these two is a highlight of the pilot, and should continue to be so.
The show shines on almost every single technical aspect. To say that Terra Nova is ambitious is an understatement of mammoth proportions. Never before has a network show attempted to create a serialized effects-heavy summer blockbuster on a television budget, even one as massive as this one. Every aspect of the production design oozes quality, from the huge on-location sets to the computer-generated dinosaurs that are the real stars. Make no mistake: Terra Nova would not be possible ten (or possibly even five) years ago. The movie magic on display, especially that of the tooth and claw variety, is far and away the best that's ever been seen on television.
A scene inside a disabled Jeep is the high point of the episode. Panic-stricken kids facing Slashers (Raptors with more style) create an intense feeling of real danger for the characters. This is rare in a network pilot, and the short moments give the remaining screen time an edge.
This isn't to say that there aren't compromises. To make the prehistoric setting a reality on a TV budget, the dinos and a lot of establishing shots are almost 100% computer-generated. There are none of the brilliant practical effect hand-offs that made Jurassic Park an instant classic – frequent moviegoers may find their jaded suspension of disbelief on autopilot. Compounding that, the scenes in the Terra Nova settlement are all beautifully realized, but sterile. They bring to mind a more earthy version of the Starfleet Academy campus from the later Trek series: too clean and natural to be real, especially considering the more wild segments on the jungle and grasslands.
That's not the only thing Terra Nova has in common with Star Trek. The entire setting seems just a little bit too clean, a little too orderly (once they leave the future, that is). This extends to the dialogue and action – serviceable and at times exciting, but still a little stiff. I sense the hand of Trek veteran producer Brannon Braga. This may loosen up in future episodes as the cast and crew become more confident. On the upside, Terra Nova should be just fine for most children in the 10-12 range, a welcome decision for parents hoping to enjoy an evening with the family.
Aspects like music and costumes are... well, they're there. The soundtrack is appropriately epic without being anything you'd hum the next day. The costumes and gear are typical near-future commando and natural warrior fare, though the futuristic vehicles and weapons make interesting viewing. However, the stalking monsters and beautiful setting outshine these more pedestrian parts of production. Some of the little details will nag paleontology buffs (“That's not what an oviraptor looks like! Those pteranodons weren't there for another ten million years! Wouldn't a domesticated brachiosaurus need miles of grazing land?!”) but the overall effect will thrill the young and imaginative.
On the whole, my complaints are nitpicks on an impressive accomplishment. Viewers looking for action will be satisfied and then some. While the dinosaur appearances are a relatively small part of the 120-minute premiere, their presence is felt throughout, and help to smooth over Terra Nova's dramatic wrinkles. There's competent acting and storytelling to fill in the gaps, and enough mystery to keep people coming back for more.
The long wait was worth it. Terra Nova is the scripted television event of the fall, and with good reason. You owe it to yourself to check the premiere out.
Terra Nova airs Monday nights at 8PM on Fox.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @MichaelCrider