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TV: Old World attitudes in the New (Old) World: Terra Nova

I had far too much to say about Terra Nova to fit into 140 characters, so I’ve resurrected this blog for a one-off TV review.

It’s fair to say that I like dinosaurs. I like the BBC’s Walking With… series, I like all three of the Jurassic Park films (yes, even the third one – the script was by Alexander Payne who wrote Election, and William H. Macy and Tea Leoni’s bickering is worth the price of entry alone), I even like those seemingly endless documentaries on the higher reaches of the V+ box purporting to prove whether T Rex was a scavenger or a ruthless killer that feature “Dinosaur George” Blasing (yes, he really does exist). I’m even gritting my teeth and continuing with the BBC’s “unconvincing CGI palaeontology for five year olds” primetime series Planet Dinosaur. So you can see that I’m pretty much the target audience for this sort of thing.

Yet by 30 minutes in, I was moodily misquoting Jeff Goldblum as Dr Ian Malcolm in the original Jurassic Park movie: “Eventually you do plan to have dinosaurs in your dinosaur show, right?” By the end of the first hour all we’d seen was a brachiosaur eating branches held up by a little girl, much as Spielberg chose to show a gentle giant herbivore as the first dino in Jurassic Park (but don’t forget that we’d already seen a man mauled by an unseen velociraptor in the opening scenes of JP, so we knew there were Big Bad Things out there). Her older sister’s revelation that brachiosaurs sometimes ate smaller reptiles was interesting, but it would have been much better if she’d seen it eat one… or her sister (just kidding).

Carnotaur chases vehicle in Terra Nova

More of this, please.

The first 30 minutes was the set-up – future world (2145AD Chicago), environmental disasters galore, toxic air, fresh food scarce (apparently, oranges are the only fruit – or the only one that we saw). The only hope for the future is the past: 85 million years in the past, to be exact, where a colony called Terra Nova has been established via a fracture in time and space to an alternate timestream (to avoid the great big clanging paradoxes it would otherwise cause). The only problems are that (a) there are dinosaurs, and (b) once you travel to the past, you can never go back to the future (eat that, Marty McFly). In this dystopian future lives the Shannon family: cop dad Jim, brilliant scientist/doctor mum Elizabeth, played by Mistresses’ Shelley Conn, and their three children: rebellious teen Josh, well-behaved clever science-y teen Maddy, and cute-as-a-button little Zoe. Three children? Uh-oh. In this overpopulated future, you’re only allowed two kids. So when the population police show up at their door and discover the youngest kid hidden in the air vents, Jim takes a swing at one of them and is sent to the kind of prison Solid Snake always seemed to breaking out of in the Metal Gear Solid games. As futuristic prisons go, it’s a bit light on security, and when Elizabeth shows up to tell Jim she’s been invited to go to Terra Nova with just the older two children, she leaves him a rebreather with a laser cutter in it as part of a plan for him to join them. Jim (somehow) uses this to get out of the supposedly-high-security prison, and then breaks into the supposedly-high-security Terra Nova departure lounge, gets discovered, but punches the guard and makes a break for the gate. He makes it through after his family, and we discover that in his backpack he’s been carrying little Zoe. So the whole Shannon family is now back in the past, making a fresh start in this colony in the New Old World.

What struck me immediately about Terra Nova was that it felt like a film. And not in a good way. The characters had that disappointingly common movie blockbuster issue of feeling stereotypical and two-dimensional. The opening scenes rely on us immediately identifying with the Shannon family being torn apart for having one too many kids in defiance of the law, and that’s fairly reasonable – there’s no way that separating parents and their 3-year-old daughter isn’t going to make us feel at least a little bit sympathetic to their plight. But then we get a whole “deadly jeopardy” sequence of Jim trying to join his family in Terra Nova, which attempts to play on an emotional engagement that the programme hasn’t yet earned. At this point all I knew was that Jim was an idiot with a temper because he punched the population cop and therefore went to jail, but the show seemed to see him as a hero (all the way through I felt that the show was screaming “but they’re faaaaaaaaamily” in my ear, as though that justified any amount of idiocy from the Shannons), and I didn’t care much about whether or not he made it. The whole “will Jim and Zoe make it through with their family?” sub-plot seemed unnecessary and a waste of time. Either send the whole Shannon family through as ordinary recruits or have Jim arrive later, setting up for a reunion with a wife and children who are already established at the colony and may have changed from the adoring family that Jim remembers. (Incidentally, The Walking Dead S1 did this sort of “family reunion” a lot better – when Sheriff Andrew Lincoln is reunited with his wife and son, it’s after the first episode and it turns out his wife thought he was dead and was having a fling with his best friend, so she’s not uncomplicatedly delighted to see him.)

Once at the colony, there is a lot of exposition about how clean the air is, how big the bugs are, how you can see the moon. But there really doesn’t seem to be a lot of culture shock, which seems odd. The Shannons are city dwellers, suddenly dropped back into a rural agrarian community. Even if there were no dinosaurs or danger, there should still be some struggles to adapt. Yet all we see is everyone being wowed by the moon and the brachiosaurs that little Zoe feeds.

However, it’s here that we meet the most interesting character so far, Commander Nathaniel Taylor, who is in charge of the Terra Nova colony. Taylor is a grizzled old soldier (he’s practically a Space Marine!) who welcomes Elizabeth as a doctor, but sends Jim off to work in the agricultural detail as he’s not convinced of his usefulness. Naturally Jim’s far too much of a hero to cut down vines and stick measuring devices into crops for more than a minute, so he stops a would-be assassin from shooting Commander Taylor. Taylor immediately seconds Jim to his security detail and there is much cryptic discussion about the Sixes – people who arrived on the Sixth Pilgrimage to Terra Nova with a hidden agenda and who have set up a new colony nearby, and to whom the assassin apparently belongs. Later we meet some of the other Sixes, including their leader Mira, fleeing a pair of carnotaurus (yay! dinosaurs at last!), and there is stand-off in the camp where we discover that they control access to the quarry and steal equipment from the Terra Nova colonists when they can, and the Terra Novans trade the would-be assassin for mineral ores.

We then spend some time with Josh, the teenage son of the Shannon family, who has left his girlfriend behind in 2145, but who is immediately sucked in by a group of the most irritating, unlikely teenagers you will ever see on screen.  As one of them is a pretty girl, on day one Josh allows himself to be tempted to go OTG (“Outside The Gate”) to an area Taylor has declared off-limits where the irritating teens jump in waterfalls, make moonshine out of Jurassic fruit, look at the puzzling geometric carvings on the rocks, and get themselves attacked by first the Sixes and then a group of dinosaurs they call “Slashers” (apparently invented for the show). Eventually they are rescued by their parents and Taylor, although personally I was rooting for the dinosaurs all the way through that encounter.

Teenage girl defends her friend from dinosaurs with a gun in Terra Nova

Even heroically protecting her friend with a gun against carnivorous dinosaurs, she's pretty irritating.

But if you come in expecting a different sort of dinosaur, you won’t be disappointed. Jason O’Mara appears to be channelling Mel Gibson at the height of his superstar fame (before the anti-semitism and “sugar tits”, but still showing a hint of that old-fashioned sexism that we love so much about Uncle Mel), and it’s not just in the almost-uncanny physical resemblance. Jim Shannon is a family man. He’s so much of a family man that he couldn’t restrain his manliness enough to obey the law on overpopulation. He’s so much of a family man that even Phil Mitchell might think he goes on about it a bit. If you know nothing else about Jim Shannon (and basically we as viewers don’t), you know that his family is important to him. It appears to be his entire motivation for everything he does.

The Shannon family from Terra Nova

They're a faaaaaaaaaamily!

There is something weirdly conservative about Terra Nova. The Shannon family is archetypically nuclear – manly, hot-tempered, action man dad Jim versus nurturing, caring, healing mom Elizabeth (she might be a brilliant scientist, but it appears the only use the Terra Novans can think of for Dr Shannon is giving basic medical care to people, although she does get to do it by using giant leeches, which is pretty cool). The family can be shorthanded as the warrior (Jim), the healer (Elizabeth), the rash young brave (Josh), the geeky-pretty bookworm (Maddy), and the adorable baby (Zoe). They’re stereotypical gender-defined roles that we’ve seen in a million TV shows and films about families, from The Incredibles to The Simpsons. It doesn’t help that the programme has cast someone so young and attractive as Shelley Conn as Elizabeth. It’s hard to imagine when Elizabeth found time to qualify as a doctor and then become a world expert in bacteriology and the other -ologies as she must have had her older children when she was about 20 (Conn is 35). Maybe Jim was the main carer for the children while she went to university. Or maybe Josh and Maddy are actually Jim’s children by an earlier marriage – but this certainly wasn’t mentioned in the first episode (it would explain why they had a third child, however – perhaps Elizabeth wanted a child that was biologically hers).

I hope that Terra Nova will allow its characters to grow and breathe, to acquire some additional dimensions and light and shade. There are some promising signs, but after a 2-hour pilot you expect the characters to have already dealt with some interesting dilemmas or at least for the show to have more dinosaur action. The clash with the Sixes gives us a potential for human conflict, while there is always the bigger threat of something large and nasty out there trying to eat you. It could be so interesting.

At the moment the Sixes seem *ahem* “inspired” by the Others from Lost, but there are hints that they might be more sympathetic and less villanous than how they were initially presented. Mira, leader of the Sixes, tells one of her crew that whoever controls the past controls the future – so perhaps the “alternate time-stream” isn’t as alternate as all that. And it’s heavily hinted that Taylor’s missing son made the geometric carvings on the rocks, and that Taylor isn’t as wise and kindly as he appears.

I’ll keep watching for now, but the show needs to develop some characterisation outside of genre tropes quickly, otherwise no one will care what happens to the Shannons. And I know the CGI is expensive, but dinosaurs are the USP of the show and they need to show more of them to keep us interested. So, a cautious welcome to Terra Nova – but it could have been so much better.

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