Fall 2011 Review: Terra Nova

15 Dec

Lost set both a high and low bar for long supernatural mystery shows.  It was captivating at the beginning with well-developed characters, fine acting, an interesting setting and a mystery which had fans thinking about the show, searching the internet for theories and possible answers to all of the questions the show posed, big and small.  Of course, some Lost fans will tell you that if you thought it was just about the mysteries you didn’t get it.  That’s bullshit.  Mysteries aren’t enough if the characters and the story are shit but there is no question of their importance when you pay so much attention to them early on in the show.

Since Lost began, a host of long form mystery shows have tried to replicate its success and very few have had any success.  The Event, Flashforward, Surface, Invasion, are some and the list goes on.  Terra Nova is the newest attempt.  Terra Nova does a good enough job of setting up an interesting premise with enough initial mystery to make me curious going forward.

Terra Nova begins in 2149, where man has destroyed the environment.  The air is not fit to breathe and strict population controls lead our main family to get in trouble with the government for having a third child.  The patriarch, Jim, is thrown in jail.  Two years later, Jim’s wife, Dr. Elisabeth Shannon, is recruited for Terra Nova, a journey into a new space-time, 85 millions years ago but in a different timeline, which has been found through a mysterious portal.  She helps her husband break out of jail and the whole family, including teenage son Josh, teenage daughter Maddy and five year old Zoe, makes it into the past.  From there, we find a paradise surrounded by a gate, with fierce dinosaur creatures outside.  Another threat is from a separatist movement from Terra Nova known as Sixers.  The other initial mystery lies in strange writings which Josh finds on a mischievous adventure outside of the camp, and the fact that it’s probably related somehow to the head of Terra Nova, Commander Nathaniel Taylor’s, missing son.

Unfortunately, only a small part of a show like this in its premise.  Delivery on the questions set up is so important.  When  your show is about a mystery, a satisfying conclusion is integral to making that work.  That includes parceling out answers slowly but definitively, keeping the audience dangling but  never dangling too far.  It’s a carrot and stick game, and it’s important that the carrot never goes so far that we can’t even see it anymore.  Conclusions are so much harder than premises.  I can think of a hundred great ideas for premises, but it’s much harder to figure out how to solve them in ways that are interesting, not entirely predictable, and don’t feel like they come out of nowhere.

Good characters and writing make the journey more interesting, more meaningful, and more worth rewatching if everything else is a success.   It’s hard to tell what you’re going to get in these respects from the first episode.  Overall, it was just about average in every way in regard to these aspects.  The characters were fine, not especially interesting or necessarily lacking and the writing was nothing to commend but wasn’t terrible either.  Right now the only part of the show tempting me to watch again is the mystery, which isn’t ideal, but sometimes it takes a while to develop compelling characters.

I did think it was strange that they chose the evil Colonel from Avatar to be the leader of Terra Nova considering the similarity between the two just in terms of both being set in pre-colonized planets lush with wildlife and dangerous creatures.  If he turns out to be evil, and Giovanni Ribisi is the penny-pinching corporate overlord, I am not going to be happy.

Will I watch it again?  Maybe.  I’m watching it late enough in the season that I’m unfairly influenced by what I hear around me, and that seems to be not much, which I’m interpreting as meaning it’s neither very good nor very bad.  It was, like Hell on Wheels, good enough to make me interested in watching a second episode, but not good enough to make me feel like I necessarily had to.

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