I’ve been accused of being a curmudgeon, and not happy unless I can complain about something. I am very aware, at times, that I can be very critical of things like movies and TV shows that insult my intelligence, but I don’t think that makes me a curmudgeon. To me, it makes me more aware of the manipulation by these folks who run the studios that if they cart out a few explosions and add a few sex scenes, I’ll not notice their stories are so paint-by-number.
So, despite knowing the track record of Brannon Braga (Star Trek: Voyager, Star Trek: Enterprise) and his corporate utopian views, I watched Terra Nova each week to see if this sci fi adventure show had anything to offer beyond the sci fi lite that the cable network the SyFy Channel offers viewers.
I do think the premise is interesting, showing us a very possible future of 2149 where man has basically destroyed the Earth. And while the idea of a space-time rift actually exists is silly, I can forgive them because that’s what makes sci fi so great, the idea. So a select group of people (gays not included, it seems. I mean, I guess your “re-populating” the Earth, so the biblical message is [sort of] subtle, but it’s there) are traveling back to an alternate Cretaceous period some 85 million years into the past (and it’s a one-way passage, once the people are here, they can’t get back, but they can communicate with the future). The series centers around the Shannon family, father Jim, a cop, his wife Elisabeth, a scientist, and their three kids, Josh, Maddy and Zoe. We know from the start that the Shannon family are rebels –having three kids in 2149 is forbidden, and Jim serves time for it (thus setting up the classic “daddy” issues between him and emo son Josh). As soon as they arrive, they become involved in the politics of Terra Nova along with an ongoing feud between Nathaniel Taylor (Commander of Terra Nova), his son Lucas and a group of renegade people known as the Sixers.
So the premise was pretty good, and as the series progressed, we learned that a cadre called The Phoenix Group in 2149 was communicating with the Sixers in hopes of exploiting the past to help the future. But since we were told that no one from the past could return to their future, how did the Sixers and the Phoenix group intend to roll out their plans? Well, we also learn that Taylor’s son Lucas was a brilliant scientist who is working for this group to enable the portal to be a 2-way access, and there we have our main conflict.
And that is where things fall apart.
The characters are all archetypes, which are not so bad, but while every story has been done before, why make all the characters so bland and stereotypical? Jim, while not remorseful for having a third child, becomes the Saint of Terra Nova when he and his family arrive, seemingly the only one who has the ability to think in any logical thought process. I like Jason O’Mara, who plays Jim. He embodies the character with a certain earnestness that belies the characters stick-figure creation. Still, as the season progresses, you wonder why he’s not in command of Terra Nova. He can be emotional when it comes to his family, but Commander Taylor is a complete asshole, hiding what an emotional mess he truly is, because his son is a prick and the Sixers exist to begin with.
And by making Taylor an asshole, and a variation on his character in Avatar, you’re supposed to love the Shannon family even more, despite the fact they are the most boring kids on the planet. We have son Josh, played by an actor who has just one facial look –emo-hang-dog- by Landon Liboiron. It was obvious that this actor was selected more on looks, than his ability to play a character that needs to have an emotional struggle with leaving his girlfriend in the future and a disappointment with his father. Perhaps it was the failure of the writers to create a better conflict, or it was Liboiron’s inability to grasp the motivations of his character that led to the role of Josh being so bland, so emo-ish. But in the end, he became indistinguishable between every other teen on TV that you could no longer care what happened to him. I often hoped that his boorish rebellion would get him killed off. But alas, this is a “family” show, and killing off someone like Josh was never even considered (someone should be watching shows like Game of Thrones to understand what I mean).
Maddy, played by Naomi Scott, is –perhaps- the most interesting of the Shannon’s kids. But sadly, even Scott cannot not escape the reality she is playing the TV version of Lex Murphy from Jurassic Park movies. She’s smart, bookish, making her so much like Lisa Simpson, it isn’t funny. And like any teenage girl, she immediately falls for Mark Reynolds, the handsome military man played Australian actor (doing a good American accent) Dean Geyer. Through the first season, we see their attraction grow, and even in the finale we see them kissing (with Reynolds partially out of uniform, mind you) when her dad walks by, catching them. But Jim seems to have no issue that Reynolds is nearly shirtless, with his tongue down his daughter’s throat. Sure, they break away (Geyer gets kudos for being able to portray Reynolds as an awkward kid in love), but had Dad not stumbled in on them, where would this “family” show have truly gone?
Zoe, I can careless about her. Her main function on this show is to appeal to 10 year-old girls. This means she does cute things (like hugging Commander Taylor after learning about the death of his second-in-command) and getting into trouble every couple of episodes.
Shelley Conn is underused as mother Elisabeth. The series tried to introduce a former flame into the mix, but it was painful to watch Malcolm moon over her. This was also, I think, a plot device to make the audience think Malcolm’s loyalties were questionable. Would he sacrifice Terra Nova for his lost love, Elisabeth? Conn has the mother lode of techobabble to say, but she seems unsure of what she really is saying.
Then we have Lucas Taylor (played with so much mustache twirling gusto by Ashley Zukerman), who seems have the bigger “daddy issues” than Josh. He is shown as brilliant scientist, yet mentally unstable and ruthless all because he has resented his father ever since his mother died because Taylor could not save her. Never mind the fact that it was revealed in the season finale, that his mother could not be saved. But hey, then we would have no drama.
The problem of Lucas is that he becomes such a cartoon villain, spouting out the silliest of dialogue, that there is no subtly to him. A good villain needs not always be so obvious. He’s ruthless, but even his killing of Washington is an over the top act. It’s like the writers decided that Lucas was not coming over evil enough, so they had to have him murder someone in cold blood. That, the writers seemed to say, is to show the asleep audience that Lucas can no longer be redeemable (unlike Skye, who betrayed Terra Nova a number of times by passing info to the Sixers. Though it’s revealed that her ill mother is being held by the Sixers, and being forced to do these things against her wishes).
Then they turn Lucas into Jason Voorhee’s. He is shot twice by Skye, yet is able to get away without either her or Taylor noticing he left, even though the two did not move away from where he was shot!
The whole series reminds me of Deep Space Nine in many ways. Which, I guess is not bad, as DS9 was best of the later Star Trek series. But the wholesale lifting cannot be so ignored any more. Terra Nova is then space station at the mouth of a time portal (i.e. the wormhole). There exists, on the other side of this portal, a mysterious company called The Phoenix Group (the Changelings/the Dominion) who have nefarious plans for Terra Nova and beyond. In the finale, to protect Terra Nova, Taylor plans to destroy the portal (where DS9 mined theirs to stop the Jem’Hadar and the Dominion). There is a bar in Terra Nova, run by the shifty Tom Boylan, who occasionally trades with the Sixers. He’s Quark, really. And seriously, is not Jim Shannon really Constable Odo? Lucas is Gul Dukat (well, the crazy part. It’s an insult to Marc Alaimo who the Cardassaian, I know).
So, as pointed out to me, all the stories have been done before. Okay, I can accept that. Then what is left is too create more believable characters, one’s who stories are not so paint-by-number. What makes European TV shows so much better is that they challenge the audience to like what are essentially unlikable heroes. Plus, to give a show some heightened suspense, main characters can be killed off at any given time (some American TV shows are starting to embrace this concept, but they mostly exist primarily on the premium cable channels). I would be less critical had Terra Nova killed off a larger character than Washington. Killing off one the Shannon kids, or someone more important to the survival of Terra Nova would have been impressive. Instead they kill of a replaceable red shirt military girl.
This is where Terra Nova fails to be creative. This is where broadcast TV and basic cable fail every time. If every story has been told, then let’s try to create interesting characters. People are so different, their stories so different, you think someone would want to try to make them stand-out. But instead, we get poor characters with ill-defined lives, played by actors who seem to unaware of how to play them.
Again, perhaps it’s the writers and producers fault more than the actors?
In the end, I’m through with this show. FOX has said they’ll make a decision on Terra Nova’s future sometime in 2012. Its ratings have been tepid at best, and it’s a hugely expensive show to produce. They may renew it just to see if they can get a return on their investment, but unless the show can prove to be something more than the sum of its parts, I would call the cast home. Not since The X Files has this network given us a sci fi show that breaks out the typical TV series tropes (well, there was Firefly and Wonderfalls).
Still, if the upcoming Alcatraz is successful, and House finishes its run in 2012, Terra Nova could be back.
Critical, yes, but I don’t like the moniker of being a curmudgeon. I don’t think expecting a lot from movie or TV shows is horrible thing. Setting the bar high is not a wrong thing.