TV Review: Terra Nova
Can impressive effects and sweeping action make up for boring characters?
There is no doubt that Terra Nova is an incredibly ambitious series. Filmed in Australia and requiring twice the post-production time of an average television show, this new drama has the feel of a big blockbuster film come to the small screen. All those visual effects and beautiful sets amount to little, however, in the face of a group of main characters that are hopelessly dull.
Set in the 22nd century, Terra Nova finds Earth an environmental wreck. Our first view of a city resembles the wrecked planet in WALL-E, except this one is still full of people who have to wear respirators when leaving their homes due to the pollutants in the atmosphere. The Earth's salvation seems to be a rip in time that leads 85 million years in the past. Pilgrimages have been sent through this tear to begin setting up a new life in this not yet sullied version of Earth, giving humanity a second chance.
We're introduced to this new world via the Shannon family, headed up by Chicago cop Jim (Jason O'Mara) and his wife Elizabeth (Shelley Conn), a doctor and their three children Josh (Landon Liboiron), Maddy (Naomi Scott) and Zoe (Alana Mansour). At the start of the episode, the Shannons encounter trouble when they're investigated for a violation of population control. Due to the ever increasing tax humanity is placing on resources, families are only allowed to children and they have three. This no-no lands Jim in jail for two years and when Elizabeth is offered a spot in the Tenth Pilgrimage to Terra Nova, she is told she will not be allowed to take their youngest daughter with them. Through some subterfuge, the entire family manages to make it through the time rip and, since it only goes one way, there not a whole to be done about it. Once there, though, they'll have to contend with dinosaurs, giant bugs and a mysterious splinter group that's begun their own colony outside of the Terra Nova compound.
While everything in Terra Nova looks absolutely beautiful, there's a lack of substance that cannot be ignored. The creators have been pushing this as a family drama but the Shannons are a horrendously boring set of main characters serving little beyond basic archetypes. Another major issue is that there is never any explanation given as to why Jim and Elizabeth broke the law and had a third child. When asked about it, they avoid responding and this creates a serious likability issue with them. In a world that's crumbling around them, when they already had two healthy children, why would they be so selfish and stupid to have another kid? The pilot hints very subtly at the possibility that there's a greater reason to Zoe's existence but the creators underestimate how this potential mystery comes at the expense of it's main characters' integrity. It's hard not to go through the two-hour premiere wishing that we were instead seeing this world from the perspective of Commander Nathaniel Taylor (Stephen Lang playing a slightly more cuddly version of his Avatar villain), who's far more interesting to watch. Another worrisome development is the introduction, in the second half of the pilot, of a series of Lost-esque mysteries in the jungle, involving the dissenting colony. Terra Nova is at its best when it's having fun staging action-filled dinosaur battles but it's unclear whether wading through the other laborious elements of the show to get to them is worthwhile.
Terra Nova premieres Monday 7pm on Fox.