Let’s talk about Terra Nova.
Terra Nova: The Series
I want you to imagine a TV series. Close your ears, and start imagining this series. I would say close your eyes, but reading without eyes is kind of tough. So here we go:
In the near future, the world has undergone a series of environmental crises. The world is covered in dust storms and major overpopulation has caused laws on population control. Human beings are confined to pressurized confinement, need to wear respirators outside and are heavily regulated. Food is scarce, the world is destroyed, and hope seems to have been crushed. Then, a miracle happens.
A portal opens. How? Well, that information seems to be controlled by the government of the near future. The portal is stable until a probe is sent through the portal, but the probe never returns any data once through. The portal closes, and is considered unstable. However, several years later the portal opens again, and feeble signals are sent through. The place it ended up has Earth normal gravity, Earthlike oxygen content, and seems livable. However, the probe destroys itself attempting to bring back samples.
The portal is stabilized so that theoretically a man could be sent through. The man selected is one Commander Taylor, a middle aged soldier, survival expert and father. He comes through the portal, and the portal closes behind him. Several years later, the portal opens again, and Taylor sends his report through. The planet is stable enough for human beings to live there, and colonization is possible. He is named commander of the colony, and the “First Pilgrimage” is sent through the portal, which has been stabilized further.
However, there are major problems with colonization. These major problems seem to come from the fact that the portal is connecting two different times as well as spaces. The portal seems to be linked back to around 85 million years ago on Earth. This shocks people, however, it seems to validate that it is in fact a parallel universe, because the arrival of a planetary colony does not change the future of the planet. The other major problem is that 85 million years ago is also the time of the dinosaurs.
Yes, human beings and dinosaurs are thrown together, having to deal with each other. There are evolutionary creatures in every ecological niche, and because it is a side universe, the creatures can be somewhat fantastical. It’s awesome.
The pilgrimage is a wild success. The people are able to go through the portal and establish a colony that is self sustaining, people are generally content, and everyone is working together to make a utopia. The colonists are discovering entire new species, deriving new drugs, and generally making the colony a resounding success. It seems that the only hope for the future is to flee into the past.
The pilgrims are selected by lottery and skills. If they fit a niche that needs filling, they are put into the portal with their families. They say goodbye to their old lives, and assume new ones within the colony of Terra Nova.
That sounds like the back story to a sick ass show right? I mean, first off, leave out the dinosaurs, the portal and all that shit, it’s a show about survival on a familiar but alien world, a hostile and strange time, the birth of a colony and the attempts to keep a utopia from falling into the hands of outside interests. Then, you add the fact that it could be very science fiction-y, with time travel, and the seeming ability to only travel one way through the portal, but the possibility of communication back through the portal to the future.
And, on top of that, you have dinosaurs. Boom goes the dynamite, dinosaurs.
Look, I’m not alone in thinking that dinosaurs are awesome right? And the moment I first saw Jurassic Park, I knew that no one would ever be better than Steven Spielberg doing dinosaurs ever again. The dinosaurs were fleshy, dangerous, and obviously kick ass in that movie. Even the CGI ones seemed to have weight and heft. They did an excellent job, even though, for most of the movie, you didn’t see dinosaurs. Every time you did see them, they stole the damn show.
I saw the Jurassic Park exhibit when it came around to the Maryland Science Center. Want to know what looked as real as anything in the whole Science Center? The Triceratops from Jurassic Park, lying down and breathing on the floor. It was so cool, and even in person, where you would expect it would look most fake, it looked real. Someone had lovingly crafted every little bump and hair to make it look like a real animal, sick but majestic on the floor of a science center. It was awesome.
So, when I heard Mr. Spielberg was involved with Terra Nova, I was even more on board. The casting choices seemed fine, they seemed to be talking a lot about future gun design in the interviews that I read, but whatever. I was on board for the series.
What Went Wrong?
Now, someone out there is reading this and saying, “Hey, wait a minute, I caught this show on TV, but I never watched another episode, because it was fumblingly terrible. None of the characters were the ones that you described, and if we talk about the dinosaurs… well, let’s not talk about the dinosaurs.” You, person who watched the show, are correct. What I described up there is not the show Terra Nova. That is the back story to Terra Nova. The plot of Terra Nova is somewhat related, but not really. So, how did they screw up such a premise so bad? Well, let’s get into it, shall we?
Who the hell are these people?
You see, we aren’t following the adventures of Commander Taylor, dinosaur fighting, bug eating, fish mongering surviving badass, oh no! We get to see this beautiful pan racial family go to the already well established and protected colony. How long has it been since Taylor struggled to eke out an existence in this harsh, hostile world? Well, it’s been at least ten pilgrimages. I’m going to say that again. TEN pilgrimages. After ten new groups of people, you’d assume that they are pretty well established, right? The hostile world has been somewhat tamed, farms are up and running, and the Dinosaurs, while a threat, have been pretty well warded off.
So why are we watching this show then?
So, instead of the bad-ass in the back...
we get the guy in the front. In the pilot, our protagonist “Jim Shannon” is a cop who breaks the rules and is sent to prison for it. He’s a good cop, and his only crime is having an extra kid, so we’re supposed to feel bad for him, but he did knowingly break the law. He’s serving time, and amazingly, his hot doctor wife gets selected to go on the next pilgrimage to Terra Nova. Not being able to bear going and starting a new life without her husband, “Doctor Elisabeth “My Character Trait is that I am a very special and amazing Doctor” Shannon, MD” breaks him out of prison, and smuggles him and their third child into Terra Nova. Since they can’t send things back, and there is plenty of room, everyone forgives him, and he becomes the Sheriff of the colony. This is our hero and his hero wife. Their hero kids are both slightly more and incredibly less interesting, because they also are one dimensional, and infuriating. The way I phrased that sentence, it would seem that they were more interesting because of their one dimension and less because they are infuriating Nothing could be further from the truth.
First, let’s deal with the oldest and the youngest.
Here they are!
Let’s deal with the little one first. Her character trait is “CUTE!” She’s cute. Look, I don’t like to criticize little kids, especially little kids who are forced to look at tennis balls and pretend they are majestic creatures that dazzle and invigorate the imagination. That is a tough gig. She’s cute, she “acts” well enough, or as much as she needs to as a little kid, and she is adorable. She does a great job. Her name is Zoe. Zoe is the third, and therefore is only allowed to remain in Terra Nova because she is perhaps better than her brother Peter and her sister Valentine and has his ruthlessness but also her compassion so she can be sent to battle school so she can fight the oncoming threat of the buggers… Hold on. I think I got mixed up with an awesome story about population control and loss of innocence in a harsh and cruel world. Man, somebody should make a show based on a story like that. Only, they wouldn’t and it would have naked little kid murder in it.
The big one, or Josh as it likes to be called in the show, has the one attribute of “annoying asshole who goes against the grain no matter what, but is still a good guy deep down.” I know that seems like a long title for a character trait, but it is earned, and his only trait. He is there to be an angsty teen, who hates his dad for leaving his family alone, but just needs time to discover himself. It would be great if that second part could ever happen, but it seems like the writers have time locked him into being a dick. Acting wise, he is fine, because since he is relegated to dick moves throughout the whole show, the fact that you want to punch him in the face is totally warranted.
Then, we have the middle child…
Maddie is literally the only person in Terra Nova (The TV Show, not the colony) who has ever read anything in her life, and will gladly tell you about every goddamn thing she has ever read in her life. Don’t know something about the colony, ask Maddie. Don’t know something about a dinosaur, Maddie will tell you everything about it, including the size of it’s poop. Maddie knows all, sees all. She’s like God, but only if God was only useful for exposition purposes, but whenever crucial knowledge needs to be dumped at the end of a story, well, she is nowhere to be found.
That is who we follow from 2149. This ragtag group of misfi… this mildly (for six months, because they had an extra kid, not because of divorce or anything actually tragic) broken family, who love each other deep down, even though they have been through hard times.
I guess I can understand why we need to have a way in through these people. They are new, so are we, we need to look through their eyes to see the colony. I personally would have picked a different set of eyes, because the Planeteers of boring (COP, DOCTOR, CUTE, INFODUMP, DICK BROTHER! When our powers combine, “I am boooooring”) are boring. Super boring. Just look at how many o’s I used in the parentheses.
Anyway, these cyphers… I mean characters, are transported from 2149 to 85 million BC because… well, because the Mom got a pass from “Science Officer Leader Guy Who Went To College And Wants To Bone Shannon’s Doctor Wife” for Doctor Doctor Doctor MD and Infodump and Dick Brother.
I just call 'em like I see 'em, guy.
But, what about Cute and Cop? Well, since the law is sitting on him hard for knocking up his hot doctor wife (have I mentioned that she is a doctor), he breaks out of jail, puts Cute into a backpack, and absconds to the least guarded incredibly valuable portal to the past ever made. They all get through. All is forgiven. By this man.
This is actually the look he gives you right before he kills you. I mean, look at that guy behind him, he's literally crapping his pants.
That’s Taylor. Taylor is the commander of the colony. He’s pretty awesome, has the most experience on the outside of the colony, and is pretty freaking awesome. The actor is really solid in the role, showing the right amount of stress and joy in his creation, with a subtle hint of darkness to him. You actually think he might be good or bad. Since ambiguous characters are not allowed on television, they stomp that right out, and he becomes a pretty straightforward “good” guy. Although, I have some stuff to say about that.
Anyway, that generally rounds out the Terra Nova side of the cast. There are a couple of incidental characters. Slab Bulkhead, who is Maddie’s love interest, some guy who runs a bar with illegal connections to the people outside the gates, and the guy who runs the shop in town. There are also some soldiers who’s main purpose is to give Taylor people at whom he can shout exposition. Oh yeah, and Princess Michelle from Kings. (Incidentally, if you want to watch a show that is awesome and cancelled before it’s time, watch that show. If a couple of animals is enough for me to write a blog post about a show, Kings has butterflies, pigeons, some dogs, and fish. It is mostly not about animals.)
Why did Kings get cancelled? WHY? Oh, her name is Skye in this show.
So, now that we have our nominal protagonists, and we have established a “in here” community, we need to have a “out there” community. What good is a we without a they? “They” in this case are called Sixers. They are led by, and this is daring casting, mainly because she seems to be the only major black character on the show, Mira.
Shockingly, the villain is not pan racial (white), but is pan racial (black).
Why is Mira upset? It’s eventually revealed that the future has captured her daughter and they are making her and the other Sixers help to open the portal both ways. This is seen as evil. There are other Sixers, but they don’t get names, because they are mostly there to make it appear that Terra Nova is under threat by the humans.
Why did I phrase that that way? Glad you asked. If there is one thing that I haven’t been focusing on in this review, it is the major selling point of the show. “Procedural elements inside of a serialized drama?” you ask? No! Dinosaurs! Want to know why? Because there are essentially zero.
Dinosaurs come in three flavors in Terra Nova. 1. Threat. “Oh my god, those are coming right for us!” 2. Inconvenience “How are we going to get there to save them with a pack of those over there!” and 3. Science division “If only we could figure out what was in this venom, we could make everybody better!” If the plot doesn’t require it to be one of these things, there are zero dinosaurs in it. The dinosaurs are not even the threat that you would expect. Judging by the fact that this show has the possibility of dinosaurs, you would expect them to be used as a constant and ever present threat to going outside the colony. Nope! They’re just mild inconveniences, what with the futuristic weapons we have.
So, the people are boring, the dinosaurs are a mild inconvenience, and the bad guys are humans who don’t agree with the good guys. This show infuriates me. Now that you know all this, I want you to go read that first part again. I want you to read it, and remember how awesome some of that sounded, and how it still could sound, if you didn’t know what the show was actually about. Coulda been so good right?
If They Rebooted The Show…
See, I don’t just want to play Monday morning quarterback. I think that if they rebooted the show, they could have done a great job. I’m going to propose the series that I would have wanted to see, based on the backstory and cast that they already have. After that, I’ll propose a general sketch of a second season, based on the series that we have already seen.
So, keeping the same characters and setting, let’s propose some changes.
First, I’d have the Shannon family on the second pilgrimage. Why the second? Well, first off, the colony wouldn’t just be humming along. There would still be some struggles against the environment around them, which would solve our antagonist problem, but let’s hold off on that. One, doctors would be of more use in this world, and since Doctor I’m a Brilliant Doctor MD Doctorton would be needed in the away team from time to time, you can make her character more pacifist, but also in more potential danger. You can also have her establishing a hospital, instead of working in an already built hospital. That way, she would be constantly trying to save lives, and occasionally failing, giving the series some emotional depth that it doesn’t have. You’d lose the super young children, but you already have murder in the show, and people going insane, so that is not much of a change.
Cop Dad would also have a better reason to be there too. We could lose the whole “in prison for loving his wife and daughter” angle, and actually have him be a foil to Taylor. Cop Dad would be somewhat obsessed with establishing a fair and just society, and Taylor would be attempting to be a dictator. They would be working together to fight the dangers of the dinosaur, while disagreeing about how the colony would be run. This relationship would be a complex and interesting one, because essentially they both enforce by the point of a gun, but one side is more military and one is more police. See! They end up respecting each other, and trying to overcome their differences to make themselves useful.
Josh would be a character torn between loyalty to his family and attempting to be a part of the soldiers ranks. Since there would be soldiers and civilians in about equal amounts, he could drift between them. His dad would be scared that he would die in the line of duty, and discourage him from joining the military, but of course, Josh would be noble for trying to protect his family and friends, and he would be torn between these two. He would see his sisters as the future of the colony, inspired by Taylor, and would put himself on the line, echoing his dad’s sentiments. See how complex this could be?
Maggie, as an intelligent young girl, would be a girl without a place. She doesn’t fit in with the soliders, and it seems like the civilians are more interested in the simple needs of life, as opposed to her more lofty and scientific pursuits. However, her ability to find information and be a real scientist helps the colony. We establish that she isn’t fit to be a medic in the military, but she also isn’t super concerned with the practical matters of the colony. She is drawn to pursuits like dissection, understanding dinosaur behavior, and other things seen as pointless, but eventually, she shows her worth in this role by warding off dinosaurs, establishing fences, working hard, and even turning her power onto the day to day problems of the colony.
Zoe would remain cute. However, she would be the most likely kid surrogate. She would be there to hear things that are absolutely essential for us to hear for expositions sake. But, she would be there illegally. She was not on the manifest for the colony, and while she is perfectly fine, she is one of the only non teenage and up people of the colony. She is constantly in danger, just for living. While she is protected by the whole colony and embraced, everyone knows that the dinosaurs hunt the weaker and smaller, and that is why she wasn’t on the manifest. She was supposed to be held back, but the family insisted. SEE! She is cute and creates tension.
I like this because it brings the focus on the family. Taylor would slowly be incorporated into the family as a trusted person, but we wouldn’t need to know him at the start. The season would be about this small group of people being forged into an even stronger group by the force of a dangerous and scary outside world.
Second, I’d use dinosaurs. I’d use them in two ways. First, dinosaurs should be the threat of the series. When we find something bad that has happened, it should not be blamed on people. Cop Dad would have plenty to do figuring out basic crimes like theft and smuggling, or contraband without murder being a big thing. This would also raise the stakes, because I envision the colony to be a group of about 40 soldiers and 40 civilians. By using extras appropriately, you could have 6 people die, and it make a huge impact on the colony. Everyone would know everyone else. Each death would mean something to the cast, and death would mean something to the audience because of that. In a colony of 80 people, one death could mean so much more than 10 deaths in a colony of seeming thousands.
Second, dinosaurs would be seen as a solution to some problems. They could provide new biochemical things for Maggie to research. They could become pets for the society. They could be used as brute labor. They could be bred and utilized for defense of the colony. We don’t know what they could do, because we haven’t explored them at all. But they should never be inconsequential. They should always have weight to them
Speaking of which, third, if you are going to have dinosaurs, the more practical effects you can do, the better. I don’t care if you have to drag all of the Jurassic Park props out of storage and put new coats of latex and paint on them or what, but CGI is not a replacement for something that your characters can physically interact with. Also, practical effects make the director more cognizant of what is actually being seen, because they can see it. There is no hand waving of “Well, the dinosaurs chase them through here, and they’ll just do it in the computer.” If it can’t be done practically, then you need to show the effects of what happened practically, and only show the barest moment of CGI. The less frames that you digitally alter, the better, because they stick out like a sore thumb. This includes your precious guns. They need to be able to practically fire, and be recognizable as doing damage to the things they shoot.
Lastly, the main arc of the series would change for me. I think it would be trying to survive and improve their position while holding the portal site. They are waiting for what are essentially the next wave of people from the future. They are combating illness and disease. But the main thing that they are doing, for the whole series is expressing hope.
Terra Nova should be a show about hope. The hope for a better future for humanity. The hope for a better home. The hope for exploration and the hope that humanity can avoid the mistakes of the past, given a new chance. This first group of people would be seen as the heroes who came into a strange world, and fought the fight for hope, for all of humanity, against the tyrant lizards and the world around them. Their hope would inspire hope in the world of 2149, and they would be well known by them.
The third pilgrimage would be the culmination of their work, and would launch a new arc. Taylor or Jim would take command, they would work together to create a society. The building of that society, including protests against the rule of one or the other, the creation of laws and codes, and the problems with new people would be foundation for the second. We would always have the next pilgrimage to establish another threat to the colony, or even another hope for the colony.
And if it got well established, we could fight a band of outsiders. Taylor or Jim could lead some people away, fracture the colony, make people choose sides, and there would be two colonies. Or, the future could be trying to strip mine Terra Nova, and we would start fighting the future. Or, more portals could open, and more people could be coming through. But, from the beginning, we have characters that matter, and we have a threat that doesn’t have politics or reasons, just claws and teeth.
Where I’d go from here…
Spoiler Alert – I’m going to discuss things that are farther into the series than the basic plot as I have up to this point. If you are going to watch the show, and don’t want to know what is coming at all, this is where I would stop reading. If you don’t much care, keep going. This big red block should at least stop some people from getting down here and continuing to read. I like the show, you might like it too, especially if you enjoy writing long blog posts about how bad shows could be great.
What we have learned this season is that Taylor has a son. His son, Lucas, who has never forgiven his father for his mother’s death, has aligned himself with a conglomerate of some kind in the future, who want to strip mine Terra Nova. Taylor, as a person who loves the idea of a fresh start, isn’t a big fan. Mira and the Sixers have been planted in Terra Nova to aid Lucas in making the portal two way compatible. He’s been trying to do this for a while. He’s finally succeeded.
Next week is the finale. If I were to guess, the future would be repelled, at least temporarily. The portal will be closed by our Terra Novans on this side, cutting them off from aid from the future. The Eleventh Pilgrimage will be interrupted by fighting, and Taylor will have to cut off ties from the future.
If I were making season two of Terra Nova, here is how I would start.
First off. I’d have the Future Forces be somewhat successful, and make the colony unlivable, at least temporarily. If not unlivable, at least damaged. We need to see the people that we have in a crisis. I’d like to see the colony pull together with the Sixers to share food and guns against the future force. I’d love it if Mira wasn’t just portrayed as an inhuman monster sometimes and a confused person sometimes. But most of all, I want this.
I want the writers to understand something. The 2149 future is unsustainable, and maybe this conglomerate isn’t wrong to want to use some resources from Terra Nova. I’m not saying that they are right, or that the new world should be mined to save the old, but if the problem is overpopulation, then the outlet that is Terra Nova needs to be used better. If life is sustainable on 2149 Earth, then reducing the population and adding some water and air from Terra Nova may actually be a solution to the problem. Is it a permanent solution? No. But someone on the show needs to make the argument that the 2149 Earth is full of people as well, and deserves to be considered, not just because of the profit motive as it has been displayed so far.
Second, Josh needs to either become a major character linked with other major characters or needs to be relegated. Josh makes me more annoyed than anyone else, because he seems like he flips from good son to bad son inside episodes. Either make him a soldier, or make him a conduit for information to the Sixers. Maybe even make him the person who is making rational arguments about how the future will not be saved by coming to Terra Nova, it will require both sides working together.
Third, Maggie needs to be more than just an infodump. If she could actually date Slab Bulkhead, and we could see her going through that relationship in a more mature manner, that would be great. He’s actually a pretty awesome character, and it would be great for her and him to be showcased. Also, she’s a strong woman in a dangerous world. Show that. She should not just be some daisy, she should be hacking through the jungle, a explorer scientist, an adventurer. Have Billifer Nye, the guy who wants to bang Shannon’s wife, or even Taylor tell her that she needs field time to understand the fauna of Terra Nova. Have her charge into the Jungle, and more importantly, have her come out victorious, and stronger as a character. She should come back with knowledge about the way to live in Terra Nova, and she will be awesome.
Fourth, Zoe needs to represent the hope that Terra Nova represents. She needs to be the reason why Jim, Taylor and everyone else is trying to finish things, get more secure, and work harder to keep things away from the colony. She needs to play that role well.
Fifth, Elisabeth also needs to not be relegated to Doctor Doctor Doctor, or Sex Object between Jim and Billifer Nye. She’s a fantastically beautiful strong woman character, show her being strong, showing people what to do, and performing surgery. She’s awesome. Use her.
Sixth, appropriately, is about the Sixers. They need to have better motivations than just mustache twirling. It’s been revealed that they have kidnapped and poisoned a human being for years (Yes, I know that she was being kept alive by their herbal remedy, but the flip side to that is, as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen said, “The absence of a thing can be as deadly as the presence.” If Dune says it is poisoning, it’s poisoning.) Have them fighting for the people who will never be able to come through because of the lottery. Have them fighting for the equality of resources between the haves and have nots. Have them fighting for something. At least give them a layer of humanity. Don’t just make them monsters because you need someone to fight.
Finally, Dinosaurs. Please have more goddamn dinosaurs. CGI, practical, what have you. I want my dinosaurs to be a threat, not scared off by a little bow and arrow. I want 50 foot tall monsters knocking the shit out of some fences. I want them to be trampling and stampeding. You don’t even have to show it, just let the colony know it is coming, and show the fallout from the news. I’d also like to see how the colony runs, how big it is, how many people are there, and how the economy works. Is there money? Is it all bartering? Is food free? Are they a commune, a collective? Do they all work the same hours? How do they handle dinosaurs that can slip through the fences? How do they protect from flying dinosaurs? Who is in charge of communicating with the future? How do they do it?
I like this show. I’ve written 5,000 some odd words on it. I think you can tell that it would mean a lot to me if it were good. I also think it should get another shot to be good. I like the actors, the characters other than Josh, and I like the rapport that they have established. It think they are doing well with the colony. I just wish it had been better off the bat, so that i could be singing it’s praises, instead of heavily criticizing it. So, Terra Nova writers, I know your job is very hard, and I know that what you are doing is completely difficult and wildly crazy. I understand. I just wish that I could give you the protection that you would need to knock this show out of the park. Military/Civilian Dinosaur Colony should inspire people to think of the greatest, most insane thing in the world. Make it so.
Thanks for reading all this, anyone who did. If you did, look under your seat, I’ve left a gift there for you. It’s a medal that says World’s Greatest Reader. If you didn’t read all the way through, but you are reading this, yours says “World’s Greatest Skimmer.”