Terra Nova shows sci-fi fans what can be done in a fantasy show with a real budget.
The new Fox series is about a community of people who, in order to escape the overpopulation of a future Earth, travel back in time to an era before human development. To make sure they’ve gone back far enough to avoid disturbing the current human population, they head to pre-cataclysm days when massive dinosaurs still roamed the earth.
The protagonist is a former detective who breaks out of prison to make the one way trip to the new colony, where he gets hired on as a sort of sheriff, since the colony has little in the way of law enforcement (other than military).
His wife is the colony’s new doctor, and the kids are stereotypical kids – sullen teen, brainy teen, and wide-eyed toddler.
In the first episode (a double length, so technically two episodes) we learn quite a bit already. The episode was compressed, and a considerable amount of uself info was squeezed into a still rather small space. The foundations were laid for about half a dozen subplots, and that’s just the obvious ones, as there are likely several more subplots that will be revealed in future episodes.
The big puzzle here (this show falls in that new popular genre of serialized drama, which I’ve been calling Big Puzzle shows, since the appeal of the show mostly revolves around a single, slowly revealed conundrum) is that Terra Nova was founded for some ulterior motive.
The stated motive of escaping the future of our dying planet is apparently only part of the story. The characters reveal to the audience that whoever sent these people back is making some kind of power-play – the identity of who or what organization is actually in charge of Terra Nova from the future is left unsaid, but one gets the impression it’s an enigmatic governmental authority.
One of the most intriguing subplots is the existence of the “Sixers,” a large contingent of people who came over on the Sixth Pilgrimage (the protagonists arrived on the Tenth Pilgrimage), who broke off from the main Terra Nova settlement, apparently under different orders from someone else in the future who wants to make sure that their own power is represented.
Less interesting is the subplot of the colony leader’s missing – apparently savant – son, and about half a dozen romances and love triangles.
The pilot being as crowded as it was with exposition, there was no opportunity to show the audience what the show was like. The second episode (technically episode 3, again because of the double episode) gives us a better idea, when the characters discover a new animal in the wilderness. This new dangerous creature must be dealt with, and the skills and resources of all of the protagonists must be utilized in the effort.
This is how the show will likely go most of the time. Dangerous thing comes out of the jungle, Doctor and Sheriff need to deal with it. It’s actually remarkably close to the formulae and characterizations of Eureka, while the main subplots – why are we here? Who are those other people in the jungle? – are remarkably similar to LOST. Both shows very successful, and mostly fun to watch, so it’s not a bad combo.
The place where the show doesn’t shine is in the plot-holes. Any time-travel story always has a few plot-holes, but this one is glaringly difficult to ignore: The portal is only one-way. They’ve made it clear several times that nothing can ever go back. There is no return, and once you’re there there is no way to get information back to the other side. No one in the future knows what is going on in Terra Nova.
If that’s true, then how do they even know it exists? How do they even know that the portal leads back in time? It was also established in the first episode that the characters are in an alternate timeline, so messages can’t even be left with the hope that they will survive for 65 million years to be read in the future. There is no way for anything in Terra Nova to get back to the future, so, for all the scientists know, they are sending people into a black hole. They wouldn’t even be able to hypothesize about what was on the other side, much less think it viable for colonization.
To make it worse, the characters occasionally mention sending messages back to the future, status reports and requests for materials and personnel, but no mention is made of how they get these messages through the portal. It could be explained that perhaps radio waves are able to travel back through the portal, while physical matter cannot, but so far this has not been explained, and still presents its own problems. Like why no one in the future seems to know what is going on in Terra Nova (the new colonists had never heard of the Sixers, for example, something that would have made the news back home, if news could make it home).
I really want to love this show, but I can’t go five minutes without my immersion being broken by this huge flaw. It very nearly makes me want to stop watching, but not quite. I think we should give it a chance to explain itself.
Terra Nova airs Monday nights on Fox.