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After quite a few trials and errors, last week, Terra Nova managed to produce a multi-storyline episode that was not only entertaining, but was also the first to really break with the show’s habit of holding back on the overarching story. This week, with its first try at delivering an episode entirely built on that main story, the series hit all the right notes.
Like for everything else in life, not all TV shows are the same. When it is your job to watch them, interestingly, the most striking difference between them is not their budget, the number of viewers they draw or even their category. What sets them apart is the ambition of the production team. That’s how intuitively, as a reviewer, you sort out “little league” shows from those that take themselves more (or maybe too) seriously. It can be seen, among other things, in the way stories are structured or how acting shortcomings are tolerated. Because of that pervasive nature, occasionally, there is an episode that makes you wonder who the writers and producers were and if they have done any work for the show before. “Vs.” was such an episode for Terra Nova.
The first thing the episode did right was to have everything happening in and around the settlement contribute to the main storyline, with small surprises along the way. When the dragonfly appeared to be “in league” with Mira, it wasn’t clear at first that it was a live animal and that it was acting as a carrier pigeon. Unveiling it later was clever and was just one of many instances where Malcolm (the settlement’s head scientist) shined during the episode. He wasn’t impressive because he was smart, but because he was instrumental in allowing the story to move forward and because his interactions with Shannon and Taylor were pitch-perfect.
In previous episodes, the show had already hinted at a darker side to Taylor, so when Boylan awoke Shannon’s suspicions the audience was ready, further encouraged by the commander’s bad-cop attitude; enhanced interrogation techniques generally don’t help the reputation of the people using them. Because of all that backstory and what was happening with Boylan, the episode could lead us smoothly through Shannon’s investigation. It was interesting to see Elisabeth’s involvement. When they were discovered, I couldn’t help thinking about her third (illegal) pregnancy, given how she was obviously uncomfortable and ill-equipped to do something her husband had dragged her into.
The way Shannon pieced things together made sense and was in keeping with the character, which is also why Taylor could see very quickly that the settlement’s cop was onto him. Boylan was also very well used, but the episode really shined with the conversation between Shannon and Taylor in the brig and his subsequent “thanksgiving” speech. The story made his case very convincingly, showing that not all situations have room for the morally righteous, that sometimes a harsher approach to things is the only choice we have, that sometimes a tainted hero is our best hope to survive. This could be seen in the way Jim and Elisabeth Shannon looked at Taylor on stage and is also why the scene worked.
A personal favorite was the play involving Zoe. Writers too often fail to set up things properly. However, the festival and Zoe’s role as Cmdr. Taylor, besides involving the Shannon family, seemed to serve another purpose: develop a cult of personality around Taylor to further establish his character as flawed. The eye-opening appearance of the general (who was cleverly hidden during rehearsals) was very competently done and, in a way, much more dramatic than the real event seen as a flashback later.
The episode also did well with the science (including the presence of a dragonfly 85 million years ago) with everything involving Malcom, with Elisabeth’s “molecular signatures of time displacement,” and with the possibility of opening the portal both ways.
The only minor quibbles I have are the absence of Skye at the festival and Maddy’s scene with Reynolds. The relationship between Maddy and her soldier really doesn’t bring the best out of Naomi Scott’s character. Also, the backstory in the flashback didn’t do enough to justify Lucas’s deep resentment against his father who was merciful (if we consider that being outside the gates is not a death sentence).
“Vs.” was excellent but because of what I hinted at earlier by referring to Terra Nova as a “little league” show, there is the legitimate concern that the series might not live up to what it has now set itself up to. We now know that greed is the driving force behind the presence of Lucas and the Sixers in the Late Cretaceous, but the issue is whether the show will ultimately succeed in doing what it did here: use the situation to develop more elegant stories with some depth, build a confrontation between two visions of the future of humanity instead of mostly spewing battles between two armed factions.