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Of the plethora of shows coming to our screens for the first time this fall, Terra Nova has just about the biggest chance of being an expectative failure. Whilst Alcatraz and Person of Interest have the backing of J.J Abrams, the man has put enough genuinely entertaining and intriguing things on television already to be due a bad one (let’s just pretend that Undercovers didn’t happen). Grimm hasn’t really been thrown in our faces enough to have anyone excited enough to be disappointed if it fails and The River and Awake have the fortune of starting slightly later in the year and being forgotten about before they’re put onto screens.
Steven Spielberg’s producer-ship aside, Terra Nova has a fairly colossal budget for a completely untested show ($4 million an episode) and with such a big start-up cost given its sets, CGI and the rain in Australia, the show managed to avoid the potential chop that most shows face post-pilot, and has a guaranteed 13-episode run on its horizon. All of these elements coming together create what can minimally be described as a buzz around the show, and that’s before we even get to see what the show is about.
The show begins in the year 2149, a time when all life on planet Earth is threatened with extinction (suggested in trailers to be due to dwindling worldwide air quality). In an effort to save the human race, scientists develop a time machine allowing people to travel 85 million years back in time to prehistoric Earth. The Shannon family (father Jim, his wife Elisabeth, and their three children, Josh, Maddy and Zoe) join the 10th pilgrimage of settlers to Terra Nova, the first human colony on the other side of the temporal doorway. However, they are unaware that the colony is in the middle of a group of carnivorous dinosaurs. Beyond the threat of large carnivores, there is also a splinter group of an earlier pilgrimage to Terra Nova known as the “Sixers” threatening the rest of the human existence in the new land.
Ignoring the expectations game, the show does have a few things going for it. Headed up by Jason O’Mara (Life on Mars) and Stephen Lang (Avatar), Terra Nova has gotten itself a cast of people who can deliver, without being so famous that you’ll constantly be seeing them as a character from a previous role (although dependent upon Stephen Lang’s character, he may in fact be playing the exact same character that he played in Avatar). Admittedly there are quite a few children in the main cast – a prospect that always makes me nervous – but until we know the true balance of screen time to action/story/character, it’d be harsh to say that they will drag the show down before seeing it.
On top of that, there is a pretty huge production team behind this show. From the trailer (above), the CGI appears to be up to scratch and if it maintains that level throughout its run, then the show won’t fall victim to becoming a ridiculously cheap and fake looking production. The more believable the landscape, as well as the dinosaurs themselves, the more scope the show has to push boundaries. If your CGI is too poor for close-ups, then you remove the possibility of intense action; if it’s not detailed enough to truly flesh out the new/old Earth, then you’re stuck with your entire cast in a little compound that will get old quickly. With a budget far surpassing a show like Falling Skies and a big creative team behind the project, you can imagine that introducing new places, new dinosaurs and any number of other new elements to the show won’t be out of the realm of possibility.
Most importantly and beyond all else, however, is that the main characters can't be boring. You can have all the dinosaurs you like and have Pacino and De Niro playing opposite them, but if the characters are dull and have absolutely nothing to do, the show is simply going to suck. Although not evident from the first trailer, leading man Jim Shannon is a cop. Ignoring the larger human vs. dinosaur military conflict that will undoubtedly be a big part of the show, there is little risk of him running out of things to do with the sheriff role to play. If he was marching off every week to go and hunt or kill something, the show would get very dull, but the possibility of a mini-cop drama within the show could definitely work. His wife Elisabeth is also conveniently a trauma surgeon, and like her husband, is not too likely to run out of things to do. Much like Jack in Lost (pre-mind-f***ing), Elisabeth has the opportunity to become a leader within the community as well as healer-in-chief. There will be clichés for sure, but it’s all preferable to nothing happening at all.
Guess work aside, the pilot for the show is actually out there in the world after premiering at Comic-Con. In its wake, the Critic’s Choice Television Awards panel chose to label Terra Nova one of the 8 “Most Exciting New Series,” and of the various reviews that I’ve seen across the internet, the show doesn’t appear to be considered entirely terrible by others that have seen it either. The show has an interesting enough premise to begin with, and it could even become a heavily sci-fi based drama (time travel paradoxes, etc.) if it wanted to, even though it probably won't end up going in that direction. There are a lot of places for the show to go with the story and they also have a limitless scope for introducing new characters with the time travel device in play.
You might not be at all interested in dinosaurs, but to blow this show off without giving it a chance could be a big mistake. There’s every chance that it falls flat, but until such a time, Terra Nova premieres September 26th on Fox.