Monday, September 26, 2011

TV Review: 'Terra Nova' Pilot, 'Genesis'


Terra Nova:  Genesis.  Directed by Alex Graves.  Written by Allan Loeb, Kelly Marcel, and Craig Silverstein.  Amblin Entertainment and Chernin Entertainment.  Fox Broadcasting Network (2011).  2 hours.

Experience teaches me that pilots for new sf shows can be weak, so I'm willing to give Terra Nova another shot and tune in Monday for the next episode, but I'm not impressed by what I've seen so far.  All the good stuff is in the first fifteen minutes; in fact, the first fifteen minutes may be some of the best minutes I've seen on TV, but after that the story meanders and we get nothing but stock situations.  The writers made a bad move selecting the subplot they did and using it to fill almost the entirety of the two-hour pilot when it should have been used in a one-hour filler episode further down the line.

I'm having to go to Internet sources to remind myself of the characters' names, and that is not a good sign.  Our main characters are a family of five living in the year 2149, which suffers from the standard polution-overpopulation mix predicted by our so-far inaccurate doomsday prophets:  we have ex-cop Jim Shannon (Sharon O'Mara), his wife, a skilled physician  (Shelley Conn), and his three kids, one of whom is illegal because of a two-child law.  When their illegal cute little girl is discovered, Shannon goes to prison for a couple of years and faces the possibility of permanent separation from his wife and two oldest kids when they're selected to join other colonists in a trip through a convenient space-time rift and live in the Cretaceous.  That leads to the best sequence in the whole two hours:  Shannon breaks out of prison and smuggles his youngest daughter into the past to join the rest of the family.  The sets depicting the scummy, dirty future world are well-crafted, and the CGI flybys through the Blade Runner-like future city look great, but once the show switches to the primordial past, everything goes downhill.

Once in the past, we learn that the colony, Terra Nova (filmed with a mix of Australian forest and mediocre CGI) is ill-prepared to deal with its environment:  they've surrounded their settlement with a wooden fence that a lot of even rather large creatures could easily squeeze through, and they defend themselves almost entirely with small arms.  Remember Jurassic Park and how everything went wrong in spite of all the security? Terra Nova has way less security than that.

In spite of being an escaped criminal from a maximum security prison (why was he in maximum security for having an extra kid?), Shannon gets a wrist-slap from the coolest character in the show, General Taylor, played by the coolest actor from Avatar (Stephen Lang).  Shannon's wife becomes the local doctor, who uses giant leeches.  We aren't told why frontier medicine from 2149 has degenerated back to leeching, but it has.  Shannon, after a brief stint as a farmer, gets a gun and becomes a cop again even though he recently broke out of a high-security prison.  His son goes predictably emo and tells dad he hates him for no reason in particular.  His daughter meets a hunk who gets approximately 45 seconds of screen time.  And in the second-best sequence in the whole two hours, his illegal and adorable daughter Zoe (Alana Mansour) feeds a Brachiosaurus.  Aww.

We get some hints of goings-on that indicate paradise is not all it's cracked up to be.  Some rebels have formed their own colony with the goal of bringing down Terra Nova, apparently with the help of some backers from the future.  The rebels have a curious above-average tendency to get et by dinosaurs, and they do so in the show's third- and fourth-best sequences.  Somebody or something is also lurking out in the jungle and doing something or other high-techish.

The show goofs when it decides to focus most of its attention on teenagers sneaking out, getting drunk, and getting attacked by dinos.  That leads to some decent dinosaur-fighting and some decent human-munching, but it's a stupid subplot that places most of the attention on the show's weakest actors.  It also means almost everything in the episode is driven by its characters' boneheaded choices.

On the plus side, the thematic focus is on family.  It's all about sticking together, learning to live with one another even in the midst of difficult situations, and about telling Big Brother we'll have as many kids as we want, dammit.  Also, little Zoe brings the cute child mascot back to sci-fi television, and I had thought, after Boxey mysteriously disappeared from the lust-ridden remake of Battlestar Galactica, that the child mascot was gone for good.  Everyone who's read the Dinotopiapicture books knows that cute little girls are supposed to feed dinosaurs, and fortunately, someone making Terra Nova has apparently read the Dinotopiapicture books.  On the whole, I can't complain, and I see chances of improvement since there are hints of subterfuge and hidden agendas and conflicts to come in later episodes.  I just hope the writers can do family-themed stories without falling back on the drunken-teenagers-get-chased-by-monster shtick they relied on in the pilot.

Content:  Fake-looking dinosaurs get the munchies.  People get sliced and chewed on-screen.  Surprising amount of blood for what's been billed as a family show.  Not really excessive, but some parents may be uncomfortable allowing small children to watch it.  The small children themselves, on the other hand, will probably love it.
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