Terra Nova: “Instinct”
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Terra Nova: “Instinct”

I've been fairly excited about this second episode of Terra Nova all week. Not necessarily because I thought it would be good (my grade last week was based on potential that could easily be squandered), but rather because I thought it would be the clearest indicator of whether this show was going to be good or bad. The pilot had been bouncing around for well over a year, with plenty of room for internal and some external criticism. Or maybe with the internal turmoil on the show, it would just turn to shit.

I used to have friends who were fans of the low-budget British SF show Blakes 7, and from them I learned an adage about science fiction television and special effects: “If you care about the characters, nothing else matters. If you don't care about the characters, nothing else matters.” This is Terra Nova's chief hurdle to overcome. Pretty much everyone hated the son's character in the pilot, as well they should have. Yet it did suffice at giving us an effective introduction to the setting that didn't entirely rely on exposition, as other scenes did. And it also came to a resolution, which means we may or may not see that plot again. If we do, it's probably laziness from the writers; if we don't, that's probably a good sign.

So the question is: Will Terra Nova work on building its characters for sustainable storytelling, or will it double down on mythology/annoy us with character angst/try to wow us with spectacle/just be bad? Not that a second episode is usually the best for judging quality, but they are good for seeing direction.

Based on tonight's episode, Terra Nova appears to be aimed firmly at being a big dumb action movie-like show with mass appeal. This isn't necessarily a bad thing for a TV show to aspire to be, especially since big dumb action movies can make a lot of money, but in practice it's a little more difficult. In practice, the show ends up feeling like The Cape With Dinosaurs. That's not a good thing, but it can be a fun thing.

There are certain rhythms to the action movie that we've come to expect. There's a plot, but it's probably not a good plot. It exists to provide a framework for archetypal characters and clichéd storytelling and nothing more, so its quality isn't really the point. Indeed, the simple comfort of going through the motions as a rest area between more tense moment is part of the point. If everything else were more compelling, it wouldn't be an action story; it would be something else that happened to have action.

This is the best possible explanation I can come up with for the rampant clichés strewn across the first half of the episode. First there's a straight-up X-Files/horror movie opening, with a bunch of random characters getting a flat tire before being attacked by a pteranodon. Then the middle daughter, Exposition Maddy as her friends call her, launches into some of that fine exposition in order to quickly catch viewers up on her older brother's exploits the week before. The scared younger daughter, Symbolism Zoey, stops her parents from getting their swerve on. A casually dropped line by Commander Taylor's second-in-command says that Terra Nova doesn't know where their rivals' base is. An old friend of Elisabeth Shannon's shows up to create an awkward and incredibly obvious love triangle, which theoretically drives the interpersonal drama of the episode. An awkward conversation between Jim and Taylor says that there's a mole in the base, giving Jim the chance to use his cop skills in the future. When forced to take care of his family, Jim plays awkward television dad, as the music will cue you. And Josh is forced to directly confront the issue of his attraction to Skye, as a symbolic necklace which could be traded for a symbolic guitar might symbolically prove.

It's all so predictable that I could maybe admire Terra Nova's commitment to the form and ruthless efficiency in setting up its conflicts, if more than a few of them worked. As expected as the intro was, it set up the threat well. The CGI pterosaurs were cartoonish, and their attack on Terra Nova's market was straight out of Hitchcock, but it wasn't the worst thing in the world. And yes, it is a fairly tired premise generally, but the idea that the colony is disrupting the native ecosystem in unpredictable fashion is the kind of plotline that Terra Nova should be able to use effectively.

The problem, beyond that litany of narrative complaints, is that if those predictable elements are set up to include fun action sequences, then the show probably should show those action sequences. The attack on the market is the closest thing we get to a complete action sequence, while the two most important to the story, the capture of two of the pterosaurs and the transport of the pheromones to a safer area, remain off-camera. So what's left? A family drama built on clichés, a police investigation waiting to happen, and some not-great-enough CGI. It's important to remember that serialized SF shows should never be judged in total by their second episode, and potential may take months or years to show up, but Terra Nova is doing its best to make us forget.

Stray Observations:

  • Exposition Maddy's Flintstones-style laptop was pretty amusing.
  • “She's kinda like you.” It's like the writers only ever learned about how people start relationships from watching other shows written by people with no idea how relationships started.
  • There are also really obvious gender issues here, like Jim getting into a pissing contest with Malcolm where he “wins” by implying scientist Malcolm isn't man enough to venture into the extremely dangerous jungle for no reason. There's also no reason that Josh should be the one carrying the rifle at the Shannon home, when Skye is far more experienced than he is at using it.
  • Likewise, there's no good explanation for why Terra Nova doesn't have helmets for its soldiers and citizens, let alone a large safe house for the colony. For the best hope of humankind in dinosaurland, you'd figure they'd have a secondary defense after “a big fence.”

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