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Terra Nova: “Bylaw”

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The big question I have with Terra Nova is whether it's a dumb show or a smart series. I want it to be a smart show, of course, because it's not fun enough to be a successful dumb show, and it has a lot of the pieces that would make it a really good smart show if it went that way. Based on tonight's episode, I feel confident in declaring: Terra Nova is a dumb show.


Here's why: We've heard some rumblings about how Commander Taylor has created a justice system on Terra Nova that doesn't fit with our American, classical liberal ideals of fair trials, juries of peers, and so on. Tonight's episode took that head on, becoming, as a few people Tweeting about it noted, Law & Order: Terra Nova. This isn't actually a bad thing. TV Club Editor Todd VanDerWerff has theories about “procedural world-building,” where a show uses traditional one-episode forms to create a dense setting from which it can build fantastic stories (Todd uses Firefly as an example, but I'd personally use Babylon 5's inconsistent first season). So Terra Nova's uninspiring first few episodes can maybe be seen as part of that school of thought. And tonight's episode would seem to fit in with them, but here's the thing: The world it helps to build isn't very good, and doesn't stand up at all to scrutiny.

Specifically, I'm talking about Terra Nova and Commander Taylor's discussion of “law.” A man is accused of murder, and confesses to the crime. So Taylor, according to the laws of Terra Nova, banishes him from the colony. Which is fine, except that Taylor proceeds to give a speech about how there are laws, and people have to follow those laws, otherwise the punishments are clear. And here's what makes it dumb: This isn't how laws work in our society. Laws exist, yes, but laws are balanced by rights, responsibilities, and traditions. They aren't simply “If you do a bad thing someone casts judgment upon you.” They are “We have a set of rules which exist to protect the accused and give all sides a chance to exist within the system fairly.” Now, obviously this doesn't work all of the time in the real world, let alone the fictional world. But when the show has Jim and Elisabeth Shannon get into an argument about the judicial process in Terra Nova without actually saying the words (or idea) “jury of his peers”? There's something seriously wrong here.


What makes it worse is that such discussions are often at the heart of great science fiction television. On Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Picard often had conflicts where his commitment to classical liberalism was tested, and it was almost universally proved correct in the end. Alternately, a show like Battlestar Galactica had its authority figures, Adama and Roslin, wrestle with the issues of the flaws in process versus the dangers of authoritarianism, and make their decision with full knowledge that they could be wrong. On Terra Nova, Taylor and Shannon basically decide that having a strong, wise authoritarian patriarch is ideal… and that's it. There's an argument, yes, but it's entirely surface-level. It's simply two people who disagree with each other. They don't cite the Constitution; they don't cite political philosophy or theory. It's like someone yelling at someone they disagree with about a link on Facebook. It is, in a word, dumb.

With that dumbness acknowledged, there's still something that works about Terra Nova. It doesn't work well, but if you want to turn something on in the background while you drink beer and play browser games, hey, this is damn adequate! I don't know if the ratings are adequate. I don't know if the word-of-mouth is adequate to gather more viewers to improve those ratings. And I really don't think adequate is good enough for a show with this much potential on the artistic end and this high of a budget on the business end. Terra Nova: Do better.

Stray observations:

  • Everyone dies in the cold opens. Let's move past that, shall we? This isn't The X-Files.
  • “Oh no, that's not gonna work for me. You saw the look on her face!” Elisabeth – not so much a character as a Victorian concept of maternity made flesh.
  • Commander Taylor “doesn't tolerate” adultery? What fun.
  • Josh will do whatever it takes to get Kara to Terra Nova. Why should we give a damn? Maybe if she was Kara Thrace.
  • The military funeral is a fantastic example of how Terra Nova wants to utilize the symbolism of the present without understanding what makes that symbols inherently powerful.
  • “You're the cop's kid.” “Or Josh. But the cop's kid works.” Maybe this show would work better as a comedy?
  • Mira of the Sixers basically makes the speech from The Godfather's opening scene to Josh at the end. I hope parody was what the show as aiming towards. Mythology? Serialization? Cliffhangers? Bah!