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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Terra Nova: “Proof”

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Here's a little insight into the process of the critic: a good way to do a review? Start with an absurd, over-the-top statement. Then defend that statement, with examples, in such a way that its absurdity seems not ridiculous but entirely plausible. So here we go:

Terra Nova's biggest problem is that it acts like a television show.

The best and most popular speculative fiction (and other genre) franchises create apparently inhabitable worlds, and they use those worlds to create understandable and logical stories. For example, I do not think that it is a coincidence that Lord Of The Rings and Harry Potter are the two most popular fantasy series of all time, thanks to the well-known meticulous world-building of their authors. Star Wars at its heart is a trilogy (or two) of films, but between those films is a history, a story of the galaxy, which is filled by books and comics and games and especially by fans. The stories flow naturally from there, if not always competently. What happens to the Empire's armies when the Emperor is killed? Well, there's the Heir To The Empire novels. How did the Emperor corrupt Darth Vader and take over the galaxy? There are the prequel movies.

Terra Nova the show doesn't have these questions, because nothing happens in Terra Nova the setting that we don't see on-screen. Since the Shannons arrived six episodes ago, not a single thing has occurred of import in the colony or to the characters that hasn't been depicted. We don't hear how agriculture works on Terra Nova. We're told gambling and money exist, and apparently it's important enough for someone to commit a murder, but we're not told how and why it's important. Social norms, technology, administrative structure, every damn thing on the show is presented as equivalent to 21st Century America even though this is a colony of thousands of people trapped in dinosaur-land and not the suburbs of Atlanta. Terra Nova is not a setting; it is the shell of a setting for a show named Terra Nova, which inhabits it for 42 minutes each week.

I have, in some of the comments, mounted a… well, it's not entirely a defense of the show, but perhaps an explanation: Most SF shows start slowly. And while this is true and still relevant, most of these shows actually show a personality. Take Babylon 5, probably one of my favorite shows, definitely the most formative for my concept of SF television, and comparable to Terra Nova in that its first several episodes were famously bad. But even in its darkest hour, its fourth episode, “Infection,” qualifies as a darker hour than anything Terra Nova's done, it's still building something. “Infection” may be terrible, but it introduces the important concept of organic technology to the show's universe, a concept that would help drive multiple storylines in later episodes and seasons.

Terra Nova wants the profits of all that without the work. It's most easily seen in the show's expectation that “family” is equivalent to “characterization,” but it's perhaps even more striking in the “conspiracy” plot. Terra Nova seems to want us to care about the conspiracy for its own sake, but lines like the one a few weeks back where Mira is asked what “Terra Nova” means and responds with a “You'll see” aren't engaging; they're idiotic and offputting.

This is why I got excited by the Sixers having a manipulated dinosaur in last week's episode: It opened up the concept that things were happening on the show based on the world, not based on the demands of the episode's plot. This whole time, have the Sixers been figuring out how to make dinosaurs work for them? That's 1) cool, cause dinosaurs! 2) only possible in Terra Nova's setting, and 3) implies that people in the world have motivations and take actions other than the ones shown directly on the screen.


Tonight's episode actually starts out quite promisingly on those grounds. We see three things that indicate a wider world than the one on-camera. First, the characters are entertaining themselves. Jim and Taylor are going hunting and fishing, while Josh and Maddy are playing go or a go-like game. Meanwhile, Josh finally has his Sixer favor called in, because they're sick. We don't see their illness, nor do we find out what caused it, but hey, it happened and was relevant. Also, the main story of the episode, involving a famous scientist returning from a long-term expedition and taking Maddy on as an intern, shows that something is being done in the colony, somewhere.

Which is not to say these things are good examples of how to world-build. In the main cases, they're simple launching boards to more straightforward stories. Maddy's introduction to the famous scientist leads to her trying to figure out why he appears to be an impostor. Josh is called in to deal with the Sixer situation, which he does, for his old girlfriend. These both play out in entirely expected fashion, hitting their marks and little else. Terra Nova seems to be aiming for “competent,” and tonight, other than the usual logic holes, it hit that pretty well and nothing else.


But for a couple of moments, Terra Nova actually looks like the show it could be. Commander Taylor hunts down Curran, the murderer he exiled before, and helps him out. His confrontation with the dinosaur is delightfully ridiculous (and one of the show's better effects). But his discussion with Curran, where he offers the murderer redemption in exchange for effective spying. This is the kind of intense moral speculation I want to see on Terra Nova. A beleaguered colony in a harsh environment? Yes. Bring on the moral ambiguity! But that was just one scene; for the rest of the episode, we get the Shannons having their typical adventures and moving the story along without giving reason for it to move along.

Stray observations:

  • Lots of dinos in the opening, which was nice to see! A pleasant feeling quickly dispelled by the swordfish CGI.
  • Why does Terra Nova have a huge apple orchard when apples are inedible?
  • “Maybe you should look into eating garlic.” Good to see that the vampire fad hasn't abated in 2149.
  • This, I suppose, is the episode where the Shannon kids learn how to properly break and enter.