We've spent some time critiquing/mocking the central family on Terra Nova, but there's more to it than simply saying, “Ugh, it's stupid!” For a few different reasons, the family conceit is both necessary and potentially good.
Major networks seem to be scared of science fiction shows. They will occasionally delve into real-world fantasy stuff (like Heroes or maybe Lost), or have very directly real-world-connected science fiction (like V, Dollhouse, or The Event). If you want to see a science fiction in a setting that isn't the present-day, chances are you're looking at a netlet like UPN/WB, where most older SF shows aired (and The CW doesn't seem inclined to show that kind of SF these days), or a cable channel. In order for a network to bite on a science fiction series, something really interesting and appealing has to pique their interest. Steven Spielberg executive producing Jurassic Park: The Television Experience is a good start.
But as Jurassic Park indicates, Spielberg tends to like stories that focus on family and adolescence. So that makes sense. But more important than that, major networks, especially ones that are about to sink a lot of money into a show, want that to have crossover potential. Nothing says “everyone could love this show!” quite like having a family, which is why so many network shows have that focus. So while we can think of better versions of Terra Nova that don't have the ridiculous family-holding-hands splash screen and the frustrating Shannons at the center of the story, those shows probably wouldn't ever exist.
Even with that, Terra Nova could still be a perfectly fine family show. We saw glimpses of how that could work in the pilot, although it wasn't handled well. The audience needs an introduction to this new world, and Josh's brief bit of rebellion allowed us to understand the beauty and danger of the new world in a fairly organic fashion. If each character was allowed to exist as a character, instead of as a relationship, we could do that throughout the entire society. Jim exists in this fashion. Since he's now the “sheriff” of Terra Nova, he has access to upper-level security and military discussions, from which we've seen most of the show's drama so far.
Now, imagine if the other family members were treated in this fashion. Zoe, who's been useless except as symbolism so far, could be our lens into Terra Nova's school system and social engineering. Maddy could do that as well, but as she's older, she's theoretically able to move into a more active political role. Why not turn her into a bureaucratic nerd and have her learn how Terra Nova is organized and administered? Josh has a clear path to being, well, a normal person in Terra Nova; he's a young adult who will soon be trying to make it on his own, or make himself useful to society. His connection to the black market ain't half bad either. Elisabeth is a bit more of a problem. In retrospect, it might have made more sense for her to be a research scientist than a medical doctor, so we could learn more about the biological system Terra Nova is part of. Her relationship with Malcolm, while problematic in many other senses, does allow that to occur.
So there is potential for the family structure of the show to really work well. But the show's producers are going to have to take a step back from having their familial drama be the point of the show. Let the characters grow, and let the drama appear organically from that.
Tonight's episode showed some notable improvement generally, and also some improvement in dealing with the family drama, but only partial improvement in both cases. A Sixer girl, Leah, shows up on the outskirts of Terra Nova, saying that she was a runaway from the Sixers. After the Shannons appear to win her trust, Leah breaks into Mira's old house and steals a mysterious object, but is caught before she manages to get away. She claims it was under duress, but Taylor doesn't believe her. Jim goes along with that until he discovers an apologetic note from Leah, saying she did it to save her brother, and he goes to save the brother. He's captured, gets some exposition from Mira, and is released. Both Lena and her brother move into Terra Nova and seem to be happy about it.
There was some good stuff in this episode. A fight scene between Wash and Sixer assailants has some surprisingly interesting choreography. There's legitimate tension in the scene where Mira attempts to trade Wash for Leah, even though it ends too easily. And while the show copped out of going all the way with Leah being a child superspy, it did a good job of masking the precise form of the plot of the episode. On a surface level, this was easily the best episode the show's had so far.
On the other hand, it still had major problems. These became clear when the family left the first morning, with Zoe and Leah left behind. Maddy was apprenticing with her mother, so she wasn't available to take care of the kids, leaving Josh in charge by default (bad parenting on its own). He's unhappy, and then asks the girls what they want to do. This is fair enough, but it demands an answer of what else he was going to do. If Maddy is starting an apprenticeship, and he's older and clearly able-bodied, what does he do with his time? Which leads to a bigger question: What do any of these characters do when they're not on-screen? Terra Nova seems to only exist as Terra Nova the TV show, not as something that's been thought out further than the story of each week's episode. This was also an issue I had with Battlestar Galactica. I never had a good idea of what life in the Fleet was like. But BSG had a far stronger week-to-week narrative, so most of the time it wasn't necessary. Terra Nova seems to have half a setting and a full mythology, but very little in-between.
The mythology rears its ugly head again at the end of the episode, as Mira gives Jim what initially looks like an explanation of why the Sixers exist without actually explaining anything. Some people in the future want Commander Taylor gone, she says. Why? No answer. Why we should care? Again, no answer. If they want to parcel out the answer to the former question, that's fine. I'd prefer it be done via dramatic irony, with the audience knowing, as the characters try to find out, but the show can try to give drips of information here and there. That's okay. But I still don't see the need to wait for some conspiratorial information that's superior to “Commander Taylor's leadership doesn't work for many people.” What does a conspiracy about the future matter, when we are firmly ensconced in the past?
A couple of side-stories in the episode help flesh out Maddy's character. Her beau tries to engage in some kind of courtship, which would be creepy if it weren't so… well, creepy, as Maddy notes by comparing it to corset-wearing. And she takes an apprenticeship under her mother, which doesn't work so well as she discovers an aversion to blood and pus. I have nothing good at all to say about the first of those storylines, but the apprenticeship, and Maddy's growth out of her mother's shadow, is a step in the right direction. It is, of course, still far too early to say whether Terra Nova will reach its potential or not, but tonight's episode indicates that it's become far more competent.
- “You his lawyer now?” “We don't have any of those, funny enough.” See, this is what I want to see: reasons to believe that Taylor isn't the perfect patriarch he's presented as.
- “You don't wanna be on the wrong side of history.” And with that, I am officially annoyed by the whole Sixers storyline. Sorry, Mira, you're possibly the most charismatic character on the show, but anyone who says that line (and the writers who put it in the script) deserves annoyance.