March 6, 2012
I heard the news late last night. After just one season, Fox has cancelled the prehistoric family drama Terra Nova. I can’t say I’m especially surprised or saddened by the decision. Terra Nova was the epitome of mediocrity right from the start. The series was heavily hyped—”Spared no expense!” the commercials seemed to shout—but it immediately became bogged down in cloyingly cute family values storylines that dictated that everything turn out okay for the Shannon family at the close of each episode.
But this may not be the end of Terra Nova. The show’s creators are shopping the series around to other networks. Who knows? The Shannon family might continue its mundane exploits on the SyFy channel or elsewhere. Even though the show has been removed from its original habitat, it is not necessarily extinct—Terra Nova may yet find a niche elsewhere.
If the series does continue, it would be the perfect time to give Terra Nova an overhaul. There are plenty of broken bits that need fixing. One squeaky wheel, identified by University of Maryland paleontologist Thomas Holtz, was that “[W]e are given a glimpse at the world and society of the 22nd Century, but the colonists show no signs of having grown up in that society. Instead they (surprise, surprise) act just like early 21st Century suburbanites!” None of the characters behave as if they came from an oppressive future or were dumped in an unfamiliar past.
The show’s dinosaurs didn’t do much to help the situation. The reason the show was set 84 million years ago, during the Santonian stage of the Cretaceous, is that very few dinosaurs are known from this span of time. Creature creators had free reign to create new, magnificent dinosaurs. Instead, we mostly got familiar faces—brachiosaurs and Carnotaurus—with a mixed-bag of all-purpose raptors. Even worse, the show’s creators didn’t know what to do with the dinosaurs. While dinosaurs regularly featured in early episodes, they all but stepped aside in the final story arc. Dinosaurs appeared only when it was convenient to the story for them to do so, and they looked like terrible lumps of digitized flesh and bone when they did.
Terra Nova’s poorly envisioned dinosaurs would have been forgivable if the rest of the show was strong. It wasn’t. The show was hampered by a chronic lack of originality. From the very beginning, Terra Nova had a bad habit of lifting bits and pieces of setting and plot from other shows and films. Near the end of the show’s initial run, I outlined the following recipe for Terra Nova: “Take all the cringeworthy gooshiness of a 1990s family drama; borrow some plot points from LOST; apply liberal spoonfuls of science fiction tidbits from Avatar, ALIENS and Star Trek; then hit ‘liquefy’ and pour out a show that is so overly sweet that you think your teeth are going to fall out of your head.”
And when the show wasn’t lifting tidbits from other sources, what were intended to be major story twists were painfully obvious. The big reveal at the climax of the first season was that people of the future had set up Terra Nova as a way to exploit the resources of an untapped prehistoric past. The plot point closely echoes a story Poul Anderson published in 1958 called “Wildcat,” in which an oil company maintains a base to collect resources from the Jurassic and send them to the energy-starved future. I predicted that Terra Nova was moving in the same direction after the very first episode. Terra Nova was so painfully intentional with every step that viewers could always stay ahead of the plot.
A comparison with The Walking Dead might be helpful here. Granted, a primetime network drama would never be able to get away with the gore that weekly splutters all over the place on the zombie-infested AMC show, but The Walking Dead still shares some essential characters with Terra Nova. Both series center on families placed into unfamiliar worlds in which they must contend with monsters outside the gates and threats from the people they have taken up with. What makes The Walking Dead different is that the show is willing to explore the hardships of trying to survive in a very different world, and everyone struggles. Major characters are injured, die, or wrestle with dilemmas over the course of multiple episodes. Not so with Terra Nova. The show was fully committed to everything turning out just fine at the end of each episode. Not that I’m saying Terra Nova should have been as dark as The Walking Dead, but how you can possibly develop characters if the show’s primary goal is to have everyone end up safe and sound at the conclusion of each episode?
Terra Nova never reached the potential of its premise. The worst part of this, as TIME‘s TV critic James Poniewozik rightly notes, is that the show’s failure might have a chilling effect on networks when other big-budget science fiction shows come up for consideration. Could Terra Nova be the last LOST wannabe, the one that effectively erases science fiction from primetime for a while? Maybe.
If Terra Nova eventually reappears, I can’t imagine that it will be the same. Costs will probably be cut and we might see some shakeups in the cast. This could be a good thing. The failure of the first run could act as an impetus to reconfigure the program into something worthy of the show’s setup. Even if not, at least dinosaur fans will still be able to see badly rendered cgi dinosaurs on screen. Basic cable science channels will undoubtedly keep serving us ugly pixelated dinosaurs.
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