August 6, 2012
One of the reasons Jurassic Park was so successful–as a novel and a blockbuster film–is that it presented a plausible way to bring dinosaurs back to life. The idea that viable dinosaur DNA might be retrieved from bloodsucking prehistoric insects seemed like a project that could actually succeed. Even though the actual methodology is hopelessly flawed and would never work, the premise was science-ish enough to let us suspend our disbelief and revel in the return of the dinosaurs.
Nevertheless, Jurassic Park brought up the tantalizing possibility that scientists might one day resurrect a Brachiosaurus, Velociraptor or Triceratops. And every once in a while, rumors arise about someone who might just give the project a try. According to the latest round of internet gossip, Australian billionaire Clive Palmer is hoping to clone a dinosaur for an exotic vacation retreat. Palmer has since denied the rumors, but, for a moment, let’s run with the assumption that someone is going to pour millions of dollars into a dinosaur cloning project. Would it actually work?
As Rob Desalle and David Lindley pointed out in The Science of Jurassic Park and the Lost World, there were a lot of steps that Michael Crichton glossed over in his dinosaur cloning regime. The novelist never explained how scientists overcame issues of genetic contamination, figured out what a complete dinosaur genome should look like and, most important of all, figured out how to actually translate all that DNA into a viable dinosaur embryo. It’s not simply a matter of accumulating DNA pieces until scientists have mapped every gene. A creature’s genetics must be read and interpreted within a biological system that will create an actual living organism. There are innumerable hurdles to any speculative dinosaur cloning project, starting with the effort to actually obtain unaltered dinosaur DNA–something that has never been done, and may never be.
If Palmer, or anyone else, wants to create a dinosaur park, it would be far easier to set up a reserve for living dinosaurs. The cassowary–a flightless, helmeted bird–is sufficiently prehistoric-looking to make it a draw for visitors. True, it’s not a Velociraptor, but a cassowary is most certainly a dinosaur that does pack a mean kick. There are plenty of living dinosaurs that could use a hand through conservation programs, so perhaps it would be better to try to save some avian dinosaurs rather than bring their non-avian cousins back from the dead.
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.
January 18, 2012
I’ve never been a “Doctor Who” fan, but any show that devotes an episode to dinosaurs is alright in my book. In the above video, Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks talk about how the clunky, stiff dinosaurs in the 1970s episode “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” came to life (or, as it were, not).
September 27, 2011
After a long wait, the dinosaur-haunted, sci-fi family drama Terra Nova premiered last night on FOX. The first episode did not leave me with a particularly strong impression. I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it, either.
The hype for Terra Nova been over the top—we’ve been told time and again just how much went into creating the show’s special effects—but the first two-hour episode was so heavy on exposition that it is difficult to judge how the show will fare. (Rather than fill in the background gradually through events in the story, various characters delivered short speeches in which they provided all the essential details required by viewers.) Everything about episode one was about setting up the show’s premise, from family tensions to cryptic mumblings that will undoubtedly turn into major plot points in future episodes.
Terra Nova is far from original. The show borrows heavily from other science fiction sources. Bits and pieces—including actor Stephen Lang, who portrays Commander Nathaniel Taylor in the show—were lifted from Avatar, there’s a line about dinosaurs mostly hunting at night that is right out of ALIENS, and a few clues at the end of the first episode sound awfully close to the theme of Poul Anderson’s short story “Wildcat,” in which an oil company maintains a base to collect resources from the Jurassic and send them to the energy-starved future. Perhaps future episodes will take the show in unexpected directions, but as far as the first episode goes, Terra Nova is a mish-mash of various sci-fi tropes and references to other stories.
But what about the dinosaurs? As happy as I am to see some of my favorite prehistoric creatures running around on television, the dinosaurs had relatively little screen time and generally served to intensify already complicated situations. When your base camp is already under attack by a rival group, a rampaging Carnotaurus is the last thing you need. A sluggish herd of noodle-necked Brachiosaurus also makes an appearance, though the show’s real villains are imaginary theropods called “Slashers” (more on them in a moment).
In the few moments they did appear on screen, though, I wasn’t exactly blown away by the computer-generated dinosaurs. As in some recent documentaries, the dinosaurs of Terra Nova did not seem to blend well with their backgrounds. They often looked as if they were on another plane of existence. For all the hubbub about how the show’s creators spared no expense on the special effects, the dinosaurs did not look that much better than their counterparts in basic cable documentaries, and they even paled in comparison to the dinosaurs in Steven Spielberg’s other big dinosaur project, 1993′s Jurassic Park. Creating realistic, high-definition dinosaurs is still a tough challenge for animators.
So, about the slashers… I have said some unkind things about this speculative dinosaur before, and after seeing it in action, I stand by my comments. The dinosaur looks like the product of a board meeting in which everyone agreed to throw a few more bells and whistles on the “raptors” of Jurassic Park. (Upon seeing these dinosaurs, my wife said: “It’s like those poor alligators and lizards from those old dinosaur movies, the ones they’d stick all the fins and horns on to make them look more menacing.”) As I have pointed out before, paleontologists have discovered the remains of actual theropods that were far more fantastic and, I think, scary than the Slasher. As might be expected, these dinosaurs act more like plot devices than actual animals. At the climax of episode one, a mob of unorganized slashers—they are said to hunt in packs—surrounds an armored vehicle and spends much of the night trying to get at the tasty teens inside. I guess they were either bored, or easier prey is just so difficult to find that the dinosaurs decided to keep trying their luck with the metallic snackbox.
Terra Nova has potential. Now that everything has been set up and introduced—the relationships, rivalries, dangers and all that—the show’s creators can, I hope, strike a bit of new ground. Then again, maybe the program will continues to borrow tidbits of plot and setting from stories we’ve already seen. Only time will tell.
March 8, 2010
I may be completely wrong, but somehow I get the feeling that somewhere on a wall at SyFy Channel headquarters there is a special dartboard. On it are the names of large, predatory animals like “Shark,” “Smilodon,” “Giant Squid” and “Dinosaur,” and when the company executives run out of ideas they resort to throwing darts to determine what sort of movie they are going to make next. If this is true then it would seem that the filmmakers have been changing things up by throwing two darts at the board and combining whatever creatures are hit. That is the only way I can explain the origin of the forthcoming SyFy films Sharktopus and Dinoshark.
So far Sharktopus has been getting the most buzz around the web (even if it has been done before), but since the film is just in the planning stages it will be a while before it will debut for fans of “so-bad-they’re-almost-good” movies. Dinoshark will surface much sooner. It is set to air on March 13, but other than that details on the movie are slim. I have not seen a synopsis of a plot so far, but who really needs one? In an interview with the film’s producer, Roger Corman, the veteran b-movie maker, said:
“Global warming causes the glaciers to break apart,” Corman explains. “We start the picture with real beautiful shots of the glaciers falling into the ocean. The unborn egg of the Dinoshark that has been frozen for millions of years is released.”
I can only imagine what comes next. Boats and people start going missing, our heroes suspect there’s a Dinoshark on the loose, no one believes them, the body count continues to rise, etc. High art it’s not, but if you love creature features (and I have to admit that I do) you might want to invite over some friends, pop some popcorn and make fun of the b-movie cheesiness that is Dinoshark.