September 26th, 2011
Considering that I haven’t written about a single fall pilot, it might seem unfortunate that I’m choosing Terra Nova. It isn’t the best network pilot I’ve seen, or my favorite: I those crowns would probably go to ABC’s Pan Am, a show that I thought understood its purpose and communicated it more effectively (if not necessarily more subtly) than any other series. I’d also suggest that Terra Nova is not the worst network pilot by a sizable margin, as regardless of its many flaws it is definitely going out of its way to make a major impact (which is more than we can say for a show like Charlie’s Angels).
What draws me to Terra Nova, then, is simply that until tonight I had not seen it. Having screened so many of the pilots earlier in the summer, the sense of “instant reaction” was missing over the course of the past week, which was something that Terra Nova was able to deliver. There’s a thrill in seeing the snarky tweets piling up in Tweetdeck, or finally piecing together what critics who had seen the pilot (in multiple different iterations) have been talking about for weeks. Premiere week is all about first impressions, and the absence of real first impressions has led me to largely focus on a few tweet reviews and a lot of time following the ratings and waiting to see how second episodes fare.
However, there are a few things about Terra Nova that need to be discussed. Most broadly, and what will I guess prove the basic thesis of the post to follow, is that Terra Nova is a classic example of a series being trapped between more and less. It’s like a television magic trick at this point, in which producers have to provide more exposition and explanation in order to keep viewers from being confused, but then they need to include enough mystery that they build anticipation and excitement. As a result, both the exposition and the exclusion end up feeling forced, resulting in a pilot that bears the fingerprints of producer/network manipulation.
It’s also, honestly, not that bad if you just consider it as your run of the mill drama series; of course, that’s the last thing the show wants us to think.
I saw a lot of complaining about Josh, the young teenage protagonist who finds himself in peril as the Terra Nova premiere reaches its conclusion, and I get it. The character is a pretty stock reckless teenager type who doesn’t have any particularly redeemable features as far as we are shown. However, while Landon Liboiron is not the world’s best actor, I honestly don’t think much of this is his fault. The problem with Josh is that his own personal narrative gets utterly mangled in the midst of both some unfortunate editing early in the episode and the chaos of the action-packed conclusion.
In truth, his teenage angst makes a lot of sense to me: it is logical that a teenager whose father went to jail would have daddy issues, especially in the pre-apocalyptic Earth they’re depicting here. However, the problem is that Josh shows no signs of this resentment while he’s about to head through the portal: in fact, he actually seems worried about the idea of leaving him behind. Perhaps you could argue this was for the sake of his sister, but it looks more like legitimate concern, and once they’re through the portal he seems as concerned as his mother about the whole situation. For him to so quickly, at the drop of a hat, bring up the daddy issues once they’re settled into their new home is what sets the character on the wrong path: with just a few glances, or some simmering resentment, in earlier sequences the character might have had a consistent arc.
Mind you, it still would have been a fairly archetypal one, but I don’t see that as a problem. This is the kind of show that can work with archetypes provided they are well executed, and provided that they understand the importance of actually following through on them in regards to character. As Josh’s situation gets more complicated, his casual exploration of OTG (Outside the Gates) is transformed into a storyline that has nothing to do with him. We don’t learn that he’s particularly heroic, we don’t get any sort of indepth conversation about his daddy issues (or about his relationship to the random girlfriend he left behind who will probably magically arrive in Terra Nova just at the point where he’s started to fall for Skye), and in the end he becomes a helpless teenager (with a gun) who needs to be rescued. He becomes a pawn, which is the point at which an annoying teenager becomes problematic. Because it came out of nowhere given the odd editing (likely caused by reshoots and already substantial budget issues prohibiting more extensive reshoots), and because it ended up feeling like an excuse to have a big action climax, it becomes a problem when it could have just been a simple storyline.
The show is filled with elements that, when you separate them from the episode itself, aren’t terrible. The idea of a mysterious son who roams the jungle (like his father once did) pondering bigger questions about what Terra Nova represents? Sure! A splinter colony who may have been implanted by some sort of conspiracy who control key resources? Sounds legitimately interesting! A well-meaning lunkhead soldier-in-training on whom the nerdy – we know because she says math things – middle daughter has a crush? Why not!? Both husband and wife having professions (“security” and doctor) which could facilitate episodic storylines? Intelligent!
Now, I’m not saying that all of these things are particularly creative, or that they’re even particularly entertaining. However, they’re quite effective at making Terra Nova feel like a television show. Of course, at the same time, the show doesn’t want to be just another television show. It wants to be about dinosaurs, and spectacle, and about this stunning world of unbelievable imagination. It’s why we see so much of the dinosaurs despite the fact that the CGI is dreadful compared to cinematic standards: they could have shown less of the dinosaurs to build up a sense of mystery, and save a whole lot of money, but that would have made it seem like this is just your basic serial/procedural hybrid where criminals are replaced with dinosaurs. Everything about Terra Nova’s pilot screams a sense of difference, and yet when you actually look at the storylines they were trying to execute you find a much more sustainable show that is also considerably less noteworthy.
It’s also a show that isn’t the least bit subtle. Nearly every scene in the episode featured ADR’d dialogue that’s filling in any possible gaps so that the audience never once has to interpret on-screen action using just their eyesight. The opening sequence featured chyrons laying out a premise that anyone could have logically figured out based on little hints of dialogue throughout the premiere. The pilot is so eager to prove that it’s big and complicated and mythology-driven that it never stops to wonder if there is a value to mystery that hasn’t been introduced in the context of mystery. It’s not enough for characters to discover rocks with weird writing on them: they need to discover the rocks, talk about the rocks, extend their conversation of the rocks in talking to other characters, and then other characters need to find the same rocks (for no reason other than to facilitate conversation) and discuss them some more. What’s wrong with an easter egg here and there?
Terra Nova is terrified of being normal, lest audiences feel betrayed by dino-heavy promotions and the spectre of other science fiction hits, but the best thing it could do is stop believing its own hype and start trying to be a decent television show. The pilot wasn’t built to draw interest so much as it was built to feed interest, which turns out to be a very different notion that involves a whole lot of spectacle and not much substance. Ideas are bandied about, but they’re never connected to anything concrete, and the show largely rests on the very elements (the CGI, the mythology) that are most likely to disappoint (immediately, in the case of the former, and eventually in the case of the latter).
I’m not willing to write off Terra Nova, given that this is only the pilot and the short 13-episode first season could find its footing by the time the season comes to a close, but I’m willing to call bullshit on the notion that it has done anything to separate itself from the rest of television at this point. Could it eventually start becoming a network science fiction series on a larger scale than we’ve seen in a very long time? Absolutely. However, at this point, Terra Nova is just like every other television pilot, trying too hard to make a case for itself when the best thing it could do is let the audience make the case on their own.
And we’ll find out next week how many people managed to do just that after tonight’s premiere.
- Mo Ryan has a list of 12 questions she had after the premiere, which cover the gamut of possibilities the show could explore to this point. What’s interesting is that some questions – like why they risked having a third child – were answered in earlier versions of the pilot but were subsequently cut out.
- One of my biggest pet peeves is shows that rush too quickly into their premise. I sort of understand that they were worried about waiting too long to get to the dinos, but the speed at which Shannon is arrested/imprisoned/freed was problematic.
- I like Stephen Lang, so the sooner we can have a flashback episode to those 100+ days he spent alone in the jungle before the rest of the first pilgrimage arrived the better.
- Given likely themes of community and bureaucracy, I expect to see influences from both Lost and Battlestar Galactica, although I worry that “DINOS DINOS DINOS” will keep them away from some of the more subtle notions of community those shows dealt with in early seasons.