The biggest sci-fi gamble in TV history took 85 million years to make: Here James Hibberd jumps through the EW recap portal and boils down this prehistoric sci-fi stew to just a few pages.

By James Hibberd
Updated September 27, 2011 at 03:00 AM EDT

The much-delayed Terra Nova is here in all its time-traveling, dino-chomping Lost Jurassic Avatar glory. After two years, $10-20 million, and approximately 1,789 writers, Fox and Steven Spielberg’s vision of a family adventure show set in the prehistoric past has aired at last. Terra Nova is arguably the biggest wild card of the fall, an expensive sci-fi stew that must go big in the ratings to survive extinction. Whether it succeeds or not, this is easily the most ambitious TV pilot since Lost, if not ever.

And here’s what happened: We open with a shot of the moon. It looks downright homey compared to a spectacularly dry and polluted planet Earth, which appears as if El Paso, Texas, sprawled out to cover the whole planet. We’re told “man’s only hope for mankind lies 85 million years in the past,” and find our hero, Jim Shannon, wearing a rebreather mask because the air is just that bad.

The Shannon Family lives in one of those bleak metallic housing units that we often see in futuristic movies but they never come to pass because, after all, it’s really not expensive to toss on a cheery coat of paint to spruce things up. Inside Jim presents his son Josh with a single orange, which is regarded like a holy relic. You can only imagine what kind of response dad bringing home a pizza would get.

This family moment is interrupted by a harsh knock on the door. We’re told some thugs from “Population Control” are outside. They stash their third and youngest child Zoe in the air duct for safe keeping. “There must be some mistake, I’m a cop too,” Jim tells the Planned Parenthood Brute Squad, tossing off some exposition about himself all casual.

The PC police search the room and Zoe just couldn’t stay quiet and they discover her. At this, Jim freaks out and strikes the officer. The cops Taser him into submission. Points for a rare example of accurate Taser effect — unlike in many movies and TV shows, electric stun guns do not render the victim unconscious, but do tend to make the person involuntarily scream and collapse.

Two years later: Jim is in prison. His wife, surgeon Elizabeth, bribes the guard for a visit and she’s horrified he’s breathing nasty unfiltered air (and you wonder: is this the first time she’s been able to visit him?). Elizabeth reveals she and the kids have a one-way ticket to this mysterious Terra Nova settlement — at least, their legal kids do. Little Zoe has to stay here and fend for herself. She pulls off the old passing-the-prisoner-a-miniature-laser-hidden-in-the-rebreather-mask trick, and unfortunately we don’t get to see Jim go on a wicked killing spree slicing through walls and guards as he escapes.

Jim sets off to meet his family and — guess what? — this is where the pilot originally started. Everything you just saw was previously off-screen back story. Producers decided we needed to get to know this family a bit before jumping into the time-traveling business and that prologue was added.

So Jim passes Blade Runner-esque future ruinous city landscape. There’s lots of hologram billboards and I kept expecting to see one of Fox promoting The X Factor. He passes an illegal family of five sitting in grimy poverty on the street with nothing but a single cracked iPad to entertain them (“Family Is Four” remind the ads). Jim finds a stashed backpack stuffed with bribe money and sneaks into the–

NEXT: Jake Sully, you’re not in Kansas anymore

Terra Nova Portal Facility (yes, I made that name up): Inside, Jim walks around the inner workings of what looks like a brewery and swaps backpacks. Apparently there are a lot of people willing to accept bribes in the future.

Inside, colonists are leaving for Terra Nova, which apparently involves walking reaaaaally sloooowly toward the Stargate portal. “Initiate portal dilation,” commands an official, sounding vaguely dirty.

Jim spies his Elizabeth, Josh, and his 15-year-old daughter Maddy, but he’s stopped by the guards. He stalls, makes excuses, at least trying to give them time to get through the dilated portal, but now they’re walking even slower because he’s being held up. Ah, screw it — Jim belts the guard and makes a run for the portal and–

Touchdown! He’s in shockingly pretty green-green past. The ultra clean air immediately sends Jim gasping into shock, a familiar sight at Hawaiian airports when tourists step off the planes from L.A. Plus, his gun upsets the local guards and they surround him. They also want to inspect his backpack, which instead of, like, unzipping to look inside, their first instinct is to try and stab it with a really big knife — kill the backpack! Jim yells and they unzip instead, revealing a stowaway Zoe.

The Shannon Family find themselves in wild prehistoric paradise. For the curious, the show was shot in Queensland. “Are those clouds?” asks Zoe (poor girl didn’t get much education growing up in an air duct, clearly). After a refreshing jungle hike, they arrive at–

Terra Nova camp: From above, the circular encampment looks a bit like Burning Man only with vegetation. Here they meet the rugged Commander Nathaniel Taylor, the first man to penetrate the portal seven years ago. He’s not only an expert on survival, but can wield a beard trimmer better than anybody.

Taylor gives his welcome speech, saying how we destroyed the planet due to our “baser instincts” but have been “given a second chance to start over.”

Up in his Ewok hut, Taylor meets with Jim and Elizabeth and, thankfully, all of Jim’s rule-breaking doesn’t really matter now. “I really don’t care about population laws from another time,” Taylor says, but presses Jim as to why he had an illegal third child. Jim gets riled up and snaps, “What’s between me and my wife is none of your damn business!” making it all sound like a big mystery (Dude, just say, “We’re Catholic.”)

The Shannon family is sent to–

NEXT: Farmer’s market; The Exposition Probe; Dino sighting

Shannon family’s Terra Nova bungalow. Nice. Contemporary. Clean. It looks as if somebody pushed a Crate & Barrel through the portal. Not much privacy, though, with only curtains to separate the bedrooms. “There’s no room for me,” Zoe complains, which is a bit spoiled coming from an illegal girl who was living in an air vent.

Jim teases Zoe about forgetting her name during his time in prison. Despite this scene being hokey, when the girl called him “daddy” it totally worked on me. Then Josh bitterly accuses everybody of acting like “one big happy family like nothing ever happened.”

“We’re not going to stand here and argue the past!” Jim barks, rather inaccurately.

Then Zoe runs outside and promptly starts to feed a dinosaur. For a moment we think the Shannon family’s over-crowding issue is going to be solved in one bite but the dino is a friendly one (this follows the Jurassic Park template of The First Ones Are Cute).

The Shannon Family start their first regular day at Terra Nova, which includes drinking Star Wars-style blue milk. Jim complains his daughter used up all the hot water and is told, no, the solar panels can only heat up so much at a time (um, yeah, which is what somebody means when they say you used up all the hot water). The camp has a vibrant Farmer’s Market and you’d think the Shannon family would go into hysterics about that crate of oranges, but I guess they’re getting used to this stuff.

Brainy teenage Maddy and sulky Josh find the Exposition Probe, which Maddy is very excited about and proceeds to deliver some heavy exposition with lots of enthusiasm. She explains that after the portal was discovered, the probe was inserted before sending any people (did they dilate the portal before inserting the probe?). That way, no matter how much time had passed they could still find the probe. Because they did not find the probe on Earth they realized Terra Nova existed in a different “time stream” and therefore anything they do in “the past” on Terra Nova cannot alter their crappy future.

Now, yes, I know, if this were a press conference, you’d all be jumping up with questions right now, and I have them too. You thought the settlement was changing the future by changing the past. But, no, they’re not, they are colonizing a different world … which is not our world, but a lot like it. OK. But just because they didn’t find the probe, thinking “different time stream” seems like an awfully big conclusion to jump to — maybe the battery ran out after 85 million years, it’s not like they can test it for that long. Also, what isn’t clear to me is how the people in the future have any idea what Terra Nova is like given that the portal only goes one way and you can’t, it seems, leave messages lying around for people to discover in the future. I mean, how did they know the probe didn’t come out in the middle of a volcano or in deep space? It’s implied there’s been some kind of communication — such as when Taylor got Jim’s prison records in the Ewok tent — but it hasn’t been specified yet.

NEXT: The Fresh goes OTF; Carn-attack

So Josh blows off orientation, while Jim gets to work on using a machete to clear the Terra Nova fence. He shows off his prison abs and feels like the king of the world, until a giant centipede freaks him out. Meanwhile Josh meets Skye, who looks damn similar to a young Kate Austen. Jim tells his son to get to orientation and Josh snaps, “You can’t just come back after all this time and start telling me what to do,” which in addition to getting perilously close to once again inaccurately describing the passage of time in a time-travel story, also totally ensures Skye is gonna fall for this bad boy. Josh should have paid his dad for that conversation.

Josh meets a house of young cool Terra Nova kids and they annoyingly call him “The Fresh.” Skye tempts Josh to go “OTF” and he says OK and they hike to a waterfall. She strips down and asks “What are you just gonna stand there and watch?” then she dives into the pool. Jim follows and one can’t help thinking what sort of prehistoric butt-nibbling nightmares might be swimming around in that water.

They find some mysterious intricate gold carvings on the rocks and Skye tells Josh nobody knows what they are and to not tell anybody he was there. Ah-ha, a Lost-like mystery!

Back at Terra Nova camp: Jim spies a man who broke out of a medical facility carrying a concealed weapon. He chases through the Farmer’s Market and even knocks over the crate of oranges like they’re nothing. The man takes aim at Taylor and Jim tackles him just in time, saving Taylor’s life.

Taylor decides to take Jim on a jungle hike and tells him about The Others Sixers — a hostile splinter group from Terra Nova that are up to no good. They hike awhile and the point seems to be that Taylor wanted to show Jim a really good view of the camp. “Until we know who sent those people back and why I don’t know who in the future I can trust,” Taylor says, and adds Jim is now hired as a Terra Nova cop.

Taylor spies Sixers inbound in their The Lost World-style rover things. Jim and Taylor take their rover and go to intercept. Turns out the Sixers are being chased, and we get our first dino attack — something called a “Carnotaurus.” Now, I’m no paleontologist but I’m assuming by that name the dino either eats other animals or steak tacos.

“We’ve got Carnos!” yells Taylor, who proceeds to prove why he’s such a badass by facing off against a charging one. The Sixers get inside the Terra Nova camp and the Carnos are sent back to the hard drive from which they came.

There’s lot of yelling and gun pointing during which we learn the Sixers have spies within the camp. We meet Mira, the leader of the Sixers, who wants to trade “meteoric iron” for their attempted assassin, medical supplies, and ammo. Taylor agrees to all but the ammo, which seems a bit soft of him.

Back with the Shannon family, little Zoe is saying she wants to go home to her air vent, which Jim, rightly, mocks. While Taylor tells Elizabeth that his son went missing a few years back.

NEXT: Meet the Slashers and, bonus, one believable T-Rex

In the jungle: The cool kids are drinking moonshine, which is made from “fruts” (how much Terra Nova cools kids slang is too much? This much). Going back to their rover they find their power cells stolen and Sixer rover nearby — where everybody has been killed except a wounded man in the back. Turns out they’re being hunted by “Slashers,” which looks like big ferocious chickens. The kids climb into rover and get assaulted by evil dinos.

This sequence goes on for quite a long time. My favorite part is when a kid is reassured that the Slashers wouldn’t want to eat his “scrawny ass” and then seconds later a dinosaur is chomping on his leg.

Jim, Elizabeth and Taylor launch a rescue mission. Taylor notes that he survived alone in the jungle for 118 days even though it was only “a blink of an eye” for the folks in the future sending people through the portal — so, this is important, I suspect. Not only can Terra Nova not impact the future since it’s in a different time stream, but time flows at a different rate so that a short time in the future is a long time on Terra Nova. Huh.

Anyway the rescue party has cool purple eye gear and green laser guns and they find the kids. Later, Taylor and Skye have a moment alone (and was I the only one who thought this scene didn’t quite feel appropriately parental?) He asks if she stayed away from the falls where we know there are those mysterious gold markings. “Those can be some treacherous waters” he growls.

We’re then told the markings — whatever they are — are left by Taylor’s missing son.”Those are the key to everything. I was surprised they solved that mystery, at least partly, so soon.

Homework: The probe may prove Terra Nova settlement doesn’t impact the future, but the TV show Terra Nova (as well as many other time-travel tales) would not exist without Ray Bradbury’s magnificent short story “A Sound of Thunder.” You should check it out, it’s only a few pages long and is reprinted online via La Salle University here (worth reading for its description of a T-Rex alone).

So what did you think? Did all the past-future science hold together (enough) for you? Did you want more or less dinos? Will you tune in next week? And do you want a transparent iPad?

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See you next week and until then check out my Game of Thrones recaps here and my recap of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2 here.

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