Wednesday, September 28, 2011

TV REVIEW: Terra Nova: "Genesis" (1 & 2) (2011)



If nothing else, the new Fox TV series Terra Nova from Brannon Braga and Steven Spielberg is a stark reminder that there are really two tiers of television entertainment or programming available these days.

On the first tier, you get nuanced, droll, dramatic, and highly-intellectual fare such as Dexter, The Walking Dead or True Blood

And on the other tier, you end up with pandering, appeals-to-the-masses hokum such as Terra Nova.   

This new sci-fi series, a superficial, rah-rah paean to the glories of  the American nuclear family -- even in the Cretaceous Period -- is generic, as bland as they come, and slathered with relatively weak CGI special effects.  As many critics have observed, the dinosaurs look pretty terrible. But then so do the CGI landscapes and cities. 

Still, the effects aren't the biggest problem.  The crisis for Terra Nova is that it is pitched so damn low in terms of intelligence, and even internal consistency.

The premise of Terra Nova, as you likely know by now, is that by 2149 AD, man has all but destroyed Mother Earth.  The atmosphere is polluted and virtually unbreathable.  American citizens must wear "re-breathers" on a daily basis just to survive.

However, mankind of the 22nd century discovers he may get a second chance.  A fracture in time-space has been detected, and so man of the future has begun to send "pilgrimages" back in time some 85 million years...to start over. 

The discovery of this time fracture has also revealed that this gateway leads not to our own past; but to the past of an alternate reality.   Therefore, the people who go back in time are free to interfere in the affairs of the world without worrying about deleting their own histories from existence. 

Of course, they may be interfering with alternate selves or other, innocent human beings, but no one bothers to bring up that point.  If evolution unfolds as it does in our reality, the pilgrimages to Terra Nova are certainly usurping it.

The Shannon family, led by Jim (Jason O'Mara) and Elizabeth (Shelly Conn) are among those who travel back in time to Terra Nova for a "new dawn" for mankind.  Getting there isn't easy, however.  The parents have broken Federal laws concerning "population control" and given birth to a third child.  When this child, Zoe, is discovered, Jim -- a cop -- is incarcerated.  Two years later he breaks out of a maximum security prison to go back in time with his family and escape such restrictions.

Fortunately, the Shannons are warmly received by Commander Taylor (Stephen Lang) at Terra Nova, and quickly become top advisers to this charismatic military leader.  Their teenage son, Josh (Landon Liboiron), however, proves quite rebellious and begins exploring outside the Terra Nova compound with other young adults.  He does so despite the fact that dinosaurs called "slashers" roam freely about and like to feed on humans.

Meanwhile, Jim learns that there is unrest in Terra Nova, particularly from a group called "Sixers" (from the Sixth Pilgrimage).  The Sixers often steal supplies from Taylor's community, and have staked out a nearby quarry where valuable minerals are located.

In the first two-part episode, "Genesis," the viewer is introduced to the Shannons, their world of 2149 AD, and the community of Terra Nova in the distant past.  But for all the intriguing ideas evident in the premise, the show's big observations so far are all pure middle Americana sitcom: that teens will remain rebellious, even with dinosaurs about, and once-a-cop, always a cop.  The drama doesn't go much deeper than that, at least not yet.  And science fiction should be deep; it should be about examining the human equation from as many angles as possible.

And actually, Terra Nova plays on a dumber level than my critique above indicates. The series presents us with two basic facts that seem to have trouble co-existing.  The first is that overpopulation is destroying our planet, and that rigorous laws have been established in an attempt to slow down overpopulation -- an unsustainable lifestyle -- as much as possible. Such laws limit a family membership to four. 

And the second fact is that the Shannons, our protagonists and role models, have broken this law intentionally, and had a third child.  Why, we are not informed.

Amazingly, the writers of Terra Nova are never smart enough to draw a straight line here connecting these facts.  In the past, Taylor speaks of a new dawn for mankind, and how the old world was destroyed.  He notes, particularly, that man "blew it," that "he destroyed our home."  He did so, insists Taylor, through "greed and ignorance."  Now, 85 million years in the past, he has a chance to start again.

But the problem is this: the Shannon family is held up as heroes by the series, yet they are among those who willfully helped to destroy the planet by intentionally disobeying the laws and edicts of their culture.  Their world is in shambles...and they made it worse by breaking the laws regarding childbirth and personal responsibility. 

And we're supposed to like and respect them. 

At this point, I'm not sure why they, in particular, deserve a second chance.  This show is so dumb that it doesn't even make the connection between the necessity of the population control law to PRESERVE LIFE ON EARTH and the fact that the Shannons wantonly broke it...but now get a second chance in the Garden of Eden anyway.

Instead, the "Population Control" officers of the government are portrayed here as black-booted thugs who interfere in the private affairs of families.  These gestapo-styled soldiers enter a private home, turn it upside down, and find a hidden child.  At first, I believed that this scenario might represent some kind of metaphor for illegal immigration, with the Shannons desperate to find a way to get to their new home, even if illegally, with the family intact. 

But then I realized instead that the show is simply pandering to the selfish, myopic Tea Party mentality dominating our national discourse right now.  In other words, government is made to look evil (and anti-family, and anti-life) for interfering with the affairs of private citizens.

And yet, as is abundantly plain, this is an immensely stupid argument.  If you can't breathe the air, if the world is dying, the government of man must do something to save us, right?  Something like imposing population controls.  Given the dire environmental situation portrayed in Terra Nova, a limit of two children per family hardly seems unreasonable. Unlike Z.P.G (1972), for instance, there isn't a complete moratorium on child bearing here.  This law is not even as draconian as a "one-child" policy. No, instead, the government in this series is just saying limit the family to two children

But hey, that's taking away our freedom...to destroy the planet.  I can hear the cries of "don't tread on me" already.  And in this case, the people shouting that phrase will literally choke on it, as the air becomes unbreathable for everyone.  What Terra Nova seems to indicate is that it is okay for the individual to defy the rules of the government -- rules made for the common good -- because they overstep some sense of personal liberty.  This is Ayn Randianism gone nuts.  Nobody seems to care about the common good anymore.

And again, this idea even seems embedded in the series premise.  Terra Nova is a community not just in an alternate world, but an alternate past.  By going there and interfering with history, the colonists are, essentially, dooming another human race (assuming similar evolution).  How would we feel if aliens from a world that they ruined traveled to our past and colonized it, taking away not just our liberty, but our very existence?    The more you think about it, Terra Nova is a program about very selfish people.  And again, we have to ask, do they really deserve the second chance, a second world to ruin?

Frankly, I don't know if this conceit was intentional, or just a result of shoddy thinking, but so far Terra Nova is rife with these gaps in logic. 

For instance, there have been ten pilgrimages back to the community of Terra Nova, and yet there is no sign or indication of a civilian government there.  Instead, a military man, Commander Taylor, runs the entire show, without oversight.  Now, with dinosaurs hopping around, I absolutely understand the need for a strong security force and a well-armed militia, but why doesn't one exist side-by-side with a citizen council?  Do the people of Terra Nova realize they have traveled back in time to participate in...a military dictatorship?  

That's their answer for escaping the restrictions of an overreaching government in 2149 AD...authoritarian military rule?  There's your freedom for you.

With all the happy talk of a new beginning and a new dawn for humanity, you'd expect that democracy might be one quality of America that would be exported to the Cretaceous Period, but apparently this is not the case.
Besides concerns such as these, the makers of this sci-fi series seem to work overtime to satisfy all audience demographics.  That's where more of  the pandering comes in.

In the span of a two-hour season premiere, the writers set up hunky/sexy prospective romantic partners for both the Shannon teenagers, for instance, thus assuring that teenagers will tune in.  So in the first show, you get teens in love, bromides about families sticking together in tough times, a vicious dinosaur attack, and enough bad green-screening to last you a lifetime.

In terms of genre history, Terra Nova owes a big debt to Lost in Space, which concerned an American family contending with another dangerous frontier, outer space.  Also, Lang's character and character history seems somewhat reminiscent of the actor's role in Avatar (2009).  In terms of visuals, the series references both Stargate and The Time Tunnel with its temporal hardware.

Terra Nova may yet improve, and I hope it does.  I'd like nothing more than to have a weekly engagement with intelligent science fiction television.   The two-hour premiere sets up some interesting mysteries regarding the motivations of the Sixers, and Taylor's long-missing son, so I hope I have some cause for optimism. 

I'm pretty disappointed with the opening chapter of this new drama,  but I will keep watching, and keep hoping that Terra Nova transcends its TV tier...and begins to be a science fiction series worthy of the genre.

10 comments:

  1. I didn't watch the show, but what you had to say about it made me glad I stayed away. When I saw the preview, I was disturbed that they would blatantly go into the past (albeit the very distant past) to start over. Now that I know it's someone else's past, it's even more disturbing. It does seem like the show is pandering to their boss' political agenda. Pretty sad.

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  2. Hi Neal,

    I'm planning to watch at least five weeks worth of episodes, to see if the series improves.

    Sometimes, the pilot is not the best reflection of what a show can become, and I do want to keep that fact in mind.

    That said, I agree that a lot of the ideas in Terra Nova are upsetting by implication. The more you think about those implications, the worse the show seems.

    The problem is, it looks like the makers of the show either a) didn't bother to really think about those implications or b) were pushing a political ideology that is anti-science. If it's B, that's obviously a dumb thing to do in a sci-fi series, right?

    Thanks for your great comment!

    best
    John

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  3. Part I

    Been a while since I last dropped comment here. Sorry I missed your three-week-long Matrix seminar (in short: I never fully liked those films, but can still watch them now and again for certain engaging tidbits). Couple of other stuff: didn’t like Insidious, consider Somewhere in Time a minor genre classic.

    Anyways, Terra Nova...

    Disappointing for the most part. I was hoping for an updated version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World mixed with Lost in Space mixed with Earth 2 (remember that show? I’m sure you do) but all of it elevated with a respect for the potentially intriguing ideas. What did we get? The Waltons -- minus the quaint charm -- a group of embarrassingly manufactured Abercrombie & Fitch teenagers being Abercrombie & Fitchy, poor casting choices all around, last-minute cheap attempts at imitating Lost, some other dumb shit and an overreliance on Dino-spectacle, which, in and of itself would not be a problem if the visual effects weren’t so dodgy. I like Stephen Lang. He’s solid. I like some of the production design, notably the look of the colony perimeter and the vehicles. That’s about it. The show is simply overproduced, which always seems to result in the cutting of creative corners. I was hoping Spielberg’s involvement would better guarantee something worthwhile; I still think Taken might be the best sci-fi miniseries I’ve ever seen, and as a kid I absolutely loved Amazing Stories. I still do if I ever get the chance to buy the 2 season set. Alas, Terra Nova is nowhere near as good as either of those two shows. The whole thing is very vanilla.

    However, I do have one point of contention with your review.

    [Terra Nova is a community not just in an alternate world, but an alternate past. By going there and interfering with history, the colonists are, essentially, dooming another human race (assuming similar evolution). How would we feel if aliens from a world that they ruined traveled to our past and colonized it, taking away not just our liberty, but our very existence?]

    We probably wouldn’t feel anything since our erasure from time is likely not something we would even be conscious of, let alone subject to physical or emotional suffering. One minute we would be, the next minute we wouldn’t ...and without ever knowing. As presented by the show, whatever long term consequences resulting from this particular interference with an alternate, parallel universe is beyond all rational accountability, leaving a vast moral gray area. And as such, we must ultimately decide for ourselves something concrete. If the Earth is dying and our only refuge is the prehistoric resources of a duplicate Earth, I say go for it. What are we talking about here, the possible deletion of a duplicate human race? Okay, but it’s to save our own, which is the same as them. Look at it this way: would you erase from existence an alternate you in order to save yourself? I would. But what about the rights of my other self? Well, his rights are my rights, because we are the same, just existing on two separate planes.

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  4. Part II

    Killing me is one thing, but if he (the alternate me) were forced to negate my very existence to further ensure his own then I would logically have no objections, because he is me. It wouldn’t make any difference to me because I am him. I is me. Whether I exist in one universe or the paralleling other ...as long as I exist. Now, let’s expand this principle to the entire human race. If we as a species consent, if by democratic means, to erase an alternate version of ourselves (as we are) in order to survive, there is nothing irresponsible about such actions. In fact, doing so would be entirely responsible because we are recognizing humankind as one, above and beyond dimensional barriers and collectively agreeing to break those barriers to stay alive. Remember, the people of this neighboring universe would be doing the exact same thing. There is no “them” or “others”. The properties of space-time are irrelevant. In the end we would simply do unto ourselves, to save ourselves.

    All this talk about time travel has given me a hankering. Somewhere in Time is truly great, but I likewise dig the geekier Time After Time, with an awesomely bat-shit bonkers story that has H.G. Wells tracking Jack the Ripper through 20th century San Francisco. I think I’ll give that one a whirl.

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  5. Hi John,
    I watched and, well, I know what you mean on every detail of your post. You are absolutely right about it.

    It definitely feels a bit like the sterile, over-polished and produced sheen that infected the new V and infects that OTHER layer of television you mentioned.

    I didn't hate the show and I watched it through enjoying some moments.

    That said, there were huge logic problems and holes the size of the one the people walk through to get to the "alternate past". It's definitely not a great plot device.

    The cookie cutter character archtypes definitely grate on the nerves.

    But, admittedly, your damning review makes me wonder why I enjoyed the mindless bits that I did. I was definitely swept up in the moment of dinosaur pursuit. : )

    It has problems and if this is the template going forward it probably is doomed for extinction. Like any new project they're going to have to switch it up and get a little smarter, but, like dinosaurs, the brains don't seem very big on this one. And I like Braga's Enterprise stuff at times.

    But I really understand your salient points. This group seems as doomed as the last one. Despite it's dinosaur bone-headedness I'm still going to give it some time.

    I don't know John. Call me an optimist on this one.

    Maybe they're attempting to lure viewers in with splashy action and the lowest common denominator of scriptwriting so that they can gradually become a more complex, true science fiction adventure series rather than an amalgamation of all things to all people.

    Wouldn't that be clever? We'll see. Glad to see you spend some time sharing your thoughts on this one.

    sff

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  6. John, I don’t think it’s fair to compare Terra Nova – a prime-time network advertising-driven program – to the Dexter, The Walking Dead and True Blood. Two of those shows are on Premium channels with no advertising and do not require the millions of viewers as a network show to continue production. The Walking Dead is on AMC, which is an advertising cable network, but it still doesn’t require the same number of viewers to maintain its advertising dollars. The premium channels and the cable networks will always be able to take more chances on viewer specific shows than the five broadcast networks. This is the reason that I personally watch more cable and premium channel programs than network shows. Still, this no excuse for poor story or conceptual world building that Terra Nova suffers from at the start.

    Before the show even ran, I was disappointed that they went the time travel route instead of sending mankind out into space. Once you start playing the time travel game, you immediately have to deal with all the anomalies that this creates. I don’t have a problem with time travel as a sci-fi story device, but I much prefer space as more believable destination for the future of humankind. I assume the creators of Terra Nova chose time travel for the obvious reason that you can have humans and dinosaurs living in the same environment. Plus, it’s much cheaper to reproduce a primordial Earth location than a completely alien world. Still, I do have to wonder, because both Stargate and Farscape on the Sci-Fi Channel managed to create a variety of alien worlds on a weekly basis and on a smaller budget.

    You are really bothered by the Shannons breaking the two-child per family law (which given the condition of the Earth should be a no children law) and then being accepted by the Terra Nova colony with zero repercussions. It’s a one way trip – which they remind us several times in the first hour or the show – so the only real punishment would be death for one or both of the parents. Since they obviously need the doctoring brilliance of Elizabeth Shannon, that only leaves the option of terminating Jim; and I don’t think Elizabeth would be very cooperative if they offed her husband. I suppose they could have just exiled him, but that would be the same as a death sentence. They also could have jailed him for the remainder of his original sentence, but that would be a waste of a human resource. As far as liking the Shannons, that is a matter of personal preference. The rebellious streak they represent has always been an American film and TV iconic tradition, which most people identify with on a visceral level. Personally, I find the Shannons to be a trifle dull.

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  7. I am tired of the traditional family being used as a center piece of TV science fiction. Just as recently as Falling Skies the main focus of that show was a father trying to get his son back from the alien enslavement. Meanwhile, 90% of population has been obliterated by these aliens and they continue to hunt down and kill or enslave what few people are left! Yet, we’re supposed to feel empathy for the poor father who has lost his son, instead on wondering why they aren’t trying to figure a way of killing the damn aliens that are wiping out the human race! As a science fiction TV fan, I’ve come to accept that traditional family values are going to be forced on us and that if I want to watch TV SF I have to live with it. I don’t have to like it, but I’m not going to drive myself crazy with it either.

    The time concept of an alternate past was relayed by a teenage girl – the oldest Shannon daughter. She says that because the future Earth did not find the probe that was sent through the time rift in the future, that it is believed that they have created an alternate time-line and have not destroyed the time where they are from. It makes sense from a practical point, because if the first people sent into the past changed the future, than no more people would be coming from there. In fact, they would also not exist because they are from that same non-existent future. This is why I don’t like time travel stories, because you have to overlook flaws in logic to accept time travel to begin with.

    I too am hopeful that Terra Nova will rise above its weak premise and develop into a science fiction show that really looks into the human condition in an alien environment and not just turn into dinosaur attack of the week. I’ll watch the 13 episode run and hope for the best.

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  8. You are a genius. This review nails it. Thank you thank you thank you. For exposing this piece of garbage for what it is--pure crap.

    A few comments on your comments...

    "Fortunately, the Shannons are warmly received by Commander Taylor (Stephen Lang) at Terra Nova, and quickly become top advisers to this charismatic military leader." Yeah, all in *one* (the first) morning!

    "But the problem is this: the Shannon family is held up as heroes by the series, yet they are among those who willfully helped to destroy the planet by intentionally disobeying the laws and edicts of their culture. Their world is in shambles...and they made it worse by breaking the laws regarding childbirth and personal responsibility.
    And we're supposed to like and respect them."

    Again, nailed it. I was disgusted by them. They ARE the problem, yet they are held up as heroes.

    Finally, why are there no helicopters? Seriously. This makes no sense whatsoever.

    The entire show makes no sense. What a tremendous disappointment, sweetened only by this review. I waited so long, and was really looking forward to this show, only to be let down in the worst way.

    (I surfed reviews of this show and they were mixed. Really? Mixed? What sort of a person could possibly think this show has ANY redeeming values? Your blog keeps me sane. Thank you).

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  9. Hi John,

    Thanks. I didn't know Terra Nova was released already.

    I watched it and it is just like you said: bad. I don't know much about the rules of TV script writing, but this pilot didn't seem to stick to them very well.

    The pilot was full of filler and it looked like it tried to much. I would have been happy with just a regular: "Hey, we got a way to the past, let's check it out" type story. The Frontier type. They could have brought all the rest in later.

    Plus the music was terrible.

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  10. This show is terrible. I haven't watched TVSF this over the top cheesy in years. This is Irwin Allen level dreck.

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