Though it had its share of lesser episodes, the first season of TNT’s Falling Skies often struck a nice balance between spectacle and character-driven drama. Less than two months after that show’s season finale, the similarly themed Terra Nova hits primetime, likely aiming for the same audience. Regrettably, the final product falls short of Falling Skies, amounting to a fraction of what it aspires to be: Jurassic Park meets The Swiss Family Robinson meets Land of the Lost meets Avatar—a colossal, flashy, superficial melting pot of nearly every family-driven sci-fi fable set in an exotic landscape. The Steven Spielberg-produced Terra Nova foolishly favors blaring its insanely high budget in place of developing its central cast of characters, who are almost instantaneously rendered to stock types after the florid opening fly-by shots of a badly polluted Earth circa 2149.
The show’s prologue sees patriarchal, soon-to-be ex-cop Jim Shannon (Jason O’Mara) thrown in the slammer after losing his cool and physically assaulting investigating authorities when his illegal third child (part of Earth’s downfall is blamed on overpopulation) is discovered stowed away in, of all things, a ventilation shaft. Cut to two years later and Jim’s faithful wife, Elisabeth (Shelley Conn), sneaks in a handy laser cutter (embedded inside a gas mask) to her incarcerated husband, a plan which apparently took her two years to come up with. After an inexplicably off-camera jailbreak and subsequent short-lived chase scene, Jim and Elisabeth, along with their three offspring—Josh (Landon Liboiron), Maddy (Naomi Scott), and shouldn’t-exist-by-law Zoe (Alana Mansour)—make their way into Terra Nova through a we’ve-seen-that-before Stargate-model time-travel mechanism.
In Earth’s Cretaceous period, the titular compound becomes home for the Tenth Pilgrimage that attempts humanity’s societal rebirth. Visually, the pilot sparkles with $15-million luster, but the groan-worthy dialogue is nothing if not cheap, and the actors delivering them don’t have enough presence to distinguish their characters. The citizens of Terra Nova are a thoroughly disenchanting bunch, lamely filling the shoes of so many sci-fi archetypes that have come before.
The show’s first curveball arrives when a renegade group known as the Sixers (they were part of the Sixth Pilgrimage to Terra Nova), led by the tough-as-nails Mira (Christine Adams), makes themselves known as opponents of the colony and seeks to take out Commander Nathaniel Taylor (Stephen Lang, playing yang to Avatar‘s Colonel Miles Quaritch’s yin), the settlement’s pioneer and CEO, who seeks to avoid the confrontational and environmental chaos that sent Earth into its horrendous future state. The idea of multiple human sects, each with their own idea of how to operate within Terra Nova, is straight out of the Lost playbook, but the weak writing and soap-operatic acting renders the tried-and-true concept nearly dead on arrival.
Terra Nova‘s most wide-ranging appeal will likely be its promise of lifelike dinosaurs scampering around. Fortunately, the beasts don’t manifest until roughly half an hour into the pilot, when curious little Zoe is lifted off the ground while feeding tree branches to a hungry Brachiosaurus. For a series with such monumental production values, the dinosaurs don’t pack the visual punch they should, scarcely holding a candle to what Spielberg first committed to celluloid 18 years ago. The show’s primary fictional dino foes are nicknamed Slashers and are similar in design to Velociraptors, only with a more aesthetic flare, complete with rooster-like head crests and deathly sharp blades attached to their tails; the choice to fabricate a species from what looks like the daydream doodles of a grade schooler is among the episode’s many missteps.
It’s no mystery how the overproduced Terra Nova managed to turn out so drastically underwhelming. It’s as if its creators, very much like the fragmented denizens of Terra Nova itself, split off into sequestered camps, each handling a separate yet no less important aspect of the show’s creative process, and when the parties finally reconvened, the whole thing simply refused to fit together.