Terra Nova - Final Review

Terra Nova was the great hope of the 2011/2012 US TV season. It was the big, brash newcomer. It was Executive-Produced by Steven Spielberg, produced by an alumnus of 24, budgeted over and above the average US network show to the tune of $4 million an episode and it had dinosaurs (hence the Spielberg attachment one presumes). It was an amazing commitment with a 13 episode season one run ordered instead of the usual pilot order that networks usually do. It was on many critic’s list of ‘ones to watch 2011-2012’. It was going to be the hit of the year. Except it hasn’t been, not in an out of the park way, anyway. Things have been choppy. No-one yet knows if there’ll be a second series. We’re not even entirely sure here at The Digital Fix what we think. Let’s explain.

Terra Nova has a fantastically exciting concept, and one in which it even covered itself from the most glaringly obvious geek and fanboy attacks early on. Meeting Jim Shannon and family in the year 2149 we learn that the world is without hope. Resources have been exhausted, population is too high (hence a limit to the number of allowed offspring) and the air quality is such that you try not to go outside, but should you have to then a mask is essential. Excitingly though scientists have discovered a rift in space-time allowing a one-way journey from 2149 to another timeline equivalent to 85 million years ago in the existing one. It had to be a different timeline otherwise causality would have ensured a million and one time paradoxes!

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The Shannons get invited to make the journey from their 2149 to the other prehistoric era via the tenth pilgrimage. Once they get there very quickly they establish themselves as central figures in that world, with Jim a cop from his past life offering such assistance to Commander Taylor, the leader of Terra Nova and his wife, Elizabeth, running the health centre / hospital. So begins a series of episodes in which we learn more about Terra Nova, the people who live there, the sixers opposing the good folk of Terra Nova (so called as they were on the sixth pilgrimage) and over time the mythology - such as it is - surrounding the place and driving the factions on.

The opening episode set things up well. People travel back in time, we see dinosaurs. It’s hard to get that wrong. It’s what followed that made the bulk of viewing a ‘so bad it’s good’ experience at best, and a struggle at worst. Instead of monster of the week type episodes with a start, middle and end, we had a soap opera type setup with very little given away in terms of what is really happening and any secrets that the place may hold. Jim Shannon as a character did things which he shouldn’t have been allowed to do or able to do considering he was a cop in 2149 and really shouldn’t have been in Terra Nova in the first place (I’ll leave that one to the show to explain). He is not military so why did he suddenly become the Commander’s right hand man when going outside of the grounds searching for murderers or the sixers? Why is Jim Shannon so utterly dumb given his supposed standing in the hierarchy of the population?

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Commander Taylor is the leader of Terra Nova and one of the main characters after Jim Shannon, but he probably couldn’t be anymore wooden if he tried. It’s hard to know whether you should be appalled or heartily laugh at half of what he does. The best bit involving him was probably the moment he jumped out of the shadows to fight one on one with a super-sized killer komodo dragon type dinosaur. With a knife. Man versus dinosaur. With a knife. It was amazingly entertaining but all for the wrong reasons.

The show was compelling to watch, however. Looking back it’s hard to recall quite why. Was it because it was clear something else was happening and we weren’t yet aware? Was it because it was exciting to see what crazy thing would happen next? Was it just because for such a big budget show some of the effects were incredibly poor? Probably a combination in truth. Regardless, the fact remains that it did compel the viewer to persist and, eventually, by the final couple of episodes it paid off.

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The writers did explain what was going on. Unlike Lost they gave all the answers to season one’s questions by the end. Except for the question they asked right at the end. Right at the end of the series, just when you were satisfied the show was decent and nothing more it goes and throws a curve ball. It suggested a few possibilities regarding season two and likened itself even more to the show mentioned above, Lost. It would be rude to share more here but suffice to say, that when trying to answer the original question posed at the top of this review - namely what does The Digital Fix think - it helped crystallise the answer. Season one was a decent run, a struggle at times, a caricature of what a show should be at others, but ultimately a fairly solid drama / thriller / sci-fi actioner. But with the final act it setup what could be a fantastic season two if it’s commissioned and if the writers are given the space to prepare a suitably fulfilling arc across the whole year.

The ratings were good enough that it’s likely we’ll see a second season. No decision has been made yet but we should know by the Summer at the latest (and it seems likely given where the ratings ended for the show, and the finale's overall critical reception). Here’s hoping they progress and this becomes the next Lost, rather than FlashForward.

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