Usually we each have our own separate posts, such as Karen's Classroom or Damon's Blacktop. We often collaborate, but the final authorship belongs to one person. Four Square is a special sort of post where we each have a voice. This time it's our two cents on the family drama, Terra Nova. Basically, we answer this question: Terra Nova is made for whole families to safely enjoy together... but is it really worth watching with your family?
I am a Steven Spielberg fan, and that’s what initially drew me to watching Terra Nova. Spielberg has dabbled in television from time to time, but when Terra Nova surfaced, it had been a while since he was active in TV. It only took me one episode to get hooked.
Three things captured my attention, and turned me into an instantaneous fan.
First, the premise is really creative compared to many TV shows, and it’s topical given the state of today’s world. Terra Nova concerns itself with our future world, where the earth is overwhelmed by an enormous and unsupportable population. Resources are depleted, and the air is dark and gray — so polluted that only a complicated breathing apparatus makes it possible to tolerate the poisonous atmosphere. Humanity’s one remaining hope is a recently discovered time portal, which allows people to travel back to a pristine but primitive ancient era. It would be a perfect paradise, if it weren’t an unpredictable and dangerous jungle, populated by prehistoric creatures. The government strictly controls access, methodically picking skilled individuals and their families to join the existing small colony.
People and supplies can be sent to the colony in short, sporadic bursts, but the portal doesn’t go both ways. The trip is strictly one way! – Now that’s an intriguing premise a viewer can get behind.
Secondly, the alluring premise may be the initial hook, but without character development and human relationships, the whole project could easily become shallow. This is more than a shoot ‘em-up, pulp sci-fi, with scary monsters and one-dimensional heroes and villains. Terra Nova is a compelling family drama where a significant part of the story is built on the interaction of families in the midst of overwhelming challenges. The main focus is on the Shannon family. Far from being adventure-seekers, they overstepped the boundaries of their home-time by unlawfully having a third child, and have suffered years of forced separation when the father is imprisoned for trying to protect his illegal daughter. Traveling to the past is an opportunity to escape the oppresive forces that would tear their family apart. The Shannons are dedicated to survival, not just as individuals, but as a family unit. They jump at the chance to relocate to Terra Nova, willing to risk the dangers of an unknown, promising world—but only if they can endure it as a group.
Third, there is a constant anticipation and exciting uncertainty of how things will unfold. For instance, the pioneers find themselves removed from their previous system of laws and social structure. Should they submit to martial law and a frontier style of justice, where one leader (Commander Taylor) makes all the decisions? Can humans survive harmoniously and long-term in an environment where they are such an anachronism? Will their knowledge of science and technology be enough to save them from this perilous world? Can they live in Terra Nova without denigrating it and turning it into another environmental disaster?
Unfortunately, Terra Nova only lasted a single season. So many questions that were brought up ultimately go unanswered. My experience with good TV shows is that the first season typically develops the characters and sets the stage for following seasons. Terra Nova was filled with possibility but didn’t have the opportunity to expand. It did, however, manage to wrap up some of the story’s loose ends before disappearing from the air waves. Still, I was left wondering about what might have been.
“At the dawn of the 22nd century, the world is on the verge of collapse. Mankind’s only hope lies 85 million years in the past.”
Terra Nova certainly benefited from some pumped up production values. How many TV shows can claim the backing of Steven Spielberg and a budget of more than $50 million? The acting is passable, the sets are above average for TV, and even the dinosaurs look alright (an accomplishment, considering we live in the spoiled era of amazing movie CGI). And yet, Terra Nova is mediocre at best.
The real problem with Terra Nova is its core content. To escape the sickeningly over-polluted world of 2149, the Shannon family goes back to the Cretaceous period as part of a government sponsored effort to ‘colonize the past’. This could be ground for some really interesting stuff. Post-apocalysm, environmentalism, rebirth, primal fears, the frailty of man.
But instead, family is unwaveringly and all-encompassingly at center stage. In the pilot, the father, James Shannon, is thrown in jail because there's a family population limit, and he's had one too many kids. Later in the show, a daughter betrays the colony, but everyone is quick to forgive because she did it out of loyalty to her mother. The series' antagonist isn't motivated by greed, self interest, or corruption. Nor does he take his actions because of a differing worldview, or incompatible philosophy. Instead he's merely somebody’s son, all grown up, yet still childishly angry with his father. The evil here is... a temper tantrum? This antagonist has no actual sister, but at one point claims that a certain character is "like a sister to him”, then immediately proceeds to make romantic overtures towards her. Oh, thank goodness for that tired ultimate violation of family values. Without the clichéd allusions to incest, how could we possibly have known that he was such a really bad guy?
The problem isn't just that plots like these exist in Terra Nova, it's that they absolutely dominate Terra Nova. They account for practically all of the dialogue, all of the action, and all of the screen time. Why lay the groundwork for topics like environmentalism or war, if all such topics get is a brief nod before we run off to the next family-centric conflict? In my view, a good family drama comes from families being pulled into a larger circumstance. In Terra Nova, family dysfunction manufactures the big-picture conflicts, and in a way that's unconvincing. I mean, family is undoubtedly important, but is it really the one and only motivator in people's lives?
Fiction doesn't always have to mirror reality, but Terra Nova's fanatical obsession with family pushes it into an un-self-aware, campy territory.