Terra Nova (Australian premiere)

This show, partly from the hands of Steven Spielberg, but also from the very capable creative minds of Brannon Brag and Rene Echevarria (late of the re-incarnated and awesomely good, Battlestar Galactica), came with hype. Great generous lashings of commercial TV hype, which immediately made me fearful that I was dealing with a dud that they were desperately hoping would be embraced because it featured dinosaurs. Lots and lots of dinosaurs 85 million years in the past. 

But after some positive US-based reviews (and yet sadly less than stellar debut ratings; they attracted 9 million viewers which sounds like lots but isn’t even close to blockbuster territory in a country of 300 million people), I gathered my friends close, ordered pizza, chilled the wine, and surrendered to the hype, annoying ads every 10 minutes and all. So what did I find?

Well, quite a lot of good things and some points of worry. But let’s start with the positive stuff first since that will make the mild criticisms not look so bad in comparison. The series premise is that mankind has once again destroyed the Earth, this time in 2149, and the only hope for a restart of civilisation is to send colonists back 85 millions years ago into the heart of the Cretaceous period (thus bypassing any allegations that this is Jurassic Park, the series), on what is fortunately a separate time line, which means that the colonists will not change anything in 2149 (though it could do with more than few tweaks to its bleak dystopian hell). The opening scenes are brilliantly done (filmed in Brisbane according to Jason O’Mara, who plays family patriarch, Jim Shannon, who tweeted this fact last night during the screening, leading a response from me that got retweeted by him – see below at the end of the review – which was very geek cool and had me grinning ear to ear), and you can well understand from watching the decaying world, why everyone, and his asthmatic dog, wants to escape, and get to the verdant green of Terra Nova.

For most people, its the luck of the draw that gets them there. But thanks to Jim’s wife, Elisabeth, who’s work as a highly talented doctor gets her noticed by the right people, (she is played by Shelley Conn), the family are offered the chance to go on a one way trip to salvation. The only snag? Jim is in prison for fathering an illegal third child, who also isn’t invited along for the ride. What to do? Well if you’re Elisabeth, you help engineer your husband’s escape from prison, bribe people to get him into the ultra secret Terra Nova departure building, hide your illegal daughter in a backpack, and then bolt like hell for the wormhole until everyone in the family is safely through. All a little convenient, but so much storytelling rests on too good to be true events so who am I to quibble since I do much the same thing in my novels?

Once safely in Terra Nova, with minimal repercussions, they set about creating a new life in what is styled by the leader of the colony, Commander Nathaniel Taylor (a man I would wager is not too enamoured of democratic representational government becoming part of the way Terra Nova is governed any time soon) as a paradise on earth. Naturally enough, while nothing too awful happens, paradise is cracked from one side to the other, though not in clear sight naturally, and in quick succession, it’s revealed that many members of the Sixth Pilgrimage (each new group of colonists is called a Pilgrimage) have rebelled and set up their own colony, that the Commander’s son has gone rogue and is writing odd equations all across the rocks at a waterfall in a forbidden area that may mean something Important, and a possible hidden agenda for Terra Nova itself (is it really the virtuous road to a new civilisation that it’s portrayed or something darker and more sinister?).

This is all very good and meaty and bodes well for a series that won’t be, I hope, Dinosaur-of-the-Week. Some well played conspiracy angles always help keep viewers intrigued, as long as you don’t do a Lost and become so convoluted that people give up watching in despair. Also the idea that no matter where you go, that humanity will still be itself and right royally screw things up, no matter how much hope is attached to the endeavour, anchors a show in some sort of compelling reality, and keeps you watching through any mawkish moments, of which there a more than a few in any Spielbergian creation.

So, so far so good. Good characters (if a little on the cliched side), high drama, dark threads of less than perfect reality against a backdrop of hope and new starts. The major downside? I fear that the series will eschew gritty dark reality for too much of a family drama focus. The producers have essentially said they have toned down the sci-fi to dial up the family angle, and while this is no great sin in itself, it will be a major drawback if the characters are not given some depth and richness, and the storylines are kept simple with no real ramifications for the Disneyfied characters. My cause for hope though is the aforementioned conspiracy angles, and the 6th pilgrimage which should, if not watered down, lead to some darkness in the sunniness of Terra Nova beguiling new dawn.

So is the hype well merited? Yes for the most part. Its a good solid drama with a fantastical premise, some promised, well flagged, elements of flawed humanity and a tableau on which to draw a rich multi faceted drama. Just watch the twee family moments Mr Spielberg and you will richly deserve any hype that comes your way, even if it is from 85 million years in the past.

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