Let’s state this up front: telling a long-form narrative is incredibly, incredibly hard. When it’s done well, it represents a monumental achievement. So saying “Terra Nova” is pretty terrible at it isn’t quite the slam it might seem. It just means the show is just as bad as the majority of other television shows currently on right now. By now, it’s abundantly clear that the show barely thought past the pilot in terms of creating a far-reaching story that would sustain a single season, never mind a multitude of them. But that need not be a deal breaker for the show, so long as it recognizes its own limitations. But as long as it fails to do so, this will be an expensive misfire for FOX.
Here’s the thing: I think there are times in which long-term planning works AGAINST shows. Think about it this way: there are plenty of bands on the music scene right now. Plenty of them turn out perfectly good records that play to their strengths. Sure, these aren’t akin to “Sgt. Pepper,” but they are solid albums that show a refreshing self-assurance. But once those artists try to create their own version of “Pepper,” the results are almost comically catastrophic. It’s become fashionable of late to equate “quality television” with “having a long-term narrative plan.” The pilot for “Terra Nova” hinted at greater mysteries within its universe, but has since demonstrated no skills in deploying hints to that mystery’s ultimate answer. It would be better for the show to focus on its present rather than stumble towards an uncertain future.
After all, we’re watching a really bizarre time within the show’s overall storyline. It’s essentially the least interesting time “Terra Nova” could have picked in order to tell its story. Any substantial war between the citizens of the colony and The Sixers is well in the future. And the time in which the colony was still forming the rule of law on display tonight was well in the past. So we’re set in this awkward present. Sure, it’s 85 million years in the past, but it’s still the “present” as far as the show is concerned. And it’s an exceedingly, annoyingly comfortable present. For crying out loud, this show features a bar that wouldn’t have been out of place in a seaside resort that features an all-inclusive package. By setting the show in a point of relative stasis, the show’s writers have robbed it from the sense of danger, exploration, and wonder that would turn this from a dull procedural into a thrilling B-movie adventure.
The most interesting parts of tonight’s episode were actually the most interesting parts of the show since we left 2149, although it’s entirely unclear if the show realizes the rich vein it mined in the process. “Bylaw” centers around the first murder in the history of the colony. “How do you kill a man with a dinosaur?”, the promos for tonight’s episode breathlessly asked. The answer? “Inefficiently.” Initial blame fell on a potential black widow, and then the lottery winner she married in order to come over in the first place. Eventually, we learned that one soldier killed another to cover some gambling debts. If we gave a damn about any of these people we had never met before tonight, maybe this would have mattered. If the psychological travails of these people had mirrored those of our central protagonists, maybe this would have mattered. Neither was the case. And so it’s best not to talk about this part of the episode anymore.
And while the aspects of the show that resembled “Law & Order: Jurassic Park” were perfunctory at best, it did raise issues surrounding the ways in which societies form from nothingness. “Terra Nova” decided to skip the hard work of societal world building in favor of crazy rock paintings. But the ways in which people decided to create or submit to a rule of law in the absence of familiar societal trappings could be as interesting as any dinosaur attack, if handled correctly. Teasing out the ways in which people hold onto the familiar while trying to forge something new is a hallmark of genre fiction, and has a place inside of this show. If only the show will allow it.
It’s almost too late to have these types of conversations, really. They function primarily as teases rather than serious philosophical inquiry. Had these conversations happened as Taylor met up with the second pilgrimage, then these conversations could have gradually led to the type of civilization that the Shannons encountered upon coming through on the 10th pilgrimage. This gets at the central difference between approaching a pre-defined endpoint and allowing the story to, in effect, unspool itself. David Goyer once famously said that he had the first five seasons of the late, hardly lamented “Flash Forward” planned out before the pilot ever aired. But having an end goal in mind didn’t mean he knew how to get there. “Terra Nova” is already trapped by its own construction, which gives the piece as a whole little room to actually breathe.
That’s too bad, because some of the ideas that the show tripped over on the way to getting to the “good stuff” (Bad CGI dinos! Fifteen seconds of Mira talking vague crap!) were far more potent than anything it seems to think is actually interesting. I can’t have even the slightest bit of faith that any show that ends with the Shannons ADOPTING A FREAKIN’ BABY DINOSAUR will ever truly challenge the notion that man as a species may not deserve to exist anymore. But I refuse to believe that a “family drama” can’t explore that topic. The two aren’t antithetical, no matter how much those that contribute to the onscreen product might believe.
Just because this particular iteration of the Shannons are a particularly terrible entry point into this potentially spectacular world doesn’t mean these five people, reconfigured, couldn’t represent various human impulses at war in this untamed world. The show wouldn’t have to dramatically play out philosopher John Locke’s theory of the state of nature to do so. One need not be an academic in order to illustrate a point. In one instance tonight, Jim and Elisabeth have an argument about Taylor’s singular rule over the sentencing in the colony. Having the two frame opposite viewpoints over how law should operate 85 million years in the past would have been refreshing, had it not also been moot. Not only did the conversation quickly turn into a domestic squabble (with Jim retreating to his time spent in Golad to defend his position), but it also took place long after the bylaws of the colony had been established. Yes, questioning those bylaws is important, in that they should not be immutable. But without either the characters’ ability to participate in that original formation of the colony’s rules, or the audience’s ability to see why certain decisions were made, then it simply turns into a high school debate in between dino feedings.
Still, it’s somewhat encouraging to be able to witness complications lying beneath the surface of this show. In addition to the various debates about the proper code of ethics for the colony to live by, tonight’s episode actually made Josh tolerable for an entire scene. While weighing his decision to work with Boylan, he tells Skye that he wants to bring Kara back not out of a desire for a booty call but to actually prevent her from what he feels is imminent suicide. Not only does that turn down his Doucheometer considerably, but it also gives a succinct and vivid image of life in 2149. It’s a world with almost no hope, in which maintaining a family of four isn’t difficult when the desire to even produce offspring seems low. It’s a piece of information that makes hope so valuable in the colony, and yet what we’ve seen so far isn’t anything beyond benign day-to-day existence. These people need to seem more alive than those they left behind if this colony, and this show, will have any meaning.
For “Terra Nova” to work in the back half of this season, it needs to focus on those small, human moments more than the hopelessly vague “mythology” that it seems to think is more important. If I don’t care about the people involved in that mythology, there’s no point in having one in the first place. Make these people interesting first, and follow what makes them tick. From there, the stories will perhaps tell themselves. Maybe they won’t be the epic ones hinted at in the pilot. But they will almost inevitably be far more satisfying in the long run. In television, it’s all about that long run. Mythology will only take viewers so far. It’s the characters that will take us the rest of the way.
Did tonight’s episode mark an improvement for you, or more of the same? Are the issues accidentally addressed tonight interesting to you, or do they get in the way of some dino-mite action? What should Zoe name her pet ankylosaurus, which in no way will ever cause trouble for anyone? Sound off below!