Press Tour: FOX offers a tiny glimpse at ‘Terra Nova’

Senior Television Writer
01.12.11 32 Comments


FOX’s “Terra Nova” is more than four months away from premiering, and we have more than eight months until the second episode airs. Between the long lead time and the amount of special effects involved in creating a world where humans have traveled back in time millions of years to live among the dinosaurs, it’s understandable that FOX didn’t have much to show the critics at press tour beyond a three-minute sizzle reel.

Still, I have some absurdly preliminary thoughts on the footage (and you can see some early publicity stills of the show), but mainly on what was said at the press conference afterward, coming up after the jump…

As many critics observed afterwards, you could see a lot of money on the screen in those three minutes we saw. Not so much special effects, but simply high production values in terms of sets (the prehistoric colony the humans have built), location shooting (in an Australian rainforest) and action set pieces (the dinosaurs unsurprisingly don’t like the people). It was a very impressive-looking piece of work – not a surprise given the pilot-directing track record of Alex Graves (“Fringe,” “The Nine”).

But those three minutes of course provide little sense of how interesting the show’s central family dynamic will be, whether patriarch Jason O’Mara will be able to carry the show or get acted off the screen by co-star Stephen Lang (the bad guy from “Avatar”), or all the other pieces of a series that are necessary to maintain interest once the, “Whoa! Dinosaurs!” magic wears off.

On that score, I’d feel a lot more confident if the man in charge wasn’t Brannon Braga, whose tenure on the various “Star Trek” spin-offs was… polarizing, to put it kindly. Braga’s sci-fi shows – not just “Voyager” and “Enterprise” and whatnot, but CBS’ short-lived “Threshold,” and even  “FlashForward” (Braga co-wrote the pilot, then left to work on “24”) – have generally been short on well-rounded characterization and long on technobabble and endless discussion of the rules of various worlds. (I swear, there’s an episode of “Threshold” that opens with a scene where Carla Gugino explains that the fate of humanity rests in part on her team ordering lunch from a different restaurant every day.)

And Braga’s performance during the “Terra Nova” panel didn’t really change my impression of him.

When a reporter opened with the not unreasonable question of whether these time-traveling  colonists might erase the people who sent them back into the past, Braga winced and said, “Oh my god. I feel like we’re at a ‘Star Trek’ convention,” then gave a vague answer about how they’d have to deal with that down the line.

(Stephen Lang, of all people, seemed more engaged on the subject of time travel theory than his producers, though when I asked him when he first became interested, he said it was via the Mr. Peabody and Sherman shorts from “Rocky & Bullwinkle.”)

Braga talked about how much research they had at their fingertips about the dinosaurs of the period, and then with the next breath said, “But you get to make up your own dinosaurs as well.” And he said of the show that “philosophically, it’s the closest thing to ‘Star Trek’ I’ve worked on since I left that show years ago. There was just a part of me that really wanted to gravitate back toward a science fiction premise with big humanistic ideas. It’s so visually stimulating.”

The producers were also inevitably asked to compare their show to “Lost,” and Graves said, “This has nothing to do with ‘Lost’ for one major reason: It”s so made for a massively broad audience, I can”t even tell you. ‘Lost’ was for that great ‘Lost’ audience, and you would say ‘the “Lost” audience.’ ‘Terra Nova,’ more than anything I”ve ever done in my life, is for everybody.”

Of course, once upon a time, “Lost” was for everybody, too, as the first season drew ratings around the 20 million viewer mark each week. It wasn’t until the show got deeper and deeper into science fiction concepts – including, yes, time travel – that the crossover audience went away and the hardcore fans stuck around.

Now, all the “Terra Nova” advertising is going to trumpet the name of producer Steven Spielberg, who has a long track rechord of getting people who don’t give a toss about sci-fi to watch movies with very geeky premises. But even though everyone on the panel swore that Spielberg was heavily involved in casting, hiring behind-the-scenes personnel, production design, etc., he’s not the one executing the vision day-to-day.

With the marketing blitz FOX is sure to give the show, and with a roll-out plan that will see the two-part pilot airing after episodes of “House” and “Glee,” I’m sure “Terra Nova” is going to get a good tune-in come May. We’ll just have to wait and see how many of those people come back with the show in September.

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