‘Terra Nova’ stars, not footage, shine at WonderCon

SAN FRANCISCO – Back in January, at the Television Critics Association press tour, we got the first showcase of footage from FOX’s “Terra Nova.” Sepinwall wrote about it back then. 
Nearly three months later, after promises that the audience was about to get footage that hadn’t been revealed anywhere previously, a Sunday (April 3) afternoon WonderCon crowd was treated to what amounted to nearly the same clip package/sizzle reel. I’d say the clip package was close to 95 percent identical to the TCA, with the only notable difference being a one or two frame glimpse at a brontosaurus and a reaction shot of several young Terra Novans staring at the brontosaurus in awe as either an homage to or outright theft from “Jurassic Park.”
That’s a lot of post-production time under the bridge to not be able to show potential fans anything new at all, so you’ll forgive me for instinctively thinking, “Well, now we know why ‘Terra Nova’ isn’t premiering next month.” Even WonderCon attendees who didn’t see the TCA footage, or the Super Bowl ad or the several promotional clips that aired on FOX before the network decided to delay the “Terra Nova” launch until fall, barely got anything to sink their teeth into. 
“The bottom line is we were not confident we’re going to have the visual effects done in time. There are hundreds and hundreds of visual effects shots,” stated series showrunner Brannon Braga of the premiere delay. Perhaps that’s why FOX hasn’t teased anything more than that one T-Rex-thing attacking a Jeep and, in this sizzle reel, the brief flash of the friendlier brontosaurus. A month ago, a “Terra Nova” WonderCon panel probably seemed like a great time to really unveil a healthy serving of new footage. Now, we can assume FOX will just wait and treat Comic-Con as the show’s big coming out party, just a year after “Terra Nova” was announced and then pulled from the San Diego schedule.
Director and series executive producer Alex Graves admitted that by the time production returned from Australia after shooting the pilot in December, they already knew it was unlikely they’d be able to make the scheduled May sneak. 
Much of the delay was credited to research and development on the “Terra Nova” dinosaurs, which will include feathered lizards and also, in what was described as an industry first, dinosaurs realized via motion capture technology.
“It looks kind of funny to see guys in dinosaur suits walk around in front of green screen,” Braga told the WonderCon crowd.
More highlights, such as there were, from the “Terra Nova” WonderCon panel, which also featured stars Jason O’Mara and Stephen Lang, after the break…
If you don’t know the premise of “Terra Nova” already, Braga gave a lengthy explanation, beginning with “It’s basically a TV show unlike any other that I’ve been involved with, in that it takes place in the distant future and the distant past, but not in the present.”
The series begins in a dystopic 2149 — “No plant life, no animal life, terrible pollution. The causes of it are unclear, but it’s a bad place,” Braga said — when scientists discover a time fissure that sends people back 85 million years, where they found a new civilization to correct the mistakes of the future in the past. 
Of their new home, Braga said, “Not the best place to resettle humanity. Lot of hostile things back there.”
“I only do shows that involve a time-travel premise,” cracked O’Mara, whose last regular series project was ABC’s take on “Life on Mars.”
Of his character, O’Mara said, “Jim Shannon, he’s an ex-cop and when we first meet him, he’s escaping from jail to meet up with his family, who have already been hand-picked to go through the time-portal.” 
O’Mara added, “He embodies the second chance.”
Once through the time fissure to Terra Nova, he meets Lang’s Commander Taylor, first settler of the New Old World and a character the “Avatar” star compared to Daniel Boone. 
“He’s primarily a survivalist. He’s somebody who knows how to cope with and is not afraid of highly precarious situations,” Lang said.
When the moderator brought up the obvious comparisons to Lang’s “Avatar” character, the veteran character actor didn’t shy from the linkage.
“Yeah, he’s got a military background. Yeah, he’s got a speech where he welcomes people to the planet. That’s written into my contract now. I always welcome people,” Lang said.
The actor preceded to welcome the crowd to San Francisco, “Avatar”-style. He made no promises that if we betrayed a blue people, we’d get our legs back. Our real legs.
Lang added, “Truthfully, Taylor is truly heroic in stature. He’s an idealist. He’s doing everything he can to bring about the creation of a second chance civilization, which is quite different from the ‘Avatar’ situation.”
Does that mean that Taylor isn’t the antagonist for Shannon and for the series as a whole?
“In Shannon, Taylor recognizes a very strong potential leader, which is both very very welcome to Taylor, but at the same time threatening to him. Just for the sake of future story… I think it’s important to recognize that if there is to be a falling out between the two characters, it’s extremely helpful to have them come together,” Lang explained.
As was the case at the TCA panel for “Terra Nova,” one of the first questions to Braga and Graves involved the inevitable paradoxical/Butterfly Effect aspects to any time travel scenario.
“We’re trying something a little different with the time travel that will make perfect sense, hopefully… There is a plan and it does involve some paradoxical stuff, but it’s kind of new,” Braga said cryptically. 
Part of why “Terra Nova” has been so heavily hyped long before its launch involves the presence of Steven Spielberg as one of its executive producers. 
Graves recalled the harrowing nature of his first meeting with Spielberg after landing the directing gig.
“Going to see Spielberg with your dinosaurs and your vehicles… is just a sickening thing to do as a director, because it’s like going to God with your work,” Graves said, adding, “He lives with ideas like comedians do with jokes.”
For his part, Braga recalled waiting outside Spielberg’s office, where one of the film relics on display is the original Rosebud sled from “Citizen Kane.” [Wait. Sorry. Did I need to add a spoiler alert? Did I just ruin “Citizen Kane” for you? Sorry.]
“He’s the nicest guy in the world,” Braga said of the “Jurassic Park” helmer. “He’s a genius. So much of the show came from his brain. All of the wonderful details from the show that make it seem like that could really happen, that was all Spielberg.”
What other details came out of the panel?
Well, they’re returning to begin production on the series in May and June, shooting again in Australia, where the cast enjoyed shooting. 
“It’s great pleasure shooting in Australia,” Lang said. “For one thing, they like us over there. We’ve all shot in places where they don’t like us.”
And don’t worry. The writers know where the story is going, or at least that’s what Brannon Braga says. [Yes, Alan Sepinwall just died a little inside.]
“We have a good plan,” Braga said. “This is not the type of show you want to wing it with.”
A few other details:
*** Jason O’Mara is new to Twitter, but he seems to be invested. When Braga’s description of the show became too rambling, the star interjected, “In 140 characters or less, how would you explain it?” O’Mara also ended the panel by taking a picture of us.
*** WonderCon is the kinda environment where you can call the finale of the American “Life on Mars” awesome and people will cheer. Sigh. Comparing his “Mars” character to his “Terra Nova” character, O’Mara said, “There’s still a sense of being completely overwhelmed by your new environment, so I’ve been down that path before. But there isn’t the same level of confusion and frustration.” 
*** The time fissure only works one way. You can go back to the past, but you can’t return to the future. Braga did say, however, that storylines in the future will continue and that they’ll be “mysterious.”
*** The show’s Australian pilot shoot took place during a rainy season, but shortly before the serious flooding that hit the country around Christmas.  Of the shoot, Graves said, “It was an adventure and it was a great bonding experience.” 
*** To an inquiry about doing boundary-stretching projects like “Avatar” and now “Terra Nova,” Lang replied, “I love the idea of rolling the dice in a big way. Certainly with’Avatar,’ it was taking a big shot. There was a lot invested in it and it did well.” The jury is still out on “Terra Nova.” He concluded, “Life is short, you might as well try to be part of big things, if you can.” 
“Terra Nova” will premiere on FOX in the fall of 2011.