Sunday, October 2, 2011

Terra Nova, a Cretaceous-period Sci-fi Western.

This time of year is the beginning of the new season for TV series in America.

TERRA NOVA was easily the most anticipated new show this fall. It is one of the most expensive series in TV history (the premier alone cost $20 million) and it is produced by Steven Spielberg. Personally, I had low expectations: it was advertised as a Jurrasic-Park-meets-Lost story and frankly, Dinosaurs get easily tiring. I suppose they're too big, voracious and dumb for me.

The first few minutes of Terra Nova looked promising - it starts in 2149 in a Blade Runner world where the environment has been destroyed to the point where there is constant smog over the city, air is so bad that you need oxygen masks and population has to be controlled through a two-children policy. We follow the Shannon family who broke the law by having a third child. I'll spare you the details, but basically, they manage to embark on a program of time-travel to Terra Nova, a Utopian human colony 85 million years back in time, which is where the dinosaurs come in.

Interesting detail, to avoid the grandfather paradox (you know, by killing an ant in the past, your grandfather may have never been born and you'll never exist), they are actually traveling to a different 'time-frame' - whatever that means.... OK. Why not.

The colony itself is a gigantic compound with sort of beach-houses and hippy-looking settlers headed by a benevolent-but-with-something-to-hide Commander. And of course danger looms outside the compound: the dinosaurs as expected, but also a group of dissidents called the Sixers because they arrived during the Sixth pilgrimage (and unrelated to the punk band as far as I can tell).

I have mixed feelings about the show: the story of the troubled teens sneaking out and getting into trouble (with the underlying message that seek kids, how you'll get into trouble if you don't listen to daddy?!) is so cliché that it is annoying, and the story may be too family-oriented for my taste. Basically, it does not seem to have the grander-than-life feature of space-opera Battlestar Galactica (possibly, the greatest Sci-Fi show on TV) or the angst of Lost  in its first season - except for some cryptic engraving on a rock which seem to indicate there was a a civilization once... or there may still be...
And even if the Dinosaurs are technically well done, they seem to be more of an annoying distraction.

One the most striking features of the series is its AMERICANNESS.  The pitch parallels the mythical narrative of the founding of America - settlers leaving an over-crowed, polluted, tyrannical motherland (Europe) to found a new civilization in the wilderness. Nature itself has to be conquered - one of the characters has to cut the fast-growing plants from the jungle . And so we are reminded that nature can be a threat to civilization -  a very American Frontier theme of taming nature.
The photography of the extraordinary landscape of thundering falls is not without resemblance with the paintings of the Hudson River School and the compound itself looks more like a besieged fort in the old West. Commander Taylor is like a sheriff/mayor figure who is the incarnation of the law of the compound and is an ambiguous dictator-ish leader. (the civilians seem to be under military law).
The leading characters are a family who've been given a chance to start all over again but who have to face the challenge of the hardships of the Frontier life. (And to make this clear, Commander Taylor tells them - and us : : "This is a frontier, so you have to grow up quick".). Their survival is also humanity's second chance - which is itself also a great American motif.

So in other words, Terra Nova is a Cretaceous-period Sci-fi Western. At this point, it could go one way or the other: it has the potential of becoming a great epic show if it focuses enough on the challenges of establishing the new social order, the mystery of the engraving, and the dissidence of the Sixers, and if the teens, the dinosaurs, and the family feud do not become too much of distraction.

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