Jonathan Storm: 'Terra Nova': Time-travel tale with a dose of dinosaurs

Posted: September 25, 2011

Bad omen for Fox's monster Mesozoic melodrama Terra Nova: It starts going downhill when the dinosaurs show up.

A long time coming (it was supposed to bow in May), the show, which has a special two-hour premiere Monday at 8 p.m., is unquestionably a triumph of modern computing, populated with head-thwacking, cutting-edge electronic imagery.

"It probably wasn't possible, totally, until we got a visual-effects team together that has literally created new technologies to make it possible," Brannon Braga, one of the show's 13 producers - another is Steven Spielberg - told TV critics at their summer meeting last month in Los Angeles.

But the show lacks important elements that have been available to storytellers for 2,000 years, most notably compelling character development.

Terra Nova begins in what has become of Chicago in 2149, though locale doesn't really seem to matter. The whole world is a desperate place, no decent food, no breathable air, totalitarian rule that includes stringent rules limiting families to two children.

The Shannon family, who will be at the center of the story, have three kids, and that causes big problems when the population police arrive.

The future world is grimly portrayed, and there is a compelling adult TV show there. But scientists have discovered a rift in the fabric of time, through which selected future folk can travel back to a simpler day, 85 million years ago, when dinosaurs and a really handsome, strong, middle-aged guy named Cmdr. Nathaniel Taylor, the very first time-traveler, ruled the Earth.

"I'm not gonna let anybody stand in the way of what we're building here," declares Cmdr. Cliché as he careers through the jungle in his modified Jeep (not a lot of progress has been made in personal transport in 138 years) that has been shipped through the time hole.

Terra Nova is supposed to be a do-over, on some sort of parallel time line so that stuff that happens in the new version of 84,997,851 B.C. doesn't interfere with the other history of the Earth that's been unfolding all this time, and we all still get born.

But the pilgrims don't have a whole lot of opportunity to get their new civilization going, running away from dinosaurs and chasing a breakaway band of bad guys who somehow wafted through the warp. They're called "The Sixers," and if Philadelphia's Sixers were half as tough, they'd win the NBA every year.

Some things never change: The civilization builders must also waste a lot of effort rescuing their rebellious teenagers, who sneak off into the jungle to drink the moonshine they've made from prehistoric fruits and nuts.

Terra Nova, focusing on a family, is supposed to have something for the whole family.

"We write it as an adult show," said another producer, Rene Echevarria. "It's going to be impossible to keep your kids away from the dinosaur show. So you might as well write it for the adults and hope that it becomes a family show, you know, something that people watch together."

Braga added, "Far more challenging to do than create any dinosaur was finding a believable family that you can fall in love with. Fortunately, that's the thing that's working the absolute best about the show right now."

Neither producer would make much of a TV critic.

The kiddies will want to check out the dinosaurs, but children will probably wander off pretty quickly when they see how rarely their ancient reptilian friends are on screen - if they haven't already been chased off by parents worried by the show's violence.


Jonathan Storm:

Television

Terra Nova

Monday at 8 p.m. on Fox29


Contact television critic Jonathan Storm at 215-854-5618 or jstorm@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ jonathanstorm.

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