Terra Nova was a show that I had high hopes for. When it premiered on the FOX network in September 2011, things looked very promising. For one thing, there were some big names attached to it. Terra Nova was executive produced by Steven Spielberg, along with Star Trek alums Rene Echevarria and Brannon Braga. Then there was the high concept. The series begins in the year 2149, and Earth has become practically uninhabitable due to terrible air quality and overpopulation.
Scientists have discovered a gateway to the very distant past, to Earth as it existed 85 million years ago. What’s more, the gateway leads into an “alternate time stream,” which eliminates all those pesky questions about actions made in the past affecting the future. Finally, the budget was big. Each episode had the feel of a feature film. The dinosaurs looked real, and the sets were very impressive.
So what happened? Well, to paraphrase Jim Carville, “It’s the writing, stupid.” After a very promising two-hour opening, the show quickly descended into some of the most hackneyed plotlines and dialogue on TV. I tuned out after the fifth episode. Still, I held out hope. With so much invested, I thought that maybe the writers and producers might turn things around later on, but it was not to be. FOX’s initial order was for 13 episodes, and once those aired, Terra Nova was over.
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment has just released Terra Nova: The Complete Series as a four-DVD set, which contains all 13 episodes of the series plus bonus material. For those of us who skipped out midway through, we now have an opportunity to see where the series was headed.
The phrase “Terra Nova” literally means “New Earth” in Latin and is the name of the colony the “pilgrims” have established in the past. The show is focused around the Shannon family, who have traveled back in time to escape the harsh world of 2149. The family consists of Jim Shannon (James O’Mara), his wife Elisabeth (Shelley Conn), and their children Josh (Landon Liboiron), Maddy (Naomi Scott), and Zoe (Alana Mansour). Terra Nova is led by Commander Nathaniel Taylor (Stephen Lang), and his loyal second-in-command Lieutenant Alicia “Wash” Washington (Simone Kessell).
In 2149, families are restricted to two children, a law which the Shannons violated with the birth of their daughter Zoe. As a former cop, Jim certainly knew better, but decided to ignore the rules. When he (and the family) were caught, his Irish temper got the better of him and landed him in prison. Elisabeth is a highly respected doctor, and as such was offered the opportunity to go to Terra Nova. Jim managed to escape and join his family on the one-way trip into the past. All of this takes place during the two-part opening episodes “Genesis 1 & 2.”
“Instinct” came next and kept things interesting with something of a Cretaceous-twist on Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). Unfortunately, the writers wasted no time in introducing what I consider to have been the program’s fatal flaw. The corny subplots begin in this episode. An old flame of Elisabeth’s shows up, apparently under the mistaken belief that Jim is still incarcerated in 2149. To add to the suds factor, 17-year-old Josh meets Skye (Allison Miller) who is clearly into him. He rebuffs any romantic possibilities with her though as he has promised his 2149 girlfriend Kara (Romy Poulier) that he will do everything he can to get her to Terra Nova.
Besides the tedious romance angles, the main conflict is provided by the “Sixers.” These are members of the sixth pilgrimage to Terra Nova, who have been ejected from the colony. They are led by Mira (Christine Adams) and are intent on destroying the compound for mysterious reasons.
Had Terra Nova retained its initial large audience and been allowed to continue, this battle between the Sixers and Terra Novas could have become very interesting. As is slowly revealed, these Sixers have been sent back not to build a Utopia, but to transfer valuable commodities from the past to 2149. As these elements become more and more clear in the later episodes, Terra Nova manages something that the best science fiction has always done. Much like earlier shows such as The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, and Star Trek, Terra Nova had the potential to make serious and controversial points, by wrapping them in the guise of fantasy.
If I had known that the show’s life was going to be so brief, I would have stuck with it. After bogging down midway, the series picked up steam again towards the end. Beginning with “Now You See Me,” (episode ten), and on into the two-part season finale, Terra Nova is very exciting and thought provoking. But with a series this expensive to produce, and not pulling high ratings, the choice to cut and run was an easy one. The fact that nobody expected this to happen is made painfully clear by one of the inserts in the DVD package.
“How would you have ended the Terra Nova story?” asks the enclosed card, which gives an online access code for would-be writers “To finish the story the way you would have liked to see it!”
The special features on disc one include deleted scenes, and a “Making of” piece about the pilot. Disc three features deleted scenes from the four episodes it contains. The fourth disc has audio commentary on the season/series finale “Occupation”/”Resistance” from Stephen Lang, Rene Echevarria, and Brannon Braga. There is also a 10-minute piece about the creation of fictitious dinosaurs for the show titled “Cretaceous Life: The Dinosaurs of Terra Nova.” For me, the most intriguing extra of the bunch was “Mysteries Explored” a nine-minute piece that discusses the underlying conflicts and sheds intriguing light on what might have been. The final feature is a gag reel.
After watching all 13 episodes of Terra Nova, I see a lot of missed opportunity. It is unfortunate that circumstances went the way they did, but you never know. Maybe the release of the series on DVD will spark renewed interest in the project. In any case, watching all 13 episodes in this fashion gives us an opportunity to see the show a little differently than when it aired on commercial TV. I regret having given up on it as early as I did, and others may find themselves feeling the same way.