Although bestowed with Steven Spielberg’s enthusiastic imprimatur as one of the show’s executive producers (along with an endless list of producers, writers and a director whose credits include shows such as “24,” “Fringe” and “Castle”), “Terra Nova” insists you take it super seriously.
And that is a complaint. Years ago, Spielberg’s name on such a product would have stood first and foremost for the idea of strapping in for a thrill ride. Clearly that’s part of this package: “Terra Nova” builds toward a scene in which youngsters are trapped in a vehicle while carnivorous dinosaurs butt at it and try to nibble the delicious prizes squealing within. So, as with summer’s “Super 8” at the box office and “Falling Skies” on TNT, part of Spielberg’s industry appears to be offering the use of his brand to directors who wish to ape (I mean, pay homage to) scenes from the Spielberg canon.
In “Terra Nova’s” case, of course, the obvious bow here is toward “Jurassic Park,” which provides the visual inspiration as well as the early 1990s technology that made dinosaurs a more lifelike presence in the collective imagination. That stuff isn’t exactly cheap to make now, but it’s certainly cheaper — or just cheap enough to attempt in a weekly series.
My issue with “Terra Nova” is that the fun stuff is too easily dragged down by a pompous sense of bloat that has increasingly plagued much of sci-fi for the past 20 or so years, in movies and on TV. You sign up for a trip to Six Flags only to discover that you’re on your way to a really humid weekend with Habitat for Humanity, followed by a trip to the model United Nations competition. With all its speeches, paramilitary archetypes and clumsy expressions of the brotherhood of man, “Terra Nova” often feels like James Cameron’s name should be atop it instead.
The dinosaurs are fine, reflecting how skillfully the culture industry has mastered the art of staring at computer screens. I’m more worried about “Terra Nova’s” humans, who don’t do dialogue so much as they do exposition in service to plot.
“Terra Nova’s” narrative center is the Shannon family, who live in 22nd-century Chicago. Pollution is killing everyone, but the discovery of a time-travel portal has offered one last hope. We can go back 85 million years and start fresh, seeding a colony called Terra Nova. (Here you stop and blurt: “What about paradoxes?! Won’t we alter history and fate by doing this?” Above the Dolby sound, I shout: “Don’t worry, it’s all taken care of! The scientists say we’re on a parallel time track or something. You are such a geek, anyhow!”)
Because there is no direct contact between 2149 and the way-back-when, going to Terra Nova is literally a leap of faith. Lottery-winning volunteers jump through the portal in annual batches, each offering his specific skill. Being fit and pretty seems to be the main requirement. Once arrived, there is much work to do — so grab a hammer.
The Shannons would like to be in the next batch of colonists, but there are problems: Mom Elisabeth (Shelley Conn) is a talented doctor who has been chosen for Terra Nova, but Dad Jim (Jason O’Mara), who used to be a Chicago cop, is doing prison time after the Shannons defied national reproduction laws and had a third child (Alana Mansour), whom they tried and failed to hide from authorities. Jim took the rap and went to prison. Now Elisabeth and her teenagers (Naomi Scott and Landon Liboiron) must scheme to break Dad out of the high-tech hoosegow so all five of them — the youngest is hiding in a backpack — can leap to Terra Nova together.
Off they go, zap, zap, zap, zap, zap. Though it has two hours to impress us, “Terra Nova’s” debut is, like all the fall TV pilots, in a real rush. The Shannons emerge through the time beam and breathe the first fresh air of their lives, but we don’t really get a sense of the wonder in that.
The Shannons are so flat — as are the actors who play them — that they might as well be the fake family under glass in a new picture frame. Who would have ever thought that in 2149 people would name their kids Josh, Maddy and Zoe? “Terra Nova” assiduously avoids imagining what 22nd-century people would look or talk like; their hairdos and clothes are very 2011 and their problems (Josh resents Jim for going to prison! Maddy is good at math and hopelessly boy-crazy!) seem pathetically 1987.
Character development will have to wait, anyhow, as we’re swept into the dystopian reality of Terra Nova. Though the pioneers have done an admirable job of creating a gated community that looks like a dream come true for fans of high-end, sustainable Whole Foods livin’, the Terra Novians are mired in political unrest.
As the colony’s original pioneer and brass-tacks Commander Taylor, “Avatar” villain Stephen Lang is the show’s standout, but it’s clear that we’re not to put too much trust in his leadership style. As with “Lost,” there is the tantalizing prospect of Others — a faction of colonists who defied the commander and broke off into their own community, with whom Terra Nova battles.
Meanwhile, young Josh Shannon immediately skips school to run beyond the dinosaur fences with a group of rambunctious Terra teens. This serves as a protracted orientation session for viewers as the son’s new pals gossip about their lives as good-looking deli arrangements for T. rex.
Even with its hackneyed concepts, I’m all for “Terra Nova” as ambitious TV and look forward to the next few episodes. After that, if these Terra Novians don’t get a lot more fascinating, I say let the dinosaurs have ’em.
(two hours) premieres Monday at 8 p.m. on Fox.