Terra Nova: Pilot Review

It’s 2149 and Earth isn’t looking too shiny what with the pollution and overpopulation and whatnot. Fortunately they find a rip through time to 85million years ago and we cheerfully begin colonising the past while trying to avoid getting eaten by dinosaurs.

First off – thank the TV deities for two part pilots! Terra Nova is neither cheap nor simple and it really needs a double episode to show off the spending and not rush the plot. To be honest, there was still a fair amount of rushing in the early section of the episode but I didn’t mind that too much as it’s not like I really wanted to linger on the grey, depressing and overly cgi’ed Earth when we all knew that there were dinosaurs through the Stargate!

Given that the series is exec produced by Steven Spielberg and it has the budget of a smallish feature film, it’s hard to not immediately jump to the label of Jurassic Park the TV series. The problem for Terra Nova is, that even after 18 years, Jurassic Park is still firmly ingrained in my memory, and the best that Terra Nova can do is remind me how much I loved that film. The moment in Jurassic Park where we first see the dinosaurs is still one of my favourite scenes of all time, the jaw dropping effects combined with the beautiful music and such an amazing sense of wonder… when I watched the similar scene in Terra Nova all it did was remind me of Jurassic Park’s moment and not quite live up to that standard.

That’s not to say that Terra Nova isn’t good. It really is and I really enjoyed the pilot episode. But a lot of that came from the bigger ideas, not so much the dinosaurs. I find the concept of getting a fresh start and the ability to set up a colony from scratch fascinating. With an entirely blank canvas would we create the best of all worlds or would we just make the same mistakes all over again? Too often these series opt for the latter line of argument and I end up depressed, Terra Nova however manages to step around a few of the obvious traps. That’s not to say the colony doesn’t have issues, but it at least initially has avoided the cliché of civilian vs military vs scientist. It also presents the leaders as smart and thoughtful people – they may start off a confrontation pointing guns at each other, but they quickly end it by exchanging prisoners and medical supplies.

This is one of the things I was happiest about watching the show – for the most part the characters are smart, reasonable and professional. The colony is well established and sensible in the way that it deals with the predictable threat of the dinosaurs. In fact the writers have to introduce a somewhat irritating group of teenagers just to show that the dinosaurs are dangerous if you don’t follow the rules; the grown-ups are all too smart to be caught outside the secure perimeter. I can see it served a purpose but the plot did rather degenerate into a syfy channel movie of the week with predictable teenage whining, clumsy flirting and inevitable peril and panic which I really hope they don’t repeat too often.

The biggest success of the pilot for me was Jason O’Mara leading the audience through the experience. He was instantly and completely believable as a police officer utterly to be thrown back in time 85 million years but desperate to find a better life for his slightly estranged family. He managed to find the tricky middle ground between being competent and confident in his abilities without tripping over into being arrogant or all knowing – there were plenty of things that he wasn’t good at, didn’t know, or just wasn’t sure how to deal with, but he did his best and dealt with them all with charm and humour. I found him an immensely likeable and relatable presence, so much so that even though the rest of the cast were perfectly fine, they seemed slightly stilted in comparison.

I wouldn’t want to jinx it, but I think this show has the potential to be really rather good. I think the pilot was not the best, but it was necessary to get some facts established – no matter how difficult this place is, it’s still paradise compared to ‘home’ and that the rules are there for a reason. Now that those issues are out of the way, the series can actually get on with some really interesting storytelling. Or… it’s going to turn into a weekly instalment of stupid people doing stupid things and dying in messy ways. We’ll have to see how it goes.

Terra Nova starts 8pm, Monday 3rd October on Sky1

Other reviews:
TV Fanatic – But the positives outnumbered the negatives by a country mile, and I am excited to see where this tale goes from here. The ending of the second hour […] reminded me once again at what an epic story this was. Will the rest of the series continue to live up to that scale? We’ll have to tune in again to find out.

AOL TV – ‘Terra Nova’s’ expansive vistas and action scenes look spiffy, and if you like to see humans battle dinosaurs in HD, you’re likely to be satisfied by the workmanlike but effective story told in the pilot.

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  1. I haven’t seen it yet, but there’s a dissenting view here:
    http://hijinksensue.com/2011/09/27/causality-and-fx/
    Personally, the ethical arguments don’t bother me if there’s no danger of paradox. If they don’t know what the alternate present looks like then for all they know it’s uninhabited anyway. Out of interest, is this an international expedition (like Stargate Atlantis), or just “the planet is doomed – let’s save the USA!”

  2. The paradox question is actually addressed in the pilot, I don’t think the person that’s writing that comic has actually seen it.

    As for the internationality of it, it’s not addressed, I don’t think any country is named in the pilot at all, most (but not all) of the accents are american, but it’s not an expedition per se either…

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