I will admit firstly that I am a sucker for a decent sci-fi series. I get lured in by whizz-bang trailers full of monsters and lasers and all that stuff and before I know it I am knee-deep in something that is essentially the televisual equivalent of a McDonald’s hamburger. Only occasionally does something genuinely engaging come along.
And so it has been with Terra Nova, which ran on Sky last autumn and which has just been spoonfed to me on DVD by a friend with a warped sense of humour. He’s like me – just can’t resist these trashy sci-fi potboilers. I think his rationale was that if he was going to suffer, he wasn’t going to suffer alone.
Briefly, Terra Nova is a story of time travel to a past but parallel Earth. Parallel is good, because it means none of that nonsense about changing the future because you swat a butterfly in the Cretacaeous past.
The story centres on the Shannon family – hunky Dad, sexy Mom and three kids – the sulky boy/man of about 18, the gawky teenage princess of about 15 and the saccharine brat of about 7. They are all dreadful actors but ludicrously photogenic and unbearably wholesome. It’s like the Waltons moving to Jurassic Park.
The Shannon family emoting furiously in ‘Terra Nova’
The story starts in 2149 in an overpopulated, polluted and dying Chicago where the annual ‘pilgrimage’ of about 100 souls back to the Terra Nova colony via the one-way time portal represents a ray of hope for the crowded masses. Having more than 2 kids is a crime punishable by prison time and Dad the Chicago cop ends up in the slammer after the family apartment is raided by the Population Control storm-troopers. Mom gets off the hook because she is a super-talented doctor and some three years later she is invited to go to Terra Nova with 2 of her kids. All that is needed is for tough, resourceful Dad to break out of prison ( a doddle, apparently) and smuggle himself into the ‘pilgrimage’ party with the youngest child stashed in a giant backpack. It’s the kind of thing that I’m sure we’ve all experienced; my uncle used to boost me over the walls of football grounds when I was a mere tadpole so he didn’t have to pay for me and this isn’t much different really; just a bit more high-tech.
Anyway after a bit of drama and lots of thunderous music, they get whooshed through the time portal back to 85 million BC or whenever. They duly arrive in a kind of sub-tropical version of Centre Parcs. The Terra Novans live in twinky little chalets behind a big fence. The fence is to keep out big and noisy dinosaurs who live in the forest and a bunch of renegades who, like the Elves of Lothlorien, live up in the trees and all look like extras from ‘Mad Max II’. Their purpose in splitting away from the main colony emerges as the story meanders on, but I won’t vex you with the labyrynthine complexities of it all. The renegades are sort of at war with Terra Nova, but there’a actually a bit more to it than that.
Steven Spielberg is involved with ‘Terra Nova’ as an Executive Producer; every now and again he does some slumming in the world of TV and has previously done so to better effect with 2002’s ‘Taken’, which ended a bit inconsequentially but was actually quite gripping for most of its run. Spielberg often gets berated for some of his soft-focus, Hallmark Card sentimentality, particularly about family life among the American bourgeoisie and, for however much he may be held responsible, the Shannons of ‘Terra Nova’ are right up there with the sickliest of his creations.
The teenage boy gets involved almost at once with a pretty racy bunch who distil their own moonshine out in the woods and with one girl (called ‘Sky’ for pity’s sake) in particular. He’s at loggerheads with his controlling Dad, but in the end they discover (shucks) that they really love one another and even get into some manly hugging before the series ends. Middle daughter is a bit more of a straight arrow and she hooks up with a ramrod-straight military type with a crewcut who gets up when Dad enters the room and calls him ‘Sir’. Mom just oozes maternal love for her brood and has no problem ejecting hunky Dad from the marital bed when the little one can’t sleep. The little one, of course, gets the cheesiest lines and she is pretty much off the scale on the cute-ometer.
More troubling is the fact that the colony is presided over by an Action Man alpha male cum benevolent dictator – the first man through the portal – who makes all the big decisions on behalf of the colonists; no town meetings and no democracy here. We’re just supposed to take it on trust that he has everyone’s best interests at heart. Richard Nixon would have loved this show.
Of course, we’re also supposed to be fascinated by the various plot-twists and the regular run-ins with dinosaurs and renegades, but I found myself distracted by quite a few of the assumptions made in the basic set-up of the plot – they’re either derisory or deeply suspect. If this is Spielberg’s world-view, I’m glad I don’t live there. Whatever happened to the Bill of Rights?
One of the CGI dinosaurs in ‘Terra Nova’ – not the most dangerous animals in the show.
What’s good about ‘Terra Nova’ are some of the set piece action scenes, the great scenery (Australia, apparently) and the CGI beasties. However, it’s the hackneyed humans with their toothpaste smiles, their empty heads and their deeply conservative values who are the most dangerous of the animals we encounter in ‘Terra Nova’.
Remarkably, Fox are considering commissioning a second season….