Review: “Terra Nova”

Oct. 21, 2011, 12:58 a.m.
Review: "Terra Nova"
Courtesy of Fox

Science fiction lovers, including yours truly, had high hopes when word got out of a “Lost”-meets-“Avatar”-meets-“Jurassic-Park” lovechild. Time-traveling portals! Dinosaurs! Did I say dinosaurs? And who’s that producing? Could it be–is that–Steven Spielberg? These science fiction lovers simply asked: “Where do we sign up?”

And so it was that three weeks ago they sat with bated breath as a camera panned over the surface of a moon and the following words appeared: “At the dawn of the 22nd century…the world is on the verge of collapse…mankind’s only hope for survival…lies 85 million years in the past.” Sigh. If only the rest could live up.

The issue with “Terra Nova” is not its concept, which reads as follows: 138 years from now, mankind has poisoned its atmosphere and small groups of colonists are being sent 85 million years back in time to a settlement of humans trying to rebuild civilization. The Shannon family is one such lucky group. Sure, they immigrated illegally, but no one has the heart to turn away three kids and it’s probably too much trouble anyway (time-traveling is a complicated business).

Review: "Terra Nova"
Courtesy of Fox

It’s not the concept that’s the problem, but its lack of depth. Everything is too safe, too ordinary and too predictable. Like any ABC Family show (it’s a low blow, I know), “Terra Nova” is whitewashed with serenely good-looking characters whose best attempts at sounding troubled just make them look unnaturally angst-y. You know the rest: the parents look 10 years older than their kids; there’s a messy father-son relationship; there’s the brainy sister who can’t talk to boys. There’s no true dysfunction; every domestic issue here has been dialed in from a formula. When they try to be humorous, I can only cringe.

Sadly, there’s a pervasive sense of blandness that cheapens the entire series. The refugee compound looks like a spread from some eco-garden magazine; their refugee home looks like a catalogue for Restoration Hardware; their refugee (did I mention they’re refugees?!) clothes are immaculately clean.

To make up for its lack of emotional truism, the producers score the entire series with music I can only assume they’ve borrowed from CSI and tracks that never made the Avatar soundtrack. In light of how manufactured the characters and drama seem, the music reads as ridiculously overdramatic. The visuals, especially the panoramic shots of Terra Nova (of which there are many), are colorful and impressively realistic, but even they possess that unshakably fake veneer.

Three episodes in, the writers are beginning to tease out specific storylines, and surely they have more revelations up their sleeves. But they just don’t seem up to the task of crafting compelling characters. You’d have to overhaul the entire show to imbue it with the edge and depth of “Lost.” Its absence of multi-dimensional characters and even worse, its holistic blandness, are fatal flaws. If we don’t care about the people who inhabit this world, why should we care about that world itself? In the end “Terra Nova” is a series that tries to emulate better examples of science fiction. But even its title card, which looks like the logo of a start-up company, cannot stack up.

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