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Welcome once again to our annual "first look" at the broadcast networks' offerings for the 2011-2012 season, now in its sixth year! Each day we'll walk you through one of the new series set to premiere next season (or one that didn't make the cut) and go over our initial impressions after viewing the pilot. Keep in mind that a lot can change from what's being screened right now - recasting, reshooting, etc. - but we still want to give you a heads up on what you should (and shouldn't) keep on your radar in the coming months. So enough of our rambling, on with the show!
[IMPORTANT NOTE: The following is based on the original sales presentation which was screened to us privately or supplied by a third party NOT an informational, not-for-review screener provided by the network in question.]
TERRA NOVA (FOX)
(written by Brannon Braga & David Fury and Kelly Marcel & Craig Silverstein; directed by Alex Graves; TRT: 55:01)
The network's description: "From executive producers Steven Spielberg ("Saving Private Ryan," "Jurassic Park"), Peter Chernin, René Echevarria ("Castle," "The 4400") and Brannon Braga ("24") comes an epic family adventure 85 million years in the making. TERRA NOVA follows an ordinary family on an incredible journey back in time to prehistoric Earth as a small part of a daring experiment to save the human race. In the year 2149, the world is dying. The planet is overdeveloped and overcrowded, with the majority of plant and animal life extinct. The future of mankind is in jeopardy, and its only hope for survival is in the distant past. When scientists at the FERMI Particle Accelerator unexpectedly discovered a fracture in time that made it possible to construct a portal into primeval history, the bold notion was born to resettle humanity in the past - a second chance to rebuild civilization and get it right this time. The series centers on the Shannon family as they join the Tenth Pilgrimage of settlers to Terra Nova, the first colony established in this beautiful yet foreboding land.
JIM SHANNON (Jason O'Mara, "Life on Mars"), a devoted father with a checkered past, guides his family through this new world of limitless beauty, mystery and terror. Jim's wife, ELISABETH (Shelley Conn, "Mistresses"), is a trauma surgeon and the newest addition to Terra Nova's medical team. JOSH (Landon Liboiron, "Degrassi: The Next Generation") is their 17-year-old son who is angry to leave life as he knows it behind; upon arriving at the settlement, he finds himself instantly drawn to the beautiful and rule-breaking SKYE (Allison Miller, "Kings"). MADDY (Naomi Scott, "Life Bites"), Josh's endearingly awkward 15-year-old sister, hopes Terra Nova will give her a chance to reinvent herself. Although Elisabeth's medical training secured the family a spot on the pilgrimage, a secret involving their five-year-old daughter, ZOE (newcomer Alana Mansour), soon endangers their place in this utopia.
Upon the Shannons' arrival, they are introduced to COMMANDER NATHANIEL TAYLOR (Stephen Lang, "Avatar"), the charismatic and heroic first pioneer and leader of the settlement. Taylor warns the travelers that while Terra Nova is a place of new opportunities and fresh beginnings, all is not as idyllic as it initially appears. Along with blue skies, towering waterfalls and lush vegetation, the surrounding terrain is teeming with danger - and not just of the man-eating dinosaur variety. There is also a splinter colony of renegades led by the battle-hardened MIRA (Christine Adams, "TRON: Legacy"), who is vehemently opposed to Taylor and his leadership. Even more threatening than what lies outside the protective walls of the colony is the chilling possibility that something sinister is happening inside Terra Nova. The Shannons will come to suspect that not everyone on this mission has the same idea of how to best save mankind; in fact, there may be forces intent on destroying this new world before it even begins."
What did they leave out? The show originally was slated to premiere as a two-night event on May 23 and 24 however post-production issues ultimately pushed it to this fall. Producers subsequently decided to shoot new scenes for the pilot, which were incorporated into the cut that premiered at Comic-Con this past weekend. While I've seen both versions, I'll treat the latest cut as the official version.
The plot in a nutshell: "At the dawn of the 22nd century, the world is on the verge of environmental collapse," title cards inform us. "Mankind's only hope for survival lies 85 million years in the past." And with that we meet the Shannon family: dad Jim (Jason O'Mara), a narcotics cop; mom Elisabeth (Shelley Conn), an accomplished doctor; teens Josh (Landon Liboiron) and Maddy (Naomi Scott); and youngest Zoe (Alana Mansour). Despite their hardscrabble existence, the Shannons remain a tight-knit, agreeable bunch - that is until Population Control comes knocking looking for Zoe, a violation of the "A Family Is Four" edict.
The ensuing commotion sees Jim strike one of the officers, a decision which lands him in jail. Two years later, Elisabeth is approached by the Terra Nova project - an effort to save mankind by sending one-way pilgrimages 85 million years into the past - but told she can only bring Josh and Maddy with her, leaving Jim and Zoe behind. Their plan: have Jim break out, snatch Zoe and join them in the pilgrimage. Improbably their gambit works and the Shannons find themselves on prehistoric Earth, or to be exact, an alternate timeline of prehistoric Earth complete with menacing dinosaurs and giant bugs but just as revelatory: clean air and sunshine.
There they encounter the settlement's commander, Nathaniel Taylor (Stephen Lang), who's none too pleased with their stunt but sees the value in Jim and Elisabeth's skills. And while Jim would prefer a badge and a gun, he's tasked with agricultural detail, at least until a previously unadvertised threat arises. Along the way we meet Skye (Allison Miller), a fiercely independent teen who befriends Josh; Washington (Simone Kissell) and Guzman (Mido Hamada), two of Taylor's trusted lieutenants; and Mira (Christine Adams), a rebellious member from a previous pilgrimage.
What works: If you can look past the silliness of the opening act - and that's a big if, especially considering this is a show with dinosaurs and time travel - there's a compelling undercurrent of manifest destiny and tackling the new frontier to the show, not to mention the inherent coolness of fighting dinosaurs with machine guns. "Terra Nova" is at its best when said facets are at its forefront...
What doesn't: ...something that's frequently obscured by the aforementioned silliness as well as frustratingly ham-fisted family drama. You see, Elisabeth, Josh and company are mad at Jim for getting himself sent to prison, an attitude that only seems to surface as a means to artificially create conflict. (How dare he lose control when a stormtrooper scares poor, defenseless Zoe!) So now Elisabeth won't share her bed and Josh will rebel every chance he gets as a result. It doesn't help that the rationale for their decision to have a third child is glossed over ("It seemed like a good idea at the time," Jim smirks at Taylor), making them again felons for the sake of being felons.
Coupled with the ridiculousness of Jim's escape from a maximum security prison/hijacking of the Most Important Project in Human History (TM pending) - armed with only his wits and a tiny laser torch, so much of "Terra Nova's" set up feels unearned and flat - like it was backtracked from its resulting premise rather than organically explained. Said facets muddy the waters on what should be pure, emotional moments - Elisabeth's "Last of the Mohicans"-esque speech to her kids right before they make the time travel leap; Jim's thoughtful attempts to mend bridges with Zoe, who barely remembers him; and so forth, all despite the best efforts of O'Mara, Conn and company - again adding an uncomfortably factitious flair to the proceedings. Ultimately, if it's going to become a show, "Terra Nova" will...
The bottom line: ...need to grow out of its awkward, stunted origins and find its own natural, compelling dynamics.