Has Terra Nova Delivered on the Dinosaurs? | Science | Smithsonian
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Has Terra Nova Delivered on the Dinosaurs?

What's the use of setting your science-fiction family drama 85 million years in the past if you're not going to highlight some of the local fauna?

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When I watched the series premiere of Terra Nova in September, I wasn’t entirely sure what to think of it. The first episode was packed with so much awkward exposition that I just wanted the show to wrap up the background and get on with the story. That, and I was eager to see more dinosaurs. What’s the use of setting your science-fiction family drama 85 million years in the past if you’re not going to highlight some of the local fauna?

More than halfway through the first season, I still don’t know what to think of the show. I think the Atlantic Wire’s Richard Lawson hit the proverbial nail squarely on the head when he wrote that Terra Nova is the weirdest show on television right now. Take all the cringeworthy gooshiness of a 1990s family drama; borrow some plot points from LOST; apply liberal spoonfuls of science fiction tidbits from Avatar, ALIENS and Star Trek; then hit “liquefy” and pour out a show that is so overly sweet that you think your teeth are going to fall out of your head.

The components of Terra Nova are not original—from minor characters to plot points, almost everything has been seen before in other shows and films—but the combination creates a weird new hybrid. While the show is trying to build up suspense about the spy in camp and the possibility that evil bureaucrats of the future are going to try to mine Terra Nova for all it’s worth (called it!), the show is so focused on the lives of their primary protagonists, the Shannon family, that it feels as if each episode neatly wraps everything up. The family always overcomes their problems somehow, nothing truly bad ever happens to them, and everyone’s smiling by episode’s end. (Compare that pattern to what happens in the far-superior series The Walking Dead.) This week’s episode, in particular, was especially over-the-top in terms of cuteness. A baby ankylosaur that the Shannon family took in a few episodes prior  is returned to the wild, and a big momma ankylosaur immediately comes tromping out of the jungle to take the little tyke in as the human family looks on, all dewey-eyed. Awwww. This was so saccharine I thought my face was going to melt off, a la Raiders of the Lost Ark.

My advice to the show’s creators? Ditch the Shannon family—a pack of Slashers or even a pair of Carnotaurus would do nicely—and make it the Commander Taylor show. Terra Nova’s leader, portrayed by Stephen Lang, is just about the only interesting character in the whole thing. Then you’d get to keep the action and intrigue with an ensemble cast while deep-sixing the gooey family subplots. (Wishful thinking, I know.)

As for the dinosaurs, I feel that Terra Nova falls a bit flat. Before the first episode aired the buzz was that Terra Nova was going to feature lots of beautifully rendered dinosaurs the likes of which we have never seen before. That was part of the point in picking an 85-million-year-old jungle as part of the setting—our knowledge of dinosaurs during that time is relatively limited, leaving creature creators plenty of leeway to invent cool new species. So far, though, the fuzzy, raptor-like Slasher (seen in the trailer for this week’s episode above) is the only dinosaur that the show’s creators have really had fun with. All the other dinosaurs we have seen are either familiar creatures such as Carnotaurus, brachiosaurs and ankylosaurs, or dinosaurs with fictional names, such as Nykoraptor, Ovosaurus and empirosaur, which look just like dinosaurs we already know about.

Maybe that’s because dinosaurs don’t really play that much of a role in the show. They seem to pop up only when there’s a plot point that needs to be moved along, and the majority of dinosaurs in the show are carnivores. In a real ecosystem you’d expect to see far more sauropods, ceratopsians, hadrosaurs or other sorts of herbivorous dinosaurs, but instead the jungle outside Terra Nova seems to be swarming with medium- to large-sized predators. Maybe they’re all eating each other. More than that, the dinosaurs never bring a real sense of danger to the show. You know that anytime one of the main characters meets a dinosaur, they will somehow escape. Even the most vicious of dinosaurs are rendered virtually toothless by the show’s family-centered format.

Dinosaurs are the prehistoric icing on the so-so supermarket sheet cake that is Terra Nova. They’re simply a part of the setting, and for every glimpse of a dinosaur you have to sit through minute after minute of family programming. At least the dinosaurs look pretty good when they appear. There are some really bad anatomical mistakes, such as the Carnotaurus with long, arms, bunny-hands, and feathers at the beginning of the episode “What Remains,” and the dinosaurs still don’t mesh well with the background environments when seen in stark daylight, but in general, the prehistoric creatures are well detailed. And the special effects crew behind Terra Nova certainly deserves credit for putting feathers on a number of theropod dinosaurs. It’s just too bad that we don’t see more of the local fauna. For a show set in a brave new Cretaceous world, very little time is spend actually exploring the wonders that must be outside Terra Nova’s gates. Where’s a herd of ceratopsids or rampaging tyrannosaur when you need one?

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About Brian Switek
Brian Switek

Brian Switek is a freelance science writer specializing in evolution, paleontology, and natural history. He writes regularly for National Geographic's Phenomena blog as Laelaps.

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