After a long wait, the dinosaur-haunted, sci-fi family drama Terra Nova premiered last night on FOX. The first episode did not leave me with a particularly strong impression. I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it, either.
The hype for Terra Nova been over the top—we’ve been told time and again just how much went into creating the show’s special effects—but the first two-hour episode was so heavy on exposition that it is difficult to judge how the show will fare. (Rather than fill in the background gradually through events in the story, various characters delivered short speeches in which they provided all the essential details required by viewers.) Everything about episode one was about setting up the show’s premise, from family tensions to cryptic mumblings that will undoubtedly turn into major plot points in future episodes.
Terra Nova is far from original. The show borrows heavily from other science fiction sources. Bits and pieces—including actor Stephen Lang, who portrays Commander Nathaniel Taylor in the show—were lifted from Avatar, there’s a line about dinosaurs mostly hunting at night that is right out of ALIENS, and a few clues at the end of the first episode sound awfully close to the theme of Poul Anderson’s short story “Wildcat,” in which an oil company maintains a base to collect resources from the Jurassic and send them to the energy-starved future. Perhaps future episodes will take the show in unexpected directions, but as far as the first episode goes, Terra Nova is a mish-mash of various sci-fi tropes and references to other stories.
But what about the dinosaurs? As happy as I am to see some of my favorite prehistoric creatures running around on television, the dinosaurs had relatively little screen time and generally served to intensify already complicated situations. When your base camp is already under attack by a rival group, a rampaging Carnotaurus is the last thing you need. A sluggish herd of noodle-necked Brachiosaurus also makes an appearance, though the show’s real villains are imaginary theropods called “Slashers” (more on them in a moment).
In the few moments they did appear on screen, though, I wasn’t exactly blown away by the computer-generated dinosaurs. As in some recent documentaries, the dinosaurs of Terra Nova did not seem to blend well with their backgrounds. They often looked as if they were on another plane of existence. For all the hubbub about how the show’s creators spared no expense on the special effects, the dinosaurs did not look that much better than their counterparts in basic cable documentaries, and they even paled in comparison to the dinosaurs in Steven Spielberg’s other big dinosaur project, 1993′s Jurassic Park. Creating realistic, high-definition dinosaurs is still a tough challenge for animators.
So, about the slashers… I have said some unkind things about this speculative dinosaur before, and after seeing it in action, I stand by my comments. The dinosaur looks like the product of a board meeting in which everyone agreed to throw a few more bells and whistles on the “raptors” of Jurassic Park. (Upon seeing these dinosaurs, my wife said: “It’s like those poor alligators and lizards from those old dinosaur movies, the ones they’d stick all the fins and horns on to make them look more menacing.”) As I have pointed out before, paleontologists have discovered the remains of actual theropods that were far more fantastic and, I think, scary than the Slasher. As might be expected, these dinosaurs act more like plot devices than actual animals. At the climax of episode one, a mob of unorganized slashers—they are said to hunt in packs—surrounds an armored vehicle and spends much of the night trying to get at the tasty teens inside. I guess they were either bored, or easier prey is just so difficult to find that the dinosaurs decided to keep trying their luck with the metallic snackbox.
Terra Nova has potential. Now that everything has been set up and introduced—the relationships, rivalries, dangers and all that—the show’s creators can, I hope, strike a bit of new ground. Then again, maybe the program will continues to borrow tidbits of plot and setting from stories we’ve already seen. Only time will tell.