Terra Nova deserves a fresh start

Every now and then, I think to myself that it would be nice to see Terra Nova returned or rebooted. You might not remember, or even heard of, Terra Nova. It existed for a brief while in 2011. I remember quite a lot of buzz for the expensive production, time-traveling shenanigans in the plot, dinosaurs, and involvement of Steven Spielberg as executive producer and Stephen Lang in a role that was basically a more mysterious, less evil version of his character in Avatar. Despite that, it became a convoluted mess that was cancelled after a single season, after a total of 13 episodes.

The basic premise was cool: humanity now lives in a worsening environmental apocalypse of its own making, but a new hope arises when scientists discover a way to travel into an alternative past corresponding to the Cretaceous Period. As far as anyone knows, you can go back, but you’re stuck there. They’ve been able to verify that activity in this other time stream does not affect the present, so there are no A Sound of Thunder ramifications to worry about. Humanity has a second chance at a future by going to a past that preexisted us. There are a variety of ecological threats to worry about from the native flora and fauna, but there’s just as much tension in the conflict between the cult-like loyalists to Lang’s militaristic compound leader and the rebel cell that splintered off from the main group and disappeared into the jungles.

What great potential! (And one utilized elsewhere since as an RPG setting.) Unfortunately, the show tried to be something for everyone. While the above would have been more than enough for several seasons of television, elements of different genres were cobbled together to try to catch as many eyes as possible from the start. The central viewpoint characters are a family escaping from the future to live a life free from its population-control laws (mom and dad had a third child). The hot-head father becomes top lawman to the colony leader. The mother is a doctor much needed by the community. The three kids, ranging from teens to a plucky young child, have their own assorted adventures. Focus could shift episode to episode, and even within a single episode you might have teen relationship angst intermingled with a prehistoric murder investigation. The two-parter first episode jumps between the complicated politics of the future and the past, the awe-inspiring nature of the prehistoric world, and some bizarrely low-budget teen slasher horror (literally, the dromaeosaurs in the show are called “slashers”). Within this oh-so-short first season, we even have a former love interest to come between the mother and father (never mind that they love each other so much, they staged an elaborate escape into the past just to preserve their nuclear family). On top of this, the conflict between the colony and its rogue faction is played up for maximum mystery, creating a more convoluted and opaque interrelationship than necessary and setting up a bizarre situation in which the officially sanctioned colony represents more of an isolationist, eco-friendly group while the rebels are actually working for the corporate interests controlling access to the time stream.

I haven’t watched the show in years because I know its flaws too well. Jumbled plot and mismanaged tones aside, it manages to look like over-produced yet still unconvincing television. The dinosaurs in particular look like obvious digital inserts, easily topped by the computer graphics, animatronics, and puppets used to bring Jurassic Park to life 18 years before this show. The dialogue and some of the performances could be just as unbelievable. Even if you can sit through it, you’ll be disappointed with an ending that sets up even more mysteries and leaves plenty of loose ends to never be resolved.

But, again, that premise is incredible! I’d love to see a show that doubles down on the premise, that focuses on a colony eking out a frontier existence in a world it should never have been a part of. The combination of post-apocalyptic politicking, prehistoric creatures, and environmental themes provides storytelling favorably comparable to Xenozoic. And the parallel-time-stream-traveling offers a unique explanation for how humans and dinosaurs could coexist, outside of the cloning route of Jurassic Park or the techno-magic implications of Xenozoic or The Dinosaur Lords.

If I were given the choice to continue or reboot Terra Nova, I think I’d do a prequel-as-reboot by focusing on the second generation of colonists to arrive. The colony is barely established, so there’s plenty of work still to be done in getting things running smoothly, but we have an outsider’s perspective to follow among the new arrivals, an outsider who finds this functioning community so devoted to the mythic figure of a former military man who managed to survive by himself for months before anyone else arrived. I wouldn’t mind a family focus at the center, but no bloated backstory. And if you go the family route, I’d rather the family actually be bonded so that they want to support each other and we have people to clearly root for. Teens will be teens, but the level of unnecessary drama combined with bad dialogue made it difficult to care about the cast of characters. By having the story start in the early days of the colony, we don’t have any rebel cell or mystery corporate interests; the central drama would simply be dealing with this totally alien world. You could bring in tension as later arrivers gradually grow resentful of the iron fist of the compound leader. That in and of itself is enough of a reason for a faction to revolt, without shady corporate tactics involved. I think a more interesting divide would be between those who believe they have the right to continue this colony and others who come to believe that this is still unnecessarily exploitative, with humanity following a path that will eventually doom this world too; perhaps they want to destroy any presence of a colony at all, or perhaps they want a way to teleport everyone back to the future and to shut down the time stream for good. Terra Nova dabbled with the idea that maybe our protagonists were working for the bad guy, but it eventually backed away from this, doubling down on the idea that the rebels were dishonest and basically evil. I’d push the cast-aside idea further; it’s not that the leader is evil, but he enjoys the control he has, and he has a settler mentality, intent on exploiting this world even without a clear corporate beneficiary.

Sure, if you could get past the rebooted season, you could layer on additional plot points. You could tell adventure and exploration stories, war stories, time travel stories, stories of corporate greed. You could have plenty of interesting real and speculative prehistoric plants and animals. You could run in a variety of directions, even time jump to set up a society that is more entrenched, to follow different characters. Heck, you could evolve from a rough-and-tumble frontier to a sprawling metropolis at the center of linked communities, complete with Dinotopia-style human-dinosaur symbiosis. But if you try to do too much too early, you don’t have likeable characters, and you keep throwing on more elaborate and unnecessary mysteries, you’re going to tank any show. Terra Nova already proved that. I wish that the premise had another chance, though.

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