I Saw That Show Where People Travel Back in Time to a Spielberg Movie from the 1980s.

Conventional wisdom has it that science-fiction doesn’t do well on television, or at least on network television.  Too expensive to produce and too limited in its appeal.  Earth 2. Firefly. The Event. V.  None made it beyond 30 or so episodes.  “But what about Battlestar Galactica?” cries the guy with the phalanx of Cylon Centurions protecting his iMac from the incursion of various snack-related threats, “that was the greatest TV series of all time!”  Cool your jets there, space-boy, that was first-run syndication and a whole other kettle of space-fish.  For the most part, network executives listen to sci-fi pitches with the same enthusiasm that label heads used to reserve for concept albums.  A plucky band of space pirates raiding ships in the Van Allen belt, played for love and laughs but still true to the principles of actual science?  Great…let me clear Thursday night for you.

What a surprise, then, that sci-fi (or sexy, sexy Syfy as the Sci-Fi Channel has rebranded itself) should make such a triumphant return to the fall schedule. Most hyped, of course, was Chuck Lorre turning to Encino Man as a way of rebooting Two and a Half Men.  For those who missed the two-part season opener, this year’s shenanigans began with a giant wave off the coast of Malibu splitting open a prehistoric rock to reveal Walden Schmidt, a caveman mysteriously “frozen” in stone for the past 10,000 years.  Somehow, as he makes his way from the beach to the Harper House of Prongs, Schmidt slips into some discarded clothing and concocts a bogus story about a fake suicide attempt.  It wasn't long, though, before he reverted back to his natural state—walking around the house nude after successfully implanting his gametes inside two willing young wenches.  For good measure, the premiere ended with Schmidt squatting and taking a dump in Charlie’s old sock drawer.

Meanwhile, over at NBC, the peacock has made the daring decision to program sci-fi during its storied Thursday-night block of comedies.   Taking a nod from the 80s girl-robot oddity, Small Wonder, upcoming episodes of Whitney will reveal that the show’s sassy lead is actually under the brutal cybernetic control of her bionic ass, an implant turned sentient that now demands endless display and tribute.  As seen so prominently in the first two episodes, the imperious buttocks frequently compel their helpless host to wear silly costumes that better accentuate the bio-butt’s perky insouciance.   Will Whitney’s jaunty yet evil ass ultimately demand admiration and tribute from all of the earth?  Just what does Whitney's ass want of us?  Stay tuned and find out.

But it is Fox that may well be taking the biggest sci-fi gamble, partnering with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin’ productions for Terra Nova, a mind-bending entry into that subgenre of sci-fi typically known as “a real hoot.” The basic premise here involves the standard Spielbergian narrative-focalization family-unit traveling back in time 85 million years to start over in a new human colony, one that seeks to escape the tech noir future so cruelly foisted upon the earth by Arnold Schwarzenegger back in the 1980s.  

We open in the Chicago of 2149, where every cliché of our collective dystopian future must be mobilized in just under twenty minutes in order to motivate Jim and Taylor Shannon’s rather impulsive decision to flee the civilized world so that their children might touch dinosaurs. In this horrible future of 2149, we are told, the air is really bad, oranges are rare, kids have never seen the moon, and the government strictly enforces a two-child limit on breeding.  Worse yet, decent middle-class families with Irish surnames are forced to live in small apartments that, while they would be palaces to most of the world’s population in 2011, are shown here to have the bad taste and abysmal feng shui that comes standard with a galley kitchen. 

Now, I realize I’m supposed to think this is the most horrible fate imaginable, and that any sane person would gladly run blindly into a wormhole for the chance to eat a fresh peach and see the Big Dipper.  Perhaps it’s because I live in the Windy City, but all I could think of was how amazing the Chicago of 2149 looked, as if five Hong Kongs had been smashed together on the shores of Lake Michigan, all interconnected by tubular monorails and reaching up into a perpetually hazy sky.  It looked like a city where a million different adventures were taking place at that very second—an urban paradise where you could eat any cuisine in the world, network on your quad iReality device, solve a perplexing future-crime, and have your scrotum painlessly tattooed… all at the same time.  Why anyone would leave this citadel of wonder is anyone’s guess, especially for little more than an opportunity to repeatedly hammer one’s thumb building some kind of prehistoric hut in which to store a sumptuous harvest of nuts, twigs, and berries, most of which no doubt fished out of the great steaming piles of Apatosaurus shit surrounding the Terra Nova compound.  

If you subscribe to Spielbergian logic, of course, you would do this because nebulous “government” agents represent a hazard to your dear sweet innocent children.  Sure enough, as the Shannons gather at home to savor their precious orange, the police arrive unannounced to investigate a rumor that the family is harboring an illegal third child (which they are).  Not being the sharpest tool in the shed, dad (Jason O’Mara) hides the contraband toddler inside an air vent, thus insuring that the child will start crying from claustrophobia and dust mite infestation in under a minute (which she does).  Jim takes a swing at the cop and ends up in jail, thus initiating a pre-credit action sequence in which dad must escape from the pokey, pick up a suitcase stuffed with child #3, and get to the wormhole in time to meet his wife (Naomi Scott) and other two kids.   Once again, our sympathies are supposed to be with the Shannons, sharing their outrage that the government would be so evil and repressive as to enforce a ban on having more than two children.  Still, you have to think that if ol’ Jim would have just snipped his vas deferens, his family and the world would have been better off, leaving more oranges and kitchen space for everyone else.

Once we get to Terra Nova, both the Shannons and the viewers have a lot to learn in order to make this a functional weekly franchise.  We discover that Terra Nova was founded by Nathanial Taylor (Stephen Lang)—a great white father who was the first to stumble through the wormhole.  There are dinosaurs, of course, and a big fence separating the community from the more interesting narrative possibilities outside.  Then there are “the sixers,” a group of castaways that apparently crashed on the other side of the island—a splinter group of settlers who live near the quarry and continually hassle the Terra Novenians.  There are also lots of boss machine guns and sonic pulse weapons, as well as a motor pool stocked with all kinds of military vehicles.

So, in this effort to “save” the human race and rebuild humanity without “repeating all the same mistakes,” we can see that Terra Nova is already D.O.A. from scene one.  A charismatic patriarch, nuclear families, guns, gasoline, and a mysterious Other living out in the woods—why not call the show Red State Nova instead?  How long until the Shannons are standing in line for a shot of cyanide-flavored Kool-Aid, convinced the mysterious Robamanites are about to raid the compound and take away the colony's best guns and cutest children? 

I will admit that at this point I took a break to pay the delivery guy and eat some Thai food, so I missed a good 15 minutes or so of the premiere’s first hour.  From what I can surmise, however, this is when we learn that Terra Nova exists in an “alternate time stream,” which is of course the chicken-shit way of explaining oneself out of various time-travel paradoxes (i.e. if Terra Nova “succeeds,” isn’t it inevitable that it produce the very future that allowed the Shannons to go back in time?  Or, wouldn’t the existence of Terra Nova skew history to the extent that the Shannons might never have existed in the first place and thus could not go back in time to follow House?  An “alternative time stream” takes care of all that, space nerd, so just enjoy the ride).

The true highlight of the first episode, however, is the moment when the Shannons are shown to their tasteful bungalow, complete with hardwood floors, a breezy open floor plan, and even a little SoCal landscaping.  Incredibly, though they were just living in a supposedly hellish cube in a Chicago high rise of 2149, everyone seems vaguely disappointed—like they expected better digs in 85 million B.C. Truly, American privilege knows no limits.  Happily, Mom decides they might salvage the space with a rug of some kind…that is, if they have rugs in 85 million B.C.  It is an anxious moment, played for pathos, in which the family realizes--perhaps for the first time--that they now live in a world without the riches and comforts that come from living in proximity to a strip of Big Box stores. 

With some basic exposition out of the way, Terra Nova then chugged into a second hour that was strictly about making work for Spielberg’s old raptor pals from the nineties. The terror begins when the son (Landon Liboiron), like any rebellious high school senior,  ditches his mandatory orientation session to hang with a cute girl and some other teens from the rec center.  Together they sneak outside the fence so they can drink some moonshine they have brewing out in the jungle and play a little G-rated grab ass.  Before you know it, they are at the center of a standard Jurassic era scenario—trapped in a vehicle and getting knocked around by a pack of bloodthirsty dinosaurs!  The producers must think this is a major draw for the series, since this dinosaur evasion sequence ended up eating about thirty minutes of screen time.  Run! Shoot!  Growl!  Scream!  Run some more! But in the end, everyone's okay, and the son has learned important lessons about obeying dad, respecting the rules of Terra Nova, and following the directorial cues for interacting with CGI beasts that aren't actually on set. 

The second episode ends with an attempt to get us invested in the mystery of some inscrutable cave scrawling, folding in a bit more Lost folderol to hook the easily hookable into thinking something more profound might be at work here (beyond a table of writers treading water from week to week).  The scribbling, it would appear, is the work of the Great White Father’s missing son, who now lurks the jungle as a primordial Boo Radley.  Given the already pissy relationship between the men in the Shannon clan, this certainly puts Terra Nova in the running for the most Oedipal series of 2011.  

All in all, Terra Nova is just what you’d expect in a craven attempt to travel back in time to the stronger and more certain entertainment franchises of the golden nineties.  Apparently, though, not everyone was pleased with the two-hour premiere spectacular, as evidenced by the following comment at imdb (the very first, no less):

Apparently, the dinosaurs are bullet proof because they wouldn't take ANY damage! All you saw was a ricochet effect off them, and in some cases they were using a 50 caliber gun mounted on a transport vehicle. This wasn't a plot point or anything so it comes off as very lazy special effects. This then leaves the problem, if the guns don't hurt the dinosaurs, why would you take a weapon out to defend yourself from them if it doesn't work? I mean they had about 6 guys shooting one and it eventually turned and ran. I can see maybe they wanted to tone down the blood and death a bit in the pilot but it came off as a major flaw.

So there you have it, Fox.  You wanted to do science-fiction?  Just remember the type of fans that come with the genre.  This customer won’t be happy until you spend a couple extra million animating some convincing bullet trauma to T-Rex’s face.  And are you ready to withstand the overly long and ridiculously self-righteous letters you will get once you cancel Terra Nova?   Maybe it's not too late to greenlight that new Gordon Ramsey show where he tears down little kids' lemonade stands.  Or, given that Terra Nova's premiere got bested by the second episode of Two and a Half Men, maybe we can look forward to Charlie Sheen emerging from the wormhole at mid-season. That would be Terraterrific!   

UPDATE: Episode 2 (or 3, depending on how you count them) featured a pretty straight forward rip-off of The Birds (1964), with tiny (but deadly!) pterodactyls taking the place of Hitchock's murderous crows.  Episode 3 (or 4) promises an "amnesia virus" sweeping through the compound. Could Terra Nova signal its fundamental contempt for television any more loudly?

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