TV on Disc: 'Terra Nova' – Jurassic Suburb
The short-lived science fiction series of a human colony in the prehistoric past arrives on DVD
"Terra Nova: The Complete Series" (Fox) is another exhibit in case against the big networks launching big budget science series. While they tend to have big budgets and an eye for spectacular (at lest for the small screen) images, they also have a tendency to chase big audiences by dropping high concepts into familiar formulas and narrative formats.
In this case, the premise is simple: in a future polluted and overcrowded to the point of near social breakdown, a wormhole to the prehistoric past has allowed small groups of hand-picked citizens to escape the dystopia and colonize a pristine prehistoric world. Jim Shannon (Jason O'Hara) and his family are essentially stowaways to the past, escaping not just the pollution and crime but the restrictive laws that limit family size. Three kids is apparently a felony in this future.
With Steven Spielberg on board as an executive producer and a concept evokes "Jurassic Park" as the new frontier, the producers of "Terra Nova" play up the visual promise of human beings living in a dangerous jungle world of dinosaurs (thanks to a handy time travel gimmick). The human colony (and it is a colony, self-sustaining and essentially cut off from the poisoned future) is part military outpost, part communal village carved out of lush jungle wilderness, part Swiss Family Robinson theme park, and every episode features at least one visit from a prehistoric creature, large or small. There's no secret where the budget is going.
What's so disappointing is that, with all the potential such a premise offers, the story comes down to a civil war between the colony, led by old-school military man Commander Nathaniel Taylor (Stephen Lang, essentially playing a warmer and more morally ambiguous version of his "Avatar" character), and a rebel faction that stages raids from their refuge in the jungle.
It plays more like an espionage thriller than a science fiction expedition into a brave new world, with half of the episodes turning on tracking double agents and unraveling the conspiracy behind the rebel faction. And the motive, stripped of base monetary considerations, turns on the kind of pop psychology drivel that was already old hat by the fifties. Even with the ramped-up two-part finale, it never reaches its potential.
The rest of it falls into family drama, with the growing pains and adolescent romance of kids in the crucible of the colony, so disconnected from the setting it could be imported from another, much safer series. Only one of the reasons this series fell while the other recent Spielberg-produced science fiction series, "Falling Skies," is making better drama with more hard-edged conflicts and smaller budgets.
Apart from the Lang, who brings an edgy intensity to Taylor, and the wildlife park spectacle of GCI dinosaurs wandering through the episodes, the show is otherwise built on a lot of old clichés in new wrapping. Which is probably why it only lasted 13 episodes.
All 13 episodes are collected on four discs. Features an extended version of the final episode, commentary on the final two episodes, "Occupation" and "Resistance," by producers Brannon Braga and Rene Echevarria and actor Stephen Lang, plus the featurettes "Director's Diaries: Making the Pilot," "Mysteries Explored," and "Cretaceous Life: The Dinosaurs of Terra Nova."
It's available on DVD only.