Terra Nova episode 1 review: Genesis

Steven Spielberg and Fox’s sci-fi drama series Terra Nova is almost here! Here’s James’ review of the two-hour season one premiere, Genesis…

Every season since Lost started, at least one show a year has tried to follow in its footsteps. It’s easy to spot which ones. They’re the shows that contain a light sci-fi premise, a big budget opening episode, and a parade of mysteries intended to bring viewers back week after week.

Despite this, no subsequent show has really succeeded in recapturing Lost’s initial magic. Many front-load their series too heavily, meaning that the show simply gets more and more boring week upon week. Others concentrate too heavily on mystery and conspiracy at the expense of telling any actual story. Most forget that Lost wasn’t just about surprising plot twists, it was also about engaging characters. By all accounts, it’s a tricky game to play, and you only have to look at the corpses of shows like Heroes, Flash Forward and The Event for proof.

However, from the look of the opening two-parter, Terra Nova might just have found a balance that works.

The series follows the exploits of the Shannon family – a husband, wife, and three kids – who are chosen (sort of…) to travel back in time to Terra Nova, a new outpost of civilisation located 85 million years in the past on prehistoric Earth. Or, at least, that’s what we’re told. Escaping from the environmental disaster zone that is the 22nd century, the family’s attempt to make a new start in Terra Nova is hampered somewhat by existing tensions, as well as some new ones which emerge from their adopted environment.

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If that sounds a little dry, don’t worry too much. The lead characters are still finding their feet, but most already have distinct personalities. Admittedly, only Jim (Jason O’Mara) could be described as actually approaching two-dimensional (let along three), and Landon Liboiron is given the unenviable task of squeezing material out of Josh Shannon, an almost satirically rebellious teenager with daddy issues, but there’s time yet for both him and the others to grow. There are no obvious weak links, in terms of writing or acting, so at least it’s possible to iron out the creases over time.

The breakaway star of episode one, however, is Nathaniel Taylor (Stephen Lang), the colony leader who has the swagger of a budget Charlton Heston. He’s brave, reasonable, and he treats those around him like equals rather than subordinates. In fact, he’s so immediately likeable that it’s not a surprise to learn that all is not what it seems with him. Undoubtedly, his story feels like the strongest reason to come back for future episodes, and he’s the one character that the audience will undoubtedly warm to straight away.

Pleasingly, the writers seem to have put a decent amount of thought into the world they’ve created. Although there’s a lot of exposition, it’s also quite sparing in its own way. We’re introduced to concepts, but left with questions about them. It feels as though holes are intentionally being left so that the writers can fill them in later – both with regards to the characters, and the rather sketchy past of Terra Nova.

Certainly, the pilot leaves open a number of obvious (and not-so-obvious) avenues for story development. There appears to be some level of communication between the past and future, but how much? Although the problem of temporal paradoxes is seemingly dealt with, there’s still some doubt as to whether what the characters believe is the actual truth of the matter.

Indeed, Terra Nova is so good at seeding potential story threads that you start to wonder what else we’re not being told. Is this actually Earth? Is it definitely the past? It’s not quite as unambiguous as the previews would have you believe, and that’s exciting to think about.

One area where the show is undoubtedly weak, however, is the CGI effects. Since we saw a preview, it’s possible that the effects are unfinished, but if they’re not then there are going to be some entirely justified criticisms from viewers on launch night. The opening episode has already been delayed once this year to allow for more effects work, so if this is the finished version, I’d hate to see what the early one was like.

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On the other hand, the rest of the show looks great. The set for the colony is rugged, yet futuristic. The locations are picturesque and lush, but also untamed in a way that feels threatening on a very primal level. Again, you can’t help but think of Lost as a point of comparison. Just as it made being stuck on a dangerous tropical island seem enviable, so Terra Nova makes the past feel like a place you can imagine wanting to visit, despite the threats lurking.

That, then, is the first episode of Terra Nova. Not quite brilliant (but far from awful), but with a lot of interesting potential. If they can fix up the CGI and imbue the Shannon family with some less generic personalities, we might have a genuinely entertaining show on our hands before too long. Certainly, it’s intriguing enough to guarantee I’ll be back for the second instalment.

Terra Nova will premiere on 26th September in the US, and will make its UK debut on Sky 1 HD at an unspecified date this autumn.

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