Terra Nova episode 3 review: Instinct

Terra Nova's second episode is smaller in scale, yet conversely, just a little more impressive. Here's our spoiler-y review...

This review contains spoilers.

3. Instinct

The second episode of any series (this is the second, really, given that the opener was a double episode) is a tough one to get through. All too often, when a show is stripped of the high budget of its series opener and the dramatic ease of introducing its premise, the quality instantly drops and it becomes clear that no-one actually expected to get much further than the first episode, much less planned what they’d do if they did.

Luckily, Terra Nova‘s latest episode actually represents something of an incremental improvement. In this instalment, the Terra Nova compound comes under attack from a group of migrating pterosaurs, and Elisabeth discovers that an old boyfriend – Malcolm – is the project’s chief science officer. Meanwhile, the older kids, Josh and Maddy, adapt to life in their new home.

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As you can probably tell from the synopsis, the scope of this episode is far narrower than the pilot, but the story itself is much tighter as a result, and the characters are proportionally more comfortable in their roles. There’s no evidence of the flip-flopping emotions or the summary motivations that showed up in the season opener. In particular, Jim and Elisabeth’s relationship is more at ease, while the three Shannon kids display a believable level of warmth towards both their parents and one another.

Josh, in particular, gets something of a personality overhaul. Gone is the unreasonable and abrasive whiner of the pilot, and in his place stands someone a little more sympathetic and believable. It’s early enough that character inconsistencies are to be expected, but let’s hope this is a change that sticks.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Instinct, however, is that it actually had a theme, which you’ll notice is carefully hidden in the episode’s title. After years of watching TV shows which thought that a pretentious voiceover constituted a thematic spine, the fact that this episode’s central concept was reflected in its subplots offers some hope that the writers of Terra Nova might actually be smarter than the pilot made them look.

Now, admittedly, if you were hoping for some subplots that go beyond the exploration of budding (or rekindled) inter-character romances, you won’t necessarily enjoy what this episode has to offer in terms of wider arc material. Certainly, it would have been nice to see a hint of the conspiracy-type mysteries seeded in the opening episode. But at the same time, it makes sense for us to spend time with the characters for a while before we return to the series arc.

Certainly, there was little actively wrong with Instinct‘s plot. The threat was credible, the resolution logical, and while some of the answers arguably came a little too easily, they still served a purpose in pushing certain characters together or apart. Coupled with just the right amount of tonal levity (particularly welcome after a deadly serious first episode) the results were consistent and enjoyable.

In fact, the only obvious eyebrow-raising thing about the series so far seems to be project head Taylor’s insistance in heaping responsibility on Jim. Perhaps they’ll explain it later, perhaps it’s just something we’ll have to take with a pinch of salt because Jim is the series’ lead male, but viewed objectively, one wonders just how under-staffed Terra Nova is that the same guy gets picked to do three different plot-critical jobs alongside Taylor.

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Effects-wise, it’s tough to deny that the CGI of the opening episode was ropey at best, but this episode does a little better. How much of that is down to genuine improvements and how much is down to the episode’s use of a smaller-scale beast as the primary threat is debatable, but better is better, however you arrive at it. Admittedly it’s still nowhere near Jurassic Park levels of quality, but at least it looks better than the average episode of Primeval this time around.

Of course, The most impressive part of Terra Nova‘s effects remains the colony itself, so even though this episode is, in effect, a relatively cheap ‘bottle’ episode played out entirely within existing sets, it’s still early enough in the show’s run that it feels like a new prospect to spend some time on the base, so it makes sense to milk that while they can. It’s still early days for the series, but right now its prospects look good.

Read our review of the series opener, Genesis, here.

Terra Nova screens in the UK on Sky1 and Sky1 HD.

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