Terra Nova


Fox recently debuted a big-budget TV show called Terra Nova, which counts Steven Spielberg among its thousands of co-producers.  The plot is lifted wholesale from the amazing work of sci-fi author Julian May, without attribution… and also without the aliens, psychic powers, high drama, or fun.

In a dystopian future of environmental collapse, scientists accidentally open a wormhole 85 million years into the past, and realize the best hope of human survival is to send colonists to establish a new world among the dinosaurs.  Early on, we are assured there are no “Sound of Thunder” risks, because this is an alternate timeline where actions in the past will not destabilize the already lousy future.  (Some dialogue in the pilot episode of Terra Nova implies this might be a comforting fiction peddled to the colonists, which is the most intriguing undeveloped plot thread to be offered thus far.)

The show follows the colonial adventures of a little family, whose father had to escape from jail to join the mission, because he was busted for violating strict China-style policies on having too many children.  Alas, these adventures have been painfully boring to date, serving mainly to illustrate three important points:

1. Dinosaurs are bulletproof.  (When did Hollywood get this idea?)

2. The Sleestak were more important to the success of Land of the Lost than we might have suspected.

3. No amount of mediocre writing can fully contain the awesome power of Stephen Lang.

Lang plays the leader of the Terra Nova colony, which is not a wild frontier.  By the time our heroes arrive, it’s a damned theme park, in which everyone has a neatly maintained and comfortable home stuffed with futuristic conveniences.  It’s even surrounded by an invincible fence, proof against everything except airborne threats, which the second episode tells us the colonists gravely underestimated.

In the course of trying to straddle the line between adult action-adventure and a Disney Channel tween show, Terra Nova becomes a remarkably well-timed expression of the infantile “Occupy Wall Street” ethos.  It’s a societal reset button, in which everyone’s slate is wiped clean, and all debts are forgiven.  Even the escaped-con father only has to put up with about five minutes of light grilling from Lang, whose maximum level of menace was enough to make him, in my book, the actual protagonist of Avatar – a badass rebelling against a B.S. fantasy world, custom-built by its omnipotent author to make him look like a chump.  If Avatar had ended with Lang’s character leaping off the motion-capture set to beat the crap out of James Cameron, it would have been the greatest movie of all time.

Upon arriving in the clean-slate past, the heroes of Terra Nova don’t find a life of hardship waiting for them.  They don’t even have to deal with the consequences of the primitive back-to-nature lifestyle Greens are always urging upon us.  They’ve got all the high-tech conveniences waiting for them, up to and including cool armored ATVs that blast through rough terrain at high speeds – even though they most certainly are not running on fossil fuels, since there aren’t any fossils yet. 

A large portion of the Terra Nova colony’s population are surly idle youth who spend all their time pissing off the adults by refusing to obey safety protocols.  They get to carry their iPods through a “pristine” world of sustainable ecological wonder, without sparing a moment’s thought for the high industry necessary to produce their conveniences, back in a forgotten future that has effectively ceased to exist.  That makes them kindred souls to the Occupy Wall Street kids, pausing in their blind rage against capitalism to order Starbucks coffee and pizzas on their cell phones.

It’s telling that while real frontier living involves back-breaking toil and constant risk, virtually no one in Terra Nova seems to work.  The main character is briefly shown hacking some jungle growth off the colony fence, but otherwise the inhabitants seem to spend most of their time shopping at the open-air mall, using a very ill-defined currency whose provenance is never explained.  (In the second episode of the series, the able-bodied teenage son of the main character discusses the idea of getting a job to earn money as if it were an option.)  The medical needs of the colony are tended by selfless volunteer doctors, using high-tech gifts from the future that doesn’t count any more.  An actual pioneer teenager from America’s frontier days would be so busy vomiting in disgust that they wouldn’t have time to marvel at the CGI dinosaurs.

One of the other plot threads laid out in the Terra Nova premiere was the existence of a renegade colony called the Sixers.  At some point in the episodes to come, we’ll no doubt learn that they have legitimate grievances, and our heroes will get to righteously rebel against the secretly oppressive authority that built their Disneyworld home.  The Occupy Wall Street circle will then be complete.  I just hope they let Stephen Lang put up a good fight before he goes down.