Friday, September 30, 2011

Review: Terra Nova "Genesis"

Non Spoiler Review:
In 2149, the world is in such a mess that the only alternative to human survival seems to be an exodus through a time fracture 85 million years into the past to start life anew. This is the last hope for the Shannon family, who with their three children, make the one way journey and begin their new lives in Terra Nova. They quickly learn that it's not a utopia and there will be many challenges to face (fitting in, dinosaurs, copious amounts of oxygen, breakaway colonists, etc.).

This highly anticipated series begins with a two hour premiere establishing the sorry state of the future, and getting the Shannons to the main setting—the past. There we meet what will likely be the rest of the regular cast. It's all a decent assortment of people, though there is a lot of pretty teenagers there eager to provide as much angst and troublemaking as possible. 

The production values are stunning, and I'm hoping the series can maintain such quality all season. The series begins with an impressive opening sequence panning down to a smoggy Earth and its horrible living conditions, contrasting with the paradise of the world 85 million years in the past. The dinosaurs work well, and there were quite a few to be seen in his episode. So it will be interesting to see if this is a standard, or they splurged for the pilot.

I was left reminded very much of Outcasts, BBC's late, lamented single season series about colonizing another planet. In fact, it reminded me alot about it. And a little bit of Land of the Lost, too. While the premise is intriguing and the setting offers some interesting bits of backstory and future development, the main protagonists, the Shannons, come off as rather unlikable, at least in this episode. And the second half suffers from cliched plot choices (missing teenagers). Terra Nova should take a lesson from Falling Skies on how to create young characters that aren't annoying. But there is a lot of promise here, so I will definitely be following it.

"A brave new world for us to turn upside-down with our bad decisions."
Spoilers Now!
Terra Nova opens in 2149 with a bleak look at Earth in environmental collapse. The Shannon family—dad Jim, mother Elizabeth, and children Josh, Maddie and (illegal child) Zoe, are enjoying an orange, an unusual treat. Jim doesn't say where he got it from (stolen, most likely!). Maddie reports that the authorities are on their away. It's apparently illegal to have more than two children in the future but Jim and Liz don't care about the law, so they hide their youngest daughter in the air vent.

Zoe is easily discovered, and when cop Jim beats up the security, he's arrested and thrown into prison—for two years. We join him when Elizabeth comes by for a visit to explain she's been contacted by the Terra Nova recruitment people given she's an awesome surgeon. He tells her she has to go and take the kids for a chance at a new life, but they won't let her take Zoe given they had the kid to flaunt the population laws. She gives him a respirator to help him breathe in the unfiltered air of the prison, but it also has a handy-dandy laser hidden in it that will shortly allow him to make the most miraculous prison break ever.

Thanks to the news, we're told it's been 20 years since a fracture in time was discovered due to some collider experiments, around which was built a huge gate to allow passage back 85 million years. Elizabeth and her two oldest kids arrive for the transport as part of the 10th Pilgrimage to the Terra Nova colony. 

Josh has a rather mundane and emotionless goodbye with his girlfriend Karen, whom he will supposedly never see again.

Meanwhile, Jim arrives (!) after managing to escape a highly fortified prison (off screen), arrange transport and an ally and pick up a mysterious duffel bag (off screen) and appropriate identification to get through the gate. Despite these miracles, he's spotted on camera, but gives Elizabeth the pack as he's called out by security. 

Elizabeth sends Josh and Maddie through the portal and then herself, trusting in Jim to find his way to them. He sees they're gone and makes a run for it, shoving everyone out of the way and arriving in the past, in the jungle. Disoriented, he pulls his gun, creating a commotion, but Elizabeth rescues Zoe from the pack before the security personal of Terra Nova decide to stab it (!) for some reason. The group heads to the colony. After all that trouble, Zoe doesn't remember her father, given he's been gone two years.

They're greeted by Nathaniel Taylor, commander of Terra Nova, who's been there for seven years (and was the first to step foot in the past). He gives them the second chance for humanity pep talk. Elizabeth and Jim are summoned to meet with him. She's in demand for her medical expertise, but his records show her husband should be in prison. Taylor doesn't care about population controls from the future, but does care if he's of use to the colony. In private, Taylor speaks with Jim, learning he was a police officer who decided to have a third child to risk everything. Instead of putting him on security, he assigns him agriculture detail. 

The Shannons settle into their new retro-future/Flintstones house and Zoe now seems to remember her father. Josh, however, begins to rebel and is resentful they had to fend for themselves because Jim threw a punch at the cop and went to jail. 

Meanwhile, we get our first dino-moment when Zoe walks out to some (plant-eating) dinosaurs hanging over the fence and everyone stares in wonderment at their brave new world.

The next morning everyone goes off to orientation (except Josh, who is rebelling). Time for some exposition, as Maddie (evidently the brainiac know-it-all of the family) recognizes the probe monument, and explains to Josh it was the first artifact sent through the fragment to see how far back in time it went. The probe carried a beacon so they could find it in the present, but they never did, which showed they were dealing with a different time stream than the one they were living in—so no time paradoxes. Um...

Jim starts work with the ag team. Josh meets a new girl, Skye, as well as her roommates Hunter and Max. They go OTG...outside the gate, where Skye shows him some odd equations carved into the stones down by a waterfall. She hasn't told anyone, given Taylor has forbidden anyone going there (hmm). They also have a still and throw back a few bevvies.

Shannon looks after a Six thief, who was caught siphoning power. Who are the Sixes? They're from the Sixth Pilgrimage, and most pretty much went AWOL to establish their own colony. He manages to get away, only Jim notices his odd behaviour and tackles him as he tries to kill Taylor. He demands to know what's going on, so Taylor takes him on a drive outside the gate.

Taylor explains the Sixth Pilgrimage showed they had an agenda, took weapons and supplies when they learned Taylor was onto them and established their own settlement. He doesn't know who sent them and doesn't know who he can trust in the future. He invites Jim to join his security team.

"Ain't we a pair, raggedy-man."
They then spy two Six transports making a beeline to the settlement, so try to head them off. But they realize they're in pursuit by two dinosaurs, so Taylor manages to divert them so all of them can get inside Terra Nova's gates. That provokes a standoff with the Sixers, and their leader Mira, who wants her man Carter back. She offers meteoric iron from the quarry in exchange for meds, her man, and ammo. Taylor says he'll give her everything but the ammo.

Later, Taylor talks to Shannon in the hospital and reveals he had a son who came through the portal, but who went missing a few years before. 

Taylor later reports one of their rovers is missing, and shows Jim surveillance of the kids, including Josh. It has apparently taken all day for this to be noticed. They go off to find them.

Meanwhile, two Sixes have taken the power cells from Skye's rover, so they're stranded. But the Sixes are attacked by dinosaurs called slashers, and one is killed, leaving the other to take refuge inside. The kids find the rover and blood, and Max finds the cells but another slasher returns, forcing them inside. Skye manages to convince the remaining Six to let them in, and they're left stranded inside as the slasher attacks.

As night falls Taylor assembles a rescue party, including both Elizabeth and Jim. Worried that the kids won't survive, he tells them he was the first man through the portal, but the ones walking through behind him didn't show up for 118 days, so he knows how to survive on Terra Nova.

Taylor makes contact with Skye and attempts to track their signal, though they run into one of the girls, Natasha, on the trail. She was injured by the slashers too and tried to make it back to camp.

One of the young security members, Reynolds, checks in on Maddie to make sure she's okay while the search team is away. She immediately falls in love with him.

The kids try to make a break for the other rover, but Max is wounded. Josh is nearly killed by the slashers as Taylor arrives to save the day. The injured Six manages to disappear, but everyone else is reunited and back home.

Skye apologizes to Taylor for disappointing him after all he's done for her. He's not upset with her, and we learn Skye's parents both died from a fever. He tells her now she knows why that area by the waterfall is off limits, but asks what they were all doing out there. Just drinking, she says, but he asks if she went near the falls. She says no.

Mira and her man are at the falls and notice the kids were there. She says Taylor won't like it. Why doesn't he just blast the rocks? Because it's the only thing connecting him to his son... who is the one behind the carvings. He apparently wants to torment Taylor and let him know the real reason for Terra Nova's existence—control of the past to control the future.

Zoe sees the moon for the first time and the Shannon family hug it out.

"Call me Mr. Kurtz."
The Verdict:
Terra Nova has all the pieces in place to make a great series. The characters all need their chance to evolve and establish themselves. It does suffer from some major plot devices to get the characters introduced and things moving. Add in a little Spielberg The kids are missing. We must rescue them! and the last half wasn't as compelling as the first. So I feel the need to nitpick some pretty egregious moments.

Jim's escape from prison was brushed off so completely, it's a wonder they even wasted the money to render Golad Prison. Let's walk through this—Elizabeth sneaks a laser to her husband that will allow him to escape a maximum security prison, make some contacts on the outside, manage to gain false identification as well as acquire his daughter from some surplus population orphanage, then sneak into what must be an incredibly secure time portal with no effort, get to the front of the line and just rush his way through after he's caught. Security advancements have stagnated considerably over the next 138 years.

After that eye-rolling sequence, the Shannons are reassembled, but they aren't the most compelling bunch, given some of the other characters we see. I found myself unsympathetic to their plight, given the peek at future Earth, that they had the nerve to break the rules and have yet another child (two's not enough?) and flaunt the authorities. Then they steal her away and take her back with them. While Elizabeth has some motherly appeal, Jim's too much of a hot-head to have made an impact on me at all yet. Add in cutesy Zoe and Maddie's sole purpose of providing exposition to the audience, and this bunch is off to a weak start.

The mystery of the rock carvings proved a bit of a letdown, as I was hoping for something grand (like reptilian humanoids!) rather than Nathan's missing kid. And hopefully we get something that makes up for Maddie's little exposition on the alternate timeline they're in. Really? That's what the future scientists concluded when they couldn't locate their probe? But that could be what Nathan's son knows—they're all in the same timeline, and the authority behind the Sixth Pilgrimage could be trying to manipulate the future? Time will tell.

Probably the biggest head scratcher is the crack in time itself. Leaving out the whole leap of faith that the absence of the probe signal means the rift is an alternate timeline, how is it the rift seems to be moving in time, as well? Otherwise, the 10th Pilgrimage would be arriving at the same time as the ninth, the eighth, down to the first, and Taylor himself. Subsequent arrivals conveniently emerge in a linear fashion. Though Taylor did mention the men following him didn't come out until over a 100 days after he arrived. If there is a disparity like that, then why wouldn't those at the head of the line emerge up to a year before those in the back, given the quantity of people going through this episode? Hopefully this gets some further explanation other than the throwaway line.

There's a good foundation to build the show on, as long as they don't glaze over the science fiction elements like they did this week. I'm hoping Jim and Elizabeth will grow on me, too. And I'm always willing to give a show a chance after the birth pains of a first episode. Given the slim pickings for new and interesting network shows, I'll be sticking with this one for awhile to see where it goes. 

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