Science-fiction lovers cringe, caught somewhere between anticipation and dread, whenever a major network announces the debut of a new sci-fi-oriented series. The anxiety is doubled when that network is FOX. Broadcast television doesn’t have a solid track record for supporting science-fiction shows, and FOX has cultivated a reputation for killing fan-faves like Firefly, Dollhouse and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. So when it was announced that Steven Spielberg would be teaming up with René Echevarria (“Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” “The 4400”) and Brannon Braga (“Star Trek: Voyager,” “Star Trek: Enterprise”) to produce a dinosaur-centric time travel adventure for FOX, the jubilation of sci-fi lovers was mixed with a heavy dose of angst.
With an all-star cast of producers and an average budget of about $4 million per episode, “Terra Nova” embodies all the dangers of producing a sci-fi series. Whereas a sitcom or a reality show might be allowed to play out for several low-rated seasons because it’s a bargain to produce, a sci-fi series must be a major ratings hit to justify its massive budget. So far, ratings for “Terra Nova” have been decent. But there are reasons to be concerned.
The show’s pilot took us to the year 2149, when Earth is on the verge of overpopulation and ecological collapse. Salvation has come, for the lucky few, in the form of a space-time rift that allows people to travel back 85 million years to the late Cretaceous period. A select few lottery winners get to go back in time and live in the prehistoric paradise that is Terra Nova (or Queensland, Australia, where the show is actually shot).
Our main protagonists are the Shannon family. Dad (Jason O’Mara from “Life on Mars”) is a rule-breaking cop. Mom (British TV actress Shelley Conn) is a dedicated doctor. Son Josh (Landon Liboiron) is rebellious and surly, daughter Maddy (Naomi Scott) is smart and shy, and little Zoe (Alana Mansour) is ... a kid. Thus far, our main characters don’t have a lot of personality. So when the show is obliged to spend some SPFX-free downtime among humans, the drama level drops precipitously.
The show has managed to set up some intriguing subplots. There’s the lingering mystery of some strange mathematical formulas carved onto the ancient rocks outside Terra Nova. There’s the question of why some colonists have left Terra Nova to form their own breakaway compound. There’s the suggestion that Terra Nova’s tough-as-nails leader, Commander Nathaniel Taylor (Stephen Lang from Avatar), isn’t quite the stable hero he seems to be. Unfortunately, in dumbing down the show’s sci-fi story in hopes of appealing to the largest audience possible, interesting narratives are left to dangle in favor of generic TV plots.
By the show’s third ep, characters were dealing not with one another (or with rampaging dinosaurs), but with a random, memory-stealing pathogen that could have come from the fourth season of “Stargate: Atlantis.” As the torchbearer for sci fi on network TV, “Terra Nova” has potential. But does it have the budget and the ratings to fulfill those promises? Time will tell.