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TV Review: Terra Nova – Premiering September 26 on FOX

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From dystopia to utopia, or so it seems when a family from the year 2149 travels back 65 million years in FOX’s highly anticipated new series Terra Nova. But as any science fiction fan is aware, utopias seldom are.

The premiere episode “Genesis” gets off to a rip-roaring start as we observe a burnt out Chicago that would be at home in a Philip K. Dick novel—or in any end of the world sci-fi movie. Earth 2149: the air is unbreathable; it is a dark, dangerous planet where it is illegal in the U.S. to have more than two children. The simple things in life like oranges, cumulus clouds and a visible, bright moon are gone in an environment barely habitable. Although residents of this essentially destroyed Planet Earth have adapted to the food and lack of sunlight, they still need “re-breathers” that filter the air enough to make it breathable. Those that can afford it live in bubble-enclosed enclaves with fresh air and nice lifestyles.

Jim Shannon (Jason O’Mara) is a police officer and his wife Elisabeth (Shelly Conn) is a prominent do-gooder physician. They have done the unthinkable (and illegal) in 22nd Century Chicago and had a third child three years earlier.

Now under investigation by the authorities, little Zoe (Alana Mansour) is found hiding behind a wall in the family’s small apartment when storm troopers ransack the family’s apartment.

Push comes to shove and suddenly Jim is in prison serving a six-year sentence. But when Elisabeth is invited to be part of Terra Nova, an experimental community safe from the environmental hazards of modern Earth two years into Jim’s sentence, there is a hitch: Zoe is not invited.

Terra Nova isn’t anywhere on Earth—or at least not in Earth’s present day. Following the discovery of a fracture in the time-space continuum (no Doctor Who or Torchwood jokes here, folks) and a portal within it that transports people  backwards in time 65 million years into the past. Quite a find, giving the residents of Earth a second chance to not screw it up.

Oh yeah. Lest you think that by doing this bit of time travel you risk changing the future…er…present, a little bit of exposition explains that this isn’t just back in time, it’s an alternate “time stream” (I’m guessing a sort of parallel universe).

I won’t tell you how they accomplish it (that would be telling…), but the Shannon family makes it intact to Terra Nova with the “Tenth Pilgrimage” of settlers. The colony is an image of what 22nd Century civilization should look like: clean and green.

While the episode’s first act is intense and dark, by the time the family gets to the colony, the sun comes out and the series falls into a more standard family drama pattern, which is where, in my opinion the episode bogs down a bit as we get to know the Shannons’ rebellious teenage son Josh (Landon Liboiron), brilliant daughter Maddy (Naomi Scott), and the hopelessly adorable Zoe, who feeds a wild herbivorous (well, omnivorous) apatasaurus-like dino living just outside their backyard fence.

We meet other teens in the settlement and (the far more interesting) folks who run Terra Nova, including the leader Nathaniel Taylor (Avatar’s Stephen Lang). Taylor creeps me out; there’s obviously something slightly sinister going on in that man.

Then there are The Sixes, a hostile breakaway colony made up of people who transported through the portal with the Sixth Pilgrimage. Who are they, and what’s the source of the obvious tension between their leader Mira and Taylor?

As idyllic as it appears on the surface, Terra Nova is far from Utopia. The Shannons find this out very quickly on their first day at Terra Nova as they encounter the dangers of this brave new/old world—and I’m not only talking about the dinosaurs!

I think Terra Nova has a lot of potential. The stage is set for what could be a thought-provoking and cutting-edge science fiction series. But it also has the potential to devolve into a sappy Lost in Space set against a Jurassic Park-like backdrop. (Except it’s set in the Cretaceous period, not the Jurassic). The show’s producers, including sci-fi adventure guru Stephen Spielberg himself, need to walk a careful line, developing the drama, while making the sci-fi more than window dressing. I look forward to seeing where Terra Nova takes us.

The two-hour “Genesis” episode of Terra Nova premieres Monday, Sept. 26 8:00 p.m. ET on FOX. Starting October 3, it will lead into House, M.D. airing at 9:00 p.m. ET.

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is publisher and executive editor of Blogcritics, as well as a noted entertainment writer. Author of Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D., her primary beat is primetime television. But Barbara writes on an everything from film to politics to technology to all things pop culture and spirituality. She is a contributor to the book called Spiritual Pregnancy (Llewellyn Worldwide, January 2014) and has a story in Riverdale Ave Press' new anthology of zombie romance, Still Hungry for your Love. She is hard at work on what she hopes will be her first published novel.
  • Lea

    The background music drowns out the dialog! You’ve got to let us hear what they are saying or the show is worthless.

  • Scott

    I had to stop watching about 15 minutes into the second hour of the pilot – too many commercials. I realize that this is an expensive show, but seriously? 1 minute 10 seconds of show and 1 minute 30 seconds of commercials?! I’ll wait for a DVD box set to come out.

  • Jane E

    I was not overly impressed by the premiere. But, I will give it another try. I can see the potential in the show.

  • ej

    PVR it and it’s awesome.