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Terra Nova – Or How NOT To Write TV Sci-Fi

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According to the latest news Fox has cancelled the time travel series Terra Nova, and good riddance to bad rubbish, I say. I’ve been ranting about the series online out of all proportion, because the whole deal makes me angry: Terra Nova was both an incredible waste of potential and a possible kick to the nuts for big budget sci-fi series in the future.

Time travel, dinosaurs, wilderness survival and futuristic assault rifles – it’s hard to imagine anyone managing to mess up that kind of concept. Turns out it’s easy: instead of focusing on the wonder of goddamn dinosaurs and living 85 million years ago, you’ll just have to create the world’s blandest mainstream family, concentrate on vapid teenage romances, overuse schmaltzy violin scores, set the dinosaurs to play second fiddle to a yawn inducing conspiracy mystery, and oh – top it all with the worst goddamn “foreign organism attacks Enterprise and everyone loses their memories” filler episodes.

I don’t really know what was the creative process behind this show, but I’m somehow catching the whiff of a committee work where a bunch of producers were mortified that the show might just be too smart for the average viewer and too edgy for the pre-teen kids – you know, since audiences obviously can’t grasp shows like Galactica or House or what have you. So, let’s pick up the blandest possible pieces from Dawson’s Creek and Star Trek: Enterprise, coat them with a little bit of dino action and stitch up a Frankenstein monster made out of money. What could possibly go wrong?

Okay, it’s easy to bitch, but how about some constructive criticism? What would I have liked to see done differently?

1) Rework the whole main family: First of all, they were a bit of selfish dicks, weren’t they? Overpopulation is a problem, so what they do is to get an extra kid, a burden for everybody, and we’re supposed to feel sympathy for that? Also, the “smart nerd kid, the rebellious kid and the kid-kid” thing was just embarrassing. That string of tropes must’ve looked corny and dated for seven year olds.

2) If you want to do teen romance, do it well or not at all: Not even teens want to watch teen romance (or angsty teenagers!) in their sci-fi show unless it’s done really well – otherwise it’s just squirmworthy and embarrassing. In Terra Nova there was zero amount of chemistry, zero amount of wit (scriptwise) and zero amount of interest in the hormone fueled antics of the kids.

3) Build the society and the environment: The base felt like some corny live-action version of the Flintstones. Modern conveniences all around, except half of the stuff was made from bamboo. Instead of a tough struggle to survive in the primordial world, the base came across as some kind of weird live-in tiki-bar without any kind of coherent social structure, lorded over by one awesome guy with a gun.

4) Make the dinosaurs believable: I don’t mean making them look any better on the screen, I’m sure that the CGI budget was creaking at the seams even with this level of modeling. What I mean is that on the level of writing and direction every effort was made to make the dinosaurs appear as artificial as possible: for example the guns didn’t seem to have any effect on them, except when the plot said they would. Some internal cohesion and “realism” wouldn’t have hurt here.

5) Make the environment feel dangerous: There was zero feeling of danger or roughing it out. Dinos were a nuisance, who walked lazily away after you shot at them ineffectually with your guns for a while. The whole place felt like a holiday resort that would’ve been interchangeable with any wilderness location in the modern times.

6) Ditch the crap filler scifi and the conspiracy stuff: Guys, gals, really – you have the prehistoric world with its creatures, plants, climate and everything to play with, and the thing that you come up with is a micro-organism that makes people lose their memory (who let Braga near a word processor?) and some bad guys from the Mad Max school of accessorizing who attack on rovers to take away our precious resources. Okay, the idea of the pilgrimages and one of them being a bit weird was good, but the execution… Really? If that fruit had been hanging any lower, you would have needed shovels.

7) …on a second thought, fire all the writers: As a friend so well put it: “Terra Nova is taking the time travel theme very seriously – it really feels like I’m watching a series that was written in the early 90′s”. Themes aside, the dialogue was about as subtle and sharp as half a brick in a sock.

To summarize: sci-fi series producers need to seriously stop underestimating the viewers, and that goes double for the movies. Inception was deemed too complicated for the average motherfucker to understand, but see what happened at the box office. I can see the rationale in making a show about dinosaurs kid-friendly, but kid-friendly does not equal dumb. 10-15 year old kids can read and watch pretty damn complicated stuff and understand it well enough – as a matter of fact, they are still probably better at following complex plotlines than adults. I had no problems reading Heinlein, Asimov or Neuromancer at that age, and even Harry Potter books aren’t that straightforward or dumbed down. And really, by adding clumsy, mushy and cutesy family moments that have the feel of shitty 80′s films you are not attracting female viewers: you are just making the series suck for everybody.

I would’ve loved a gritty survival story or a flashy pulp sci-fi adventure, but Terra Nova delivered neither of those. I live on stories, and crappy storytelling and a waste of potential like this just annoys me. Dinosaurs, exploring a wild new world, and assault weapons, goddamnit! Hopefully the financial side of the TV business will get what went wrong with Terra Nova and learn from it, instead of writing off big production value sci-fi series as a failed proposition for the next few quarters.

3 Comments

  1. “And really, by adding clumsy, mushy and cutesy family moments that feel like they’re ripped out of some shitty 80′s films, you are not attracting female viewers, you are just making the series suck for everybody.”

    Frankly I’m -hoping- those were intended to attract the mainstream audience, not women — because if you *do* intend to attract women, a good idea is not to insult them right off the bat by assuming they’re incapable of caring about anything that doesn’t have family value mush stuffed into random orifices.

    People of both sexes rave over West Wing because it was witty and politically savvy, over House because it’s insightful in regards to the human psyche, and Galactica because it had the audacity to be all of those things AND be scifi at the same time. All three series have a significant female fandom. How? Gee, maybe because they trust women to like cool stuff, rather than trying to woo us with Offerings To The Mysterious Ovary.

    But hey, not to worry! http://www.mtv3.fi/terranova/

  2. I believe a lot of the issues in the show were born from it being ‘scifi for the Mid-West’. All those family values, all those Wonderful tropes you remember from such rollercoaster rides as Life Goes On and Doogie Howser MD, and most importantly, the quest for Freedumb.

    I went uh-oh right off the bat, when they revealed the family having an extra kid that the Evil Tyrannical Black Helicopters Gubberment didn’t want them to have because gubberment is evil and lives to interfere in people’s lives.

    Okay so the state in the series was obviously almost as bad as modern day Britain, but that too was an obvious, calculated decision to appeal to the Teaparty-family that gathers around the tube every night to watch some good old family entertainment between serious programs like Glenn Beck.

    In a sense, you could consider Terrible Nova to be the other side of the coin for Homeland. I know that’s a stretch, sure, but both of these shows are products of the Post-911 mentality in America. Whereas Homeland was an intelligent drama that examined a wide range of motivations and factors, Terra Nova took all the crass, entitled and dumbed down parts of the American dream and made a mediocre 80′s adventure show out of them.

    Still, I remain of the mind that if you took the first episode, bits from a couple of others in the middle, and the season finale, you could edit a perfectly decent movie out of them.

  3. I absolutely believe that, JD – the bit about scifi for the Midwest Republicans. Dumb ones, given that Galactica had fans across party lines.

    I kept expecting them to reveal how the third kid had been saved from a vivisection lab or was a stolen AI project or something similar that replaced the gross ego of defying overpopulation with a moral imperative to protect the innocent (rather than the moral imperative to not use or understand contraception). I guess they never did.

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