x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

On shaky ground

Terra Nova, the latest television blockbuster form Steven Spielberg, could soon be extinct.

Stephen Lang in Terra Nova, Steven Spielberg's latest television blockbuster.
Stephen Lang in Terra Nova, Steven Spielberg's latest television blockbuster.

Bitterness doesn't begin to describe the disappointment rippling through the time portal over the perceived shortcomings of Terra Nova, Steven Spielberg's television hybrid that blends elements of Jurassic Park, Avatar and Lost as a colony of humans try to save our species by fleeing 85 million years into the Earth's past.

"Wow what a waste of time," one wilting viewer posts on The Hollywood Reporter website.

Another disappointed viewer adds: "This series lost me when they once again, in Avatar fashion, put open cupolas in armoured vehicles so that the person manning the gun can be easily plucked out by the dinosaurs."

Logic seems sorely lacking in this sci-fi TV blockbuster, where colonists leave a crowded, polluted dying Earth in 2149 only to tool around in glorified Jeeps among towering carnivores who bite off their heads for snacks.

These colonists are hardly Luddites; they have futuristic gene-splicing science, holographic computer screens and time-travel savvy. So why has it never occurred to anybody here that flying may be a safer mode of travel? Nope. Nobody flies in Terra Nova.

And at an estimated US$4 million (Dh14.69m) per episode for this Fox network series, Spielberg and his team of executive producers could soon find themselves eaten alive, too, if this big-lizard-show bombs.

Fans who hungered for sci-fi with gravitas and dark struggle to build a new world wound up with what The New York Times television critic Mike Hale calls one of the "squarest, most old-fashioned series to hit television" that's "so predictable that you might want to fast-forward through the domestic-drama scenes set inside the hilariously clean and orderly colony, stopping whenever you see something that looks like action or a dinosaur".

Part of the problem may be that viewers never know what to expect. In tone, this family-friendly hour runs the gamut from The Waltons to Lost to Jurassic Park to The X-Files, with action sequences that sputter out prematurely or too-syrupy, warm, family moments.

Just as the original Star Trek used to beam down the "red shirts" as intergalactic cannon fodder to die first, the second and third episodes of Terra Nova opted for the easy cheesy hook, the horror opening, serving up no-name minor characters as hors d'oeuvres.

It would be disrespectful to say the acting is sub-par on this series; these thespians do their job admirably when one considers the hackneyed, on-the-nose dialogue and predictable, cliché-ridden scripts they struggle to raise to credibility. Stephen Lang in particular, as Commander Nathaniel Taylor, a pioneer and militaristic leader of the settlement, is a Tony-nominated actor and the former co-artistic director of New York's famed Actor's Studio. Millions around the world enjoyed his performance as the evil eco-shambler Colonel Miles Quaritch in Avatar.

And it's not Landon Liboiron's fault that his character, the dad-bashing teenage rebel Josh Shannon, is a rip-off of Tom Cruise's son in Spielberg's War of the Worlds.

Any professional screenwriter knows that a smart visual moves a story forward better than a dozen lines of expository dialogue. Showing is always superior to telling.

For example, Terra Nova is put in jeopardy when raucous migrating pterosaurs descend upon the colony, in a plot that borrows liberally from Hitchcock's classic, The Birds. Ultimately, they are spirited away by synthesised dinosaur sex hormones, or pheromones, and calm is restored.

So why does the scientist Dr Malcolm Wallace (Rod Hallett) insist on uttering aloud, "It worked!", when he sets foot outside and his head is not carried off by talons. Story-wise, this is akin to using a sledgehammer to drive home a pushpin. Viewers can easily see the "birds" have flown before he even opens his mouth.

Like a wedding, Terra Nova always insists on "something borrowed" - often several times in the same episode. In the opening minutes of the Genesis pilot, when his father Jim brings home a rare, prized piece of fruit, Josh, 17, exclaims with amazement: "Dad scored an orange!"

Sci-fi aficionados will immediately recognise this as a thematic "lift" from the movie Soylent Green (1973), set in a bleak future where fresh fruit is a rarity and Charlton Heston tells Edward G Robinson that strawberry jam fetches $150 a jar.

Another twist of citrus comes in the third episode, when Josh's sister Maddy, 16, asks her first date: "Some more key lime pie? Not that there's actually any lime in it. Limes won't evolve until millions of years later." It may be Maddy's character tag to always spew nerdy facts, but like palaeontology, her dialogue tic is getting very old.

Fox network execs have declined to give Terra Nova a full-season order and capped first-season production at 13 episodes (with a December two-hour "finale") — meaning it looks like this costly late Cretacious lemon is just about out of juice.

As a disgruntled viewer sums up on the AV Club website (www.avclub.com): "Basically, if you want a show about the building of a civilisation from the ground up in a hostile new world, just go watch Deadwood again."


Ÿ Terra Nova is broadcast on Wednesdays and Thursdays on OSN First HD, OSN First and OSN First +2