Terra Nova: Is This Retreat Into Prehistory The Future Of SciFi Telly?

It’s long past time for a new high-quality sci-fi drama. But is this time travelling caper worth your time? Michael Moran investigates…

A lot of people are saying a lot of nice things about Terra Nova, Sky 1’s shiny new high-concept sci-fi show. We didn’t, but now it’s running and picking up favourable reviews it was only fair to take another look.

It certainly comes with some big names attached. Steven Spielberg continues his association with TV sci-fi as executive producer. He’s joined by Brannon Braga, who was a key player in the Star Trek franchise and was also responsible to the intriguing if ultimately flawed Flash Forward.

There are some familiar faces among the cast too. Irish actor Jason O’Mara gets another chance to try that American accent he developed for the US version of Life On Mars and fans of the BBCs soapy empowerment behemoth Mistresses will be pleased to see Shelley Conn on board as his wife.

Oh, and the shouty guy from Avatar is in it too.

But what’s it about? I hear all of those UK Bleeders who haven’t been suckered into Mr.Murdoch’s orbital television network asking.

Well. Imagine a mashup of vintage 2000AD strip Flesh mixed up with Julian May’s Golden Torc novels and a sprinkling of Swiss Family Robinson. Oh, and there’s some Jurassic Park and Land Of The Lost in there too, just for larks.

Essentially, the premise is this: Al Gore was right. You know how our ecosystem is on the brink of collapse? Well it’s even more on the brink of collapse in 2149.

Normally, in sci-fi films, everything’s tinted blue to remind us how cold and futuristic the future is. Well not this future. This future’s sort of browny grey. Like those nice chinos your Dad saves for barbecues. Your Dad might not know this but those chinos are the browny grey of eco-catastrophe.

It’s not all about the colour grading though. There are also futuristic rules about how many kids you can have and of course everyone wears a cycle mask.

Apart from that, the future looks pretty much how the Earth will look next week.

Jason O’Mara plays Jim Shannon, a cop with a toddler-shaped secret. There are some early shenanigans that land Jim in future-jail. Future-jail looks a bit like the pre-revolutionary Bastille only with Perspex doors.

But where, those Murdoch-free Bleeders I mentioned earlier will be asking, do the DINOSAURS come in?

Don’t you worry.

The best TV series adopt a decompressed, novelistic approach to storytelling that allows a subtlety of plot and character that films can never match. That’s why people are always going on about The Wire and The Sopranos and, at least for the first couple of series, Battlestar Galactica.

The more impatient scriptwriters don’t bother with all that though. They take their cues from the aspartame-fuelled story arcs of video games. People don’t do things because it’s believable; they do things because it gets you from here (queuing up to walk through a mysterious spacetime anomaly) to there (emptying an assault rifle into a CGI Tyrannosaur).

I’m not going to tell you whether Terra Nova is a sci-fi equivalent to The Killing or a televisual take on Half Life 2. Not because I’m trying to avoid spoilers. I just want you to blunder into Terra Nova with no training or preparation. Just like the characters in the show.

Because that’s what happens.  Remember Stargate? Remember the way people would gaily waltz through alien-tech gateways into who-knows where because that’s what drove the plot? Well that’s what happens here. Of course 4 episodes of training would be a bit dull even for me but the absence of any set-up is just the hook for several great lumpy monologues of exposition about time travel, the climactic conditions in the Cretaceous and exactly how the show’s scriptwriters have avoided that A Sound Of Thunder causality trap.

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There’s plenty of scope for future episodes. The settlers seem to have an incredible amount of leisure time for a small agrarian society who have left behind almost all of their high-tech lives apart from cutting edge medical imagers and state-of-the-art weapons systems. And sweet Mad Max cars. And other stuff.

There is a rival group of settlers who seem not to have noticed that there’s an entire empty planet to live in and instead glower resentfully at ‘our’ group from a camp just down the road. There are some teenagers who have even more leisure time than anyone else and use as much of it as possible getting into preposterous scrapes.

And of course there are those dinosaurs, not entirely photorealistic but certainly convincing enough for anyone who has Sky-plussed the show and is watching it late at night with a glass of wine in one hand and a Twittering iPad in the other.

Terra Nova is entertaining. It’s not the worst use of an hour of your life. But it’s daft beyond all practical measure. It’s not Battlestar Galactica. It’s not even Space Above And Beyond. That Firefly-shaped vacancy for an intelligent, fun sci-fi show that doesn’t patronise its audience remains open.

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