Darren Franich
September 27, 2011 AT 09:05 PM EDT

The Terra Nova pilot was an infamously lavish production. It was filmed in Australia. It required the kind of post-production work that cost-conscious television executives usually leave to their siblings on the Motion Picture side of Hollywood. It’s one of the most expensive series premieres in TV history — some reports indicate the budget may have reached $20 million, which is still less than Boardwalk Empire but significantly more than Lost. There were a lot of interesting things circulating through the Terra Nova premiere — check out Ken Tucker’s review and James Hibberd’s recap of the show if you don’t believe me. But in one respect, the Terra Nova pilot was a truly laughable failure. Because this is a show about dinosaurs — a show whose whole entire marketing campaign rests on the awesomeness of dinosaurs — and the dinosaurs on Terra Nova looked absolutely awful.

This is partially just a matter of money. Even though the first two hours of Terra Nova were more expensive than your average two-hour indie movie — it cost more than, say, Drive — the budget still pales in comparison to your average Hollywood blockbuster spectacular. So even if the first look at the lovable vegetarian Brachiosaurs brought back some memories of Jurassic Park, the camera simply couldn’t linger on those big dinosaurs for too long without starting to look a little bit like a bargain-bin videogame. Really, the silliness of Terra Nova‘s dinosaurs is just further proof that TV shows shouldn’t try to compete with movies for pure spectacle: The economics just don’t make sense.

But the problems go deeper, I think, than just a lack of blockbuster money. Plenty of sci-fi shows that get made on the cheap still look great, because the show’s creators use every trick in the book to make that budget stretch. Look at the Battlestar Galactica reboot, a show shot mostly on shadowy sets in Vancouver on a basic-cable budget. The makers of BSG made their show’s cheapness a virtue, creating a whole gritty handheld aesthetic that brought the space opera genre down to the gutter. (By comparison — put on your earmuffs, Terra Nova producers! — the original Battlestar Galactica was made in the ’70s for a then-unprecedented $1 million…and it looked terrible then and now.)

There’s a great history of filmmakers using budgetary limitations to their advantage. The distinctive harsh-lighting look of the film noir genre only came about because the filmmakers couldn’t afford nice sets, so they had to depend on high-contrast lighting to fill in the cracks. Terra Nova exec producer Steven Spielberg famously had to film around a non-functioning shark robot for Jaws, and the result was pure action-movie brilliance: The shark seemed much scarier precisely because you didn’t see him that often.

The makers of Terra Nova, conversely, had just enough money to not be innovative. They filmed their dinosaurs in broad daylight, in expensive tracking shots and car chases. The final shootout featured several Slashers onscreen at once. No offense to the digital artists who no doubt slaved away on the show, but Gertie the F—ing Dinosaur looked more convincing.

If Terra Nova doesn’t build a big audience this season, there will be a lot of talk about how viewers didn’t like the show because it was too complicated, because there were no stars, because the characters were wooden, or because no one wants to commit to the next Lost. But the real reason will be much simpler. Terra Nova promised us awesome dinosaurs. So far, they aren’t delivering.

For more on Terra Nova, check out the debut episode of EW’s new geek-centric series, The No Doctor Cop Lawyer Show. It cost about $20 million to film.

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

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