The much-delayed Terra Nova is here in all its time-traveling, dino-chomping Lost Jurassic Avatar glory. After two years, $10-20 million, and approximately 1,789 writers, Fox and Steven Spielberg’s vision of a family adventure show set in the prehistoric past has aired at last. Terra Nova is arguably the biggest wild card of the fall, an expensive sci-fi stew that must go big in the ratings to survive extinction. Whether it succeeds or not, this is easily the most ambitious TV pilot since Lost, if not ever.
And here’s what happened: We open with a shot of the moon. It looks downright homey compared to a spectacularly dry and polluted planet Earth, which appears as if El Paso, Texas, sprawled out to cover the whole planet. We’re told “man’s only hope for mankind lies 85 million years in the past,” and find our hero, Jim Shannon, wearing a rebreather mask because the air is just that bad.
The Shannon Family lives in one of those bleak metallic housing units that we often see in futuristic movies but they never come to pass because, after all, it’s really not expensive to toss on a cheery coat of paint to spruce things up. Inside Jim presents his son Josh with a single orange, which is regarded like a holy relic. You can only imagine what kind of response dad bringing home a pizza would get.
This family moment is interrupted by a harsh knock on the door. We’re told some thugs from “Population Control” are outside. They stash their third and youngest child Zoe in the air duct for safe keeping. “There must be some mistake, I’m a cop too,” Jim tells the Planned Parenthood Brute Squad, tossing off some exposition about himself all casual.
The PC police search the room and Zoe just couldn’t stay quiet and they discover her. At this, Jim freaks out and strikes the officer. The cops Taser him into submission. Points for a rare example of accurate Taser effect — unlike in many movies and TV shows, electric stun guns do not render the victim unconscious, but do tend to make the person involuntarily scream and collapse.
Two years later: Jim is in prison. His wife, surgeon Elizabeth, bribes the guard for a visit and she’s horrified he’s breathing nasty unfiltered air (and you wonder: is this the first time she’s been able to visit him?). Elizabeth reveals she and the kids have a one-way ticket to this mysterious Terra Nova settlement — at least, their legal kids do. Little Zoe has to stay here and fend for herself. She pulls off the old passing-the-prisoner-a-miniature-laser-hidden-in-the-rebreather-mask trick, and unfortunately we don’t get to see Jim go on a wicked killing spree slicing through walls and guards as he escapes.
Jim sets off to meet his family and — guess what? — this is where the pilot originally started. Everything you just saw was previously off-screen back story. Producers decided we needed to get to know this family a bit before jumping into the time-traveling business and that prologue was added.
So Jim passes Blade Runner-esque future ruinous city landscape. There’s lots of hologram billboards and I kept expecting to see one of Fox promoting The X Factor. He passes an illegal family of five sitting in grimy poverty on the street with nothing but a single cracked iPad to entertain them (“Family Is Four” remind the ads). Jim finds a stashed backpack stuffed with bribe money and sneaks into the–