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'Terra Nova' recap: Meet Jim Shannon

September 27, 2011 |  6:30 am

There are a lot of things you can call the two-hour premiere of “Terra Nova,” but one of them isn’t “dull.” It has its problems, sure, but it moves like a rocket, and there’s always something happening or someone about to be munched upon by a dinosaur. There’s lots of fun stuff going on, and the dinosaur effects are good, so it’s easy to give a pass to some of the clumsier elements, even if they rankle just a bit. But before we dive too far into what the series is, let’s take a look at its characters, as established in the pilot.

The Shannon family: As shown in the too-long first section (the one set in the future), the Shannons are a happy nuclear family having to constantly find ways to hide the fact that they’ve had a third child — youngest daughter Zoe. In the future — a dystopia that’s suffered from environmental collapse — having anything more than two kids is strictly forbidden. This means that when Zoe’s discovered, Papa Shannon, Jim, reacts the way any protective dad would — he slugs the police officer standing nearest him in the face. Jim, an officer himself, is tossed in jail for what he’s done, but he somehow manages to escape jail to join his family on the time-travel ride back to Terra Nova. (One of the things I’m most curious about is just what happens if a family has more than two kids. The officers discover Zoe, but they don’t really do anything about it, and it sounds like the punishment for this crime is merely a hefty fine. There’s an interesting series here about the people who can afford to pay the kid fine and those who can’t, but I digress.)

Back in Terra Nova, the family’s many underlying conflicts come to the surface. Josh is still angry at his dad for wandering back into the Shannons’ lives right as they got a new start in the Mesozoic, and he’s not shy about expressing this. Zoe’s grown up without her father. Jim’s arrival has seriously screwed things up for everybody else, but now that he’s back in time, he can’t be sent back to the future (ha ha), which means he’s got to be put to work chopping prehistoric vines. Mother Elizabeth, also an awesome doctor, mostly seems to ride all of this out, smiling beatifically. Teenage daughter Maddy spends all of her time, uh, reciting random facts and figures so we know she’s smart.

If there’s a Shannon who’s getting on my nerves, it’s Josh, who seems to exist solely to get in trouble and follow the pretty girl Skye out of the protected compound and into territory where he could easily become dinosaur chow. He’s just there to give the story somewhere to go and to put Jim in situations where he has to save his son. And, granted, the scene where Josh, Skye, and others are trapped in a vehicle with “slashers” (this show’s version of velociraptors, I guess) closing in around them from every angle is probably the most exciting in the pilot. But I still have no real love for a character who’s just around to nearly get eaten and realize just how much his dad loves him. So let’s hope this doesn’t repeat itself week after week.

Nathaniel Taylor: Sure, Stephen Lang is just playing the same character he played in "Avatar" in this role, but, man, is he good at that role! Taylor’s a bit of a mystery man, running Terra Nova like something of a folksy dictator. My favorite indication about him is that when he first came to Terra Nova, he had to spend a significant amount of time in the prehistoric era all by himself, wandering the jungle and dodging dinosaur attacks. This immediately gives us a sense of how hard-core this guy is. I’m also intrigued by the relationship between him and Skye, who seems ferociously independent but also seems to turn to Taylor to validate her at the end of the episode. Of all of the characters, I’m most interested in just what’s up with this guy.

Mira: One of the nice things about this pilot is that it goes out of its way to get the mysterious Sixers introduced to us right away. A bunch of mutinous settlers in the past, the Sixers are so named because they all came through on the Sixth Pilgrimage to Terra Nova. There’s a bunch of hoo-hah about how they know something that the other residents of Terra Nova don’t, and I’m sure we’re going to learn about all of the big secrets they’re keeping. But for the most part, I was cool with how the episode introduced them as a tense other element of the past, something that no one in the future knows about because Taylor’s convinced someone from the future sent them to undermine his authority. The show doesn’t go out of its way to make the Sixers super mysterious, like “Lost’s” Others, and that means that we get a good, long look at the woman purported to be their leader (or at least the woman who’s their public face), Mira. She’s still fairly mysterious, but it’s nice to have our Ben Linus figure out there for all to see straight off.

Of course, there’s plenty of other stuff going on here, but it sure seems like the show is going to hinge on whether the Shannons ultimately side with Taylor or with Mira. For now, Taylor looks like their guy, but who’s to say they won’t learn something awful about him and start to consider the other point of view? And what’s up with all of those weird symbols etched into the rock by the waterfall? What’s best about “Terra Nova” is that it asks these questions, sure, but it’s also content to just hang out and let us watch this family acclimate to its strange new surroundings. As long as the focus stays on the characters then we might have the makings of another good science-fiction show. And, hey, even if it doesn’t, there will be dinosaurs. Not like “CSI: NY” can say that.


Television review: 'Terra Nova'

Fall TV: Fox's 'Terra Nova' has an expensive secret

Complete Show Tracker 'Terra Nova' coverage

— Todd VanDerWerff

Photo: The Shannons, including daughter Zoe (Alana Mansour, left), mother Elizabeth (Shelley Conn), and father Jim (Jason O'Mara), take in their new prehistoric home, Terra Nova. Photo credit: Fox.