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'Terra Nova' recap: Pterosaur ptime

October 4, 2011 |  6:30 am

Jason O'Mara in "Terra Nova"
Why is it so hard to blend family stories with science fiction, as "Terra Nova" is trying to do?

My gut says it shouldn’t be so hard, but every time there's a new science fiction show, among the most irritating characters are the teenagers or the kids. ("Lost" sort of avoided this by making little boy Walt deeply mysterious and potentially powerful; it also ditched the character for the most part at the end of its first season.) "Terra Nova," with its stories of families starting anew in the past, definitely seems as though it should be able to tell fun stories about families that merge gracefully with fun stories about dinosaurs. Instead, the family stuff continues to be irritating. Why?

Honestly, I think the answer might be a lack of conflict. Teenage son Josh and his sister, Maddy, had a tiny, teasing fight, but there was really nothing serious to it. Jim and Elisabeth are super into each other. The kids are mostly cool with taking care of each other. I’m not saying the family members constantly need to be at each other's throats, but it would make, say, Josh’s rescue of sister Zoe at the end more moving if the characters were a little better defined than just, “Here are some kids.” The title sequence for the show portrays our little family of five at the center of this massive story, but our little family of five hasn’t really done anything to prove themselves worthy of being at the center of our little story. Again, to return to “Lost,” Jack Shepherd could be an irritating git, but at least he spent the first half-hour of the pilot running around and rescuing people. “Terra Nova,” instead, mostly spends its time telling us how we should feel about the Shannons.

It’s a pity, because in the middle of all of this is a pretty good adventure show with a time-honored theme: human beings against nature. The people who’ve colonized Terra Nova essentially have no idea what they’re in for, and when a bunch of pterosaurs (bird-like dinosaurs for those of you who don’t watch the show and have never played dinosaurs with a 5-year-old) start showing up and randomly attacking people, no one can figure out what’s going on, not even super-smart scientist/doctor guy Malcolm (who dated Elisabeth back in college and clearly got her added to the Terra Nova settlers’ list because he thought she’d come sans husband and he could move right into that spot).

I actually like this idea as the center of an episode. It makes good use of the series’ biggest selling point -- the dinosaurs -- but it doesn’t utilize the effects so heavily that it’s constantly calling attention to how fake-y they are, as last week’s episode did. The pterosaurs aren’t going to win any Emmys for visual effects, but they’re serviceable, particularly in the nighttime attack scenes, when they swoop in out of the dark. The best kinds of monsters are those we barely see, and “Terra Nova” proves this in a surprisingly chilling sequence in which Taylor asks to see an infrared image of the pterosaurs in the surrounding trees, and said infrared reveals what appears to be thousands upon thousands of the beasts -- and more coming every moment.

Plus, it's an idea that can believably make use of all of the characters. Jim gets to go hunting (in a sequence that, hilariously, the episode mostly avoids, perhaps because it would have cost too much to shoot). Elisabeth gets to synthesize a mixture using the pterosaurs’ pheromones that will lead the beasts another spot, where they can breed in peace. Taylor gets to look gruff and call the shots. And the kids get to be locked in a house and look after each other. Everybody wins!

Plus, the solution was kind of fun. The folks who’ve settled Terra Nova have no idea they’ve disrupted a pterosaur mating ground because, well, the pterosaurs only come through every nine years. When they were digging around, they found a bunch of eggshells and were pleased because this meant the ground was fertile, but they didn’t once think that, hey, maybe the big, toothy dino-birds would be wandering back through, looking for somewhere to lay eggs, because the pterosaurs pass through so rarely. Again, this is the kind of situation only this show can do, and it’s a clever enough explanation for what’s going on.

The problem, however, is that the actual execution of this plot sucks the life out of it. I praised that the story line gave Elisabeth something to do, but that mostly was reduced to her and Malcolm standing around a lab filled with virtual doo-hickeys and creating the mixture, something that was inherently non-cinematic. This led to lots of scenes in which someone would ask if the pheromones were ready to be spread yet, and she’d shake her head no. Cut to the dinosaurs attacking outside. Cut back inside. Still no.

Things were no better with the kids. At least Josh seems to have realized that Skye is a way better choice for him to date than a girl millions of years in the future who might never come back in time. (I could be projecting here; Skye’s pretty awesome.) But the scene in which he wanders the market and wants to buy a guitar was pretty dumb, and the scenes in which Maddy wonders if a big, bland boy likes her -- a big, bland boy who seems to have "handsome" as his sole character trait -- were also irritating. I don’t object to giving either of the kids a romantic story line, but when Maddy has so many other interesting character traits to play around with (namely her super smarts), going to this well right now is a little silly.

I didn’t hate this episode of “Terra Nova” --  heck, I don’t hate “Terra Nova” --  but the whole thing still feels much too safe, particularly for a show featuring man-eating dinosaurs. I’m not saying the dinos need to break down the gates and start rampaging, and I’m not saying the show needs to drastically change. But it needs to stop feeling like an investment the Fox network has poured a bunch of money into and start feeling like a story someone wants to tell us. Only then will it cease being so bland and start becoming interesting.

RELATED:

"Terra Nova" recap: Meet Jim Shannon

Television review: "Terra Nova"

Complete Show Tracker coverage of "Terra Nova"

-- Todd VanDerWerff
Twitter.com/tvoti

Photo: When Jim (Jason O'Mara) finds a strange claw on a corpse, the residents of Terra Nova realize they have a big, airborne problem on their hands. Credit: Fox

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