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'Terra Nova' recap: Safety is boring

October 11, 2011 |  6:30 am

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Let’s continue our symposium on why “Terra Nova” isn’t quite working as well as it might, shall we?

This week, I want to focus on even though these people have been flung back into the middle of the Mesozoic, there’s no real danger to them when they’re in Terra Nova. We got the thing last week about the pterosaurs, which was dangerous enough, I guess, but once you’ve played the flying dinosaurs card, you don’t really have a lot of other cards left to play. This means that the real danger always lurks outside the compound, and while it was cool to see the scientist get gobbled up by a giant Tyrannosaurus-looking thing in the teaser, it’s not immediately clear the show has the effects budget to do that from week to week.

This means that every episode inevitably devolves into Josh or Maddy being mopey about their love lives, while Jim and Elisabeth deal with some mundane workplace problem, while all the while, dinosaurs are outside in the big, scary jungle. Sure, we’ve got hints of stuff that could happen, but this early in the show’s run, the series seems reluctant to blow up any of its plot bombs, like pushing the Sixers and Terra Nova to war or anything like that. This means that the episodes glide along pleasantly enough, hoping to create intimate character drama.

This is all well and good if you have good enough characters, but this show just doesn’t. So this means we essentially have a fairly staid smalltown drama that doesn’t make use of its one interesting element: the new setting. It’s like if “Lost” had spent all of its first 13 episodes with everybody constantly staying inside of the crashed plane because they knew the polar bears couldn’t get them there. That show, whatever its faults, immediately understood that building a new society and coming up with ways to survive were more interesting than storylines about teenagers falling in love. And it was always happy to mix those storylines up with a real sense of weirdness, something that “Terra Nova” has yet to manage.

But it’s another show entirely that Monday night’s episode made me think of. In its first season, “The X-Files” did its homage to the classic novella and movie “The Thing From Another World” (remade by John Carpenter in 1982 as “The Thing,” one of my favorite horror films). In the episode, Mulder and Scully were sequestered from the world at a North Pole research station, where someone had unearthed an alien worm that make people turn incredibly violent. Problem was that no one could figure out who had the worm and who didn’t, and the only thing that could cure the worm was … another worm. There was but one sample left, and as the hours ticked down and the blizzard outside kept everyone locked inside the compound, the tension built between the central duo. Had one of them been infected? Or was it someone else in the little building?

It was a great example of a “bottle episode” — an episode of television designed to keep things mostly to a small number of sets to save money — but it was also a great example of how that show, still in the first half of its first season, was developing its two main characters by constantly setting them into conflict with each other. You didn’t know if Scully and Mulder would protect each other in the episode because you didn’t know if they would do so in general. “Terra Nova’s” attempts to do something with this basic idea fall flat because we have no real fear that Jim and Elisabeth Shannon won’t be super in love by the end of the episode. In fact, we know they will, so there’s no real danger that she’ll permanently lose her memory of their marriage and run off with Malcolm. There just isn’t, and that irreparably harms an hour that’s meant to focus on the characters alone.

To tell the truth, we also don’t know Jim and Elisabeth terribly well. If we had a sense that their marriage was troubled or if we had a sense of who they were before coming to Terra Nova (or before having kids or … or …), then we might get invested in a climax that has Jim have to save his wife — who still believes she’s in her 20s and attending university — by giving her a kiss that will also pass along a cold. This could be a sweet moment, but with people we don’t care about, it just sits there, waiting for us to read meaning into it that’s not there.

There’s something interesting about the idea of a virus that takes away a decade or two of your memory, and it certainly reveals plenty about these characters and the world they come from — there was some sort of war in Somalia that Taylor was involved in, for instance — but the actual execution, again, is just a bunch of stuff that happens, followed by a strained climax. There are interesting ideas galore in every episode, but the ideas don’t hook in to the characters, and that leaves the whole thing feeling flat. Where “Ice” revealed fundamental things about Mulder and Scully by putting them in danger, this episode just turned into a way for “Terra Nova” to give us more exposition.

But maybe that’s the point, and maybe that gets back to why putting everyone in a safe compound was such a bad idea: Characters are best revealed through conflict, through seeing who they are when the chips are down. That can be conflict with another person, or it can be conflict within oneself, or it can be conflict with a dinosaur. But what isn’t going to tell us anything about the Shannons is watching Josh sit in a hammock and smile to himself before Skye comes over to share a kiss with him before he says that he’d really rather be with the future girlfriend we don’t even know. Take that whole scenario, remove it from the compound, and put it in the jungle, on the run from a hungry carnivore, and you’ve got a rough idea of how to make that better. By making sure everybody’s safe and everything’s secure, “Terra Nova” has made everything that much more boring too.

Related:

'Terra Nova' recap: Pterosaur ptime

'Terra Nova' recap: Meet Jim Shannon

Complete Show Tracker 'Terra Nova' coverage

— Todd VanDerWerff
http://twitter.com/tvoti

Photo: A hungry carnosaur finds a scientist to munch on. Photo credit: Fox.

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