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'Terra Nova' recap: Slow war

October 18, 2011 |  6:52 am

In "Terra Nova," a young Sixer girl (Emelia Burns) infiltrates Terra Nova and moves in with Jim's (Jason O'Mara) family
I won't say I really liked Monday night's episode of "Terra Nova," but I didn't hate it either. The story more or less made sense. We got some background information on the war between Terra Nova and the Sixers (a war that is happening extreeeeeeeeeeemely … sloooooooooowly, from the looks of things). The dinosaur attack of the week was creatively staged. The new character introduced had just a touch of mystery to her (not bad for a little kid). And the annoying teenager story lines were kept to an absolute minimum. Really, all we had were the scene in which Maddy's new boyfriend declared himself her suitor and the grimace Josh made when he realized he'd have to hang out with those yucky girls. All in all, not the worst episode this show has ever done.

At the same time, I still wonder if things wouldn't be better off with the show just breaking everything open and letting stuff go crazy. There's was a scene Monday night in which Jim asks Mira -– who’s taken him captive -– a smart, pointed question about what she believes the real purpose of Terra Nova to be, after she's told him a lot of anti-Terra Nova propaganda. She just smirks and says, "You’ll see," when you'd think she would want to get as much doubt in his head as possible if she wants to win over a potentially important ally. Instead, she behaves like a character in a television show would in that moment, when a real person would almost certainly be giving Jim all of the bad stuff she had on Taylor.

But the show needs to save these secrets for the November sweeps -– or, worse, the season finale -– so we get another week in which someone hints that the true purpose of Terra Nova isn't as benign as everybody says it is, but there's no real evidence indicating this to be true, aside from the fact that Stephen Lang also played the bad guy in "Avatar."

ABC's remake of "V" always struck me the same way. The problem there was that the audience already knew the aliens were going to be evil, so there was no real excitement in watching them reveal themselves to be evil. I always thought that show should have started out with the human characters already declared as resistance fighters and hiding out in the wilderness, conducting occasional strikes on the alien menace. Instead, we ended up with something very like a standard cop drama, just with alien invaders as the bad guys. Where a military drama like "Combat!" was called for, the show gave us yet another police procedural.

A similar dynamic is at work here. What we need is a survival show, a show in which the characters are constantly beset on all sides and in which the questions of who's good and who's bad are very much in doubt. Instead, we have something like a small-town show, set in the ancient past. In this episode, there's an attempt to introduce some ambiguity about Mira and Taylor, but they behave essentially like a bad guy and a good guy, respectively. Part of this just might be the actors. When Michael Emerson as Ben Linus told someone "We’re the good guys" on "Lost," even if everything he did seemed downright evil, you found yourself convinced by his sheer conviction uttering that phrase. You knew he was the bad guy; you wanted to believe he was good. No such dichotomy exists for Christine Adams as Mira.

Or maybe Adams could show off that kind of talent if the writers would give her anything to do. Every week she's on the show, Sixers show up at Terra Nova and everybody gets excited. Then there's some, frankly, dull negotiation and the Sixers leave. At least this week, they caught Jim in one of their traps (where he dangled like bait for a hungry dinosaur that kept leaping to nibble on his head), then gave him the vague, spooky rundown of What’s Really Going On. But at the same time, we have yet to really see that Taylor does much of anything that would brand him as some sort of tyrant. I keep expecting him to be one -– again, he's played by Stephen Lang -– but he mostly seems like a kindly grandfather more than anything else, regardless of if he lasted in the jungle by himself for some huge amount of time.

I did like the story of little Leah, who infiltrates Terra Nova by suddenly appearing in the jungle on the outskirts of the settlement, apparently having walked there all by herself. She spins a story about wanting to go through the portal to see her grandmother, then gets adopted into the Shannon household for a time. When Mira shows up to reclaim her, she chooses to stay in Terra Nova, much to Mira's seeming chagrin. Leah is a spy, of course, which is something you'd think everybody would have seen coming. But whatever. I can let slide the characters trusting a little kid. She sneaks into Mira's old home, steals a strange, glowing box, and attempts to bring it back to Mira in order to free her brother. When no one will listen to her about her imprisoned brother, Jim goes after him. That's why he's captured by the Sixers, and after Mira is done saying her piece, she lets him go with Leah's brother.

On the whole, that's the clearest, most concise story "Terra Nova" has told yet, and the few side plots, like Maddy realizing she's not cut out to be a doctor, don't really get in the way. It also offers some intriguing speculation about just who might be the mole within Terra Nova (all the while setting up Malcolm as a candidate so obvious that I'd almost be surprised if the show made him the bad guy). As a way to flesh out the series' world, it's not bad, and I finally feel like I know a bit more about the Sixers. What's most preposterous about this, of course, is that even as we've learned something about the Sixers, we know basically nothing about what makes Terra Nova tick. For every piece of information we gain, we realize just how little we knew about anything to begin with.

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"Terra Nova" recap: Safety is boring

"Terra Nova" recap: Pterosaur ptime

Complete Show Tracker "Terra Nova" coverage

-- Todd VanDerWerff
Twitter.com/tvoti

Photo: A young Sixer girl (Emelia Burns) infiltrates Terra Nova and moves in with Jim's (Jason O'Mara) family. Credit: Fox

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