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'Terra Nova' recap: Hiding the shark

November 29, 2011 |  4:30 am

Back in the mid-70s, when Steven Spielberg, one of the producers behind “Terra Nova” (though I highly doubt he’s all that hands-on), was making “Jaws,” he hit a bit of a snag. The production was already falling behind schedule and heading over-budget when everybody involved realized the mechanical shark they were intending to use for the, well, shark scenes didn’t work nearly as well as they had hoped it might. The director was left with an impossible scenario: He had to make a monster movie with no monster, a story where the boogey man that jumps out of the dark shadows would periodically keel over and just fizzle out. It’d be like if Dracula stopped pursuing the buxom young maiden because he was having heart problems.

Spielberg’s solution was ingenious—and has become rightly famous in the world of film buffs. He decided to shoot around the shark. Since the majority of the story took place in the middle of the ocean, he could suggest the shark’s presence via well-placed fins or barrels that floated along the surface of the water. These solutions would be much cheaper than just waiting for the mechanical shark to work, and it would save their shark time for the movie’s bloody finale, when they’d really need to see its toothy face. Spielberg’s solution had the added benefit of making the movie scarier. It’s an old trope in horror fiction that what you can’t see is always scarier than what you can, and the more the author or director can suggest the monsters just off to the side, the more the human imagination can run wild.

I say all of this because last night’s “Terra Nova” had every opportunity to be the network TV version of “Jaws,” where two people who don’t make natural allies are forced to band together to fight back against a devastating natural predator that’s much, much larger than them and ready to slash them to bits at a moment’s notice. Taylor and Mira found themselves out in the middle of nowhere with two territorial Slashers hot on their trail, and they soon found themselves without weapons as well. Their escape involved constructing crude weapons out of tree branches, figuring out a way to light the most effective fire, and lots and lots of running. These action sequences were almost always involving and entertaining—in a way “Terra Nova” rarely is—and it reminded me of the show I talked about last week, the one about Taylor, the compromised good guy who’s not afraid to do seriously dark things to keep his colony on the up and up.

Sadly, the vast majority of last night's screentime was given over to Jim’s hunt for the Sixer spy, along with the character my friend Rowan Kaiser has dubbed “Hunky-Lunky Soldier Love Interest Guy.” His actual name is Reynolds, but that’s difficult to remember, simply because his sole role within the story is to stand there and moon over Maddy. He adds nothing to the show, and last night's weird plot where he declared his intentions to marry Maddy (a 16-year-old!) a few years from now was just odd. What, exactly, did the show think it was getting out of this? Something that would set the teenage girl audience’s hearts a pitter-pattering? Are there teenage girls who watch this show of their own volition? Somehow, I doubt it’s that popular with that particular demographic.

Now, part of this is just budgetary. It’s a lot easier to hide a shark—which can disappear beneath the waves—than it is to hide a big dinosaur that lunges out of the trees. Thus, Taylor and Mira didn’t end up on the run from the Slashers until roughly the halfway point of the episode. (Fox, perhaps realizing that this plot was more interesting than anything back at the compound, heavily promoted this storyline all week.) Before that, there was some rather boring business about Mira taking Taylor captive and Taylor turning the tables on her to take her captive and so on and so forth. Once the dinosaurs showed up, though, the episode perked up considerably.

As mentioned, though, there wasn’t really much of a way to disguise the fact that, well, showing the dinosaurs is expensive, and it’s more expensive than even the most generous TV budgets will allow. At the same time, though, once Taylor and Mira were working toward a shared goal, the story automatically became better, giving their infodumps a layer of tension. (Another lesson from the movies: In James Cameron’s script for the movie “The Terminator,” every time someone delivers exposition, they’re hunkered down, hiding from the bad guys who could break in at any moment. It automatically adds tension to scenes that tend toward the boring.) Mira’s story of how she was doing all of this to save her sick little girl led to her and Taylor bonding on some level (since he’s also dealing with a child he can’t really see), and sure, the stuff about the two realizing they have more in common than they don’t have in common was predictable, but it worked all the same. There’s something about being alone in the dark with carnivores just waiting to swallow you whole that adds something to a conversation scene.

Unfortunately, as mentioned, we spent most of our time hanging out back at Terra Nova, where we learned that the Sixer spy was… Skye! I’ll confess to being a bit surprised by this reveal, but that was mostly because I had, uh, forgotten Skye was on the show, for the most part, as she hasn’t had a lot to do and hasn’t been the most compelling character in the first place. We learned that Skye’s doing this for her mother—who’s not dead but merely sick and in the care of the Sixers, who have the drugs to keep her alive. We also learned that Jim is ever closer to figuring out whose side Skye’s really on, as he’s got the search narrowed down to the 47 women with access to the medical facility. That’d all be fine and dandy if I gave even the slightest care about Skye, but, as mentioned, she’s been gone these last several weeks, and she wasn’t all that great of a character before that. It’s nice to know who the spy is, but I’d much rather be off in the jungle, hiding from hungry predators.


'Terra Nova' recap: The Taylor files

'Terra Nova' recap: Dinosaur rasslin'

Complete Show Tracker 'Terra Nova' coverage

Todd VanDerWerff

Photo: Mira (Christine Adams) and Taylor (Stephen Lang) take a leap off a waterfall to avoid two angry Slashers. Photo credit: Fox