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'Terra Nova' recap: Outward bound

November 1, 2011 |  8:00 am

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If "Terra Nova" were a better show, then a moment near the end of this, its fifth episode, might have played out like the great “Pine Barrens” episode of "The Sopranos," in which one character you'd expect to be dead instead mysteriously disappears. Now, the character is almost certainly dead, but there's always that chance that he or she could come back to wreck Tony Soprano's life at the least-opportune moment.

When Taylor and Jim send the man who killed the unfortunate Foster (with a dinosaur!) off into the jungle at the end of this episode, it should have had the potential to upend everything. What if he stayed out there and somehow survived, growing stronger and stronger, then returned exactly when Terra Nova was least prepared to deal with a super-strong survival expert strolling in out of the woods? Or what if he joined up with Mira and the Sixers? Sure, he's probably dinosaur chow, but this episode should have left the possibility that he survived hanging over the rest of the series.

And, yes, it's still there, but I don't find myself really caring. That's the problem with "Terra Nova" in a nutshell: The ideas are pretty good — sometimes great, even — but the execution waters them down so much that it's hard to care all that much. There are some really rock-solid thoughts in this episode. Mira getting Josh on her payroll, so to speak? That could pay off wonderfully down the line. Jim starting to see what the others mean when they talk about how Taylor's maybe not the best leader ever? That's another plot point that works well as we build the story. Elisabeth and Zoe hatching a baby ankylosaurus and deciding to keep it as their own? Well, you can't win 'em all.

But I only care about this stuff if the characters make sense. Here's a case in point: The motivation for Josh as such a pain in the butt about bringing his old girlfriend back to Terra Nova — so dedicated is he that he refuses to hook up with Skye, who's way more attractive than whoever his girlfriend might be — is because he misses her so much. But we've seen her for all of five seconds, so we don't terribly understand just what's up with his insistence that she return. We get a few nods toward how bad the future is in this episode, since apparently three of Josh's friends committed suicide (in a moment that's meant to be dramatic but, instead, becomes incredibly goofy because of how the actor plays it). But that still doesn't make up for the fact that Josh is apparently willing to betray his father and everything else just to bring back his lady love. Because we don't know Kara, even through Josh, really, it's hard to get invested.

There's a way to make all of this work. If Josh is still mad at his dad for all of the stuff his family had to go through, as he was in the pilot, at least that's a somewhat believable motivation. Teenage angst is rarely fun to see portrayed on screen, but at least we'd be building from something other than, "You just can't know what the future is like, and I'm having trouble describing my girlfriend to you, Skye, because your eyes are so dreamy," which is what we've gotten so far. In general, "Terra Nova" suffers from a lack of danger and stakes, and the relationships are just another aspect in which this is apparent. (Show of hands: Who thinks Malcolm actually represents a credible threat to the Shannon marriage? No one? Then why does the show keep trying to paint him as such?)

Or here's another moment: The man initially accused of the murder-by-dinosaur — a lottery winner whose wife married him only to travel back in time to Terra Nova, who cheated on her husband with the murder victim — strides off into the jungle, ready to start his life post-banishment. Jim swoops in to have a talk with him. There's no real sense that either man is in danger — from dinosaurs or Sixers or anything. They could just as well be two men stopping for a Sunday afternoon chat in Griffith Park, for all the show seems to care about any of this.

And yet there are things in "Terra Nova" that would keep me coming back, even if I weren't your humble recapper. In particular, I thought the latest episode's scene featuring the banishment might have been the best scene the show has done to this point. It's always an interesting question about how a growing society adopts laws to govern itself and figures out ways to enforce those laws, even if it doesn't have many effective punishments other than death. After all, it's hard to imagine the colony building a good maximum security prison. So the punishment for killing a man is banishment into the prehistoric wild, and when Taylor carries the sentence out, there's the proper sense of how this is a terrible thing, but he's the leader, and he needs to punish a crime somehow. This is a scene that really does feel like it has stakes — how will this fledgling society possibly govern itself without losing its soul? — and the show is the better for it.

Of course, it's followed up by the guy being innocent and Shannon being able to prove it and Shannon and Taylor catching the real killer and then consigning him to his own banishment (this time with none of the sense of gravity of what just happened). Just think how much more interesting this might have been had the innocent man not been rescued in time, causing the Terra Nova public to refuse to send the real criminal off into the jungle. Just think of how much more interesting all of this would be if with at least some sense of danger.

RELATED:

"Terra Nova" recap: Slow war

Complete Show Tracker "Terra Nova" coverage

Why isn't the new fall season more family-friendly?

— Todd VanDerWerff

http://twitter.com/tvoti

Photo: Taylor (Stephen Lang, left) and Jim (Jason O'Mara) send a murderer into the jungle as punishment for his crime. Credit: Fox

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