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'Terra Nova' recap: The Taylor files

November 22, 2011 |  7:30 am

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“Terra Nova,” along with everything else, is about the wrong people.

The most consistently interesting character on the show has always been Commander Nathaniel Taylor, and now, with this episode, Taylor turns into the kind of character that could be the center of an interesting sci-fi show. There’s no guarantee that show would be good, mind, but he’s at least driven by motivations that are clear and well-handled, and there are hints that he could become a power-mad tyrant or what have you. I’m not trying to suggest Taylor is the best character on TV or anything, but he’s by far the best character on this show, and he’s throwing the failings of the boring, lackluster Shannons into sharper relief, pretty much just by existing.

Think about Taylor as we understand him by the end of this hour, assuming he’s telling the truth about what transpired in the jungle five years ago (and I suppose that’s the sort of thing that could very easily be cast into doubt later on). He’s your standard-issue science fiction military man, yes, in that he’s gung-ho and macho and able to take on monsters in hand-to-hand combat. But he’s also a crazy Utopian environmentalist who’s determined that Terra Nova won’t become someplace for the future to strip mine for resources. He’s intent on keeping it sustainable and Earth-friendly, a real second chance for humanity. The people he’s in conflict with don’t terribly care about making the colony a second chance for the human race; instead, they look at it and see dollar signs.

And Taylor’s such a crazy Utopian about Terra Nova that he’s willing to do just about anything to protect his vision, including permanently breaking with his son and killing his commanding officer when said officer arrives from the future to relieve him of duty and begin the resource-gobbling. Taylor’s both the most interesting and the most dangerous kind of believer, one who really thinks everything he’s bought into is true and one who doesn’t have a shred of doubt in any direction. Terra Nova is everything to the man, and he’s willing to burn the past to the ground to protect this grand experiment at saving the human race.

Even better, assuming Taylor’s telling the truth, then we can assume that Mira’s motivations — which have been far too secretive all along — are roughly opposite, in that she’s working for those who would turn the Mesozoic into a raw production center in order to fill humanity’s vast future appetites. And this makes Taylor’s son, Lucas’, efforts to contact the future and open up a two-way portal between the past and future that much more potentially nefarious. Sometimes, simply explaining the back-story on a show like this can open up a bunch of other story possibilities, and while the scene where Taylor told his story was too long and expository — it essentially consisted of actor Stephen Lang monologuing about what he’d done with occasionally interspersed clumsy flashbacks — it finally made Taylor more than just a maybe-he’s-benevolent-and-maybe-he’s-not authority figure.

Plus, Taylor is played by, hands down, the best actor on the show. Lang may be doing a basic riff on his “Avatar” character here, but he’s doing a really good riff and taking advantage of the extra time he has on television to color in that character’s complexity and opposing drives. Where the “Avatar” character was simply a bad guy, driven to horrifying lengths by his desires to keep the operation on Pandora running smoothly, Taylor is a man who does bad things, every so often, for complex, often “good,” reasons. Again, he’s not a perfect character, and there’s no guarantee a show built around him would succeed. But wouldn’t you rather be watching a show about a possibly insane Utopian environmentalist military man who’ll kill with impunity if it serves his ultimate goals starring Stephen Lang than what we’re watching right now?

Because the Shannons, such as they are, are just bland and boring. Jim is the good dad, the guy who’s essentially straightforward and right as rain. Elisabeth is the loving mom. Josh is a dumb teenage boy. Maddy is smart. Zoe is cute. They all have believable motivations, sure, but not a one of them is anything beyond the usual TV sci-fi archetypes, and not a one of them offers anything surprising or new. They’re meant to be our entry point into the world of Terra Nova, the family that’s just like our family and is new in town, but any potential conflict within the family has been sanded down, making them lifeless husks who wander through each hour, looking for something more interesting to do.

And that’s too bad, because “Vs.” was an episode that had a lot going for it and would have been darn good with less of a focus on Jim and Elisabeth’s crazy murder investigation (after Jim dug up the body of Taylor’s old c.o. on a tip from the bar owner). The idea that the Sixers are using a dragonfly that flies to its target because of sounds on a certain frequency to communicate with their spy is an interesting one, and the scenes where Malcolm figured out how the group navigates and controls the insect were a lot of fun, as was the reveal that he’s apparently been hiding a secret talent for insect surgery all this time. The bits with Taylor, as mentioned, were very well-acted and finally gave us a character with more going on in his head than simple-minded pursuits, even if that ending with the fireworks went a little too far over into making the guy out to be a friendly uncle who also just happens to be a murderer.

Maybe that’s the ultimate problem with “Terra Nova”: It runs away from complexity whenever it can. The show doesn’t need to have as much complexity as something like “Breaking Bad” to be good. It’s still a series about people who’ve traveled to the past to live alongside dinosaurs in order to give humanity a second chance. That premise will always be ridiculous and always offer up a chance for goofy dinosaur fun. But by breaking every character down along dull “good and evil” lines, the show flails around, looking for something for everyone to do. Taylor really does seem capable of anything in pursuit of his goals, and that makes him fascinating, simply because you can’t say that about anybody else on the show.

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Todd VanDerWerff
http://twitter.com/tvoti

Photo: Taylor (Stephen Lang, left) implicates Jim (Jason O'Mara) as the Sixer spy to get him to call off his murder investigation. Credit: Fox

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