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'Terra Nova' recap: Finally, some action

November 8, 2011 |  6:45 am

"Terra Nova" has a halfway decent episode, and all it takes is a dinosaur siege to get there
When I said, “Why, yes, Los Angeles Times Show Tracker blog, I would enjoy covering ‘Terra Nova’ for you,” I thought I’d be getting more episodes like "Nightfall." This is not to say that "Nightfall" was a tremendous episode of television, but at least it was largely enjoyable, and it finally took advantage of the fact that the show is set in prehistoric times, rather than seeming like it could be set in just about any small town anywhere.

Let's back this up a little bit, though, and start with just why I thought this show might be a fun one to cover. See, even though I'm one of those fancy-schmancy critic types, I have my weaknesses, things that will get me to pay money or set a DVR pass every time. One of those things is human beings coming into awe-inspiring contact with dinosaurs. I can't help it; I've always had an affection for this sort of story line, and that could be because "Jurassic Park" hit me at just the right age (12) or because my best friend is a paleontologist or any number of other reasons. The point is: For me, the whole premise of this show is a plus.

Imagine my disappointment, then, when the show took every opportunity it had to run away from the fact that it was set in the Mesozoic, choosing to emphasize family drama and weird political arguments instead of dinosaurs eating people. The thing is that these sorts of things aren't even necessarily going to get in the way of action, if done right. "Battlestar Galactica" didn’t have any dinosaurs, sure, but the political arguments and family drama enhanced the spaceship battles and robot fights, rather than making us sit impatiently in our seats and wonder just when the characters were going to engage in hand-to-hand combat with one of that series' "toasters." If there was an argument to be had about issues -- torture or stealing elections or anything -- you'd better believe it would happen right when a million other things were happening.

It's that tension that "Terra Nova" has been missing. As I've complained over and over, the show is just too safe. But in this episode, the show took away the characters' safety net -- by knocking out Terra Nova's security systems with an electromagnetic pulse -- and, almost immediately, things took on a sense of urgency. I'm not going to say that all of this worked. As much as I like Maddy in her "I'm the smartest girl in town!" mode, I don't have a lot of patience for her flirtation with Mark. (Heck, at this point, I'm more invested in the Josh-and-Skye flirtation -- and I don't like that flirtation at all!) So the stuff about the two having to hang out in a tree and hope to not get eaten was a slog.

The story line with Jim and Zoe was also pretty boring. I liked the resolution -- with Zoe finding the courage she needed to unlock the door and let her dad out of the room they'd become trapped in -- but everything leading up to that, from the future Wikipedia, which was cool but really boring, dramatically speaking, to the two discussing her fear of spiders, seemed mostly pointless. To be fair, this would have been one of the more compelling plots in many other episodes, but in this one -- surprise, surprise -- there was stuff going on that I was actually interested in.

To wit: The Sixers attacking Terra Nova with a giant dinosaur? Man, that was the kind of stuff this series should be pulling out every week. I get that the effects budget doesn't allow for weekly massive dinosaur attacks, but if it seemed as though the Sixers were turning the hostile environment of the distant past against the citizens of Terra Nova -- even if that were happening in tiny ways that didn’t require special effects -- it would be much more interesting than theoretical arguments about who's close to what answers and other vague intimations.

Yes, the scene at the end in which Taylor's son -- who's on the side of the Sixers -- played around with his box and made some deliberately unclear statements about what he was up to was ridiculous. But it was a better kind of ridiculous than Maddy and Mark sitting in a tree, covered in mud, T-A-L-K-I-N-G. (Yes, they kissed. After all that talking, if he hadn't kissed her, I would have shoved him out of the tree, were I Maddy.) Also good was the fistfight to get to that box, as it finally put some genuine action up on screen, with the stakes always present and understandable.

Meanwhile, Elisabeth and Skye were trying to get a parasite out of another kid in the compound named Hunter. (He's been introduced before, I'm pretty sure, but you'd be forgiven for forgetting about him, as his personality so far is pretty much "Not Josh.") The part in which Elisabeth slowly drew the worm out of Hunter the old-fashioned way, wrapping it around a rod like she was reeling in fishing line, was nicely gross and icky, and it really underscored how these people are in an environment where their bodies aren't prepared at all to deal with the world around them. This was also a nice way to underline how the compound was utterly helpless without power. (Though I didn't quite understand just why the compound didn't have a replacement chip for the chip-maker at the ready and in an EMP-proof box of some sort. There wouldn't have been an episode without this complication, I guess.)

So, in short, "Nightfall" often rose to the level of genuinely fun, which is the first time I've been able to say that about the series. There were problems here and there, and I wish we'd gotten to spend more time with Taylor as he tried to set up a second line of defense beyond the wall to keep the dinosaurs out. But for the most part, this was an episode that highlighted everything that could be fun about this show without getting sucked down into the muck of weird family drama and boring small-town stuff. Maybe it's just my dino-love talking, but I'd like to see more like this one.

RELATED:

"Terra Nova" recap: Outward bound

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

Complete Show Tracker "Terra Nova" coverage

-- Todd VanDerWerff
Twitter.com/tvoti

Photo: Skye (Allison Miller) has to help get a parasite out of a friend in "Terra Nova." Credit: Fox

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