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'Terra Nova' recap: A Skye story

December 13, 2011 |  5:00 am

Here’s something I just realized: Why on Earth do the future folks want everybody in Terra Nova to send resources back to the future, if it’s such a grim, dystopic hellhole? Why wouldn’t the rich and famous of the year 2149 just take a trip back to the ancient past, take over Terra Nova, force the colonists to work for them, and create an idyllic paradise no one else could escape to? If we’re going to believe that there are this many evil folks who want Terra Nova for their own purposes coming from the year 2149, why do they need the portal to go both ways? Why on Earth can’t they be content with the perfect world in the past that’s already waiting for them to move into?

Now, obviously, logic has never been “Terra Nova’s” strong suit. It’s not a show that has a thrillingly developed plot, as you probably could have stuck the last two episodes — with their fairly major revelations about the series’ back story and the characters’ motivations — immediately after the pilot and not lost much of anything. But this strikes me as particularly egregious. If you’re going to set up a bunch of bad guys and then give them a grand master plan, couldn’t the plan at least make sense on some level? Or are we supposed to sit here and believe that, yep, Terra Nova is only interesting to the future folks — who might live in perfectly controlled domes or whatever but still have to gaze out upon a very, very brown future — as a place to strip mine.

Heck, I’d even think this was fine if it was set up as some sort of political commentary. But the environmentalist messages of “Terra Nova” don’t even bother to try to convert us to the idea that protecting the Earth is a good thing, and taking all of its resources is bad. The environmental stuff is something that seems backgrounded much of the time, to the show’s detriment, since what’s hurting the show is a point-of-view. I’d even be fine with Taylor picking up a shovel and saying, “The Earth is ours for the taking all over again, boys. Now, get digging!” It’s not something I’d agree with, but at least somebody would be saying something that wasn’t bland.

Bland mediocrity, of course, has bedeviled “Terra Nova” from the first, and there was no reason to suspect that this episode would solve that problem. Yet I had the weird hope that we might get some interesting TV from the impending invasion from the future, along with the reveal of Skye being a spy. And in the midst of this, there was a sense of how Skye could have been a really good character — one of the show’s best, really — if the show had just taken a little time with building her into that character, instead of abandoning her to the world’s stupidest love triangle. Here, Skye was someone who made a stupid choice from a good impulse — saving her mother — then kept paying for that stupid choice over and over and over. That’s as good a basis for a character as any, and combined with the much more action-oriented girl of the pilot, it could have made for an effective and interesting supporting role within the show. Instead, we watched her moon over Josh until it was time to reveal she was a Sixers spy.

Plus, this episode confirmed beyond the shadow of a doubt that the show is afraid to make the tough choices, when it makes any choices at all. What Skye has done could lead to the death of everybody in Terra Nova. Even though Taylor likes her and even though she had a motivation that’s readily understandable, she shouldn’t get off with a slap on the wrist. Other, better sci-fi shows would have sent her into the jungle to stew and return for her revenge (presumably in Season 2). Some sci-fi shows would have had Taylor execute her, just to show how hard it is to be the man in charge or how his need to protect Terra Nova comes with a side of ruthless. This show just had everybody smile at her a little bit. I’m sure she’ll be punished in some way, but if we’re going to get really invested in this show, we need to believe that the characters we’re following are actually in danger, and that’s something “Terra Nova” has always struggled with.

But things had to get better once Lucas popped up, right? He was the guy working on bringing the past to the future and calling in the invading force that would make his father kneel before him and beg for forgiveness, so there had to be at least a few good scenes featuring him, you’d think. Sadly, the character was kind of a bore. He got off one good moment — when he knocked out (or possibly killed) a bunch of soldiers with a wave he somehow released from the portal — but other than that, he wandered around and filled in Skye on his master plan for no discernible reason. Why was he telling her all of this? Because the show needed him to, not because it made sense for the character to do.

I have to admit that I’m vaguely interested about what will happen in next week’s two-hour finale because I think that war coming to Terra Nova could end up being a good thing for the show’s sense of dramatic momentum. Place these characters under the thumb of some ruthless oppressors, and we could start to see just what makes them tick. It will be hard to write stories about how Maddy needs to find just the right computer chip if she’s been forced into a chain gang to dig up the prehistoric soil looking for minerals, just as it will be hard for Josh to mope about his future girlfriend if he’s dodging dinos in the jungle while running missions for the resistance. But doing any of these things would force the show to leave its safe bubble and would force it to raise the stakes. Based on every episode up until the finale, that doesn’t seem like something “Terra Nova” is terribly interested in doing at all.


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Todd VanDerWerff

Photo: Jim (Jason O'Mara) confronts Skye (Allison Miller) about her spying for the Sixers. Photo credit: Fox