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'Terra Nova' recap: Run, dinosaur

December 20, 2011 |  8:00 am

'Terra Nova' season finale recap: Run, dinosaur

“Terra Nova” has come to the end of its first, perhaps only, season — a season that had some pretty good ideas but never really clicked. There’s nothing wrong with that. Plenty of science fiction shows get better in their later seasons, and there were hints of a more promising direction in the season finale. Would I watch a second season of this show? There would have to be a pretty substantial overhaul of the production team, but … I suppose I could be tempted by the premise that’s laid out in the closing moments here, with the people of Terra Nova cut off from the future — perhaps for good — and forced to make it on their own with whatever they can find out in the great prehistoric nowhere.

But did there have to be so much dumb stuff along the way? It kind of goes without saying, I guess, but this episode, which hinged so thoroughly on the idea that all of Terra Nova would band together to fight for the colony, was fatally hurt because we just don’t really care about the people of Terra Nova. When the Shannons get away, and our future bad guys (led by Lucas and a couple of apparently interchangeable corporate suits — with an assist from Mira, who’s increasingly put-upon by her bosses) get upset that the Shannons have gotten away, that should be a moment when everything coalesces, and we cheer for our brave, plucky heroes to avoid the evil futuristic bad guys. Instead, it’s just a thing that sort of happens, and then we’re on to the next thing. There’s some good plotting in this episode, but it’s hampered by the fact that it would be so much better if anything that was happening had an emotional tug to it at all.

That said, I’m going to compliment the show for coming up with some cool storytelling tricks. When the 11th Pilgrimage begins making its way through the portal, Taylor has all of his men with guns drawn on the gate to the future. He knows the future army is coming, but he thinks his big advantage will be that they can only come through two or three at a time. With a tight enough bottleneck, he can stop them before they can do too much damage. But the people who come through at first are unarmed civilians, including Josh’s girlfriend Kara, whose safety took up so much of the season in an exceptionally boring plot. Jim rushes to Kara’s side to greet her. And then the man coming in behind her opens his coat to reveal he’s wearing a bomb. The explosion goes off, and the episode kicks into high gear.

This works because the characters behave like people who have actual strategies. Taylor’s strategy to keep the enemy at bay makes sense. The counter-strategy to scatter his forces (since a handful die in the blast, and the others are forced to turn and run for a split second) makes sense as well, and it makes the bad guys seem cunning, instead of abstract. (Lucas, bless his heart, isn’t exactly the most threatening character on television, substituting actual menace for a lot of yelling.) Plus, the episode then goes through a pretty daring storytelling gambit: Jim passes out in the blast and wakes up three days later, after the future army has taken over the camp and turned it into a smoky shadow of its former self. The Terra Nova citizens are all mostly living there, still, but they’re hunkered down, waiting for the other shoe to drop, while Taylor waits in the jungle and makes quick attacks, Mira-style.

It’s such an effective moment that I was pretty sure it would turn out to be Jim’s bad dream — particularly once he finds out that Kara died in the blast (would the show really be brave enough to kill off someone whom so much of the plot was based around?). But it’s not a bad dream. It’s real, and the characters are forced to improvise their way out of a tight spot. The deceptions — Taylor hides his location on the bullets he uses to attack the future forces, Malcolm helps Jim fake an injury to avoid suspicion—are clever and thought up seemingly on the spot. The ultimate plan to stop the future forces is good, and if nothing else, it closes with Jim outrunning both explosions and a dinosaur on a narrow footbridge (you don’t see that on "C.S.I."). It’s a solid story that mostly makes sense and treats most of the characters with something like respect, assuming they’re smart enough to figure things out. (The only one to get a raw deal is Lucas, who develops a creepy fascination with Skye, one that she uses to compromise him.)

And yet I found myself wondering why this wasn’t, conservatively, the back half of the season. This episode — really, two episodes pushed together into a movie-length two-parter—moved so quickly that things barely had time to register. Jim woke up and realized how terrible things were. He looked for Taylor. He found Taylor. He and Taylor launched their crazy plan to strike back. The Terra Novans were victorious, while Lucas and the baddies disappeared for the Badlands (where, apparently, the Bermuda Triangle hooks up with the distant past, if the 18th century ship’s prow found there is any indication). Really, you could have gotten four or five episodes out of this basic arc, and it wouldn’t have made any of the story turns feel as abrupt as some of them did here. There’s an alternate universe version of this show, where the show spends a few episodes building up how great the colony is, then a few episodes revealing Lucas’ plan, then the final stretch of episodes featuring the two sides at war. Instead, we got a lot of mush in the middle.

I wouldn’t say that “Terra Nova” is the worst new show of the fall, but it’s certainly the most disappointing. If you’re going to do a big, sci-fi action drama with dinosaurs, I’d expect some version of “big” or “sci-fi” or “action” or “drama” or “dinosaurs.” Too often, “Terra Nova” was a cutesy little show about a small town in the Mesozoic. At the same time, the show figured out a way to reinvent itself tonight, a way that wouldn’t prompt me to come back unless new people were put in charge, but a way that didn’t have me ready to write the show off entirely. These were the strongest episodes of the season, and while that’s faint praise, it’s still praise.


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— Todd VanDerWerff

Photo: Jim (Jason O'Mara) hides out from the futuristic army in the season finale of "Terra Nova." Credit: Fox