With all its resources, Terra Nova should have been amazing. Big budgets, big sets, big names, big expectations. But no, Terra Nova turned out to be a unvarnished turd, neither engaging the audience with plots or nor creating distinguishable characters. I would attribute this to a lack of ambition on the writers part–a general agreement not to exit a tight, comfortable box.
This is immediately evident in the heart of the show, the Shannons. Jim was jailed for several years, then illegally crossed into Terra Nova. Surely this would cause problems. His kids would hardly know him, his wife wouldn’t have seen him for a long time and they’d likely be more distant, and the Terra Nova authorities would hold something against him. There could have been plenty of conflict and drama with Jim. Instead, after a few episodes, Jim is great with his kids, wife, and Taylor. Problems solved! From there it gets worse. Elisabeth is a doctor and does doctor duties. That’s it. In the third episode, the writers introduced Malcolm as a potential rival with Jim for Elisabeth, but that was resolved instantly, and he became the pointless lab monkey. The kids, while doing stuff on occasion, are actually worse than Elisabeth–they’re actively annoying with bad dialogue and unlikable traits. Josh is a douche who cares about this 2149 girlfriend we met for two seconds in the pilot, Maddy is a generic girl who likes this guy, and Zoe says five-year old things.
The rest of the characters follow roughly the same trajectory. Taylor is the hard ass commander who has problems with his son, but really has a heart of gold. Washington is the generic second in the command who we never get to learn about. She dies and it’s supposed to be sad, but what has she done besides do her job? She’s even replaced by another female soldier soon afterwards. Lucas got the plot rolling, but it’s not like he amounted to much. He was more crazy than scary, and then died after stabbing Taylor who survives. The “best” character is probably Skye, oddly enough. The stuff with her mother wasn’t actually bad, with her allegiances being pulled in different direction. That’s more than you can say for every other character. Unfortunately, the writers treated her mother like a plot device and abandoned her in the final two episodes. You’d think Skye would be concerned about her amidst all the chaos.
Aside from momentary conflicts in the middle of random episodes, the characters never fought, rarely disagreed and always ended up happy at the end of the episode. So they travel from 2149 to the distant past and now they’re happy. Basically, the conflict lies in the setting of 2149, not the characters. And since the show isn’t set in 2149, they’re perpetually happy.
You can see why the writers would want it this way. Believable drama is hard, and some shows that really try fall flat and seem worse than if they didn’t do any drama at all. Stringing together character dynamics from one episode to the next, with varying plots, while balancing the characters is probably the hardest part of television. Though there is great difficulty, we’ve seen it accomplished, sometimes spectacularly, in the past. However, the Terra Nova writers took the easy way out. If everyone is happy at the end of the episode and nothing changes between the characters, writing the next episode is easy. They start with the same slate of generic characters and start again. For all the money spent on the show, the writers decided they didn’t want to deal with character difficulties and bailed out on any attempt to give them nuance or shade them any differently. Trying would at least earn my respect, but not trying at all is just pathetic.
Tags: Terra Nova