Terra Nova brings dinosaurs, family drama to network TV

Nearly 20 years ago, Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” showed us what computer-generated images could do on a movie screen. As far as anyone watching the movie could tell, the dinosaurs were real; the level of detail put into an individual creature’s textures was mind-boggling.

Now, Spielberg (as an executive producer) has brought CGI dinosaurs to the small screen with the new Fox drama Terra Nova, which premiered last Monday.

The series focuses on the Shannons, a family living in the year 2149 on an Earth that has seen better days. The air quality is so poor everyone must wear breathing masks when they’re not in climate-controlled rooms. The cause of this environmental disaster is never named, but climate change is heavily implied from the amount of smog and filth floating in the skies, leading to shots of cities reminiscent of “Blade Runner.”

The Shannons are chosen to head on the next expedition to go 85 million years back in time to Earth of the past. Unfortunately, we’re never told exactly what all these people are doing in the past. Is there some sort of research going on behind the scenes? Or are they just going back to go back and live there instead? Everyone heading back in time must know what they’re getting into, which makes it even more frustrating that we’re kept in the dark. The dynamics of time travel are explained away with a few throwaway sentences. You’re not supposed to think about it, you’re supposed to enjoy the dinosaurs.

The Shannon family, which consists of father Jim, mother Elisabeth, son Josh and daughters Maddy and Zoe don’t help the series. Sudden teenage angst is rampant throughout the pilot, as Josh is angry with his father over Jim’s legal troubles. Josh’s anger comes out of nowhere, then sets in place the (fairly predictable) story for the premiere, as he sneaks off with new friends before being trapped by dinosaurs.

The family isn’t interesting enough yet to keep up interest, especially if they’re going to be the focal point of the show. After two hours, we still know next to nothing about their personalities, save the broad stereotypes they mostly make up.

Continuing his streak of playing the most interesting character in a sci-fi release, Stephen Lang (of “Avatar” fame) plays the leader of the colony, Nathaniel Taylor. Taylor’s missing son and mysterious past give the series its Lost-like mythology, which may or may not lead anywhere in the future

The series’ greatest strength is its setting: the cinematography is gorgeous (the show is shot in Australia), and the dinosaurs work well in their role here: they are not characters, but part of the land around the colonists that must be adapted to.

Terra Nova has great potential but must decide what it truly is: a straightforward family action drama (as evidenced by much of the pilot) or one that will have viewers asking questions after each episode, with new ideas presented repeatedly. The combination of the two presented in the premiere likely will not work out over long seasons.

Dinosaurs are always welcome on television, and if Terra Nova finds its footing, it will be a fun ride. Let’s hope it gets there soon.