Wagon Train to the Past
Fox Network, Mondays, 8 PM
Teleplay by Craig Silverstein & Kelly Marcel and Brannon Braga & David Fury
Story by Kelly Marcel & Craig Silverstein
Written by Brannon Braga & Craig Silverstein and David Fury
Directed by Alex Graves
“This is the frontier, son, you gotta grow up fast.” – Hunter
They had me at Stephen Lang. The grizzled, charismatic actor who damn near stole Avatar right out from under its stars plays the new leader of a colony set not on another continent or another world but in another past, in the new Fox sci-fi drama Terra Nova (new Earth). Every time this man is on my screen he steals it from everyone else, so I was delighted to learn that he was coming to this new Spielberg-produced series. Terra Nova takes off from pretty much the same premise as Avatar, Outcasts, and half a dozen other dystopian futures: Earth is barely inhabitable, is doomed, etc. This is the oldest story in the history of Homo sapiens: the nest is fouled, time to move on. It’s what primates do, and it got our species out of Africa millions of years ago. It’s an especially attractive story to Americans; when we start feeling hemmed in, our cultural instinct is to look for new horizons. So when I see an overcrowded, gloomy, wretched future that looks straight out of Blade Runner by way of Book of Eli, I figure it’s only a matter of time until we start seeing pioneer themes on TV again. Americans have never really abandoned the Western; we just put different costumes on the characters.
“Step One: Dad breaks out of a maximum security facility. Step Two: Dad breaks into a maximum security facility. Piece of cake.” – Josh
It’s 2149, do you know where your children are? In the case of police officer Jim Shannon (Jason O’Mara, Life on Mars), it’s a burning question, since it’s illegal to have more than two children. For reasons he refuses to explain, he and his wife, Elizabeth (Shelley Conn, Marchlands) decided to have a third child, Zoe (Alana Mansour), to supplement their son Josh (Landon Liboiron, Zombie Punch) and daughter Maddy (Naomi Scott, Life Bites). They’re caught out, Jim goes to jail, and then Elizabeth, a doctor, is recruited for the Tenth Pilgrimage. The Pilgrimages are basically lifeboats; people are recruited, or volunteer, to be sent 85 million years into a slightly different version of Earth’s past, to “rebuild civilization”. Like all pioneer efforts, it’s a second chance for the participants, and like most emigrant groups, it contains a wide variety of people with a wide variety of reasons – not all of them benign — for wanting that new start. The first half hour sets all this up, and takes us on a breath-taking, action packed, fingernail-biting sequence in which Jim must break jail, make it to the jump-off building, fake his way in, and carry his youngest daughter with him as his family makes the trip to Terra Nova.
“The world you left behind fell victim to some of the baser instincts of mankind.” – Taylor
Arriving in the past, the Shannons can, literally, breathe freely. There is sunshine, there is air so fresh that oxygen-starved humans have difficulty adjusting. Zoe, who has never seen the Moon, fears it might fall on her. The Shannons are also, for now, no longer on the run. Since time travel, in this scenario, is a one-way trip, Jim doesn’t have to worry that his family will be returned to their miserable existence, or that he will have to serve the rest of his sentence (which has just had 85 million years tacked onto it). The new Pilgrims assemble in the colony, a round clearing in a beautiful jungle, ringed with a high fence. It looks like nothing so much as an updated version of Jamestown colony, circa 1609, and it serves pretty much the same purpose. Inside the fort, they are greeted by Commander Nathaniel Taylor (Lang), who is fiercely dedicated to building a new, improved civilization. Of course, that’s exactly what the emigrants to North America in the 16th and 17th centuries intended, and we know how smoothly that went. Taylor clearly believes that the “baser instincts” that ruined his world can be left behind; cynics who know their history know better. Beware idealists with weapons.
“I think they deserve a chance at something better, something new.” — Elizabeth
Right away, the family has to make adjustments. Zoe barely remembers her father, who has been absent half her life. Josh resents his father’s “desertion” of the family; Maddy is a shy, geeky girl who retreats into science trivia and math when nervous. Elizabeth is not sure how to reconnect with the man she married. Oh, and there aren’t enough bedrooms in their spacious new house. One of the most poignant scenes comes when five year old Zoe says sadly, “There’s no room for me”. That’s been true all her life, and Jim’s patient efforts to reassure and comfort Zoe are some of the strongest moments in the two hour premiere. Elizabeth quickly takes up her duties in the colony’s hospital, and is startled to learn that despite all the high-tech gear brought into the past, she will be forced to practice “neo-medieval medicine”, i.e., with giant leeches. Jim is put to work “weeding”, a job that involves machetes, climbing vines as thick as a man’s wrist, and giant bugs. Life outside the perimeter is dangerous: “carnosaurs” and “slashers” lurk in wait in the jungle just beyond the crop field, waiting to pounce on the unwary. Not all the dinosaurs are vicious; early on, Zoe is captivated by the gentle brachiosaurs, who graze on trees near the compound. Her scenes of playing with the dinosaur were touching and funny at the same time. For Zoe, as with all five year olds, every world is a Brave New World.
“I’m not going to let anyone stand in the way of what we’re trying to build here.” — Taylor
Jim, who is not only a stowaway but an escaped convict, clashes briefly with Taylor, but Taylor is not much concerned with the way they did it “back home”. He has worries of his own: renegade settlers, carnivorous dinosaurs, insurgents within his own compound. Oh, and his son went missing two years ago. When Jim’s cop instincts have him tackle a would-be assassin, Taylor quickly gives him a badge and a gun. The two men bond on several levels, mostly in protect-the-people mode. When hot-headed Josh plays hooky with some other teens and winds up in trouble, Jim rides shotgun with Taylor and plays an effective role. This early bonding between the men will probably be tested down the road, as Taylor’s inner dictator tends to lie a little close to the surface. Jim, who has suffered at the hands of a fascist state already, will not find it easy to knuckle under even to a well-meaning tyrant.
“Until we know who sent those people back and why, I just don’t know who in the future I can trust.” – Taylor
Every Western needs Indians, or some version of The Other to serve as a foil for the values being re-affirmed. Because make no mistake: a Western is all about what we value. It’s not really possible to leave everything behind; we carry our culture with us and re-establish it when we put down roots. Since there are no indigenous humans in this past, the show provides them in the form of Sixers, members of the Sixth Pilgrimage who apparently arrived as a bloc, with an agenda of their own. They now live outside Terra Nova and prey on the colony. Now and then one of them is captured, as Elizabeth discovers when she is called on to treat one. A few Sixers show up in armored gun cars to trade for the captured man, and we meet Mira (Christine Adams, TRON: Legacy), the arrogant, trash-talking head of the outlaws. Clearly, she and her band of outlaws are going to be an ongoing source of menace.
“This jungle can be survived.” – Taylor
The idea of survival in the wilderness was what drew me to Lost; the abandonment of that universal theme in favor of second-rate melodrama is what drove me away. Scuttlebutt says Terra Nova is costing upward of $4 million per episode; the sets in Australia are massively expensive, as is the heavy promotion the show is getting. That being the case, I am hoping Fox does not fall back on melodrama but uses the elements that made this pilot a gangbuster: fantastic scenery, exotic dangers (dinosaurs!!), superb CGI. It may be Jurassic Park meets Wagon Train, but I loved both those shows and would be delighted to watch the combination every week. Terra Nova is at once exotic and familiar, with enough potential conflict among humans or against nature to serve for many years of adventure. The cast is first rate: besides the always-excellent Lang, O’Mara comes across as a gentle, strong father figure in the mold of Michael Landon in Little House on the Prairie. The close family ties read as genuine as any frontier tale, and if it gives the show a Seventh Heaven feel, at least that show ran for ten years. The action and direction were extremely well done, especially a night-time rescue of the errant teens. There’s a bit of something for everyone in Terra Nova.
“You can’t come back after all this time and tell me what to do!” – Josh
There are a couple of danger signs that make me hesitate to declare this premiere a winner right away. Number one danger sign: Josh. I get it that advertisers want to hook the teenage audience. I get it that they like to play with family dynamics as the source of drama. But if this show starts focusing on whiny teenagers who simmer with resentment against their parents, I’m going to lose interest. Frontier life is not very forgiving; there will be no room for the usual Freudian dynamics to play out against a backdrop of eminent danger. And I do not want to watch some teen soap opera with dinosaurs. Another danger sign: in the middle of a dinosaur attack, Elizabeth leaves a bleeding patient, stops her husband who is running off to rescue their son, and apologizes for something she said earlier. Seriously? What a stupid, what a classic soap opera moment. My jaw dropped at this stunningly dumb move; if the writing is going to prefer “relationship” moments over action scenes, this show is going to die a very expensive death. I only hope these are speed bumps in the development process, and that ongoing episodes will focus more on the challenge of carving a life out of a hostile wilderness, and less on whose delicate feelings are being bruised this week.
“You are home, sweetie.” – Jim
We got a solid introduction to a dynamic and exciting world. There may not be much new here – certainly the comparisons to American Westerns, Lost, old sci-fi series are rampant – but it’s extremely well done. I frankly don’t know how or if Fox can keep up this level of expenditure. Apparently the network didn’t even bother screening a pilot, since it would cost a fortune to tear down and then rebuild the costly Terra Nova sets. Instead, the network rolled the dice on this new show and ordered thirteen episodes. The gamble may not pay off: I wonder if there are enough network viewers anywhere to make this kind of expenditure worthwhile, regardless of its quality. First-night returns were disappointing: Terra Nova’s two hour premiere clocked in at a 3.0 share among adults 19-to-49, starting out with over 9 million viewers and losing about a million for the second hour. I’m hoping the audience will come back for the next few weeks, because I’m already enchanted with this show and looking forward to more.