Terra Nova: “Instinct”

Attack of the Chickens

Terra Nova

Fox Network, Mondays, 8 PM


Written by Rene Echevarria & Brannon Braga

Directed by Jon Cassar

“There are a lot more coming.” – Malcolm Wallace

I’m a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock, so I don’t mind that this episode of Terra Nova is basically a riff on The Birds, his classic horror movie about birds suddenly attacking a peaceful coastal town. But if you’re going to translate a story to a different setting, make sure it fits. The element of horror in The Birds came from the intrusion of the Wild into a settled urban environment, where it stood out as invasive and threatening. In the jungles of Terra Nova, however, it is the human element that is invasive and threatening, so the flying reptiles who suddenly begin attacking the colony look like they’re defending their homes. Which they are.

“If these things were born here, they’re coming back to spawn.” — Jim

One of the signs of writers who Do Not Get It is their persistent inability to see the world through other eyes. Everything in this episode of Terra Nova,excepting only Commander Taylor, is filtered through the viewpoint of a city dweller, an urbanite who is used to having a whole civilization at his back. No one seems to realize the potential upside to this new species. So the little pterosaurs who suddenly show up and start dive-bombing the village, various patrols and just about everything else are seen only as invaders and pests. Clearly, the writers have no grasp of frontier perspectives, because if this was a real frontier village these animals would be seen as meat flying into the village. None of the creatures is bigger than a house cat, so despite their heavy beaks and claws, a couple of nets should be sufficient to fend them off. Worse, when they break into the house where the Shannon family cowers, one of them threatens Zoe. This creature is the size of a chicken, and armed with not much more than your average barnyard rooster: spurs/talons, a beak, an attitude. Since I used to watch my ninety-year-old great-grandmother casually wring the necks of bigger birds, I didn’t see much threat here.

“What are the chances of running into him?” — Elizabeth

I don’t know which is worse, the idea that all these armed primates would run in terror from a bird no larger than a cat, or the intrusion of a truly atrocious character element into the mix. I warned last week that putting too much soap opera into this space opera could ruin it, and I regret to see I was right. Jim Shannon discovers that an old flame of his wife’s, Malcolm Wallace (Rod Hallett, The Tudors), is responsible for recruiting her. (Does every version of Jurassic Park have to have someone named Malcolm in it? Did I miss a memo?) Jim’s entire manly character then dissolves into adolescent jealousy. My jaw dropped as I watched Shannon, on the point of departing on a mission to draw the pterosaurs away from the colony, stop what he was doing to taunt his wife’s ex-boyfriend. This was the man who just created the compound that would save the colony, and all Shannon could think about was what might or might not have happened 85 million years ago, before he and his wife even met. Maybe the writers think throwing stock clichés like this into the mix makes for drama, but it doesn’t. What it does is so thoroughly undermine the audience’s respect for a character that it destroys him. It’s a sad day when Shannon’s son Josh actually shows more maturity on this show than his father.

“Moss grows on the north side.” – Maddy

Okay, seriously? The writers need a Boy Scout handbook. This ancient bromide has been debunked by every serious naturalist for a hundred years, yet here we have a supposedly technologically superior warrior teaching a bunch of youngsters that you can find north by looking at what side of a tree moss grows on. Even when moss grows on the north side of a rock, a tree, or anything else, it does so because that’s where the moisture is, and in a jungle that will be everywhere. If it was anyone but Maddy, the “smart one” of the family, saying this, I could shrug this off, but she’s supposed to be the one who remembers the names of dinosaurs. Her idiot brother teases her for knowing things about science and stuff (a jock teen threatened by an intellectual, yeah, there’s a new theme), yet here she is perpetuating a myth that, no doubt, will get her lost (and eaten) on Terra Nova.

“Damn, these pheromone molecules are unstable!” – Malcolm

Oy. Try saying that line with a straight face. Kudos to Hallett for managing to do it without laughing. It’s a line straight out of a B movie, a desperate attempt to inject drama into dry science. But it fails spectacularly, only drawing attention to how lame the writing is, and how much contempt the writers hold the audience in. People who put science fiction on television have to make a choice: you can either talk down to everyone, thereby alienating 90% of your tech- and science-savvy audience, or you can respect their intelligence and write stories (and dialog) that challenge and entertain smart people. Tonight we got squalling chickens, Jason O’Mara’s impressive abs (which were on screen almost as much as the pterosaurs), and a surprisingly wooden performance from Stephen Lang. I despair.

“What we’re seeing today is just the first wave.” — Malcolm

Most of all, I despise writers who ignore real human history and real science. This is not the first time a group of pioneers were faced with massive swarms of flying creatures. They were called Passenger Pigeons, and we wiped them out. We ate them. I cannot find menace in a bunch of plucked pigeons posing as pterosaurs. I cannot find interest or drama in a forced scene of jealousy or high-school-level teen angst in a grown man. I cannot believe in a tough, armor-clad woman warrior who turns out for battle in full mascara. I especially cannot believe in a “frontier” with electricity, clean sheets and sonic weapons, which is running in terror from a bunch of birds. Little birds. If these pterosaurs had had the 50-foot wingspan of, say, Quetzalcoatlus, it would have been different. In this case, the producers’ choice to go with the smaller, perhaps cheaper flying menace undercut any possibility of drama. It takes a genius like Hitchcock to make audience fear crows and starlings, and the producers behind this show are clearly no geniuses.

“That jungle out there is a treasure trove.” — Malcolm

All is not lost. This show can still rescue itself from stupidity and mediocrity. I am still vastly entertained by the (larger) dinosaurs. Zoe is a wonderful character. Wash, the woman soldier, intrigues me. Malcolm’s commitment to using, not destroying, the natural world around him is refreshing; I would love to see what treasures that jungle holds. The challenges of the frontier (not the soap opera village) hold enormous dramatic potential. I am a sucker for any story that pits humans, who have no weapons other than our brains, against nature red in tooth and claw. In such a scenario, our best traits are highlighted: intelligence, curiosity, bravery, commitment to the group. Ignoring these fundamental elements of human nature in order to highlight cowardice, jealousy, suspicion and selfishness will destroy any interest I might have in these characters. I don’t need un-flawed heroes, by any means. But so far, I have seen any heroes of any stripe in this show, and it doesn’t look like I’m going to.

“Welcome back to the family.” — Josh

Terra Nova debuted to disappointing ratings last week, but has maintained its share. Its 3.1 share means 8.3 million people watched Jason O’Mara fend off a bunch of Angry Birds. That should make Fox, which is clearly targeting this very expensive show at youngsters, very happy.