Terra Nova: “The Runaway”

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Terra Nova

Fox Network, Mondays, 8 PM

“The Runaway”

Written by Barbara Marshall

Directed by Jon Cassar

“What’s in the box that’s so important?” – Jim

In my last review I was writing Terra Nova off as an artistic failure. Now, I think there’s hope. In what is, so far, the best episode of the season, we finally get some realistic dialogue, action and plotting. We even get some scary moments with dinosaurs, who continue to be the most elusive and believable characters on this show. This episode takes a cliched story and humanizes it, finally using the talents established for these characters, and allowing the women to take center stage for the first time in this series.

“The girl will decide her own fate.” — Taylor

Young Leah Marcos (Morgana Davies, The Hunter) is discovered lurking outside Terra Nova’s palisade. She claims to have run away from the Sixers, and is seeking asylum. She cowers from Taylor, having been fed tales of his ferocity. He befriends her in an avuncular way, calling her “Peanut” and recalling the time her family lived in Terra Nova, before the Sixers went rogue. Taylor is happy to have a defector from the enemy camp, but rather than press an interrogation, he defers to Jim’s experience as both a father and a cop. Leah says she dropped her backpack outside Terra Nova, and Taylor even promises to retrieve it. Jim and Elizabeth take Leah into their home, displacing Josh, who spends the rest of the episode complaining about it. This is all too sweet and happy to be true, of course, and it all goes sideways pretty fast.

“She’s the perfect spy: young enough to be sympathetic and old enough to be capable.” — Washington

First, Lt. Washington (Simone Kessel, Fringe) and another soldier are captured by Mira, the Sixer queen, when they try to retrieve Leah’s backpack. They they become hostages for Leah’s return. Surprisingly, Mira accepts Leah’s claim that she wants to stay in Terra Nova, so Mira releases her prisoners. What? To my complete unsurprise, Leah is caught stealing a mysterious box from the home where Mira lived before the Sixers deserted. (Personally, I don’t think it was a box. I think it’s a seed.) She confirms what I suspected all along, that she was deliberately sent into Terra Nova on a mission from Mira. She tearfully reveals that Mira is holding her brother hostage for her success. Taylor isn’t buying this, but Jim is persuaded she’s telling the truth. Defying Taylor’s orders, he goes looking for Leah’s brother. Naturally, he winds up in a dinosaur trap, swinging gently just out of reach of a ‘raptor leap, until rescued by the Sixers. He has a chat with Mira, who then releases both him and Leah’s brother. Tearful reunion, heartwarming reconciliation. Fade to black.

“You are aware that I carry a gun, have a quick temper, and tend to hold grudges, right?” — Jim

The first thing I noticed about this episode was that Jim Shannon is suddenly competent and funny again. The brave and resourceful ex-cop who broke out of jail, retrieved his “illegal” daughter and jumped into a new life on 24 hours notice has been MIA for the last couple of episodes, as the writers turned him into a whiny, needy wimp. In this episode, he acts like a cop – gathering clues about the mole, interrogating suspects, excercising judgement in when and how to question a child. He also comes across as a strong and compassionate father figure – rescuing Leah’s brother, defending his daughter against her brother’s teasing, and reassuring young Leah that she is “home” now, that he will not abandon her. He forms a strong team with Elizabeth, presenting a united front as both a marriage and a family. I can get behind this guy; I hope he stays.

“This is the second time you’ve come to our gates and threatened the colony. There won’t be a third; next time I’m going to war.” – Taylor

If the writers’ intention is to cast Commander Nathaniel Taylor as the bad guy, they’re doing it wrong. So far, he has been strong, stern, compassionate and smart. His fierce dedication to the success of the colony is solid. He may be a bit high-handed at times, but in this story he defers, as a wise man would, to those with expertise outside his own: Elizabeth, Malcolm, or Jim. Stephen Lang brings unexpected warmth to Taylor, especially when bonding with young Leah. He continues to be the main reason I watch this show; if the writers and producers decide to make him a tyrant, I’ll be very disappointed, but Lang will probably make us love him anyway. In every scene he’s in, he is totally the leader, the patriarch, the rock. He’s truly the boss o’ Nova.

“I don’t like people taking advantage of my family.” — Elizabeth

What emerged as the story went on, however, was a new take on Terra Nova, from the point of view of the female characters. We got just about every avatar of womanhood there is in this episode, from young Leah to warrior Washington to apprentice Maddy to leader Mira to healer Elizabeth. All four played vital and important roles in this episode, which was all the more powerful for it. Washington fights off a bunch of Sixer males in a kick-ass action sequence; Mira stalks through the landscape in warpaint and feathers like a black, female version of Red Cloud, the famous Sioux warrior. Elizabeth takes charge of the clinic, ordering people about with crisp efficiency, in order to soothe a panicked Leah. Young Morgana, looking a lot like ‘Newt’ from Aliens, is entirely convincing first as an orphan, then as a reluctant spy, and then as a victim. In every version, she was likable and appealing. I hope this character is a permanent addition to the show.

“What’s Terra Nova really all about?” — Jim

This was the best episode of the series so far, but it was by no means perfect. The show continues to struggle with basic concepts. For example, Mira reveals that she, too, is being held hostage: the people of 2149 have her daughter and are using her as the lever to work Mira with. Now think about that: 1249 is only one year. Mira came to this time and place years ago, so why does she still hang on to 2149 as the anchor point in time? And since the portal is one way (a point reinforced in this episode), how is she getting her “orders”? Mira tells Jim that Taylor has pissed off some powerful people in 2149. Are they exacting revenge? Since Taylor is now permanently exiled 85 million years away, what’s the point? It would be like a modern group exacting “revenge” on, say, Julius Caesar. Why bother? The only real clue I’m taking away from this storyline is that possibly everyone in the Sixth Pilgrimage, whom Taylor described as having “an agenda”, left hostages back in the future. That would be a very interesting development.

“‘Just asking questions.’ That’s how it starts, Jim.” — Malcolm

Director Jon Cassar likes old movies. Besides making Leah look like Newt, right down to cowering in enclosed spaces, he also stages the hostage confrontation between Taylor and Mira just like the hostage confrontation inMad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981). As I would expect from a veteran of24, he handles tales of spies, moles and treachery with aplomb, leading us through a fairly simple plot without slackening the pace. There are still some TV cliches that set my teeth on edge, like having a manhunt in the dark, in dense jungle on a motorcycle. I can’t think of a better recipe for an accident than roaring blind into a dark jungle populated by carnivorous dinosaurs. This was offset by the surprising introduction of an actual ethical question into the show, when Malcolm fends off Taylor and Jim from questioning a Terra Novan, asking questions about civil liberties. Good question: where are the laws, courts and police in this community? Almost the first thing a frontier community of the American West did, when it grew larger than about twenty families, was to elect a sheriff. I would love to see Jim Shannon become the sheriff of Terra Nova, so he could do what he does best. It would also set up some potential conflicts between civil and military authority, which would add some interest to this family drama beyond the Disney factor.

“People are happy here. They’re safe, everybody’s got a home, and nobody gets scraps.” — Taylor

Terra Nova got an 8 percent boost in ratings for the 18-49 demographic over last week, and a whopping 14 percent rise in total viewers. Fox may be complaining about lower-than-expected ratings, but the rest of us are more concerned with quality. This episode proves that better writing can improve this episode by orders of magnitude. While the show is taking a hiatus during World Series week, it will return the week after with a new episode. I intend to be there watching.