Terra Nova: “What Remains”

Cognitive Regression

Terra Nova

Fox Network, Mondays, 8 PM

“What Remains”

Written by Brynne Malone

Directed by Nelson McCormick

“It appears to involve cognitive regression to a point in the patient’s history.” — Elizabeth

We’ve been told for several years now that some things are too big to fail; certainly, a TV show backed by Steven Spielberg and a $30 million budget should fall into that category. And with relatively consistent ratings in the 3.0 range, Terra Nova will probably hang on long enough to be renewed for a second season. But there is commercial failure, and there is artistic failure. In this, the third week of Terra Nova, I’m declaring this show an artistic disaster. And it’s due to one thing, and one thing only: crappy writing.

“Till we know what this is, we’re not going home.” – Commander Taylor

When a scientific research post falls silent, Commander Taylor drafts Elizabeth Shannon to go with him to see if there’s a medical problem. There is: everyone in the station has lost all short-term memory and has “regressed” to a state of memory of around twenty years ago. Most of the personnel are catatonic, and one scientist has wandered out to get eaten by a dinosaur. Soon Elizabeth determines that some kind of pathogen is causing this memory loss, but by that time she and the others have been exposed. Taylor quarantines the outpost, Elizabeth informs Jim of what’s going on, and soon Jim and Malcolm, the old flame of Elizabeth’s that we met last week, arrive as well. By now, Elizabeth has regressed to the point where she remembers her old flame but not her husband, so tension ensues. Taylor believes he’s in a psy-ops scenario from an old war, and invades Terra Nova to “rescue” his wife. Eventually Elizabeth, holding onto the shreds of memory, solves the problem using Jim’s sinus cold virus.

“You shot me? Good job!” — Taylor

None of this had to happen on Terra Nova. In fact, this entire scenario could have played just as easily in an episode of House or Grey’s Anatomy, or any medical show. Someone is monkeying about with gene therapy and it goes wrong – there is no way that qualifies as “science fiction” in 2011. The cure is found not in the indigenous plants Malcolm is researching, but in a plain old cold virus that the Shannons probably brought with them from 2149. Why couldn’t the virus have come from this new environment (the way humans encroaching on the jungles of Africa set AIDS loose)? Why couldn’t the cure have come from Terra Nova (the way quinine, a treatment for malaria, emerged from the Amazon)? Neither the crisis nor its cure originate in the circumstances presented to us in this show. It’s ironic that this story is about memory loss, since what’s happening here artistically is not a loss of memory, but the absence of one altogether. No one on this show seems to have any idea of what real science fiction is.

“I don’t know where or when you think you are.” – Jim

I guess I should not be surprised, with the likes of Brannon Braga (Star Trek: Enterprise) running the show, and with a creator (Kelly Marcel) who has absolutely no background in science fiction at all. Even co-creator Craig Silverstein hasn’t done science fiction since The Dead Zone went off the air eight years ago. Writer Brynne Malone, who wrote this episode, has no previous credits in science fiction – and it shows. Maybe Fox thought slapping Spielberg’s name on a show qualifies it as science fiction, but if Spielberg is involved anywhere in this program I have yet to see his hand. The writing staff for this series has become extinct faster than the dinosaurs: of the original producers on the masthead only Braga is left. Producers Chris Brancato (The X-Files), David Fury (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and the rest of the original writing staff were fired last year, leaving only the highly controversial (and notoriously difficult) Braga at the helm. Braga was responsible for recent SF failures like Flashforward andThreshold, two shows that failed mainly because the writing sucked. This is a track record that does not bode well for Terra Nova.

“You were confused and alone, but you’re not any more.” — Jim

There’s nothing wrong with the acting on Terra Nova, let me make that clear. No one could ask for better teeth-gritting or more menace than Stephen Lang brings to the screen. He even gives us the only desperately-needed humor in this episode, as when he says that they found the missing scientist’s boots – with his feet still in them. Or when, convinced he’s part of a psy-ops program where bad guys are messing with his head, he snarls a contemptuous, “No way” at sight of a brachiosaur and calmly drives between the behemoth’s legs, believing it is a hallucination. Jason O’Mara occasionally gives us a good moment, as in scenes with Zoe or one where he realizes his experience as a cop is actually relevant to the case. Too often, however, he’s trapped in a script that requires him to act like Stanley Kowalski rather than Indiana Jones. He bellows and thrashes every time someone gets near his wife, interrupts important dialogues about solving the problem to re-establish his territory, and finally decides the best way to save his wife is to infect her with his cold. But when he’s allowed to be strong and supportive, no one does it better.

“You hate me now.” — Josh

And then there are the teens. Oh, God, the teens. Is there a more stupid male under-21 character on television than Josh Shannon? No demerits to young Landon Liboiron (Degrassi: The Next Generation), who plays him well enough. But this kid is walking meat. He’s mooning over a girl who is separated from him by 85 million years, and ignoring the hot chick who is all over him. Skye (Allison Miller, Kings) cozies up to him – and he plays his guitar. He kisses her – and then asks her to help him smuggle his girlfriend to Terra Nova. What a complete mook. Alas, he seems to be taking after his father, who deals with relationship issues with the same self-doubting, knee-jerk reactions. All the men in this family need therapy. Or a slap upside the head. The writing for these two characters, the men on whom the audience relies for manly heroism, is atrocious. It has undercut both these characters, giving them anemic storylines that portray them as ineffective, needy, and insecure. I don’t necessarily need Jim and Josh to be Tarzan, but I don’t need them to be wimps, either.

“It’s a tech situation, not a science situation.” — Taylor

I’ve long since given up on the idea that TV science fiction will ever be as smart as real science fiction, but last night even the non-SF buffs in my living room were scratching their heads. Having traveled all the way to the outpost wearing gas masks (which are not needed outside the station), why do Malcolm and Jim take them off once they’re inside? Why bother with them at all if they’re not going to be used? Why don’t Malcolm and Elizabeth upload their research to Terra Nova so the scientists there (who are not exposed to the pathogen) can work out a solution? Why are colonists with high technology failing to protect exposed and vital wiring? It’s just stupid, clumsy, infuriating writing. And it’s not just the science fiction aspects: What kind of “hero” locks a wounded man into an enclosure with a hungry dinosaur?

“It’s some sort of dissociative disorder.” — Elizabeth

I want to like this show, I really do. I don’t bash shows just to bash them, and there is so little good SF on TV, and so little that has the budget and resources to do it right, that I am reluctant to say bad things about any effort to bring quality SF to television. But Terra Nova is doing everything right on the non-writing front, and everything wrong on the writing front. The stories are stale, recycled tropes that were ancient before the turn of this century. The characters are increasingly boring and predictable, even repugnant. No one is using the inherently fascinating environment itself; there are not enough dinosaurs in this dinosaur drama. Terra Nova will continue to draw viewers, especially those who can or will overlook the atrocious storytelling. Maybe it will get better. I have to hope it will, because I don’t really want to see it fail. So far it’s holding steady at around a 3.0 share, and on Fox that might be enough to save it. But for a show that’s costing as much as a feature-length movie, it’s an extremely disappointing return.