Terra Nova has been compared to Jurassic Park, Lost, Avatar, and others of that ilk. Tonight, it proved its connection to the brilliant Community.
Community has a penchant for mimicking different movie and television genres. Certain episodes of the NBC comedy feature most of what you’d expect from a zombie movie or an action film while providing its own take on the subject without ironic condescension. The writers understand the tropes while respecting the audience’s intelligence for recognizing them. Terra Nova also has a tendency to copy the style and plots from other genres, but it does so without any panache or cleverness. Following lackluster versions of The Birds and Star Trek, Terra Nova returns from a one week break with Law and Order.
The episode begins with an X-Files-y cold opening that has Felton, one of Taylor’s soldiers, wandering into an abandoned area and getting eaten by an off screen dinosaur. We soon learn that this was no random dinosaur attack, it was murrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrder, and Sheriff Jim Shannon finally has a reason for his title. It’s easy to see why he was chosen for this position when he offers such innovative police skills as “first thing, we should talk to his friends.”
To give an idea about how horrid the pacing on this show is, the following takes place in the first 18 minutes of tonight’s episode- we see the attack, learn that it was murder (based on not entirely convincing evidence); hear about how dog tags contain all a recruit’s personal data, blood type, etc. but can be easily hacked to include personal pictures and even music; witness a dino chase-and-capture to recover Felton’s dog tags; discover that Felton had a girlfriend; watch Jim and Wash question her; find out that she has a husband named Milner; and have him confess to the murder with a pretty detailed statement.
Again, that was all in 18 minutes. Eighteen FOX minutes, complete with commercials. Because only 18 minutes have passed in the episode, and Terra Nova presumably (and actually) lacks the Jack McCoy portion, we know that Milner is not the bad guy, and we will have to contend with several more red herrings before the end-of-episode shock reveal.
The first murderer in Terra Nova requires a special punishment- banishment, per the bylaws of Terra Nova (which FOX should really post online). Taylor struggles with what to do, but he nevertheless brings Milner out in public, tells the citizens about the crime, and sends the perpetrator out into the jungle. People complain about the result and lack of actual trial, but Taylor explains that Terra Nova is a special chance, a once-in-a-humanity opportunity that cannot abide with such crimes as murder.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth and Jim have an argument about the benefits of frontier justice. Jim supports it until Elizabeth says “like nobody ever had reason to falsely confess,” which gives him the Procedural Epiphany look because that’s the first time he thought of that angle. After taking this into account, he tracks Milner who, for the first time, admits that he falsely confessed to protect his wife, believing that she killed Foster.
Jim sneaks Milner back into camp and they ask the wife to prove her innocence. She does so by saying “What? You think I killed him?” Good enough for everyone on the show, good enough for me. When Taylor finds out about the rescue of Milner, he expresses some concern over Jim’s actions because of how weak being proven wrong on what amounts to a death penalty make him seem, but, like always, he seems cool with Shannon disobeying orders.
The next lead involves Foster’s gambling debts, so they go to Josh’s employer, the bartender Boylan because he allows illegal card games in his parlor. Boylan is fake-arrested to somehow bring out the true culprit, a soldier on Taylor’s crew who murdered his co-worker over gambling debts. Jim and Taylor take the actual murderer beyond the perimeter where they question him about the killing. Taylor doesn’t believe his denial, so the soldier aims his rifle at the two community leaders, pulls the trigger, and nothing. Yes, they pulled this trick on us simultaneously in 2011 and 2149. Keep in mind, these are space-age sonar rifles. There’d probably be some green light to let the wielder know they are holding a live weapon…unless Taylor constructed a special rifle just for sting operations, which seems like a waste of resources. Taylor and Shannon banish the ne’er-do-well into the jungle with nothing…except a bunch of Sixers who would probably love to have a former soldier with a grudge against Taylor on their side.
Despite the ridiculousness of taking this show into police procedural territory, this is the episode where Terra Nova could have gone from being a show to being a series. Taylor’s explanation that a Garden of Eden like Terra Nova can’t indulge a murder is an important concept for a program like this analyze. People clearly still want to maintain some sense of law and order based on our current conceptions of those ideas, but despite the technology, Terra Nova is not a civilized world. Its inhabitants are building themselves up by their relative bootstraps. Could the West have developed if it didn’t have its wild period? Would going back to older punishments like exile better serve the new world until it earns its swim legs? Clearly, there are some people disappointed with Taylor’s autocratic style of leadership, and these rumblings should be given more credence. For that matter, we aren’t told or shown how the people who questioned the “death penalty” verdict reacted to Taylor being proven wrong as the exiled man is sitting happily on his porch at the end of the episode.
To what extent would Taylor go to protect his society? For someone as dedicated to Terra Nova as he is supposed to be, Taylor should have recognized the threat that the exiled soldier poses if the Sixers pick him up. I’m not saying that he should have killed him, but he should have at least thought about it (beyond some gruff ‘I should put a bullet in your head’). Taylor needs to be a darker character, one with a proper amount of paranoia and a willingness to make tough, amoral choices for the good of the civilization. The show has gone out of its way to avoid making Taylor that character, and the result is that he lacks a much needed sense of command.
Additionally, Boylan and Taylor seem to have some rivalry. The bartender even mentions that Taylor’s pissed at him because his bar’s the one place on Terra Nova that is out of Taylor’s reach. Why is his bar a “sovereign” territory? Is it because the supposedly “old fashioned” Taylor despises vices but understands that people need an outlet of illicit activities to maintain their sanity? Was this just a lie to set up the fake imprisonment? Do these questions even matter since we know that Boylan is an out-and-out villain who collaborates with the Sixers? Does anyone really buy Taylor’s supposed “old-fashionedness”?
These are all concepts broached by this episode, but barely touched upon. I don’t expect this show to delve into the intricacies of starting a society from scratch since it’s meant to be “family oriented,” but those elements are too integral to Terra Nova as a whole for the show to give them the shaft. Without a clear idea of what the show is trying to be, aiming higher and failing is more admirable than randomly selecting a different plot template every week (and still failing).
In the B-plot, Josh still wants to get his girlfriend back from the future. To do so, he needs to see Mira, the Leader of the Sixers, who gives him a “one of these days, I’ll ask for a favor” speech and Josh agrees. I still don’t know why a sheriff’s son is so important to her plans; it’s not as if Jim has real power anywhere beyond Terra Nova’s borders—even though he seems to have full use of the military. Without caring for Josh in the slightest, and his future girlfriend essentially amounting to a cameo in the first episode, it’s really hard to take Josh’s side here.
• When Jim asks why the Killer Dinosaur, who prefers to eat other dinosaurs, would eat a human, Malcolm responds, “just because you have endless supply of chicken, doesn’t mean you’ll turn your nose up at a bloody rare steak.” Can we get some indication as to what is/was available in the 2140s? The land shown in the pilot looked like the type of “every animal is extinct” landscape common in dystopian sci-fi movies. Hell, the family freaked out about a damned orange. Stop pretending that they are from 2011.
• Josh *when describing how bad 2149 is*: “I had three friends junior year who killed themselves.” Oh wow, that’s … really not spectacular at all. Anyway, god damn you cyberbullying!
• When Jim raids Boylan’s bar, he learns for the first time that Josh has a job there. I thought part of the show’s core was that Jim and Elisabeth are decent and hardworking parents in a conventionally unconventional situation. They should have learned about their son’s employment by now.
• Also, when Jim raids the bar, he commands his troops to find a financial book. A soldier returns in less than 30 seconds saying that “[w]e tore the place apart. If he’s got the ledger, it isn’t here,” and Jim accepts this. I don’t even think a person looked behind the bar. Fake arrest or not, put on a show for the gawkers.
• When Jim begins investigating the dog tags, he has to learn about their storage capability from Foster’s military buddies. Why couldn’t Wash, who Taylor assigned to Jim, tell him about this information? And people have no concern over the easily hackability of dog tags?
• Two final questions regarding Taylor: As the leader of Terra Nova, why would he go on the dino chase? Who would replace him if he died on the mission?