Television (re)viewing is relative. Of course, all reviewing is, but television occupies a special place. When you’re looking at a show, you’re comparing it not just to thousands of other shows across hundreds of networks, but also to itself. On an episode-by-episode basis, especially during a series’ first season, every week you’re made aware (and grow more accepting) of a show’s faults and limitations while also better understanding its potential or lack thereof. When a program goes from offensively terrible to the low side of mediocre (e.g. this one), an overall mediocre episode becomes good. Alternatively, when a good show becomes offensively terrible, it’s called Dexter.
Stripping away all the complaints and nuances, at its heart Terra Nova is a basic show, competently done, which is actually better than I expected from its first few episodes. It doesn’t hook you, it’s far from engaging, there is surprisingly little on the dinosaur front, but, as I said two weeks ago, it’s passable. Maybe the past couple of episodes dealing exclusively with ongoing storylines and moving away from a family-centric dynamic has persuaded me to adopt a more favorable stance towards this series. Additionally, it’s the first new show I watch after the previous night’s Dexter.
Tonight marked the second to last episode of the first season, with next week’s “epic” conclusion running for two hours. In this installment, the Skye Spy Saga comes to a head as Commander Taylor discovers that his “surrogate” daughter is informing the Sixers about the camp’s plans. After a sting he develops fails due to lack of Sixer involvement, Jim, using amazing prescience, realizes correctly that the Sixers are holding something over Skye and that she would never do anything to harm the compound. (For those who missed the previous episode, the Sixers have Skye’s mother hostage and will kill her by withholding medical treatment if Skye doesn’t cooperate.)
Unfortunately, Jim doesn’t know that Lucas (son of Commander Taylor, boss of Mira, primary man on the ground for the people back on 2149 who hired the Sixers to take over the camp and rape the land) commanded Skye to put a device in the compound’s giant computer that will enable him to finish his calculations so that the portal opens both ways at any time. He succeeds, and we last see Lucas laughing manically as he goes back to the future.
The Lucas/Nathaniel relationship, unfortunately, does not work. A major part of the problem is that Lucas disappoints as a character. Not that anyone on this show feels fully formed, but he especially lacks depth. A somewhat newer creation, maybe if Lucas had been a more central and/or imposing figure throughout the season without even being on screen, it might have helped the show as a whole (think Sylar from Heroes). However, the character we have now is very weak and lacks the dominance needed for someone who can strike fear in the heart of the hardened Sixers. Another key issue is that Ashley Zukerman, the actor who portrays Lucas, doesn’t seem to know how to play him. At various points, he appears to be going for quirky, mad genius and raving madman, but he is way too restrained in his performance for either to really connect. At random moments in certain scenes, you get the sense that he suddenly remembers “oh I’m supposed to act crazy.” And, when he tells Skye he’ll kill her mother, he comes across as far too meek to come through on any of his threats.
The main reason behind his madness (his anger at his father) also suffers. With the exception of a single flashback, we’ve never seen the Taylors together and, besides some off-hand remarks, Commander Taylor doesn’t seem think about him all that much. (Not that the leader of Terra Nova should wear his heart on his sleeve, but if the core to the first season revolves around Lucas, he required more attention throughout the first eleven episodes, even if just to build up his myth.) When Lucas calls their split as “a Shakespearean relationship that borders on Greek tragedy,” one cannot help but laugh at the hyperbole. When we learn that their animosity comes from Lucas being pissed that Taylor couldn’t save his mother in 2138 Somalia and Lucas’ subsequent desperation to beat the old man, it seems so trite. And, when Lucas tells Skye, “[Commander Taylor] is a man, not a god, but don’t tell him that, you’ll hurt his feelings” he comes across as delusional, which might be the point, but this has been a problem of the show from the beginning. Stephen Lang has difficulty portraying Commander Taylor as this charismatic god-among-men whose people will gladly fight to the death for him. He seems more benevolent than powerful, remorseful than calculating, and average than exceptional.
This issue shows up at the end of tonight’s episode when Commander Taylor is making a speech to the inhabitants Terra Nova. He starts it while people are still shuffling towards the “arena,” and he speaks in a low voice without explaining why everyone will need to “stand strong” and fight “shoulder to shoulder,” unless he did so while the majority of people weren’t even near his speaking balcony. This should have been Lang and Taylor’s moment to shine, to rally the troops, to provide a bookmark to his “Welcome to Terra Nova!” speech from the pilot. Instead, it sounds like he’s working out his speech to Wash and Jim.
• The filler of Maddie needing a promethium chip for her computer to work is just that, filler. But, unlike other episodes, the filler takes up so little time to be inconsequential. It also leads to the reappearance of Boylan who, like Malcolm, has become one of those characters with whom I’ve grown comfortable. I can appreciate that he attempts to add levity. However, if a promethium chip is that essential for schoolwork, shouldn’t there be more than one floating around Terra Nova?
• I don’t think Zoe uttered a single line tonight!
• Upon hearing about the catastrophe of Lucas going back through time, Josh expresses concern that Kara might not come through on the 11th Pilgrimage. Enough with your stupid girlfriend. Mankind is actually at stake, and nobody likes you.
• When Skye confesses about spying for the Sixers, she says that Lucas figured out the calculations. Commander Taylor, testing her story, asks her to tell him anything to prove that she spoke to Lucas. Although she did speak to Lucas, Nathaniel had no way of knowing that from what she had said. She could have just as easily seen his work or overheard people talking about it. Yes, that’s a nitpick.