Terra Nova's not a perfect show, by any means — but last night's episode was a huge step in the right direction. And one of the main complaints people have about the show — that there aren't enough dinosaurs — is totally unfair. Last night's episode was dinosaur-heavy, and every episode thus far has at least featured dinosaurs in some major way.
More importantly, the thing that has really been lacking in Terra Nova has been a sense of the characters and the setting as real and believable, not just painted on. And that's where last night's episode gave us hope. Spoilers ahead...
This show is starting from a huge disadvantage, after a so-so pilot and a few weak episodes — so any progress towards making the colony 85 million years in the past feel like an actual place is huge and to be welcomed fervently. And "Bylaw" really did deliver, despite some clunky dialogue and some rushed scenes. There were enough moments when the world felt lived in that I was actually interested in what would happen next.
First, let's address the dinosaur thing. Terra Nova has aired a two-hour pilot and four one-hour episodes so far. The pilot had a fair amount of dinosaur action, including Taylor playing chicken with a carnotaur, and Josh Shannon almost getting eaten. The second episode was all about pterosaurs overrunning the colony. The next two episodes had plenty of scenes where people almost got killed by dinosaurs, and the dinos heightened the menace. And then last night's episode had an "A" plot and a "B" plot that were both fairly dino-centric.
That's not a bad track record, even if the dinosaurs are the only reason you watch this show. And even apart from the costs of CG effects, what would would be the alternative? A series of dinosaur-of-the-week episodes where people are constantly being chased or hiding from raptors? Would you really want to watch a show where the only thing that happened every week was a series of forgettable characters getting eaten or narrowly escaping getting eaten? That's a movie, not a weekly TV series.
No, this show is striking more or less the right balance when it comes to dinosaurs versus other stuff.
Meanwhile, though, there's the problem of the forgettable characters. A few more episodes like "Bylaw," and I might actually start to remember some of these people.
"Bylaw" had a number of nice scenes in which people actually talk about stuff, and the contrast between the world of 2149 and the world of 85 million years ago becomes a lot more real. And then we lurch right into scenes where people argue about the central conflict of the episode, and suddenly we're rushing to hit the power-point presentation slides so we can go to the next thing.
Take the discussion between Jim and Elizabeth Shannon, right after the murdered soldier is buried in the field. The soldier was killed by a dinosaur, and everybody thinks it was just an accident. But Jim actually puts his cop hat on for once and notices some evidence that the dinosaur was cooped up for a long time before it ate the guy. He tracks down Milner, the guy whose wife the murdered soldier was sleeping with, and gets a confession in record time. So Jim and Elizabeth have a nice conversation about the fact that the outdoor memorial procession was both moving and very different from the claustrophobic, polluted, crime-ridden streets of their future city.
And then suddenly we lurch into a canned argument about "frontier justice" versus the legal system, in which it feels as though Jim and Elizabeth are trading talking points. (And of course, they never speak about this again.) The whole debate over whether a confessed murderer should get a lengthy trial in a fairly resource-challenged small community, and whether it's a good idea to banish Milner or to lock him up, feels both contrived and rushed. We don't hear enough of both sides of the argument to care.
Still, the actual scene in which Taylor banishes Milner is pretty nice:
We've been saying all along that one thing this show can do to improve is just to put Jason O'Mara and Stephen Lang in more scenes together, since they're both the strongest castmembers and they have the most sparks. And this episode definitely bore that out — the two stars of the show had a lot of good interactions, including this quiet moment where Nathaniel Taylor talks about the sadness of losing one of his men.
We learned a lot of small stuff about Terra Nova in this episode. We learned where they bury their dead, we learned that they have a fairly sophisticated financial system and there's apparently zero privacy for financial transactions. And we learned that Quark's Bar (or whatever it's called) is technically not legal, especially the gambling that goes on there — and it's the one place that Taylor doesn't quite rule with an iron grip.
For the first time, we got a real inkling that Terra Nova has internal politics, and not everybody is either a Sixer or a Taylor loyalist. For a second — just a second, really — Taylor starts to sound a bit like a politician, when he's telling Shannon that he essentially spent a lot of his political capital enforcing his "frontier justice" on Milner, and now he can't afford to admit he got the wrong guy. Of course, this lasts about 30 seconds, and then the plot hammers shove Taylor forward towards helping Shannon to nail the real killer.
In the end, Quark helps Taylor and Shannon to fake-arrest him as part of a sting operation to catch the real killer — but their clever plan to catch the "real killer" mostly just involves luring him out into the jungle with a non-firing weapon, and then confronting him. Hilariously, after Shannon has bragged that he didn't beat a confession out of Milner, he gets to watch Taylor beat a confession out of the real killer — except that it doesn't work, the guy still doesn't confess. And Taylor banishes him, without a confession or any court martial or even a public statement. Now that's frontier justice!
You kind of have to love the fact that Taylor's a total autocratic bastard, who revels in the fact that he needed 67 stitches after one of his campaigns, and beats an accused murderer to a pulp before banishing him based on totally flimsy evidence. Plus he enforces a medieval code of conduct on his soldiers. Meanwhile, though, he's a total bleeding-heart environmentalist who would rather risk death than kill a single dinosaur. And he's all about using recycled toilet paper and sustainable alfalfa and stuff. He's actually a pretty fascinating tangle of contradictions, and much more interesting than any of the Shannon kids.
Speaking of which... Another one of the nice scenes last night came when Josh Shannon was talking about why he's willing to be a total bag of dicks and go meet with Mira, just so his girlfriend whom we met for 20 seconds can come back in time. And he actually had a glimmer of humanity, talking about how three of his friends back in 2149 committed suicide, and nobody believes in anything in the future, and getting back in time to this lovely paradise is the only hope he can offer his girlfriend. Josh suddenly seems pretty happy to have escaped the Ultimate Dystopia, and you'd almost think he hadn't spent the first few hours of this show whining about how unfair it all was. Still, this was a nice scene, and at least Josh finally has a motivation for being willing to go to such extreme lengths to get his girlfriend to Terra Nova.
That little reminder, that Terra Nova is actually kind of awesome compared to Ultimate Dystopia, is reinforced by Milner saying he thought that his wife would love him if he brought her back to this, because it was such an amazing gift to give someone.
Sadly, the rest of the Josh subplot was just as weak as we feared it would be — his dad catches him working at Quark's Bar, and Josh throws a hissy fit and claims that his dad told him to start acting like an adult. And now his dad wants him to be a kid instead. "Get your story straight, maaaan." This is the sort of thing teenagers say on television. (The correct response is: "Actually, you're still a teenager, and I do want you to be a kid. There's plenty of time for you to be an adult later. I brought you back to the prehistoric gated community, so you wouldn't have to grow up so fast. Go to school and learn some stuff. Get a job later.")
In any case, Josh's little rant seems to work wonders, because in true TV dad form, Jim Shannon completely reverses his decision and decides to send his son back to the den of iniquity. This gives Josh the opening to go visit Mira, the leader of the evil-but-they-haven't-done-anything-bad-yet Sixers, who asks if Josh will jump off a cliff when she says jump, in return for help with his girlfriend. Josh doesn't understand the question, because he's too busy thinking about how adult he is. But he says yes anyway.
Then in the other subplot, there's a dinosaur egg which is all stunted, and it's like the ugly duckling of dinosaurs, but Elizabeth Shannon does egg surgery on it, which is pretty cool, and now it's probably going to be fine. And maybe it'll come live with the Shannons for a while. That'll silence the critics who say there's not enough dinosaurs on this show. Right?