You could watch the pilot of Terra Nova and last night's season finale back to back, and you'd come away thinking this was a pretty fun show. Not a masterpiece, not a deep character study, but a fun piece of television.
Terra Nova's season finale served up some much-needed character development and resolution, but it was also fun to watch, much like the show's pilot. (And unlike most of the episodes in between.) Maybe this show only works when they have tons of money to play with? Or maybe it just needed to home in on what this series is actually about? Let's examine the evidence. Spoilers ahead...
So first off, I'm not saying that the season finale of Terra Nova was a work of surpassing brilliance. It was still clunky and heavy-handed, and the dialogue and characters were all sledgehammery. Plus — as we'll discuss below — the two-hour episode's plot depends on everybody being as dumb as possible on every occasion.
But it was coherent, and entertaining. There were clear stakes, and real drama. A few characters had real arcs within the episode. And it managed to explore a couple themes with a fair amount of consistency: fathers and sons, and protecting the future.
First, a quick plot synopsis: In the season finale, the evil Phoenix Group comes through the portal and quickly takes over Terra Nova, putting it under occupation and forcing Taylor's people to hide out in the jungle the way the Sixers once did. And after a series of mishaps, Taylor and Jim Shannon decide to destroy the portal once and for all, cutting them off from the future. (You can watch the first eight minutes at left.)
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Now for those themes...
The theme of getting a second chance and believing in the future has been sort of the point of Terra Nova, and last night we saw people actually acting on it. In particular, our heroes faced a choice between turning their back on "the future" as represented by 2149, versus risking their future as a colony. And they were forced to sacrifice one type of future for the other.
Meanwhile, the father-son theme has been present in Terra Nova all along — this is a Steven Spielberg show, after all — but last night it actually mattered a bit more. Lucas Taylor's daddy issues have been the cornerstone of his character from the beginning, but at last they got fleshed out last night. It turns out that Nathaniel Taylor had to choose which family member to save in Somalia: Lucas, or the nameless Mrs. Taylor, and he chose to save Lucas. And ever since, Lucas has blamed his dad and assumed his dad blamed him. Or something.
Not only did Lucas finally give us the 411 on his daddy trauma, but Lucas and Nathaniel finally got to process it a little bit. And Nathaniel showed, once again, that he's totally willing to embrace his son — even when you don't need to be Admiral Ackbar to recognize an obvious trap.
And meanwhile, we had some genuinely weird incesty moments with Skye and Lucas — he decides that they're really brother and sister, and their entire relationship is always defined purely in terms of "daddy," which seems to make Lucas determined to have sex with Sis. At least, with all of the wholesome family themes this show has given us, we got one twisted "family" subplot, in which a man only becomes sexually interested in a woman once he can think of her as his father's daughter. (Before that, he showed no interest in Skye, except for calling her "Bucket" a lot.)
The other big father-son subplot, of course, was Jim and Josh Shannon. It's kind of amazing how little the show has found to do with these two since the pilot, when Skye first told Josh that he was more similar to Jim than he realized. We've had approximately 1000 scenes of Jim telling Josh he was grounded. But after telling us that Jim and Josh don't get along because they're too similar, the show never quite got around to showing us that. Until last night, that is.
Josh is still never going to be my favorite character on this show, but he made some leaps forward with the season finale. Josh finally gets to have his girlfriend Kara come back from 2149 — and whoops, she gets blown up in the Phoenix Group attack. The whole thing is sort of perfunctory and swept under the rug, but then we get a bit of character development for Josh as a result. Josh realizes that he's screwed everything up (as usual) and Kara is dead because of him. And later, when Josh sees Lucas having happy incest fun time with Skye, he gets pissed and starts beating the crap out of Lucas, only to wind up a punching bag himself.
And that's when Jim and Josh finally have a conversation about how they're the same. And Josh actually says that Jim is too easy on him (which is clearly true), and Jim shows that he really understands his son. And finally, Josh finally gets why his dad punched that population control cop back in 2147-ish, and realizes he was dumb to blame his dad all this time. It's not Shakespeare, but it is character development, and a genuinely nice moment.
And I have to hand it to this show — there are some quieter moments in last night's two-parter that really do work. Like the scene between Jim and Elizabeth, in which they actually seem like a married couple rather than two people who occasionally occupy the same building. Elizabeth is worried about Jim, because she only just patched him up after getting himself exploded, and Jim promises that he'll always make it back to his family. He makes it his goal in life. It's a nice tender moment, and has the effect of making Jim seem a lot more relatable.
Later in the two-hour finale, when Jim is beating up loads of Phoenix soldiers in Quark's bar, or unleashing a dinosaur at Hope Plaza, or having a shoot-out while everything starts to go boom, or outrunning both an explosion and a dinosaur, the ridiculousness of all those action sequences is underlaid by our memory of a few of Jim's quieter scenes, where he shows who he really is: the family guy. (Sort of.)
That's the thing — this episode offered some tantalizing glimpses of the ways in which these characters could start to come together and feel like real, breathing people. And like I said, if you sat someone down and showed them the pilot and this episode — and maybe the one where we found out that Nathaniel killed his former mentor, too — that person would be fairly intrigued by Terra Nova. And he or she would come away with the sense that this was a sturdy little series with oodles of potential that it had just begun to tap.
Meanwhile, of course, there's how this show treats its female characters. On the plus side, Elizabeth Shannon gets to save her husband's life with her cute "I've injected you with parasites" routine — again, clearly a bluff, but just believable enough to work. Also on the plus side, there's Riley, who's the bomb-defusing smartypants who tells everybody to shut up so she can be awesome.
On the minus side, the show completes its deconstruction of Lt. Washington — last week, she was the only one who had a clue how to find the Sixer mole, and this week, she's the only one who sees the obvious tactic for defeating the Phoenix Group. But at the same time, she's shown to be sort of mopey and useless, and she needs Jim Shannon to give her a pep talk. And then she sacrifices her life in the dumbest way possible — you want to yell at her "MARTYR!" like the people in Hardware Wars. I'm kind of pissed that the only real female badass went out like a punk.
Meanwhile, Zoe is adorable and gives Nathaniel a hug, which probably annoyed a lot of people but I thought it was kind of sweet. And Maddy and Reynolds continue to be the most boring couple on television — I like how there's never any suspense whatsoever about whether those two crazy kids will make it work.
And then there's Mira. Yes, she was in this episode. You just have to look hard.
Speaking of Lt. Washington, she literally is the only person in the episode who has any tactical savvy. There's a moment early in the episode where Nathaniel Taylor is told that they have 30 soldiers in one location, and he says they should send some of them somewhere else, because "we don't want to spread our forces too thin." That's literally the level of strategic know-how on this show.
Among other silly decisions in the episode: Nobody guesses that the Phoenix Group objective might be to un-tether the portal so they can attack from an undefended location. Nobody ever tries to take Lucas out, despite having many opportunities. The Phoenix Group sends tons of soldiers, but no engineers (so they have to rely on Malcolmus.) The Phoenix Group leaves Jim Shannon and Lt. Washington free to wander around, and believes Jim's obviously fake "confused guy on crutches" act. And so on — we could be here all day listing the bad decisions.
One reason the lack of tactical smarts on either side bothered me, though, is that it underlined a bigger problem with the show — this is a show that's been fundamentally about war, and it's always shown us the gentlest, most namby-pamby war possible. The Sixers take prisoners, and usually let their prisoners go after a little while. (Both Lt. Washington and Jim Shannon were captured and released, on separate occasions.) Nathaniel spends most of the season desperate to track down the Sixers, probably so he can pat them on the head or something. Nobody ever tries to kill anybody. Compare this show to Falling Skies, which shows war as something brutal and devastating — in Terra Nova, war is mildly unpleasant on occasion.
Oh, and another thing that bothered me — there's a scene where Quark tries to get the Phoenix Group soldiers to pay for their drinks in Terras, and they just look at him funny until he says drinks are on the house. Later, he says they're big-spending customers, and it's not entirely clear if he's being sarcastic. Will we ever find out what Terras are? Who prints this currency? Is there a mint somewhere, or a Treasury? Why do only a few people accept this money, and where can they spend it? Terra Nova is shown to be a barter economy most of the time, except once in a blue moon, when we suddenly hear about Terras. Which seem like an unsustainable currency, backed by nothing.
But all in all, this was a reasonably solid season finale. There were stakes. The stakes showed signs of being raised somewhat. The bad guys actually did bad things. Our heroes made sacrifices. A guy outran a dinosaur and an explosion at the same time. You know, not bad stuff.
So it's worth asking — why did it take Terra Nova a whole season to get back to being as good as its pilot? I don't think it's just that they spent a lot of money on both bookends. (And this was a lot cheaper than the pilot. Some of the CG, especially the shots of 2149, looked distressingly cheap.)
You can concoct a million theories — but probably the main reason is that on an episode-to-episode basis, this show wanted to be formulaic and comfortable. It wanted to have a "______ of the week," the way most TV shows do. And it never figured what its thing of the week would be — Sixer plots, wacky scifi situations, murder mysteries? It would be almost impossible to come up with a simple, repeatable formula for a Terra Nova episode, the way the show has set things up. You pretty much either have to have arcs and highly serialized storytelling — or you need to be like early Lost, where something like "Hurley sets up a golf course" is turned into a fascinating hour of television.
Assuming that Terra Nova is lucky enough to get a second season — and by all accounts, it's still a possibility — then the show has to swear off dumb "_____ of the week" episodes. I'm not saying that the show should abandon one-off episodes, not at all. Rather, each episode should explore something about the setting. And by delving into the inner workings of the colony, the show could be strengthening our sense that it's a real place, that we could actually go if we had a time tunnel. It's a virtuous cycle: every time we learn more about Terra Nova, we would hopefully wind up wanting to know more.
So here are some questions for the writers of this show to explore in a hypothetical season two: How is Terra Nova governed? I know Taylor is in charge, but does he resolve every minor dispute over property or work schedules? Or does he delegate that? Will Taylor ever hold elections? Now that they're cut off from the future, how is Terra Nova going to maintain its knowledge base — not just its physical infrastructure but the know-how to avoid falling into medieval conditions within a generation or two? Why hasn't anybody tried domesticating some dinosaurs as farm animals? How does the economy of Terra Nova work, and what exactly are Terras? How many queer people are there in Terra Nova, and how are they treated? With just 1000 people in the colony, is there going to be a program to encourage fertile women to breed early and often? (Will Maddy be pressured to get pregnant ASAP? Or is it more important for her to continue her studies, since she's the only young science nerd in the entire colony? Can she do both? Will Reynolds help with child care?) When children are born in Terra Nova, how much will they be taught about the history of the future world their parents came from? Will they have to be taught who Harriet Tubman was?
These are all questions that I'd happily watch an entire episode about. But I have some bad news for the writers of Terra Nova: I don't really give a flying crap about the show's new mystery, the 18th century ship's mast that was found in the Badlands. It feels like just another wacky thing thrown into the mix, which could lead noplace, or could lead to another round of recycled Voyager storylines. (Even the name of the place, the Badlands, sounds Voyager-y. Is the Caretaker out there or something? Did the Phoenix/Sixer gang run to the Badlands to hook up with Maj Cullah?)
If the show does get a second season, by some minor miracle, I hope it focuses on the basics, developing its characters and its setting, rather than trying to dazzle us with more recycled Star Trek scripts. In many ways, this season finale lays some decent groundwork, if the show chooses to build on it.