5 Things That Could Save Terra Nova Next Season

by Kevin on December 28, 2011

And so it ends. Terra Nova wrapped up its first season last week, so while we wait for word from FOX on the show’s renewal for a second season—which we’re likely to get sometime in January—I wanted to spend a little time thinking about the season and where it went wrong.

The biggest problem with Terra Nova is that it took an interesting premise and squandered it on weak acting, forgettable storytelling, and horrendous, contrived plots that are as offensive as they are irrelevant. At best, TN is a boring waste of time; at worst, it’s an insult to audiences everywhere.

So if FOX decides Terra Nova deserves a second shot, let’s talk a bit about what it can do to be less, y’know, terrible:

5. Stick With What Works. Serialized science fiction is difficult to do well because there’s a delicate balance between the standalone thing-of-the-week episodes and the season-long story arcs. Terra Nova tried to do this with its first season, but due to some episode shuffling (and probably some pressure from FOX) they shifted away from longer storytelling to something more episodic. That is, until “Operation/Resistance,” which suddenly tied a bunch of strands from the pilot together in an undeserved finale.

It’s a rare show that successfully walks this line. The X-Files comes to mind, which mainly worked because it could rely on its police procedural elements to carry it through a monster/alien/ghost episode while only occasionally hinting at the larger story arcs (or ignoring them completely). More recently, shows like Battlestar Galactica and Lost stuck to mythology week after week, only occasionally letting a single episode take us outside that story for a brief aside.

Now, Terra Nova definitely should not become a prehistoric sci-fi opera, but it’s never going to be a full mystery show (and it shouldn’t be). So it needs to find what makes it watchable week to week, which will help keep viewers interested in whatever longer story you have in mind. Which brings me to…

4. Have Some Fun. BSG was about survivors of an attempted genocide being chased across the universe by their own creations. Lost was a complex, winding story about morality, time travel, power, and the occasional polar bear. These were fairly dark shows; Terra Nova is anything but dark. TN is about hope, and about starting over, and the dangers inherent in doing so. But it also has a colorful backdrop, endless opportunity for adventures, and, naturally, dinosaurs. It should be a blast!

During my write-ups this season, I kept leaning toward Stargate SG-1 as the model I wanted TN to follow. Not because of the story—SG-1 is more Star Trek than TN could be—but because of the tone. It was an episodic show that could be a tense drama when it wanted to be, but it could also be relaxed, and even funny. Naturally there needs to be action and conflict, but Terra Nova has yet to try its hand at a “fun” episode. I’d love to see TN’s prehistoric version of tribbles.

3. It’s OK to Change Your Mind. TV shows rarely know exactly what they want to do right out of the gate. In long-running series, it’s common to see things in the first season that don’t make sense in retrospect; you might find contradictions to things that happened since, or plot points brought up that were ultimately dropped. And something audiences don’t always understand is that’s OK. 

In the first season The X-Files episode “Fire,” Chris Carter introduced that Fox Mulder had a debilitating phobia of fire, which was literally never mentioned again throughout 200 episodes. In Lost, characters came and went, and some early mysteries just fizzled out with no attempted resolution (one word: Walt). And even though it was aggravating with Lost, really, it’s understandable.

Producers don’t always know how long they’re going to have to tell their story, and networks have had itchy trigger fingers lately when it comes to killing shows without giving them a fair chance. Brannon Braga and René Echevarria have introduced us (for their part) to characters and stories in the first season, many of which failed to impress or really amount to anything. I’m saying it’s OK if season two suddenly changes Maddy into a brooding, pensive middle child, or recasts Taylor as a brutal psychopath—something we saw in the rumored early script of the pilot.

2. It’s a Great Big World Out There — Use It. Viewers bought into Terra Nova for one simple reason: it’s a show about people from the future living in prehistoric world full of dinosaurs. The first season showed us some of those dinos, and even occasionally made them crucial to the plot, but the colony and the area surrounding it is one tiny fraction of the possible world we could be seeing. And the Sixers camp is vastly different from the main colony and must encounter a few unique challenges and obstacles that would make for some good stories.

And it’s not just dinos. The episode “What Remains” gave us a look at other dangers that come with exploring and trying to settle in unfamiliar ecosystems. Diseases, unpredictable weather, animal behavior, poisonous flora and fauna; all of these are going to be dangers that are recognizable to audiences and can set up conflicts to overcome and give our characters something to do.

With the possibility of other portals that might exist and the knowledge that some rough-and-tumble military guys are out there in “the Badlands,” Terra Nova is finally primed to go exploring next season.

1. It’s the Characters, Stupid. Dinos are great, but to be successful, Terra Nova has to be about the people. The chief complaint I have with the show is its characters (or lack thereof), which so far have been two-dimensional, generic archetypes like “Police Dad,” “Soldier Guy,” and “Doctor Mom.” How would Josh feel about his father reappearing after being the only male in the family, and how might his father issues translate to the other patriarch, Taylor? What psychological damage did Maddy face in the wake of the events in the pilot, then leaving friends behind to explore this new world? Does Zoe have any personality yet?

And that’s just the family. Taylor and Skye had a promising makeshift father/daughter early in the season, which seemed to be dropped in favor of making her Female Love Interest #2 for Josh, then Spy For Some Reason later. Boylan and Malcolm are two characters with conflicting motivations who could easily find themselves on shaky moral ground. And with the camp full of military guys, there’s an opportunity to introduce new characters on opposing sides that will carry our story further, rather than inhibiting it with insipid, uninspired caricatures.

The producers have likely made their case for a second season to FOX, and with a decision looming, it’s entirely possible that this entire post is moot. But if Terra Nova is to return next year, it needs to step up in pretty much every department: story, characters, setting. There’s a nugget of a great idea in Terra Nova, and properly executed, it could be a fun show. Let’s hope they get the chance to prove it.

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