There are two things we know television viewers like: family drama and ongoing story arcs. (Two and a half if you include cops.) And in 2011, Terra Nova gave us both of those things, plus dinosaurs and time travel. Also, just to be safe, the main character was a cop, and then later a dinosaur cop. How did this show get cancelled? It was ticking all the demographic boxes! But the sad fact is, Terra Nova passed most of us by, and then, brutally imploded into obscurity. Here’s what you missed.
I was totally guilty of making fun of Terra Nova without actually seeing it, cracking jokes in the office about how it was likely to get cancelled midway through the airing of the pilot episode. This was unkind, but in my defense, showrunner Brannon Braga’s track record doesn’t inspire much hope in me, despite my well-known reputation as a Braga apologist. (Honestly, I’d rather have him and Ron Moore writing Star Trek again, but I digress.) In any case, a year after it was cancelled, I decided to give Terra Nova a whirl, and found myself watching the entire series in just two days. I’m not here to tell you this was the best television show of all time, but it was a solid science fiction show, and a fairly decent character drama.
Oh! Did I mention there are dinosaurs? The essential premise of Terra Nova concerns future humans escaping an over-polluted 2149 and emigrating to the mid-Cretaceous period to start anew. The totally brilliant thing about setting the show at the end of the Mesozoic is that it allowed the show’s writers free reign to create a whole host of fictional dinosaurs, avoiding the clichés of various dinosaurs we’ve seen before. Jack Horner, paleontologist and consultant for Terra Nova actually encouraged the showrunners to include made-up dinosaurs in the series. From a 2011 article on MSNBC:
“I suggested 85 million, because it’s a time that we know the least about, and it’s kind of in the middle of the Cretaceous period, which means we could bring some older dinosaurs forward and take some younger dinosaurs back without getting in too much trouble…We just cannot use a T. Rex, but there are tyrannosaurs, so we can certainly create an animal that looks very similar to T. Rex”
And while this conceit created some silly-sounding names like “Slashers” and “Carnos” the dinosaurs do look pretty sweet, and aren’t all fiction. My favorite dinosaur on the show is easily five-year-old Zoe Shannon’s baby ankylosaurus which she tragically has to return to the wild midway through the season.
Zoe is the youngest child in the Shannon family, whose machinations are the primary focus on Terra Nova. Jim Shannon was a cop in 2149, but imprisoned unjustly due to a dust up with population control laws in the future. (The Shannons weren’t supposed to have Zoe!) Jim’s wife is Dr. Elisabeth Shannon, and the colony’s chief medical officer. Their other two kids are Josh and Maddy, 17 and 16 respectively. Along with Terra Nova’s commander—Nathaniel Taylor—these are basically the main characters of the show, making Terra Nova essentially a family drama. There are mysteries concerning the founding of the colony and possibly some things Commander Taylor isn’t telling the inhabitants. The Shannons are the 10th pilgrimage to Terra Nova, but there are a myriad of dust-ups concerning the renegade 6th pilgrimage, who repeatedly try to mess up the good guys.
The ongoing struggle between the Terra Nova people and the “Sixers” provides much of basic conflict throughout Terra Nova’s only season, and in the episode “The Runaway” these clashes result in the capture of newly anointed dinosaur cop, Jim Shannon. In what is probably the most telling scene in the entire series, the thematic confusion and troubles with the show are made clear when rebel leader Mira and Jim have the following exchange:
“That’s not what Terra Nova was about, not now, not ever!”
“Then what is Terra Nova really about!?”
These are actual lines of dialogue, moments when the characters themselves become self-aware and start critiquing the very premise of the fictional universe in which they inhabit. Because in spite of all the wonderful dinosaurs and solid family-drama stuff, Terra Nova does get bogged in too much false intrigue and petty human secrets. For a show dealing with dinos, it occasionally gets lost in secrets we’re not that interested in. There’s a mole loose in Terra Nova and no one knows who it is! But really, the viewer doesn’t care, as the Shannon family’s problems with each other are way more compelling than a warmed over Tinker Tailor Soldier Dinosaur.
At its best, Terra Nova offers episodes like “What Remains,” in which a strange prehistoric spore causes memory loss, effectively sending Elisabeth back to a time in her brain when she hadn’t yet met her husband. With Acceraptors closing in, Jim has to convince his wife that not only is it the future, but also the past, as in “Hey it’s the future, you’ve lost your memory. Plus in the future, which is now, I’m your husband and we live in the dinosaurs times because of all the pollution.” This is the kind of awesome character drama science fiction is created for. This episode is genuinely touching, and made all the more dire by killer dinosaurs lurking around Jurassic Park style in a quarantined compound.
Terra Nova might have sported some off-the-rack plots and cop drama mixed with family drama action to create relatable hooks, but, for the most part, it did it in a blatantly honest way. I think the dinos on this show look awesome, and with all the fictional ones, it’s a special treat when a “real” dino shows up. (Zoe feeding the Brachiosaurus and being lifted off her feet is particularly memorable.) And even if it was occasionally confused as to its own premise, the characters are likable, interesting, and make you worry for their future.
Combining science fiction with good characters and dinosaurs was a noble effort, and if you give Terra Nova a chance, you’ll be wishing all of these folks and their prehistoric friends had made it to a second season.
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.