In the years since 9/11, television has presented the dilemmas of the war on terror in a number of different ways. “24” did so directly, through a series of relatively realistic nuclear, biological, and chemical crises. “Battlestar Galactica" presented a sci-fi metaphor, as the human race tried to survive and maintain its values after it is nearly destroyed by the Cylons. “Lost” showed them indirectly and occasionally, as when the Losties decided how to obtain information from captured members of the mysterious “Others” who also lived on their island.
“Terra Nova” is yet another example of post-9/11 culture and it combines elements of all three shows. In its “Galactica”-like premise, man has made the planet unlivable in the 22nd century through greed and environmental destruction. Fortunately, humanity discovers a time fracture that allows people to make a one-way pilgrimage back to the pristine era of the dinosaurs. The formula is basically “Jurassic Park” meets “Lost.” Indeed, the Terra Nova colony looks suspiciously like “Lost’s” Dharma Initiative while the colony is routinely threatened by a subversive group of colonists called the “Sixers,” who seem suspiciously similar to the “Others.” Humanity must survive amidst dangerous predators as well as a fifth column that wants to make the time fracture go both ways so they can plunder the past for their own financial gain in the future.
In this environment, the show depicts the challenges of the post-9/11 period. Like “Galactica,” the colonists struggle with how to govern while under constant threat. Like “Lost”, a potential subversive is tortured and held in inhuman conditions to get him to talk. As in virtually every season of “24,” the colony leader, Colonel Taylor (whose name is likely an homage to Charlton Heston’s character in “Planet of the Apes”) must ferret out a mole within the community’s ranks.
Despite the intriguing premise, the show is extremely formulaic. Crises are neatly resolved and there is little drama. While Taylor, played by Stephen Lang (the villain in “Avatar”) is interesting, the show focuses on the Shannon family, who are extremely boring. Much attention is paid to the adolescent angst of their teenage children, whose portrayal falls well short of “Buffy” or even “Smallville” standards. It reminds us that great science fiction is not merely about impressive special effects, but characters that people care about. Frankly, I’m so annoyed by these characters that I’m rooting for the dinosaurs to eat some of them.
As I’ve said previously, the failure of serialized shows like “V” and “The Event,” along with the success of procedurals like “Person of Interest,” seems to indicate that we are moving past the post-9/11 era in popular culture. On the other hand, the former programs were also weaker than their predecessors. Perhaps “Terra Nova” will improve if Fox renews it for a second season, but I’m not terribly optimistic.