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Review: 'Terra Nova' shows promise, but not TV Utopia just yet

By Curt Wagner

RedEye

11:17 AM CDT, September 26, 2011

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“Terra Nova” (7 p.m. Sept. 26, Fox; 3 stars) opens with a sweeping view of the Chicago skyline, but it’s not quite familiar.

Sure, we see the Sears Tower (it’s officially called Willis Tower now, but not by me) for a second, but taller skyscrapers dwarf it. Thing is, most of the buildings are in ruins, with broken windows that let in the pollution choking Planet Earth circa 2149. There are no trees, no flowers in the center of downtown streets. There is no sunlight.

There is the two-child limit law that says “A Family Is Four,” which Chicago police officer Jim Shannon (Jason O’Mara) and his doctor wife, Elisabeth (Shelley Conn), exceeded when they had Zoe. Two years after population control officers bust them, Jim is in prison for the transgression when Elisabeth is invited to be part of Terra Nova, an environmentally friendly colony established 85 million years in the past and where humanity hopes to create a new civilization.

Humanity found a rip in the time-space continuum, and a one-way portal that transports people through it to the Cretaceous period of sunlight, clean air, fruits and vegetables—and dinosaurs.

It’s a giant do-over, but can humanity not screw things up again? And can the long list of “Terra Nova” producers, which includes Steven Spielberg and Brannon Braga, not screw up a story that starts out so promising in the two-hour series premiere, called “Genesis?”

I sure hope so, because “Terra Nova” has great potential to be a thought-provoking sci-fi series. They’ll need to walk a fine line, though, because it could also become a sappy disappointment filled with standard Spielberg tropes.

That danger is made evident within the first 30 minutes of the premiere. I have no complaints about the eye-popping special effects. The beautifully dark dystopia of the future gives way to a lush, sunny and equally captivating past. (The series is filmed in Southern Queensland, Australia, after all.)

But with the change of scenery comes a change in tone, and this is why I worry. The intense sci-fi feel of that opening act slows into more of a standard family drama when the Shannons make it to Terra Nova. We get to know more about rebellious son Josh (Landon Liboiron), bookish daughter Maddy (Naomi Scott) and cute little Zoe (Alana Mansour)—all three being rather stock characters in the Spielberg world. (Nothing wrong with their acting, mind you, it’s just that so far they’re not allowed to stretch beyond archetypes.)

Luckily, just when things seem close to getting too cutesy, something sinister rears its head—and I’m not talking dinosaurs. (OK, some of them are quite sinister, but I’m not talking just dinosaurs.)

Terra Nova’s first settler and head honcho, Nathaniel Taylor (a marvelous Stephen Lang of “Avatar”), also seems like a familiar character—the inspirational, heroic leader—until he’s challenged by the Sixers, a group of rebels who broke away from the colony for mysterious reasons. When rebel leader Mira (Christine Adams) comes into the picture, Taylor’s mood darkens to a menacing level.

Terra Nova may not be the Utopia that Taylor is selling it as. Like the colonists of Terra Nova, I’m not quite sure we’re getting the full story. Are they really in the past? Are they even on Earth? Why did the Sixers split off?

Taylor stands at the center of several potentially exciting story threads that are delightfully teased toward the end of the episode.

If they keep the cute at bay for more dinosaurs and dirty dealings, this should be a great ride..