Depending on how one chooses to view it, “Terra Nova” represents another attempt to do a family drama in a (very) exotic locale, or the new TV season’s biggest gamble. Fox’s dino-spectacular — which counts Steven Spielberg and former News Corp. exec Peter Chernin among its herd of exec producers — boasts a muscular pilot, a serviceable plot and considerable ambition — none of which, it should be noted, sustained the net’s “Terminator” series. For starters, though, “Terra Nova” shines pretty brightly, even with the possibility it might wind up being remembered as another really expensive TV camping trip.
Opening with a nightmare vision of an overpopulated 22nd century — with toxic air, and every family limited to two children, China-like — the project is sure to draw the ire of conservative media. Too bad, because after that, there are plenty of family values.
In the revised opening, Jim Shannon (Jason O’Mara) has just escaped from prison, having been jailed for violating the strict reproductive policy. (The change from an earlier prototype gets into the story faster but, alas, ruins what was the premiere’s best twist.)
It requires guts and ingenuity for Shannon to reunite with his wife, a doctor (Shelley Conn), and their teenage kids (Landon Liboiron, Naomi Scott) in a grand adventure: Passing through a glowing portal to travel 85 million years into Earth’s past to Terra Nova, a seven-year-old colony meant to represent mankind’s best hope for salvation.
It’s hardly a spoiler (this is a series, after all) to say they get through, where they’re greeted by a crusty administrator who delivers a stirring speech. Unfortunately, said leader is played by a buff and sweaty Stephen Lang, and for a second, it’s easy to think you’ve accidentally stumbled into a preview for “Avatar 2.”
Eventually, the show begins settling in, for good (cool-looking dinosaurs; an exterior threat from a rogue group of colonists) and ill (stupid teenagers, who bring tired teenage problems back to the Mesozoic era).
The pilot probably peaks in the first 30 minutes, and the setup thereafter brings to mind both the forgotten “Earth 2” (a failed 1994 NBC series) and BBC America’s “Outcasts,” both of which explore how familial bands fare in strange, foreboding environments.
O’Mara (last seen in ABC’s “Life on Mars”) provides a formidable lead, at least when he shifts into hero mode. The show feels less sturdy when it drifts toward becoming “Jurassic Family Robinson” — an element that will have to work, admittedly, unless Fox wants to spend $80 million per episode on CGI.
In the good-news department, “Terra Nova” is big, noisy and wildly cinematic, and Fox has pulled out all the stops with an Allosaurus-sized campaign to ensure the series opens — all the things that ought to generate sampling in a big-screen HD era. Still, recent history suggests such constructs are vulnerable to erosion at a faster-than-geologic pace if they can’t maintain the pilot’s scope and excitement.
Happily, the two-hour premiere is generously stocked with action — even if a subplot involving Shannon’s son and imperiled peers feels too much like “Jaws 2.”
“Terra Nova will succeed,” Lang’s character promises the new arrivals in his welcoming address. By all rights it should, but primetime circa 2011 is its own brave new world, one where nobody — no matter how big — is safe from extinction.