Five Ways to Fix Terra Nova (Though It’s Probably Doomed Anyway)
Dear Fox Television,
Look, I’m not going to Monday morning quarterback how you screwed up Terra Nova. I won’t mention how you thought you had a sure thing (which, by the way, you should have had), spent way too much money on it, then got scared and let too many cooks into the kitchen to try to fix what may or may not have been broken. Nor am I going to berate you for trying to hit every existing demographic in the world because you desperately want to try and make back the ga-jillion dollars you’ve dropped into it.
What’s done is done. The audience betrayed by Scy Fy’s mismanagement of Battlestar Galactica and Stargate was yours for the taking and you’ve all but lost them. You took a pretty good idea and spewed out mediocrity; not even brave enough to cheese Terra Nova up enough to make it “so bad its good.” But we’re not going to look back. All we can do at this point is see if there’s any good lumber to be cut out of this felled redwood.
I will say this, and you’d do well to heed it: Though there’s still time to fix Terra Nova, it may already be too late to save it. If that’s the case, decide now and have the balls to finish the story in an engaging well-rounded way that’s unafraid to take creative risks. If you’re going to cancel it anyway, what do you have to lose?
I also mention that, despite my beefs with the show, I like it. It has potential; which is probably why you gave it the green light in the first place. Now you have to fulfill that potential. Here are five places to start:
1.) Air it on a different night.
Really? You think you’re going to get good numbers going up against Monday Night Football? I understand you have to air something on Mondays, but your bla-zillion dollar runaway train? Let me clue you in here. As a guy who enjoys watching grown men beat the crap out of each other over a funny shaped ball AND likes to see people from the future run from dinosaurs, I can tell you that a large portion of your potential audience is otherwise engaged on Monday nights. Don’t give me the DVR argument either. You haven’t given football fans any reason to DVR it yet. Take The X-Factor (your other multi-million dollar, precariously balanced supersonic train) and pull it back to just one night. Then replace it with Terra Nova. I guarantee you’ll get more people watching by the sheer fact that there’s less going on midweek.
2.) Slooooooowwwww Dooooooown
Have you ever dated a really attractive person who’s so insecure and desperate to be loved that they make themselves ugly? The writing in Terra Nova is kind of like that. I get it. Lost was a big hit. It was mysterious, sometimes surreal, and crossed genres. However, not only did it fully hook people in with a solid concept before throwing everything it had at them, Lost allowed its mysteries to play out a bit before revealing clues that all was not what it seemed.
An example from Terra Nova is the geometric carvings Josh and Skye find out by the waterfall in the pilot episode. When I first saw them my geek brain said, “Aliens!” Then two scenes later the leader of the Sixers tells me that they’re made by Taylor’s estranged, Colonel Kurtz-ish son who hasn’t been heretofore mentioned. Did you have to reveal that then? Couldn’t you have played out the red herring of aliens, Sixers, or previously undiscovered sentient life forms that were unknowingly wiped out during some extinction period? No you just said the symbols were made by a character that I haven’t even heard of, much less seen, yet you expect me to care about this information. Honestly, I was still trying to figure out who was who at that point.
Listen, you can get a lot of mileage off nothing more than regular people having to deal with dinosaurs in their everyday life. Do something as simple as “Hey, we need to go out and harvest some whatever-anium to power our sonic gun thing-a-ma hoogies and HOLY SHIT! VELOCIRAPTORS!! The guns are down! Allosaur on the perimeter! What’s that, Lassie? Zoe’s stuck in the mineshaft?!” There’s an episode right there. Hell, I could milk that into a three-parter.
I’m not saying you should drag things out to the point where it’s boring. But you’ve got this super awesome 85 million year old sci-fi world to play in. Play in it! Explore it! Immerse us in it! The Krofft Brothers did basically just that in Land of the Lost for three seasons with a half dozen characters and no budget.
The idea of The Sixers, a rebel colony at philosophical odds with Terra Nova, is a good one. But have they been brought out too soon? We’re still trying to understand the social and political order of Terra Nova itself. Now, we’ve got to try and understand the “other side” as well? Plus, by episode three, you’re telling me that the Sixers are unknowingly communicating with the 22nd century… which leads me to my next point:
3.) Beware the Time Travel Paradox
That whole communicating with the future thing you have going on? Stop it. Immediately.
How? Easy. The future dies. You’ve already established the 22nd century world is dying. So the Terra Novans go to meet the next pilgrimage, only it doesn’t show up. The Sixers’ magic telephone to the future stops working. Seriously, you can have a whole new storyline just having the Terra Novans trying to figure out how to keep all their fancy future technology working without supplies from 214X. (Or did you leave yourself that future communication thing so you wouldn’t have to explain how all that technology was working? I bet you did.) I’ll even give you the out that the Sixers brought an exact replica of the portal device back in time with them and use it to engage in time travel shenanigans, just in case the whole current storyline revolves around the Sixers’ ability to “Control the past so you can control the future.”
Why drop the time travel nonsense? Maybe you’re familiar with your other failed sci-fi/time travel show from a few years back, The Sarah Connor Chronicles. It was the one where the timeline(s) got so convoluted and ridiculous that more characters were from the future than not. Remember? Audiences tuned out even though the whole thing was based on a once successful and recognizable property? Yeah. That’s the one.
Time travel is tricky. Star Trek is one of the few shows to handle it successfully and they did so mostly by using it sparingly. I’ll tell you a secret too; it’s one of the quickest ways to tire out your non-sci-fi audience. Is there valid theoretical science behind time travel? Absolutely, but it involves complex quantum mathematics and most non-sci-fi geeks get too caught up in the minutia of the theories to lose themselves in the story you’re trying to tell around it. (And let’s be honest, Terra Nova’s time travel science is suspect at best.) The Terra Novans have travelled back in time to an alternate universe. Just leave it at that, eh?
4.) Kill off some characters. (And use the ones left alive in a way that progresses the story.)
You have way too many characters in this show. I know, I know. You need all those characters to hit every demographic so people tune in to your tra-quillion dollar sci-fi dinosaur romantic teenage cop bromance yet female relevant and multiethnic military medical drama.
Forget it. You’re three episodes in. Everybody’s watching who’s going to be unless you start generating some good word of mouth, specifically the kind that goes, “Man, Terra Nova kind of stumbled out of the gate, but it’s really found it legs in these last few episodes. You should check it out, especially since they’re not competing with Monday Night Football anymore.”
Get rid of some characters. Start with the wooden space marine gentleman caller. He’s filler. I’m sure the actor is a nice guy and deserves the paycheck, but his character doesn’t belong in the story, at least not at this point in the game. (See suggestion #2.) Kill him. Those fan-headed dinosaurs that spit poison will work fine.
While you’re at it, why don’t you kill off Maddie, the super-genius daughter that has Johnny Space Marine all hot and bothered? Sure, she’s a super genius and you’re setting her up to play a big part later with all her super genius knowledge. The problem is there are at least three other characters who can serve the same purpose. She’s taking up space where you could be showing me dinosaurs.
Besides, by killing Maddie you get the extra added bonus of raising the dramatic stakes through the roof! You just killed off a member of our main family unit! The story possibilities from that one move are endless! Jim Shannon could go native trying to deal with his grief. (And maybe run into Commander Taylor’s long lost crazy son.) Dr. Mom could flip out and try to find the Sixers to use their portal replica or magic telephone to change time and bring her back. Depending on how she died you have a big trial and banishment of somebody. I just came up with all three of those ideas off the top of my head without any forethought or a WGA paycheck.
Malcolm, the ex-boyfriend of Dr. Mom, is also extraneous; unless he turns out to be totally evil in which case all is forgiven. The romantic tension between he, Dr. Mom, and Jim Shannon sort of worked in episode 1.3 when everybody lost their memory, but what are you going to do for the remaining ten episodes? Unless you’re going to pull a Sookie Stackhouse actually trading Bill Compton for Eric Northman, I’m not buying any kind of false romantic tension you’re trying to brew up here. You’re just filling time that could be used to show me more dinosaurs. Axe Malcolm the ex-boyfriend. A pterodactyl tearing out his eyes should do the trick.
I was going to suggest you kill off Josh, the annoying asshole son, but he actually might serve some useful story purposes in the long run. His whole, “I have to bring my future girlfriend back to Terra Nova” motivation made me roll my eyes at first, but here you have the chance to set him up to be one of the villains, if not THE villain of the show. I get it. You’re Fox and you want to encourage family values, but sometimes a bad seed is just a bad seed. And you’re certainly setting up young Josh Anakin to go totally Darth Vader if things don’t go to his liking. Plus, his rift with Jim Shannon could mirror the one between Commander Taylor and his son, the one we haven’t seen yet. OMG! Themes and motifs! Suddenly it’s art!
In all seriousness, you need to kill off characters for one reason more than any other; you’ve left yourself little room to introduce new characters down the line. And you’re going to need to in order to move the story forward. Trust me.
5.) Cut to the Chase OR “Show me the @#$%ing Dinosaurs!!”
I’ve jokingly referred to this show as “Fox’s Dinosaur of the Week.” However, there’s some truth there. People are watching Terra Nova to see the dinosaurs. You know this as well as anybody else. I get that CGI is expensive so you can’t have wall to wall dinos for forty-three minutes. I’ll even give you some props here. So far, you’ve been pretty good at getting us at least some dino action in every episode. Keep that up. However, do not underestimate that the dinosaurs are a huge part of why people will watch this show.
What you need to do is show more of the action rather than tell us about it. Much of the action in Terra Nova is implied rather than shown. I’ll give you an example.
In episode 1.3, Red Shirt #544 goes with Taylor and Dr. Mom to Outpost 3 to find out what happened to its crew. Red shirt is told to go “check the perimeter. “ The next time we see him he’s unconscious on the floor after Taylor has gone PTSD on him. You’ll probably tell me you wanted to save the Taylor as John Rambo reveal for his encounter with Jim Shannon, and I totally agree that’s the place for the reveal. However you could have shown me Red Shirt #544 getting taken down without ever revealing who or what did it. You had already established the fearsome nickel eating dinosaurs at this point. A few quick cuts, some good sound effects and screaming, then Boom! Red shirt down! Was it a Nickelback-a-saurus? Was it Taylor gone Rambo? Was it the Sixers come to cause trouble? Not only would there have been a wee bit of low budget action, I would have gotten mystery to boot!
You have a lot of people talking about dinosaur attacks happening off screen. Again, I understand that CGI is expensive, but trust me that people are watching this show to see those dino attacks. “What about practices and standards?” you ask. That’s a valid concern. Just do what you did at the beginning of 1.3 when Dr. Such-and-Such got eaten by a something-or-other-saurus. We saw the dino. We saw him. And we pretty much could figure out the rest on our own. No blood, only a couple of CG shots; yet your point was made.
You can’t rely solely on dinosaurs of course. Good storytelling needs to be the backbone of your plan moving forward. Ultimately, you just need to relax and stop being so needy. The premise is sound. The characters, all 350 of them, are likeable. We’ll even mourn a few when you kill them off. You’ve created a cool universe with a lot of possibilities. Now just tell me a story, preferably one that doesn’t hinge on the time travel paradox.
Just don’t forget to show me the dinosaurs.
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RottingCorpse is Lonnie Martin, an independent filmmaker and writer. More on his work can be found at www.LonnieMartin.com