If a TV show has aliens, robots, pathogens, disasters, demons, and/or superhumans, I’ll probably watch it at least once. I can even forgive a faerie if it’s good-looking. (God bless you, True Blood.) But when it comes to dinosaurs, my quality shields snap shut. Dinosaurs are sacred because they were real, and even learning that velociraptors actually looked like turkeys and the word brontosaurus is a misnomer didn’t diminish my childlike love for them. But Fox must think it can do right by thunder lizards in a TV show, because come September 26, the network will make them the stars of the ambitious drama Terra Nova.
It’s the story of a family set 138 years ahead in a dystopian future and also 85 million years back, when tyrannosaurs ruled North America. Think Swiss Family Robinson meets Jurassic Park by way of Timecop. And oh boy, have the rumors swirled: The multimillion-dollar pilot was so expensive that Fox had to green-light an entire season to amortize its cost. (Fox denies this.) Visual effects were so complicated that the premiere was delayed by four months. Etc. The usual Hollywood snipery. Not to worry, though; one of the executive producers is Steven Spielberg. But let me get a gut check: Does that make you less nervous—or more?
You don’t argue with Spielberg. You might cite creative differences—that’s what Terra Nova’s executive producer, David Fury, did right before becoming Terra Nova’s ex-executive producer. Otherwise, you just grouse and kick rocks. Spielberg is a locus of power, and he’s just one of a bunch of mandarins above the line on the credits, which include the guys behind 24, Star Trek (Voyager and Enterprise), The 4400, Dark Angel, Castle, Fringe, and Firefly. Well, sure, also four episodes of Baywatch Nights, but the auspiciousness is hard to deny. Forecasts are positive.
Still, there’s a whiff of something cold and lazy-expensive about this setup. Without the frugality that’s both the plague of and a boon to sci-fi programming, writers tend to stop relying on thrifty tricks like plot twists and character development. With movies, a stellar opening weekend applies a veneer of success, especially when backed by a barreling, mouth-breathing marketing machine. But TV shows are a porcelain plate spun on a wooden dowel for a longer time and at a different rhythm. Dinosaurs are expensive third-act bogeymen—herbivores for awe, carnivores kicked in for chase scenes. Do that stuff on TV and it’s using a bazooka for a crutch.
But that’s what happens when the talent is so … talented. Was there an executives’ retreat? When you accidentally dropped the former president and chief operating officer of News Corp. during that trust exercise, did he pound your back sportingly, or should you now expect to feel the cold ring of a silencer tip on one of your temples as you’re falling asleep? Were straws drawn for creative checks and balances? Were all those sultans ever even in the same room? I’m thinking a Google+ circle dedicated to “acquaintances who make Terra Nova” would have been a handy shortcut.
Look, I want people to spend on sci-fi shows. It’s just that dinosaurs make me feel proprietary. Kids conceived during Jurassic Park’s theater run are nearly old enough to smoke now, and we still don’t have digital effects that beat that first high. (Maybe Spielberg’s own recently announced Jurassic Park IV will take a quantum leap. Maybe the John Williams score will soar again.) And even if today’s couch potatoes haven’t seen the 1993 classic, they’ve seen its spiritual offspring: Sully quasi-yiffing an ancient lizard-bird on Pandora. You want concessions because those were movies and this is a TV show? Forget it. Michael Crichton is no longer with us. Nor is FX-whisperer Stan Winston. Except for the Amblin man at its heart, the crew who dazzled us no longer exists. Fact is, I like my small-screen sci-fi scrappy. I’ll be delighted if this Spielbergian suburban postapocalyptic dinosaur family show beats me into fandom. But for me, Terra Nova has weight—but not pull.