From New World to Extinction: What Killed Off Terra Nova?

The other day I was finishing up the last few episodes of Terra Nova on Netflix; I had started it back when it first aired on FOX, but due to some DVR problems and a real lack of ambition on my part to finish the last two episodes after the show got the ax, I never saw the series finale. But I returned to it, because despite the cancellation and my own mixed feelings about the show, I always feel the need to finish these kinds of things, even if only to say I have finished it.

Terra Nova is about a new colony developed in a strange time warp which brings citizens back from the year 2149 to the Cretaceous period; despite the dangers of living in a time where dinosaurs reigned supreme, the risks are better than living in 2149, where Earth has begun to rot and is on the brink of destruction. Terra Nova focuses on the development of this new colony, and it does this through the point of view of a family setting out to start a new life. Jason O’Mara plays Jim Shannon, a man who was wrongly jailed back in 2149 and who escapes just in time to make the journey to Terra Nova in the series premiere. The show tends to tell the tale of the Shannons moreso than any other part of Terra Nova, and it’s really this family that frames the entire show.

Terra Nova didn’t really make a big splash, and that wasn’t helped by poor reviews from critics. Even though Steven Spielberg’s name was thrown around a whole lot, viewers didn’t really latch on to the idea. Perhaps it was the plot itself, which tended to strive for Lost themes but instead became a clinical, bad-guy-of-the day show. The science fiction narrative was a difficult sell for primetime TV to begin with, and adding all of these ideas about time traveling and dinosaurs and colonists with laser blasters doesn’t work for most without a cohesive plot that feels like it’s moving forward.

But that’s not what killed Terra Nova for me. While every episode was rather hit or miss, the show didn’t do a terrible job of keeping forward momentum moving. There was at least some spark that kept the overall plot moving forward towards its climax. The problem, at least from my own standpoint, was the show’s naivete and its emphasis on continuing to move from conflict to an equilibrium state.

Terra Nova always focused on drama and action, whether that was caused by Outsiders who wanted to destroy the colony or dinosaurs who simply wanted some human food. Each episode – even if it did generally function like a crime show with a case a week – had some event that made sense within the universe while also adding problems with the Outsiders, called the Sixers. In a sense, Terra Nova was always building towards a climax, even if there was a procedural air to each episode.

But the show always tended to lose itself in melodrama; the familial themes, and Jim Shannon’s fixation on juggling cop with concerned father, get jumbled together with the more serious themes about patriarchy, environmental destruction, and political instabilities. The war between the Sixers and the Terra Nova colonists works, but Terra Nova never focused enough upon this conflict. Instead, it alternated episodes between dinosaur qualms and Sixer strife, meaning that once a sense of tension was built between Sixers and colonists, it was dispelled once Terra Nova came back to the status quo.

This began to change towards the end of the season; the dinosaurs took to the backburner and the Sixers became the focal point. A war began between Sixers and colonists; in the last couple episodes, people actually died, tragically instead of off-screen without much buildup. The naivete of the earlier episodes faded away; instead of happy endings, the last episodes actually looked at what happens when things don’t go as planned, when Jim Shannon can’t succeed as the able-bodied hero. This made things a lot more interesting, and a lot more suspenseful.

Yet the change came too late; by the final few episodes, numbers had already been crunched, and the ratings were down too much for FOX to justify bringing Terra Nova back for another season. The show had shown glimmers of promise in its final episodes because it took a darker tone; it became the moody, blood-tinged show it should have been throughout its first season. But the time it took to build to this grimmer Terra Nova led to its extinction, leaving the colony fans had come to know left burning and abandoned.

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