Terra Nova – Beware, Corporations Are Stripmining Your Past!

Terra Nova is a science fiction series with monsters. Sometime in the future, the ecosystem has gone kaput but a rift in time has handily turned up which allows people to travel back millions of years to when dinosaurs ruled the earth but American corporations (a far more vicious predator) have not yet been invented. So when Chicago cop, Jim Shannon (Jason O’Mara), falls foul of the law (his family decide to have a baby in defiance of the new quota system), he manages to escape into the past along with his family and a host of other ‘pilgrims’.

Given that time travel only works one way in this series (until a plot turns up that allows it to work both ways), he can’t be sent back to the future where he pay can for his crimes and the authorities in the new Jerusalem find that his skills as a cop come in very handy: nobody in the future, it seems, had thought of sending cops into the past but have rather thrown all their energies into sending back scientists and soldiers…

Anyhow, once in the past, the Shannon family settle down to a nice life (this is a Spielberg production), although luckily there are some issues to disrupt their idealized domestic arrangements. First, the past into which they have been dropped is full of dinosaurs, many of which are unfamiliar and/or unpredictable, so there are lots of opportunities for them to munch on the humans and threaten the homestead. Second, there is a political conflict going on in the past. The settlers are led by tough military man, Nathaniel Taylor (the wonderful Stephen Lang), who is in conflict with the ‘sixers’, a group of rebels who live outside the compound and are trying to undermine it. Worse still, his estranged son is out there too, and he is writing on rocks!!! Honest, I kid you not – it is really mysterious.

Of course, with Stephen Lang in the role of Taylor, his intentions are already deeply suspect. After all, Lang is an actor that has built his reputation by playing psychopaths and his casting in the show is clearly supposed to remind one of his evil commander in the mega-hit, Avatar. Taylor’s suspect character is also emphasized by the casting of O’Mara as Shannon, given that the younger actor has a history of Oedipal time-travel narratives and played Sam Tyler in the American version of Life on Mars, in which he was pitted against Harvey Keitel’s Gene Hunt.

But (SPOILER ALERT) it soon transpires that Taylor is not a bad man, and is actually trying to protect Eden from the sixers, who are in league with evil corporations back in the future (along with Taylor’s wayward son): the corporations plan to strip the past of its resources and ship them into the future. Clearly, this is not a show that has any interest in the paradoxes of time travel.

Of course, the irony here is that the show is itself a virtual strip-mining of the past. It is a Frankenstein’s monster that has been made up out of earlier objects of popular culture, as are many of Spielberg’s projects. There are bits of Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, bits of Avatar (except that here there are good and bad colonialists – pilgrim family settlers are good and strip-mining corporations are bad – but more of that later), and of course the homestead, the sixers and the new Eden start looking a lot like something out of a western. Oh, and Jim is a Chicago cop, so a lot of the plots are straight out of a cop show.

Furthermore, as should have become abundantly clear, the whole thing is a literal rip-off of the American story itself. Terra Nova is the new world; the pilgrim settlers are, well, pilgrim settlers; the new world is an explored Eden that doesn’t feature the pesky problem of the ‘indians’ – this time, the settlers have really got there first and have laid claim to virgin land that really hasn’t already been settled by others.

Of course, I am not complaining about the show’s plundering of the past – what text doesn’t work with the languages that surround it – but it is all a bit too obvious and contrived. Great popular culture makes the old into something new again; this makes something old into something that is all a bit too familiar. In both senses of the word. If it is too reminiscent of other things, this is partly because the show all a bit too comfy and cosy. In fact, unlike the western, in which the frontier is both opportunity and danger, and often feels quite bleak and tough, the world of Terra Nova, despite its monstrous dinosaurs and rebel sixers, all feels a bit to easy.

And of course part of the reason for this is that the show is far too concerned to operate as a family show. Its plots are all about the Shannons as a family, and even Taylor starts looking increasingly like a rather cantankerous grandad. In fact, it starts feeling a lot like Lost in Space, the TV series not the bewildering film version. Well, Lost in Space without all the weirdness that the Robinson family was forced to confront!

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