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!

Jericho Part II: Conspiracy, Cult Television and Genre

As season one comes to an end, and Jericho and New Bern finally engage in battle, the conflict is disrupted by the arrival of external military ‘order’. But this army are not the cavalry. As season two starts, it becomes clear that this army is not the United States military but an army that represents a new nation, with a new flag, and a new version of history. Initially, the re-establishment of order looks like a good thing, but Jake and Robert soon start to see problems with this new nation state and start to amass evidence that it is not the re-establishment of the US, but rather represents the very forces that destroyed the US in the first place, forces in which independent defense contractors are central.

Tragically, season three never happened. Season two was only made after immense fan pressure and the makers had to fit the entire season into a seven episodes, which was all the channel would fund, a situation that makes everything a bit rushed. But its better than nothing. Also, the cult status of the show has meant that the narrative has continued in other media, with novels and comics developing the story.

Clearly, then, the show has developed a major cult following (in 2007, TV Guide placed it in 11th place in its list of the Top Cult Shows Ever!) , and this is for many different reasons. Obviously the fantastic cast is a factor, and the wonderful characters that they play. Also the show is done with a sense of authenticity (I am not talking about the realities of nuclear attack here) with a grim vision of a small community struggling in a hostile post-apocalyptic environment. It has also got real emotional resonance, without the treacly qualities of shows such as Falling Skies. Family is important here and the stories are emotional, but the families in this show also have their painful, difficult and complex problems, problems that a bit of ‘quality time’ or a ‘group hug’ won’t solve.

Genre is also interesting here. As has already been indicated, the show treads a careful line generically. It does not deny its generic roots, as is the case with so much ‘quality television these days. The Wire was fond of saying that failure would have resulted in the series becoming a cop show, when that was evidently what it was; even my beloved Deadwood kept claiming that it wasn’t Gunsmoke, in an attempt to disavow its status as a Western. But Jericho also resists the inverse tendency of being too clever and knowing about its generic roots.

Instead, it tells the story with seriousness and commitment. If it has been seen to have traces of the western, and if it also draws heavily on Biblical narratives, the justification for discussing it here in a blog on fantastic television is that it is also clearly associated with science fiction and horror though its post-apocalyptic setting. For example, it concerns a community trying to survive when the technological supports of its society wither or fail, a concern that it shares with films such as Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, and novels such as Earth Abides. The same can also be seen in cases such as The Day of the Triffids (the novel and television versions, if not the Howard Keel film version), or even Stephen King’s The Stand, both of which explicitly explore attempts to forge new social patterns in a post-apocalyptic world.

It is in this sense, then, that for all its association with the Western, Biblical Epic and even the Political Thriller, Jericho can also be seen as a contribution to science fiction and/or horror television. But whatever genre you may want to associate it with, this is a fine show that I would recommend in the strongest terms.

Jericho: An Apocalypse of Biblical Proportions

Jericho is one of those great shows that was cancelled at the end of its first season, for reasons unimaginable to those who has seen it. It concerns a small town in rural Kansas which is plunged into crisis when a series of nuclear explosions take out 23 major US cities and communication with the outside world go silent. Not only does this situation create uncertainly about what has happened but also it also places the community in a desperate struggle for survival.

The main character is Jake Green (played by Skeet Ulrich), who is the wayward son of one of the town’s key families, and has just returned home after several years away in unspecified military operations that seem to include action in the Gulf War. His return to town just in time for the crisis may be a coincidence that proves a bit hard to swallow, but it is the only problem of this kind in the show.

I have never really seen the point of Ulrich before, and have always considered him not only to be a bit too twitchy but generally rather boring. However, here, he really justifies his star status, and even makes you wonder why no one has ever found out how to use him effectively, either before or since. He completely transcends his teen-rebel role and emerges as a character of real substance.

But he is by no means the only impressive member of the cast. This is a show with a large number of characters almost all of whom are played by actors of real quality. Lennie James is fantastic as Robert Hawkins, the other newcomer in town, and a man who knows more than he is saying about the attacks that have obliterated the United States. He is a fascinating character who grows and grows as the series develops, and he quickly becomes Jake’s sidekick, although sidekick makes him sound secondary. It is probably best to call him Jake’s ally.

Gerald McRaney is great as dad, and the wonderful Pamela Reed is mom, plus there is also Sprague Grayden as another of Jake’s allies; D. B. Sweeney as a surprisingly menacing threat to the town; and the outstanding Esai Morales (in series two) as an honorable commanding officer, although an explanation of his role would give too much away at this stage.

As should be already clear, this series is an explicitly post-911 drama but the nuclear destruction is not the result of an ‘Islamic’ attack that demands a defensive/offensive response. On the contrary, Jericho may have been the city whose walls famously fell before the Israelites’ trumpets, but the show explicitly deals with the issue of aggression and defense – of borders, territories and ‘security systems’. Right from the start, Hawkins’ presence suggests that the attacks are internal rather than external and, by season two, Jake and Robert start to investigate the interests at stake in this attack. But I get ahead of myself.

Even in season one, as people begins to realize that the United States no longer exists and that the community is now on its own, the town finds itself prey to various different groups, the most menacing of which is a gang of mercenaries who have turned into bandits and are exploiting the chaos. These mercenaries also raise one of the key concerns of many left or liberal post-911 films and television series (and even less liberal shows such as 24), the rise of the new private or corporate ‘security services’. In the show, these mercenaries, led by D. B. Sweeney, were originally employed by the Government to support the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the aftermath of the attacks but, once the US state had effectively collapsed, they turn into the kind of parasitic bandits that are best exemplified by Eli Wallach’s outlaws in The Magnificent Seven.

Of course, this kind of narrative has lead many to claim that the show is much like a contemporary Western, with the destruction of the US transforming the environment into something akin to the Wild West. However, as the title Jericho suggests, the model for the series (or at least for season one) is less the Western than the Biblical epic. As season one progresses, the references to the ancient world proliferate, and the town’s community begins to look like a Biblical tribe as they battle to survive in a landscape that puts them in conflict with other tribes.

Consequently, the introduction of a nearby town, New Bern, sets the scene for a narrative that resembles the Biblical story of Lot’s encounter with Sodom and Gomorrah (without the sodomy), in which a struggle over resources leads into a tense trade agreement, which finally descends into open conflict.

Next Week: Jericho Part II: Conspiracy, Cult Television and Genre