Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Terra Nova was a Bait and Switch?

Yes, Korea's dictator for life has died.  Newt is plunging at the polls. Huntsman may run as a Libertarian. There is important stuff going on in the world, but I assume that folks are heading to boards like Fark or debating endlessly on Facebook on these topics. I decided to take on a different subject.

Terra Nova was a surprise for me. Not that it snuck up on me, I've been there pretty much from the first episode, but what I am appreciating about it, is how the writing staff lured us in with the characters. With the plot arcs. It's not the best series on TV right now--I still hand that one to Dexter for smart writing and characters that while not always likable, they are internally consistent. Something that is rare on TV nowadays.

Terra Nova snuck up on me, because on the surface it appears to be much like a lot of other TV series about time travel. A certain lack of regard for the laws of physics notwithstanding, and certainly a tossed away thought to causality, the show is an interesting thought experiment on how we humans could overcome our depleting our biosphere with pants on head retarded abandon.

It has all the elements. Shadowy government-corporate collusion. Authoritarians riding herd over scientists and doctors, idealistic colonists, an everyman with a family who is considered a criminal but just wants to be a Dad and protect his own, the quasi-adopted daughter of the military Commander who is in league with rogue elements and rebels.

From the get go, you are see the familiar cast of characters and figure: ...well, maybe the dinosaurs will look cool... Least that's how I approached it. It's how I looked at Primeval--another show that plays around with causality and time loops and physics and twists them up like a kitten with a ball of string--though, without a Spielbergian budget for their dinosaurs.  To be fair, when you get dinosaurs involved in a series, you almost always get quasi-governmental conspiracies, I suspect because even writers realize that few folks will believe that anyone else might pay for the housing and upkeep of the suckers when they are crossed over into our world, or we roll into theirs'. Time looping is rarely the sort of thing that TV villains ever just do on their own. It's a sort of Big Government project. Yet, when this series got off to its start, it set the archetypes down fairly thickly. Military Commander, his loyal troops, scientists with a lack of backbone, and then enters Jim Shannon, a criminal who sneaks his way across the time bridge to the Cretaceous to unite with his family. The Sixers are the rebels, the colonists are caught up in a somewhat low key struggle.

The thing is, without delving into the endless retconn of Lost very few of our characters are what they seem, even if they hew to archetype. That is refreshing to me. After the endless meandering of  JJ Abrams and Jeffery Lieber's muddled plots and fabricated "surprises" it's nice to see characters develop and reveal themselves for a change on science fiction TV without the "Very Special Episode" trope that usually accompanies it.  It was the strength of Babylon 5 and Farscape. It was part of reason that Firefly looked like it was going to shake out nicely.  Character progression without beating us over the head with it.  I don't quite compare Terra Nova to those shows--in part, because they are entirely different sub-genre--but it is nice to see that the writers payed attention. In a single season, Terra Nova became a show that looked like a few others, with slightly better production values, and is revealing itself to be its own show.

The bait and switch portion of the show is core to the plot. You can see how the show was pitched, and with the strong archetypes, you can see why execs looked up and said, "I understand this, let's do this, and with BIG dinosaurs!" The bait and switch is built into every character.  From the Rod Hallet's Dr. Wallace, who figured he could schmooze his way into the heart of Shelly Conn's Dr. Elisabeth Shannon,  Allison Miller's Skye, the adopted daughter of the Commander and turns out, Sixer mole--turned to protect her missing mother that the rebels have chained up with a nasty virus. Yes, it gets complicated fast, as science fiction shows tend to do. The thing is, and it's the thing that I like about the show, is that the characters, while they are presented in classic archetype fashion, they actually do remain internally consistent. We are presented with them, and make some assumptions. The viewer knows the conventions of the genre, and we're fed them on the surface. We bite, and then the characters reveal themselves, and lo, we find there's a bit more going on than we thought.

Steven Lang's Commander Taylor is the height of this. When introduced, you can't help but think, "Did they just use a bunch of out takes from Avatar to film this?  The show borrows heavily from his performance on the big screen to build a shell of a character around Taylor, before you get to know the man. It's very much deliberate. Hard nosed military Commander, with a bunch of armed troops to protect the scientists and colonists, you're led to make some assumptions about the man, that the rest of the season then shows that you're almost right, and where those assumptions are wrong, they are very wrong. The same with the Sixer's Mira. Arriving in a rogue pilgrimage, she looks at first like a foil to the munificent authoritarian rule of Taylor. And that is what you're supposed to believe, because that is the sort of preconceived notion that you arrive with.

That is really what the show is about. Not wacky surprises or twists, but taking your assumptions, and playing with them. Feeding them a bit, and then showing that the internal consistency of the characters is staying true, and since you assumed wrong about the characters' motivations.  It IS a show about the rapaciousness of man, of conspiracies to strip mine the past to feed the future, of a struggle to build community and make new lives. The thing is, the roles are somewhat reversed, in that the authoritarians as presented are looking to preserve their community and homes against forces that would tear them apart, and force them to desecrate their new home, and the wild rebels are tools of the technocrats in hiding.  That bait and switch has been a nice reveal, because that is what it has been. A season long reveal of the characters' motivations, and while doing so, allowing them to grow into those roles a bit.

It isn't an amazing show. It's not going to knock your socks off, having you laughing, and it on the edge of your seat. It's not going to make your head bleed trying to figure out the "mystery" behind things. That alone endears the show to me--I am tired of retconn being used as a constant plot device and the Heroes/Lost sort of rewriting history at a moment's notice, I hope, has passed on. What this show is, is a nice commentary not only on our politics right now, but how we construct our ideas and make assumptions. It is a show that gives a slight pause, because it is not blindingly obviously referential, and instead drops bread crumbs for you to follow on these stereotypes in a subtle fashion that I thought was dead on American network series television. Let alone on Fox...

The season is done, and I have to say, that I am hoping that this one returns, because it's a show that has some cojones to challenge those assumptions. Not in a "screw you viewer!" that just rips up the character  with some bombshell retconn, but instead has the audacity to keep characters internally consistent, and even make a gentle jape at the viewer for their own assumptions, and then let us in on the joke, with some well intentions.

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