“Terra Nova”: a healthy dose of dinos

Chicago Sun Times/Lori Rackl

In the first episode of “Terra Nova,” Cmdr. Nathaniel Taylor welcomes the latest round of newcomers to his colony.

“Together, we are at the dawn of a new civilization,” Taylor says, pausing for dramatic effect. “No pressure.”

That same sarcastic quip can apply to Fox’s much-anticipated “Terra Nova,” the most ambitious of broadcast TV’s new scripted series, co-produced by Steven Spielberg.

Held back from its originally scheduled May debut for fine-tuning, “Terra Nova” finally takes off Monday with a two-hour premiere that cost somewhere in the universe of $15 million to make.

Featuring hungry dinosaurs, time travel and other whiz-bang visual effects, “Terra Nova” looks like it was made for the big screen, not the small one. It’s a futuristic tale set in the distant past, which holds mankind’s only hope for survival.

The story is part sci-fi, part adventure epic, part family drama. In other words, “Terra Nova” falls under one giant, T. rex-sized umbrella, suitable for ages 10 and up.

“It’s not just for a niche audience,” said Jason O’Mara (“Life on Mars”), whose acting chops shine as patriarch of the Shannons, one of the families chosen to travel 85 million years into the past to help settle the new colony of Terra Nova.

“It’s not ‘Battlestar Galactica.’ It’s not ‘Star Trek.’ This isn’t just about time travel and dinosaurs,” he said. “This kind of has that all-inclusive look and feel of a true Steven Spielberg production.”

If “Terra Nova’s” opening shot has the look and feel of a familiar place, that’s because it’s Chicago — a very grim Chicago in the year 2149. (Producers say they chose Chicago because “the Shannons are fighters,” and they wanted them to come from “a city with grit and a fighting spirit.”)

Looks like Mayor Daley’s efforts to make us a green city didn’t work out too well. Chicago 2149’s air is so polluted, people have to wear “re-breather” masks. Families are capped at four due to over-population. It’s a bleak, smoke-filled dystopia, where we learn that a piece of fresh fruit is a rare delicacy.

The planet is on its last legs. But scientists at Fermilab have discovered a way to send people to an alternate time stream, one that’s set in the Cretaceous period 85 million years ago.

The idea is to take intrepid settlers, such as the Shannons, on a one-way trip to this new, old world. The colonists are sent to Terra Nova to preserve the human race, to get a shot at a fresh start.

Science fiction isn’t the easiest sell on broadcast TV, which is why “Terra Nova” tries to keep it sci-fi lite.

“We’re asking the audience to make one leap of faith, make one buy: Believe that people could travel through time and end up here,” said showrunner and co-producer Rene Echevarria, whose lengthy list of credits includes “Medium” and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.”

“Everything else that happens here is based on reality,” Echevarria added. “Nobody flies. Nobody has ESP. There are no aliens living with the dinosaurs.”

The Shannons — whose personal problems have them in need of their own fresh start — end up on the 10th pilgrimage to Terra Nova.

They arrive at what seems like utopia.

“Are those clouds?” their 5-year-old daughter Zoe asks, marveling at the unpolluted sky. “They’re so white.”

Making the most of the Queensland, Australia, scenery in which it’s shot, “Terra Nova” is full of gushing waterfalls, verdant hills and so much fresh air that newcomers’ lungs suffer from oxygen overload.

The colony is run by the charismatic Taylor, ably played by Spielberg’s first choice, Stephen Lang (“Avatar”).

Clues start dropping that the commander might rule with too much of an iron fist, and not everyone is on Team Taylor.

The Shannons are discovering that people still misbehave whether they’re in 22nd century Chicago or the Cretaceous era. Maybe Terra Nova isn’t the paradise they thought it was. Maybe it’s just as dangerous inside the colony’s fence — a fence designed to keep out the dinosaurs.

Ah yes, the dinosaurs. Let’s face it: They’re a big draw.

“They’re in every episode,” Echevarria promised. “They’re usually not the story; they’re a complication in the story. They tend to come along at the worst possible time.”

Spielberg’s trusty “Jurassic Park” paleontologist Jack Horner consulted on the realistic-looking, primeval beasts that give the show welcome bursts of adrenaline.

While the CGI dinosaurs look plenty scary from your living-room couch, it was a different story on the set, where actors had to use a lot of imagination.

“There’s something worse than a tennis ball on the end of a stick,” O’Mara said, citing the prop that usually fills in for an effect to come later. “It’s an Australian visual effects assistant running around [a field] with a cardboard dinosaur head cut off on the end of a stick while wearing shorts and sandals . . . and you’re supposed to look intimidated and scared to death.”

Between dinosaur escapades, time travel and the obligatory exposition of a mind-bender of a story, “Terra Nova” packed quite a bit into its two-hour premiere. The characters may have suffered as a result. So far, they come off a little stock: rebellious teenage boy, hot-headed but heroic cop, patient wife, power-hungry leader. Now that the premise of the show has been established, it would be nice to see more shades of gray and less black and white.

As for future plotlines, there’s certainly plenty of fertile ground to mine when the backdrop is a new world.

“We did an early episode about the first murder in Terra Nova,” Echevarria said. “We don’t really have courts or a prison. How are we going to deal with this? What does justice look like?”

But don’t worry about the philosophical stuff getting too heavy.

“Regardless of how human the stories become,” O’Mara said, “we’ll always have a healthy dose of dinos.”


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