The Secret Rules of Terra Nova's Time Travel

Steven Spielberg's new TV show Terra Nova may look like Avatar, but actor Stephen Lang explained to us why his character is nothing like the hard-ass he played in James Cameron's hit movie.

And we learned exactly how the show's time travel to 85 million years in the past will work, and saw a smidgen of new footage, at Terra Nova's Wondercon panel.

Minor spoilers ahead!

The Secret Rules of Terra Nova's Time Travel

So we saw a new extended Terra Nova trailer, which felt pretty similar to the show's Superbowl trailer. There were no new dinosaur shots at all.

But the main thing was that we got a bit more of the actual crossing from the polluted, dystopian future to the beautiful past. This is the tenth "pilgrimage" to the Cretaceous era, and it will bring the number of colonists in the past to 1,000. The Shannon family is preparing for the trip, but the family's dad (Jason O'Mara) isn't there. The daughter says she won't leave without her dad, but the mom says they should go ahead, because he'll find a way. Later, in the gorgeous prehistoric settlement, Elizabeth Shannon asks her husband Jim if they did the right thing coming back here, and he says they absolutely did.

The Secret Rules of Terra Nova's Time Travel

We also saw a bit more the sequence where Josh Shannon goes swimming in a waterfall with a hot girl in a bikini top and shorts. And a crucial dinosaur attack, where the kids hide inside an armored vehicle, and the dinosaur is trying to break in. Jim Shannon knows his kid is out there, and he promises to get him back.

Apart from that, it was mostly the same scenes we saw before.

So how does this time travel work? Executive producer Brannon Braga explains that a supercollider accidentally opens a crack in time that led to the past, which they eventually figure out how to widen. And Commander Nathaniel Taylor (Lang) is the first person to explore through the rift. But it only opens intermittently – and it's a one-way journey. Once through, you can never return.

The Secret Rules of Terra Nova's Time Travel

O'Mara explained that his character, Jim Shannon, is a convict who's escaped from prison. He's been separated from his family for years, and his kids have grown up without him. And he sneaks into the time portal, bypassing the rigorous selection process that his family went through, so he and his family can have a second chance to start over together – just as the human race is doing the same thing.

Lang explained that Nathaniel Taylor is suspicious of Jim Shannon at first, because he didn't come through the portal the proper way. But soon, Taylor sees Jim Shannon as a potential leader for the colony, who could be a powerful ally – or a rival. Jim Shannon soon becomes the deputy to Nathaniel Taylor's sheriff.

The Secret Rules of Terra Nova's Time Travel

But this new start won't be the same as the previous go-around. The producers and Lang explained that Nathaniel Taylor, in addition to being a sort of frontiersman, is also an environmentalist – so the new human settlement is eco-friendly, from solar panels to materials recycled from the future. And they use sonic weapons against the native dinosaurs, so as not to harm them.

Braga, who wrote many time-travel episodes of Star Trek over the years, said that the ramifications of time travel are the main thing he gets asked about. Will these humans living in the past wind up changing the timeline? And he said that this isn't really a huge aspect of the show, because the trip is a one-time thing – but the whole "butterfly effect" question will be dealt with early on:

What's the plan? Is it the Butterfly Effect? Are they going to try and change the future? Those questions will be answered early on. We're trying something very different with the time travel... new and hopefully cool...

The Secret Rules of Terra Nova's Time Travel

But at the same time, the show will switch back and forth between the past and the future, and some shadowy stuff will be happening in the future that will affect our characters in the past.

The biggest laugh of the panel came from Stephen Lang, who admitted that in both Avatar and Terra Nova, he gives a similar speech welcoming newcomers to the planet. "It's written into all of my contracts that I have to do a welcoming speech," he joked. And then he proceeded to do a hilarious Col. Quaritch-style speech welcoming us to San Francisco. "You're not in San Diego," he told us. "You're in San Francisco. Respect that fact, each and every minute of every day."

Both Braga and producer/director Alex Graves were full of praise for Steven Spielberg, who came up with a lot of the ideas in the show – including lots of the cool little details that make the setting feel believable. Said Graves of Spielberg: "He riffs with ideas like comedians do with jokes, he's reactive and supportive and everything you'd hope."

The Secret Rules of Terra Nova's Time Travel

And the other exciting thing the creators teased is that the dinosaurs will really be different than anything you've seen before. "We're doing feathered dinosaurs," said Graves. "Dinosaurs with feathers – they're not even doing that in features."

Also, the show is doing its dinosaurs via motion-capture – there are actually actors in dinosaur suits doing the action, and that's being mapped to CG dinosaurs. This makes the animation smoother and also easier to do – although the process has taken a long time to set up.

The series goes back to filming in June, and right now the writers are working on scripts for the rest of the season. "We have a really good plan," said Braga. "This is not a show you want to wing it with."