Last night on Terra Nova, we really delved into what's going on with the Shannon family. Jim Shannon and his wife Elizabeth are still having problems readjusting to being together after two years apart, and Jim is having PTSD from his time in the harshest prison in the future. Meanwhile, Zoe Shannon is having nightmares because she was consigned to a brutal state-run orphanage for two years, and Maddy Shannon is confronting the downside of dating a soldier with some weird ideas about courtship. And that's all before Josh Shannon gets himself exiled from Terra Nova for helping the Sixers.
That's what would have been happening in last night's Terra Nova, if the show took its characters seriously. Instead, last night's episode served up a bland "A" plot in which Maddy Shannon discovers that her hero, a scientist with awesome disco hair, is not what he appears. And the "B" plot, in which Josh Shannon finally does the unforgiveable, could not have been less hard-hitting. Not even Nathaniel Taylor facing down a giant Komodo Dragon could save this episode from dullness.
The only way "Proof" could be more disapppointing is if you consider all the stuff the show probably should be doing with its characters right now. The first couple episodes teased us with the idea that Jim and Elizabeth Shannon were not going to ease right back into a comfy married life after two years apart, and the pilot made it seem like the whole family had been through hell due to their decision to have a third child.
Obviously, this is not supposed to be a dark, depressing show — the tone of Terra Nova is light and cheerful, and that's totally fine. And god knows, we had enough bratty angst from Josh in the pilot to last us forever. But at the same time, when I really think about why last night's episode was so incredibly underwhelming, I can't help being reminded of Star Trek: Voyager, another show from producer Brannon Braga. Like Voyager, Terra Nova seems uninterested in real character development or any real sense of respecting the setting.
Like most of Terra Nova's episodes so far, the "A" story in "Proof" could have come from any TV show, with only a few minor alterations. There's a pompous superstar scientist, and Maddy Shannon suspects that he's an imposter, and she turns out to be right, and he makes a quick half-assed attempt to kill her with a spider. You could easily transplant this story to any other show, and I'm not sure how it develops Maddy's character, exactly.
I did like the bit where the famous scientist comes back from his expedition, and everyone comes and cheers. Yay scientists! They really really love scientists in Terra Nova. Of course, the scientists never research anything useful — like dinosaur barriers, or how to stop all those EMP-generating meteors and things. And the scientists always turn out to be evil or misguided, like when they kill people and steal their identity, or create an airborne amnesia virus. Oh well.
And then there's the "B" plot, in which Josh gets to talk to his girlfriend Kara in 2149, and steals some drugs for Mira. Even Skye thinks that Josh is being kind of a dumbass, and warns him that he'll get exiled or worse. But Josh goes ahead with it, and puts on his Stealthy Hat for extra sneakiness. I did like the fact that after this whole complicated "swipe your mom's security card" scam, Josh just ends up shooting the medicine cabinet. (Which somehow doesn't damage any of the contents. Also, stealing heavy-duty drugs from Terra Nova is apparently really easy.) In the end, though, after Josh comes clean and tells his parents everything (and Jim apparently tells Taylor everything) Josh apparently gets off with a slap on the wrist.
After all the buildup of the "Josh works for the Sixers" storyline, let's hope this isn't the end of it, because the whole thing felt seriously anticlimactic. It was almost as though the show realized what an unappealing character Josh had become, and decided to pull its punches on Josh's major storyline to try and blunt the impact. Paradoxically, that probably only makes Josh more unlikable, in the long run.
Oh, and what is this drug anyway? It's like methamphetamines for cancer patients, or something. It has a "street value," but also sounds like chemotherapy when Elizabeth Shannon is talking about it, and it's needed to save some sick Sixers. Basically, it's an all-purpose wonder drug!
Meanwhile, last week's episode introduced us to Taylor's son Lucas, and revealed that the whole purpose of the Sixers was just to get him a box with a fancy computer inside, so he could stop having to do his complex equations on the rocks by that sexy waterfall from the pilot. We don't actually see any more of Lucas this time around, somewhat disappointingly — but instead, we get a few more hints, like Taylor saying he doesn't like to talk about his son, and there's no hope of bringing his son back, and his son didn't like to go fishing.
(Not like Jim Shannon, who loves to go fishing with Taylor, especially if it means they can embrace in a totally manly way on top of a cliffside. That is one totally manly, nonsexual embrace that Jim and Nathaniel are sharing, when Jim nearly goes off the cliff. I also like Nathaniel telling Jim that his fish can be as big as he wants it to be.)
In the episode's "C" plot, Nathaniel tracks down Curran, the murdering soldier whom he exiled a while back, and saves him from the komodo dragon. Taylor then sends Curran to infiltrate the Sixers and find out who their mole is. And that's totally not going to backfire.
I guess this was just another underwhelming episode, in a long line of underwhelming episodes — but it feels like there's a sort of cumulative burden of meh-ness settling in, after a while.
We were talking about this on Twitter a couple weeks ago, and what I kept coming back to was: I loved Kyle XY. Kyle XY was a good example of a family-oriented show with strong characters and a sweet, sunny tone. You always knew what the Trager family was about, and the siblings Josh and Lori each had really clear flaws and character traits, without ever becoming too obnoxious. (Lori was always an entertaining megabitch, and Josh was sort of a fun scheming weirdo.) True, Kyle XY became much better in its second season, when Jessi was introduced and Kyle started learning a lot more about himself — but Kyle's first season was way better than Terra Nova has been so far. I sort of wish someone would sit the Terra Nova writers down and make them watch Kyle XY. Or Falling Skies, for that matter — for all its many flaws, Falling Skies did a way better job of creating a believable family. Little touches like the fact that Hal and Ben didn't actually get along before Ben was abducted made things a lot more believable.
Here's a random question for the Terra Nova writers: Josh and Maddy are siblings, right? What did Maddy think of Josh's girlfriend Karra, back in 2149? Were Maddy and Kara friends? Did Maddy think Kara was stuck up? How did the two girls get along? Maybe Maddy has some thoughts she'd like to share at some point.
I think the bottom line is that Terra Nova, thus far, has been a very plot-oriented show. Every week, there's an external plot that's driving the characters along — so much so that the characters never have a moment to breathe or just to be people. That's totally fine — plot-driven storytelling can be great — but only if the plots are particularly interesting, or unique to these characters and this setting. Thus far, we've had pterosaur infestation, amnesia virus, dinosaur murder, a runaway girl, and the EMP meteor. The characters just run around reacting to this week's plot device.
Lots of shows have a clunky first season, so there's plenty of room for hope that Terra Nova will improve. A major step forward, though, would be a greater level of respect for its characters as something more than just cogs. I don't currently believe in the Shannons as individuals, or as a family, and that's a major reason I don't believe in Terra Nova as a community.