Tuned In: 'Terra Nova': Where the dinosaurs roam

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Fox's long-in-gestation "Terra Nova" will finally see the light of day this week, and the show turns out to be a cross between "Jurassic Park" and this year's short-lived, colonizing-a-new-planet BBC America drama "Outcasts."

"Terra Nova" (8 p.m. Monday, WPGH), executive produced by Steven Spielberg, serves up an OK pilot that gets bonus points for attempting to revive the family adventure genre, something broadcast networks have generally shied away from in recent years.

The special effects in a preview disc sent to critics ranged from glossy to mediocre CGI -- some tweaking remained to be done -- and eagle-eyed viewers will catch some plot holes no animated dinosaur can hide.

Monday's two-hour premiere is also a little sluggish as it sacrifices momentum for a backstory that explains how ex-cop Jim Shannon (Jason O'Mara, ABC's "Life on Mars") and his family end up traveling from an environmentally damaged 2149 to a colony 85 million years in the past via a "time fracture."

But "Terra Nova" gets off to a better start than a past TV series that was also executive produced by Mr. Spielberg: NBC's 1993-96 "seaQuest DSV," nicknamed by critics "Das Bomb."

In the fictionalized future of "Terra Nova," climate change skeptics are proved wrong, and Earth's environment is a mess. Population control requires no more than two children per family. And Earth's only hope for the future is found in the past where colonists are trying to build a better civilization in a new time stream (re: no "butterfly effect").

The Shannons broke the two-kids rule when Zoe (Alana Mansour) joined teenage siblings Josh (Landon Liboiron) and Maddy (Naomi Scott). The "Terra Nova" pilot doesn't explain the particulars surrounding Jim and his doctor wife, Elisabeth (Shelley Conn), breaking the two-kids rule, but when they're caught, Jim goes to jail for two years before Elisabeth helps him break out when she's invited to join the Terra Nova experiment.

The show's pace quickens once the family arrives at Terra Nova, where dinosaurs roam outside security fences that protect the 1,000 inhabitants who are led by military commander Nathaniel Taylor (Stephen Lang, "Avatar"). "Terra Nova" producers -- and there are a dozen of them -- deserve credit for making Taylor an enigmatic heavy. He clearly holds secrets, but it's not immediately clear how good or bad he is, allowing the character some gray-hued mystery.

Mr. O'Mara is an ideal choice for Jim Shannon. He's got an action hero gusto that's matched by a winning emotional bond with the actors playing his children.

The Shannon kids take a more active role once the family arrives in Terra Nova. Hothead son Josh goes OTG -- "outside the gates" -- with some new teenagers-will-be-teenagers friends, causing all sorts of mayhem when dinosaurs attack. Their joyride also opens up the show's ongoing mythology that involves a break-away sect, "The 6ers," and scribbling found on rocks.

The 6ers are members of the sixth pilgrimage to Terra Nova who then left to form their own settlement. Mira (Christine Adams) leads the renegades who are particularly miffed at Taylor. Monday's premiere only hints at reasons for the dispute, but it seems likely to play out over future episodes.

"Terra Nova" walks a fine line and how well it manages to stay on that path will likely determine its ultimate success or failure. It wants to be a series for families, but it doesn't want to alienate fans of sci-fi and action-adventure. It wants to depict dinosaurs using quality special effects but avoid busting its per-episode budget. And it wants to co-mingle stand-alone, single-episode stories with ongoing serialized arcs. Do too much of any one of these things (and not enough of another), and the show could be headed to the Land of the Lost TV series.

Rob Owen writes this Sunday TV column for Scripps Howard News Service. Contact him at: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.



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