FOX’s Terra Nova Gambles on Catapulting Network Numbers

If you watched the new TV spot for FOX’s forthcoming series Terra Nova about a week ago (check it out using the player at the bottom of this page), you were probably struck by one overriding element: “Man this show looks elaborate!” The dystopian future meets Jurassic past storyline blends many motifs we’ve seen before: Irwin Allen’s classic skiens The Time Tunnel and Lost in Space; Swiss Family Robinson; Jurassic Park; Avatar…[insert reference here]. To employ these antecedents is to say it looks BIG. Big not just for television, but cinematically big.
Terra Nova was reportedly spawned by a June 2009 lunch in which FOX execs told Steven Spielberg’s top TV lieutenants that the network was in the market for a family adventure story that evoked the feel of Spielberg’s classic films such as E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and the aforementioned Jurassic Park.
Of course, these things don’t come cheap.
The series, about a family from the year 2149 who travel back 85 million years in an attempt to “restart” humanity, is being touted as possibly the most expensive broadcast television series ever made. It has also turned out to be one of the most challenging.
The first two hours of the show — lensing in Australia — cost about $16M. The crew consists of 300 individuals. To put that in some perspective, a typical core shooting crew for network television is 100 to 130 people (not counting construction).
The enormous sets include the Terra Nova “colony”—a massive piece the size of a football field inside 18-foot walls. The set comes complete with a market, hospital and residences.
Meanwhile, an eight foot animatronic velociraptor makes a cameo in the second hour of the pilot.
All of this is something of a television experiment. Networks are recognizing that dramatic television is under siege. Under siege from reality TV, the Internet, Web-based programs, new forms of mobile media…and it’s own tired legacy.
Go big or go home seems to be the new mantra. As cable networks like HBO continue to air epic dramas complete with fully-fleshed out characters (Deadwood, Rome, Game of Thrones), the traditional networks are realizing that to compete in this new world they need to crank out similar offerings so as not to get lost in the media echo chamber.
Still, it’s a gamble. Other major network genre shows in recent years have come and gone rapidly. ABC’s Flashforward and Invasion; CBS’ Threshold; NBC’s The Event and Surface—all failed to garner the viewership needed to succeed.

If Terra Nova is to succeed, it will need more than just Spielberg's visual pastiche, it will need the filmmaker's deft grasp of story and character.
Lost, on the other hand, worked. What it all boils down to at the end of the day is characters the viewer can care about. All the sets and visuals in the world are of little consequence if the characters don’t breathe; if they don’t resonate with an audience. Lost worked because it slowly built up the mystery of the island, while allowing us to get to know a fascinating group of characters in the meantime.
Terra Nova will need to adopt a similar approach if it is to succeed. If we care about this extended family, then their peril will seem far more real. So when those cool CG dinosaurs show up, the whole thing will work organically.
Spielberg’s films, like E.T. and Jurassic Park, only worked, after all, because the director had not only a long-standing eye for the fantastical, but a very acute sense of story, character…and, it should be noted, always picking exactly the right cast.
Meanwhile, the scuttlebutt is that the purportedly troubled Terra Nova production continues to have problems. According to the folks over at Vulture, they wouldn’t be surprised to see the project pushed back once again, this time to a mid-season debut.
Here’s hoping they’re wrong. We fervently hope that Terra Nova can deliver on its promise.

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