Terra Nova: Brave old world

By Scott Kara

Kiwi audiences are about to get their first glimpse of Steven Spielberg's big-budget sci-fi TV blockbuster Terra Nova, which follows a family of the future as they time travel to a past when dinosaurs roamed Earth. Scott Kara met its stars and crew.

The new inhabitants of Terra Nova have a variety of obstacles to overcome. Photo / Supplied
The new inhabitants of Terra Nova have a variety of obstacles to overcome. Photo / Supplied

Welcome to the world of Terra Nova folks - the most expensive TV show ever made. With its flashy CGI effects, vicious dinosaurs, and vast sets, including the prehistoric human colony the show takes its name from, the feature-length pilot cost around US$20 million ($24.1 million) alone. And each of the following 11 episodes of the Steven Spielberg-backed series cost US$4 million to make.

It would want to look good then, and though it's no Avatar, it is certainly cinematic in scope.

But as Avatar veteran turned Terra Nova star Stephen Lang, who plays hard-as-nails colony leader Commander Nathaniel Taylor, says, it's not just about the effects.

"In the end, if you don't have a good yarn to tell, then all the special effects in the world aren't going to help you. And if you don't care about the people who are going through what ever it is they are going through, then it's going to be an empty experience."

Lang - or Slang as everyone on the Gold Coast set of Terra Nova calls him - knows a bit about big budget entertainment having starred in last year's Conan the Barbarian and most famously as deranged, civilisation-destroying maniac Colonel Miles Quaritch in Avatar.

"I've done a lot of stuff with lots of explosions in it," he says in his dry, staunch tone, "and I must say Conan the Barbarian had more special effects in it than anything I've ever done, with the exception of Avatar. But this one is certainly up there."

It has to be said, the cost of the series was also ramped up due to production delays and flooding at the Queensland set, but those dinosaurs and vast scale of the production sure don't come cheap.

The premise for the show goes like this. The year is 2149 with human life on the verge of extinction because of overpopulation and air pollution. The only hope of survival - for a chosen few at least - lies through a time portal that allows people to travel 85 million years back in time to an "alternate" prehistoric earth.

The story picks up with the Tenth Pilgrimage of settlers on their way to Terra Nova, Among them are the Shannon family: dad and former cop Jim, his surgeon wife Elisabeth, and their three children Josh, Maddy and Zoe.

It's a chance for a new start.

As Taylor says in his welcome to the colony's latest inhabitants: "Citizens of 2149, together we are at the dawn of a new civilisation. Welcome to Terra Nova folks. Welcome home."

Today, Lang is talking to TimeOut during a brief break from shooting on set. He's still wearing his military-style uniform, with a gnarly handgun in a holster strapped to his body, having just come out of "the jungle".

"We have a plan, it's very risky, to send [Jim] Shannon back to carry out a little sabotage that is necessary to the survival of our colony," he says of the scene he's just shot.

Human survival is what Terra Nova is all about.

Oh, and dinosaurs (some that actually existed and some imagined), time travel, and the many ecological issues affecting our planet. Then there are the elements of love, loss and rebellion (watch out for renegade group the Sixers) which keep the colony constantly on edge.

Terra Nova is like a combination of a number of Spielberg's past productions - take your pick from Jurassic Park, Back to the Future and Raiders of the Lost Ark, throw in the mystery and menace of J.J. Abrams' Lost and the lush forests and action of James Cameron's Avatar.

The series screened in the US late last year with consistently good ratings, and has been picked up by networks around the world, although there is still no word on whether Fox will back a second series.

And as for executive producer Spielberg's actual involvement? Well, let's just say he's a busy man. Young star Landon Liboiron (who plays Josh Shannon) cheekily describes the King of Hollywood as a "Wizard of Oz-type character".

"We haven't met him yet. But, I mean, he is working on 20 different things," he laughs. "During the pilot we were laughing that Steven Spielberg was going to shoot down, [come] boosting out of a helicopter with the Jurassic Park theme playing to check on everything."

Seriously though, the show's writer and producer Rene Echevarria says Spielberg was involved in casting key roles ("he's made a few stars in his day"), the production design of the colony and the dinosaurs ("he lent the production a dinosaur expert") and establishing the ecological themes of the show ("the idea that the community was renewable").

One of the most noticeable things about Terra Nova is its family-friendly audience focus, with the Shannons at the heart of the story.

"Not that we sacrificed dinosaurs for it or anything," jokes director Jon Cassar, the man also behind action-packed political series 24 and most recently The Kennedys. "It's just about where you put the spine of your show and the Shannon family is exactly where it's at."

But, he says, it's also about balancing out the family drama with the sci-fi elements and the "bigger story" of Terra Nova.

"You've got your weekly story, your family drama and within that you've got the mythology, mostly because of this renegade tribe called the Sixers who are mysterious right from the get go. They become a major force.

"The fanboys will like that part [because] you can't do sci-fi without mythology," says Cassar.

The idea of time travel and the "alternate time line" Terra Nova is in are two elements of the show that could be hot topics for sci-fi geeks - and Cassar knows it.

"With science fiction you have so much leeway to go whichever way you want to go and make up your own rules. There is a part of it that's interesting in that way, but the difficult part of coming up with a sci-fi concept is the amount of scrutiny you come under.

"If a cop show comes out it doesn't get scrutinised - except maybe from cops. And I had a friend who was an ER doctor and she said her and her friends got together and watched ER as a comedy every week.

"But sci-fi is incredibly scrutinised by people who think they know the rules of sci-fi. You say 'time travel' and everyone starts giving you the rules of time travel," he says.

According to Echevarria, one of the show's resident sci-fi experts who has worked on Star Trek: The Next Generation and is co-creator of science fiction TV drama The 4400, the time stream the Terra Nova-ites are living in has no future yet.

Though, you have to wonder whether the Shannons, Taylor and co ever think about the small possibility of a cataclysmic ecological event striking Earth in a few million years or so.

But hey, it's just a story.

"Science fiction fans are staunch about continuity and sometimes you have to be willing to piss them off," laughs Echevarria. "You know, 'That's what you think you want, but what you really want is a good story'."

While he believes the show has its obvious antecedents, such as Jurassic Park, he also sees something very Star Trek about it.

"It is a very optimistic 'aspirational, mankind rising from the ashes' show," he says.

And, perhaps most important of all, the world they have created is both a magical and mysterious one.

"You want Terra Nova to be a place where you wish you could go," he says. "And it is dangerous, and there are dinosaurs, but you want to go there. These people are going from 2149 to 85 million years in the past. That should be wondrous."

WHO'S WHO OF TERRA NOVA

Commander
Nathaniel Taylor
(Stephen Lang)

Survived 118 days by himself before anyone else joined him. Once new settlers started arriving he began building Terra Nova and is now leader of the colony. Tough, intelligent, with a rarely seen sensitive side.

Jim Shannon
(Jason O'Mara)

Not originally on the list to make the Tenth Pilgrimage to Terra Nova but forces his way through the portal to be with his family. The former narcotics cop initially rubs Taylor up the wrong way but the pair soon become allies.

Elisabeth Shannon (Shelley Conn)
A trauma surgeon and wife of Jim who is the newest recruit to the colony's medical team. Her old boyfriend, Malcolm Wallace, is also in Terra Nova.

Josh Shannon (Landon Liboiron)
In actor Landon Liboiron's words, 17-year-old Josh is the "whiny brat" and "reluctant teenager" of the cast. He is annoyed about leaving his girlfriend behind in 2149 but perks up somewhat when he meets Skye in Terra Nova.

Skye
(Allison Miller)

Long-time resident - and teen rebel - of the colony. Skye and her mates get their kicks by venturing out beyond Terra Nova's high walls and drinking "prehistoric moonshine" they secretly distil in the jungle.

Mira
(Christine Adams)

Leader of renegade group the Sixers who broke away from the colony early on and are now determined to pillage its resources. The name comes from the fact the Sixers came from the Sixth Pilgrimage. Mira, while tough and calculating, is not unreasonable and sometimes open to negotiating.

Lt. Alicia Washington (Simone Kessell)
Kiwi actress Simone Kessell initially wasn't in the pilot episode as Taylor's right hand woman but her part was added in later and throughout the rest of the series her role becomes increasingly pivotal.

LOWDOWN

What: Terra Nova
Where and when: Saturday February 25, 7.30pm, TV3

-TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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