Originally written for TV Pixie
It’s not easy living in a version of 2149 that’s actually 85 million years in the past.
Particularly if you’re a nine year-old orphan living in a dinosaur infested rainforest with a group of dreadlocked, scantily clad, gym-bodied rebels (The ‘Sixers’) who look like they’ve escaped from every single post-apocalyptic video game ever.
You’re not likely to grow up particularly well-balanced. Or, indeed, with all your limbs.
So it comes as no surprise when said nine year old shows up at the gates of lovely, middle class, technicolor Terra Nova claiming to have legged it because she’s not into reggae, living off her wits or shooting things.
Yes, unsurprisingly in an episode called The Runaway, the bland Shannons (Blannons?) have to deal with… a runaway. The orphan in question – Leah – is as raggedy as Oliver Twist with hair styled by Lion-O.
Fortunately for the viewers, she’s also sharp, clever, interesting and a breath of fresh air.
Morgana Davies, who plays Leah, is really one to watch. Her suspicious glances and feral-child glares are absolutely spot on. She’s precocious without being irritating and she’s got an almost Haley-Joel Osment sixth sense for acting. She’s sharper than a diamond-edged scythe and at first she’s the perfect foil to the world’s dullest family, refusing to engage with their twee soft furnishings and boring jibber jabber about boys, homework and work experience… making them seem all the more void of personality in comparison.
Sadly, it doesn’t last. Apparently being a savvy, semi-feral child is a bad thing: she needs to be domesticated. So the almost gender-neutral scruffball Leah is forced into a pretty lemon-coloured dress, her hair is brushed out and of course she starts to fall for the Blannon’s cosy, boring charm.
Even when Leah is outed as a Sixer spy on a mission to steal back an item belonging to their leader, Mira, Jim emotes at her so much she admits she was just doing it because Mira is holding her brother. Yawn. The ever-compassionate father figure Jim goes in search of him, but ends up dangling by his legs from a tree in the dark whilst a shadowy menace tries to bite his head off. It’s a bit like a Saturday night out in Cardiff.
Jim’s upside down dino-pinata scene was rather exciting to be fair. As was Lt. Washington’s Lara Croft-meets-Xena visceral, kick-ass fight scene with three heavy set male Sixers earlier in the episode. The penultimate scene – Mira’s chat with a beaten, defeated Jim in an Ewok house high in the forest canopy – also lent the episode a darker, more mysterious feel completely at odds with the wholesome family mush we’re served up 80% of the time.
And that’s the problem: it feels as if Terra Nova is two separate programmes: a sort of Neighbours/Lost/Primeval mashup with the emphasis very firmly on the former.
For a show set in dino-land, there are precious few glimpses of toothy, amoral monsters. You’d see far more if you watched Parliament TV.
Terra Nova is clearly designed to be ‘family friendly’ and reach as wide an audience as possible, but the fight-and-dino scenes were too violent and scary (in that order) for younger kids. Also, the 8pm time slot and frequent focus on the older kids suggests they’re trying to entertain the teenage crowd too, but the teen characters are less believable than the CGI dinos: parent-pleasing little eggheads without a rebellious bone in their body.
Add in the focus on the ‘nice as pie’ adult Shannons and you end up with something that’s more sugary than a cake and Haribo sandwich on marshmallow bread. Basically, Terra Nova feels like television by committee: and if the X Factor is anything to go by we all know democracy doesn’t work.
Five episodes in, Terra Nova really needs to decide what it wants to be. Excellent acting by Morgana/Leah and a couple of high octane scenes saved this episode from being a total dull-fest, but it really needs to raise its game in future weeks if it’s going to hang onto enough audience members to make it worth the $4 million an episode price tag.