[Guest post by Aaron Worthing; if you have tips, please send them here. Or by Twitter @AaronWorthing.]
Sorry for the light blogging, but in the last few days I have been dealing with a plumbing emergency. You ever hear the term “sh*t happens”? Yeah, it’s been happening. Oy vey.
But in between breaks from dealing with that, I have been catching up on watching the new show Terra Nova. Probably the fact I fell behind is a bad sign for the show, because I could find myself barely caring from week-to-week what happened on it. I continue watching because frankly I could see how the show could suddenly become good, maybe even compelling, and I am hoping it does. (I remember, for instance, it took Star Trek: The Next Generation years before it got good.) But right now I am thinking that there aren’t nearly enough dinosaurs for a good “Jurassic Park: the Series” suggested by early promotions, and the human drama is just playing it a little too safe to create good human drama. If you go over to the great cutting edge dramas found on basic cable these days, you get a sense of the kinds of things that Terra Nova could be doing, but isn’t.
The premise of the show is actually kind of interesting. It starts in the future, when the whole Earth is screwed up with pollution (thus a little eco-propaganda slipped in), but someone has discovered a one-way time portal that leads people back to the age of dinosaurs on an alternate earth (avoiding time paradoxes). So people get the idea of starting a colony there to give humanity a fresh start on a new world. With velociraptors. The story centers on a policeman and his family who broke the law by having more than two children who breaks out of prison and sneaks back into the time portal to this new world. (It’s probably a bad sign that I can’t remember any of their names as I write this.) Which sounds like it could be really cool, with evocative language in the promos saying humans would be back in the food chain, etc. It suggests that they would be leading a meager existence struggling for their very lives against dinosaurs big and small and if we are lucky some human drama, too. But the show so far has never lived up to that potential and I think its failure can be summed up in one image:
Don’t bother with the characters and what they are doing, I want you to look at that house they are living in. This family goes 85 million years into the past to a colony that is around 8 years old, and then the moment they get through the wormhole they are given a home, completely free of charge, with the only deprivation being that two of the kids have to sleep in the same room because typically people expect families to have only two children (because of that two child law mentioned above). That’s it.
By comparison our sixteenth president was born in a building somewhat like this:
Seriously, look at that Terra Nova home again! Look at how ridiculously nice it is. It is nicer than my home. They are supposed to be living out in a new wilderness, and this place could be literally anywhere in suburbia (indeed, probably is on a sound stage in some Hollywood studio lot). When you watch people talking in a place like that you get absolutely no sense that nature is outside ready to crash in and kill them all. Everything feels a little too safe, even outside this home. In this sense it all reminds me of another Spielberg-produced TV show “Sea Quest” which had all the ingredients that should have made a great show, beautiful sets and excellent special effects and bored its audience to death in part because you never felt like anyone was in danger.
But the title of the post tells you that I don’t want to review the show generally as I just have, but instead I want to talk about a specific issue: whether Terra Nova is eco-fascist. It was watching last week’s episode “Vs” that really drove home this issue to me, so there will be a lot of spoilers concerning episodes over a week old. So we’ll continue below the break.
Still with me? Okay, first the title has a bit of a double meaning. After all, there are two Terra Novas. There is the fictional colony on the show and then there is the show itself. And the fictional colony? There is no question in my mind: it is definitely an eco-fascist society.
And it really was their recent episode “Vs” that crystallized all my misgivings about this fictional place. It was sort of their “Thanksgiving” episode, only of course they don’t call it Thanksgiving but instead something like the “Harvest Festival.” And then much like our Thanksgiving, kids are asked to put on a play depicting early events in colonial history. Only instead of depicting Plymouth Rock, they are depicting their own colonial beginnings. Specifically they are depicting the trip that the leader of the colony, Colonel Taylor, took to establish their colony.
Which sets off two warning bells at once. First, for all the weeks of the show there has been no suggestion of any government at all, just the rule of a military man named Colonel Taylor (starring the excellent Stephen Lang who played the oddly likeable bad guy in Avatar). For instance, in a previous episode where a person was murdered, he served as judge, jury and executioner. The show briefly toyed with the idea that this was wrong, somehow, to let one man apparently make the laws and then execute them, by having Taylor first exile the wrong man. But the problem was never the process that was depicted as wrong: after all, the innocent man confessed to the crime. So it was just depicted as a mistake that could have been made with or without due process. And when the innocent man recanted, Taylor was convinced to rescind his banishment and then Taylor went on to find the right killer and banish him and that was depicted as harsh, but justified.
Second, you have this colony idolizing this generalissimo with that school play, another warning bell. Oh, isn’t that cute the way the little girl wore a fake gray beard to pretend he is their dear leader, Colonel Taylor? Um, no, it’s creepy. Living leaders should not be praised like that.
The action in the episode, meanwhile, revolves around two threads. First, there is a spy giving information to a rival group called the Sixers and they have been wondering for weeks how that communication had been occurring. Well, that week they got a giant clue: a prehistoric dragonfly that was trained to follow certain sonic signals. So they set up an experiment where they placed a tracker on that fly and saw where it went.
At the same time, the cop guy (I looked it up on Wiki, and it turns out his character’s name is Jim Shannon) learns from a black market dealer that Colonel Taylor killed a man and if they ever found the body it would threaten his rule. So he digs up the body and tries to find out who he was and why he was killed.
And remember that dragon fly? Well, it just happens to find its way to Shannon’s home and Jim is thrown into jail, just as he was closing on the truth about the dead body (the viewer is left wondering if it was because Jim’s son actually was working with the Sixers). In a pivotal scene, Taylor offers him a deal: drop the investigation about the dead body, and he will let him slide on the spying issue. “I’m sure this is all a big misunderstanding,” Taylor says (paraphrase). But Shannon won’t give it up and by then he knew who Taylor had killed: his superior officer General Philbrook. So he asks why he did it and Taylor confesses and explains it to him.
You see, General Philbrook had come back in time to relieve Taylor of his command. But Taylor knew that if that happened then evil corporations from the future would change the mission of Terra Nova, from being a new start of humanity, to instead being a source of natural resources for the future. This would be accomplished by changing the time portal from a one-way door two a two way door. So Taylor had “no choice” but to kill Philbrook, so save the environment and all of that.
So you got that? The lawful authorities back on Earth decided to take things in a new direction. And this military man decided he didn’t want to follow their orders and killed his commanding officer. So he wasn’t even supposed to be in charge anymore; he held on to that power by murdering the person who should have been in charge.
Now, you might rationally say that the future Earth people had no right to make any decisions about the colony any more than England had the right to rule the American colonies. I can definitely see that argument, but how does that translate then into Colonel Taylor having the right to be in charge? He was no longer the lawfully appointed leader by the future Earth government and the people living there had no say in the matter as far as I could tell. So where did he get the right to rule this place? Indeed as a military man from America, wouldn’t he have sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution.
But all of that had been thrown aside and Taylor held onto this power with no legitimate authority. And what was his justification? He says it right there: because we can’t let humanity screw up this new world just like the old one. And Shannon, depicted as the everyman cop and family man, accepts that and joins Taylor’s cause and is released from jail. Indeed, they implicitly agree to keep the truth about Philbrook from the people to keep Taylor in power.
Oh, and as an extra kicker, remember that dragon fly? Well, it turns out that it was attracted to a sonic emitter planted in Shannon’s house by Colonel Taylor. So in order to maintain his junta, Generalissimo Taylor was even willing to frame am innocent man of a crime.
So I think it’s obvious that Terra Nova the colony is eco-fascist; the only question is whether the show is, too. One should always be cautious in assessing whether a depiction of a thing is necessarily an endorsement of it, when it comes to art or entertainment. I mean no one who watched The Shield thought that the writers approved of the myriad of crimes committed by the cops ranging from drug dealing, theft, police brutality, murder of their fellow officers and sex with underage prostitutes. No, a huge part of what made the show downright compelling was this depiction of deeply flawed characters and the consequences of their choices, and its winding, organic continuing plot lines.
And there is some sign that the writers might be aware of how troubling this “utopia” really is to people who believe in democracy and due process. After all, the very first episode depicted this family working hard to keep their illegal third child hidden by the police. There is a creepy sequence when the police come into their house with guns to investigate the possibility that they have a third child. They grab the daughter, terrifying her and dad assaults a few police officers and ends up in prison for it. It is a stark depiction of fascism in the name of the environment that I think most people know in their gut is just wrong. And as I said, in the episode where they banished a man for murder, there was some question among the characters whether it was okay to have Generalissimo Taylor determine guilt or innocence and then carry out the punishment. So there is the possibility that someone at some point might decide that however well-intentioned, Taylor’s rule is wrong. But honestly I am not getting that vibe so far.
But to shift this post back from a critique of the eco-fascist tendencies of the colony depicted to a review of the show itself, let me offer a suggestions to make it good. I am sure that the entire first season has been shot already, but if you get a second season, let me suggest you guys really start to shake things up. For starters, take these eco-fascist tendencies and use it. Make it a problem that this society is fascist and depict a real struggle for power between Taylor and pro-democracy colonists. Indeed, maybe even take a page from the recent Battlestar Galactica and depict a scummy character (Zarek) who takes advantage of that genuine grievance to gain power.
And then destroy that perfect house. In fact, trash the whole colony. Indeed maybe it was because of the struggle between Taylor and the pro-democracy forces that the colony is smashed. And now everyone in the colony is in much more primitive conditions, with a real danger of a T-rex making them dinner. Finally, they can depict humans being in the food chain. Then you might have a show that from week to week is compelling viewing, because wholly apart from my political critique, the show is just plain boring. It’s a show taking place in a world full of dinosaurs and they actually managed to make that boring.
(As if anyone from the show would care what I have to say about it.)
[Posted and authored by Aaron Worthing.]