A decade has passed since Terra Nova premiered and came to its truncated conclusion. The series was set in the Cretaceous era and followed the titular colony of humans who traveled from the year 2149 to escape their polluted present. The series came on the heels of Lost and was billed as that series’ spiritual successor. It was even produced by Steven Spielberg, known for his love of putting humans and dinosaurs together.
Yet despite all this, the series had only a single-season, 13 episode run. Time has passed and the dust long settled, here’s a post-mortem detailing why the series failed to live up to its promise.
10 The Hype Was Set Too High
Terra Nova was heavily promoted up to its release. After delays, it premiered to over 9 million viewers. The finale was viewed by 7 million; not a fatal drop-off, but one that still meant 2 million viewers didn’t return to the show. The reviews weren’t spectacular either, with even the positive ones highlighting the production values over anything else. When the hype is so high and the results are mediocre, it can be hard to burn off that initial disappointment, even if a show improves as time goes on. As a result, Terra Nova never got a chance to better itself.
9 The Show Was Unsustainably Expensive
Kevin Reilly, then president of Fox Entertainment, said of Terra Nova: “This thing is going to be huge. It’s going to take an enormous production commitment.” Sure enough, the series budget wound up topping out at $4 million per episode. Owing to the special effects, each episode also needed six weeks of post-production work, twice as long as most shows do. Combined with the general expense of maintaining the sets, which had to be built from scratch, the network needed the show to be an astronomical success to justify the expense. “Pretty good” ratings just weren’t enough.
8 Needs More Dinosaurs
The premise of Terra Nova was ultimately an excuse to have humans and dinosaurs in the same show. This very hook is what made the premise a bad fit for network TV. Audiences naturally wanted a lot of dinosaurs, but even with the budget as high as it was, the best the show could offer was some brief cameos.
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The only episodes that centered on the dinosaurs are the premiere, “Genesis,” where a group of teenagers was cornered outside Terra Nova by a pack of Acceraptors/“Slashers,” one of the series’ many fictional dinosaur species, and “Instinct,” where it turns out the colony is built on a pterosaur mating ground. The rest of the series used generic sci-fi plots with the dinosaurs taking a background role at best.
7 None Of The Shannon Family Were Compelling Leads
Characters worth investing in are a requirement for any good story, but it’s especially vital on television. The medium, by nature, demands that an audience watch every week, and the biggest incentive for the viewers is to keep up with people they like. If audiences don’t like the characters, there’s no reason for fans to show up week after week.
Of the death by a thousand cuts Terra Nova suffered, this character problem was one of its deepest. The series focused on the Shannon family, a family of five and part of the newest arrivals to the colony; patriarch Jim Shannon (Jason O’Mara) was the lead. Not a single member of the family had more than two dimensions. What makes this all the more galling is the show had a much better potential protagonist front and center – Colonel Nathanial Taylor (Stephen Lang), the colony’s leader. Lang is an extremely charismatic performer and had name recognition from Avatar as well. Unsurprisingly, Taylor was basically written as “Miles Quaritch but a good guy,” so it almost feels like they knew they were missing an opportunity.
6 It Tried To Be Too Many Things
Terra Nova wanted as broad an audience as possible; comparisons to Lost were dismissed with declarations that it would be more accessible than Lost. Alex Graves, both the executive producer and the premiere’s director, said “Everyone from my kids to a gamer to my dad will love this show.” This approach backfired, and instead produced a show with no distinct identity.
In a 2015 interview on Nerdist Writers Panel, showrunner Brannon Braga (a veteran of Star Trek and 24) admitted “Nobody saw the same show – the studio, the network, and Steven Spielberg all saw different shows.” Naomi Scott, who played Maddy Shannon, was asked about the show’s failure in a 2021 interview with Collider. Scott wasn’t as candid as Braga, but she did note “A lot of cooks in the kitchen… you know when something starts out as one thing? I remember there were a lot of political undertones to the original pilot and the meaning, and I think what happens is sometimes that can get diluted.”
5 The Showrunner Lacked Confidence In The Material
In the aforementioned Nerdist interview, Brannon Braga called his work on Terra Nova “the only truly awful experience of my career.” Braga recounted reading Kelly Marcel’s initial Terra Nova pitch document and coming away unimpressed, describing the premise as “tormented,” “unwieldy,” and “the most strained idea I’ve ever heard.”
A few years later, when Terra Nova was in the scripting stage and Braga was contracted with Fox, the series passed his desk again and he was called to meet with Steven Spielberg. Not in a position to say no, Braga agreed to come in on the series. Despite this, he admitted that he had no real creative vision for the show, which exacerbated things as this meant he had no bulwark against the competing demands of the various Powers That Be.
4 Things Behind The Scenes Were Very Messy
In Braga’s firsthand account of what went wrong with Terra Nova, he mentions a revolving door in the writers’ room. Indeed, before it even aired, the show signed then lost David Fury, a veteran of 24, Buffy The Vampire Slayer & Angel, and Lost. The pilot required reshoots after the initial shoot was hampered by Australia’s torrential rain. Both Kevin Bacon and Kyle Chandler were in the running for the role of Jim Shannon, and both passed. Thus, the show settled for Jason O’Mara who had a hard time keeping up with the central role’s demands.
3 The Series Skipped The Pilot Stage
The show’s production wasn’t just messy, but very unusual. Due to the cost of producing even one Terra Nova episode, Fox skipped the pilot stage and picked the series up for 13 episodes right off the bat. As Braga detailed, this threw him and the staff into the deep end.
TV pilots aren’t just proof of concept for executives, they’re a laboratory for writers to get a sense of what works in a show and what doesn’t. Instead, Braga and his team had to write a full season of television before any footage was shot, leaving them little room to adjust once the cameras were rolling.
2 There Were Too Many Filler Episodes Too Early On
As a side effect of Terra Nova going straight to series, the middle stretch of the season, episodes three to eight, are all filler. Even without behind-the-scenes knowledge, the episodes feel like the writers were struggling to get a handle on the show and characters, much less the audience. The episodes in question fell into hackneyed plots– “What Remains” – amnesia. “Proof” – someone in the colony isn’t who they claim to be– and all the hints of a larger mythology were too vague to care about. The pacing picked up around episode 9, “Vs,” but by then it was too late.
1 It Aired On Fox, A Network Infamous For Canceling Shows
Terra Nova failed to be an instant hit, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have improved as it went along. Braga himself felt the show was starting to come into its own towards the end. He noted how the show where he got his start in screenwriting, Star Trek: The Next Generation, took a couple seasons to get great.
Unfortunately, Terra Nova aired on FOX, a network infamous for its cancellations. Fox had previously killed critical darlings like Arrested Development and Futurama. So, it should be no surprise that they pulled the plug on a mediocre show with potential. In the end, that’s all Terra Nova was, or got to be.
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