Terra Nova's fauna is stunning. The humans need to evolve

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Terra Nova film still.

A year and a half in the making and costing a reported $20 million, the pilot of Terra Nova (Fox, Sept. 26) has been through so many overhauls and management changes that its credits boast 12 executive producers. What's surprising is that none of them is a 5-year-old boy--because that's who I imagine scribbling the pitch, with crayon illustrations:

I want to make a TV show about the future! It will have lasers and guns and computers and time travel! And but ALSO they are living in a jungle, and the bad people want to take them over! There's an army guy and a policeman, and they catch the bad guys! AND!!! DINOSAURS!!!

For Terra Nova is not just any TV show. It is, quite nearly, every TV show. It is, yes, a sci-fi-dinosaur-cop drama set in the future and the past. It is also a family drama, medical drama, conspiracy thriller, frontier western and teen soap. Though it does not have a 5-year-old creator, it has the next best thing: Steven Spielberg, who does not run the show day to day but lent it ideas and the gee-whizitude of Jurassic Park. What Terra Nova could use, however, is more of the character richness of Spielberg classics like E.T.

The year is 2149, which, with creative math, the opening titles call "the dawn of the 22nd century." The overpopulated, polluted earth looks like the Apple "1984" Super Bowl commercial. People trudge under a brown sky wearing respirators and are limited by law to two kids per family. The only escape is to the Cretaceous Period, through a portal in space-time that scientists accidentally ripped open. (How? By doing science things. Terra Nova's technical rigor can become very nebulous when it needs to.) Through this one-way door, humans are building a space-age colony in dinosaur times. It's in an "alternate time stream," thus heading off any messiness about altering the future. Even 85 million years in the past, you cannot escape the lessons of Lost.

Enter the Shannons, who get a shot at making a "pilgrimage" because mom Elisabeth (Shelley Conn) is a medical whiz. After a geologic age of exposition, she, husband Jim (Jason O'Mara, left) and three kids (their youngest daughter smuggled in) arrive in the past, a modern Stone Age family. They find a military compound run by the strict but affable Commander Nathaniel Taylor (Stephen Lang of Avatar), where oxygen is plentiful, the people are industrious (though the teens get up to PG-rated hijinks) and the CGI dinos are strategically deployed. We meet a troop of brachiosaurs in a slushy whoosh of Spielbergian wonder music, but other species soon prove less cuddly. The real menace, though, is the Sixers--members of the sixth pilgrimage who have gone rogue--and ex-cop Jim is soon deputized in the colony's defense.

The contrast between the rich visuals and flat characters is striking. Jim is strong and willing to break the rules for his family. Elisabeth is more or less a saint. Teen son Josh (Landon Liboiron) is a bit of a rebel like his old man. Older sis Maddy (Naomi Scott) is a science nerd, which is, like, so embarrassing when she ends up looking smart in front of a cute boy! (Five-year-old little sis Zoe, played by Alana Mansour, is adorable luggage.) The Sixers are generic Road Warrior types who speak zingerese ("Welcome to paradise"). The humans here are by far the least impressive species.

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