Speculative fiction for the whole family (or whatever fraction of it doesn't give a fig about Monday Night Football), Terra Nova (Fox, Mondays at 8 p.m. ET) opens with the first of many showboatingly expensive special-effects shots: a dystopian cityscape with skyscrapers sprawling inhumanly past a horizon fouled by yellow air. Imagine Houston beset by a cloud of mustard gas. Or track down documentary footage of contemporary China. This, my fellow Americans, is our country in the early 22nd century, a land where the citizens need masks to breathe and are further smothered by the political atmosphere, where personal freedoms hover just above Airstrip One levels. There is a two-children-per-family policy, which I suppose makes things only half as bad as contemporary China, from a family-planning perspective.
Jim and Elisabeth Shannon (respectively played by Jason O'Mara and Shelley Conn*) struggle bravely through this dystopia, aided by their hearty resourcefulness, their perfect compassion, their fantastic cheekbones. She's a great doctor, and he's a good cop, and you are in the hands of executive producer Steven Spielberg and will duly knuckle under to the warmth of the characterization, the quick firm sketch of indestructible optimism. The Shannons are on the wrong side of the law, having hatched not only a convincingly moody teenage son (actor Landon Liboiron) and a smart, socially awkward teenage daughter (Naomi Scott) but also a plucky moppet (Alana Mansour). A raid brings the child's existence to the attention of the authorities, who, two years before the main action, put daddums in jail and cart the little girl away.
The Shannons are lost in space-time. Usefully, the son, Josh, has heretofore been conducting his life in a smog of adolescent self-absorption, thus enabling his sister to catch all of us up on the cosmic back story: "It's the probe!" she shrieks, like a geeky teenybopper, upon glimpsing an enshrined machine. "Ya know, the one they sent through when they first discovered the time fracture." (Apparently, Terra Nova exists in a parallel time-stream, which eliminates the question of whether some prehistoric action will cause Marty McFly to hook up at the prom.) The Shannons gape at a benign brontosaurus, gaze at a photogenic pterodactyl, and fend off an exceedingly nasty dino called a slasher, which is like a T. rex without the charm. Here we have steep greenery and exotic fruit, and the producers nicely contrast the lush expansive vistas with the clammy close dark of nocturnal action scenes. The most lavish of these involves both the slashers and a snarling breakaway group living OTG—"outside the gate" of the settlement—and occasionally returning to it to bargain for medicine and provide an overarching conflict.
The rebels' antagonist-in-chief is one Commander Nathaniel Taylor, the boss of Terra Nova, a welcomely complex character hovering over a pack of attractive action figures and sweaty villains. He might be tough-but-fair, and he is certainly rugged-but-sensitive, but also there are hints of Colonel Kurtz, teases of ambiguous secrets regarding metaphysical quirks, and intimations of a transformative personal loss. The actor in the role, Stephen Lang, plays it with something like nuance, chewing the scenery in careful bites and remaining persuasive even when cursing his foes in antique fashion: "Damnation!" After auditioning with a bit of crafty derring-do, Jim earns a spot on the colonel's security detail. This represents a promotion from his first job, toiling shirtlessly as a gardener. It is not quite a knock on O'Mara's performance to say that its most memorable element is his chest.
Indeed, it is hard to knock Terra Nova overall, such does it succeed on its own terms, which involve working over the pituitary brain and the sympathetic soul. My chief complaint about the two-hour pilot is that it dallies too much with Josh, whose coming of age is coming along rather slowly. There's a honey-bright orphaned girl for him to fall for, and her pack of friends for him to fall in with, as if Dawson's Creek were flowing with primordial ooze. The gang often ventures OTG to do the teenage rebellion thing, even setting up a moonshine still. (Obviously, there was no hope, 85 million years ago, of convincingly somebody's older brother to buy a case of Natty Light.) The focus of the kid is an indication of where Terra Nova's heart is. It's restless for adventure and lusty with wonder.
Correction, Sept. 27, 2011: The sentence originally misspelled the first name of the actress Shelley Conn. (Return to the corrected sentence.)