Terra Nova: The Past Has a Bright FutureS

I tuned into Fox and Steven Spielberg's much-delayed production Terra Nova last night with some trepidation. It was almost a duty to see just what this very expensive sci-fi show was going to be like but I also had a sense it would be sadly predictable and boring. Boy, was I wrong.

Time travel is a familiar sci-fi premise (and my least favorite one, because thinking about all the implications of past and present makes my brain itch and having to say "timestream" while explaining the plot sounds like you have a bed in your mother's basement that covers up countless milk crates of Star Wars action figures and X-Men comics). When faced with a show about a bunch of humans from the present who go back to the past to find a way to save their dying earth, it seemed like we'd seen it all before. It was like Jurassic Park meets Time Machine. And everything about Terra Nova is a bit familiar, but it's also pretty damn awesome.

We meet Jim Shannon, a former cop turned convict (played by the dreamy Jason O'Mara), his doctor wife Elizabeth, and his bratty teens Maddy and Josh when Jim busts out of prison so that he can join the family in the trip to the past. He smuggles along contraband third daughter Zoe. While everyone is trying to get off of their dying planet and into Terra Nova—an oasis 85 million years in the past—no one can ever return. I figured once they get to the past it was just going to be humans versus dinosaurs and some boring family storylines over and over. How long will it take you to get sick of that?

Those are both definitely part of the equation, but they're added together with enough variables to make a new formula all its own. Jim quickly falls in with Terra Nova's paramiliatry leader Taylor as they fight a rebel settlement called the "Sixers" who live outside the gates and try to figure out who in the future is trying to sabotage the settlement. And is Taylor the good guy or the bad guy? It could go either way. There's also the business of some crazy scribblings on some rocks outside of the gates of their new city. Where did they come from and what do they mean?

And, yes, there are the dinosaurs. They look a little bit cheesy when interacting with humans, but when they're running or hunting at night, they actually look kind of cool. Not all of the interactions are of the running and screaming type. The most tense sequence of the show is when Josh and his rebellious friends are caught in an armored car being swarmed by a bunch of tough lizards. It had the claustrophobic sense of what it must be like to be trapped far away from home with no way out and a whole new set of problems.

That's the great thing about this show, not only the new problems of dinosaurs and the "Sixers," but also how the colony will solve those old problems—family rifts and new girlfriends and crushes on cute soldiers and figuring out who is loyal—with limited and different resources. The puzzle is the same, but the pieces are totally different. You'll tune in for the new mysteries, which are well laid out and interesting—just like on Lost before it screwed us over—but it's those things that are familiar that will make this show great. They may come from the future, but these are tales as old as time.