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Welcome To Terra, Stupid

I'm not sure why I had high hopes for this show, but inside of five minutes the indications were not good. Inside of an hour the show was struggling under the weight of all the improbabilities it had accumulated, and it was a major effort to stick it out to the end.

The program spends very little time in the future, 2149, to establish the current hostile conditions from which people are fleeing. There's a shot of a smog-covered Chicago looking not much different from present-day Beijing on a bad air day. The protagonists, the Shannon family, are violators of a law that limits families to two children-- their third child, a daughter, Zoe, is unlawful. We're given almost no time to see the family in its current condition, as police are at the door looking for Zoe within moments. Despite being a police officer himself, when the police find Zoe-- hiding behind the largest, most obvious air vent in the room, after an "exhaustive" search of overturning furniture-- Jim decides to attack the police. He is arrested.

We then jump years into the future, when the wife, Elizabeth, visits Jim in prison to tell him she and their two lawful children have been recruited to travel into the past, to the Terra Nova colony. A predictable plot where the husband then breaks out of jail and brings his third daughter with him to reunite his family in Terra Nova. Here is where the stupid starts.

Jim Shannon is a vice cop, so presumably whatever area of law enforcement that deals with population control is not his area of specialty. Still, presumably he would have known what his oldest son confronts him with later: that assault on police officers is a more serious crime than the original population control violation, and as a result, he's done far worse harm to his family. He is sentenced to six years in prison, where he's supposedly put into what looks like solitary confinement in a facility that is referred to as "maximum security". Why an overpopulated and overpolluted future is willing to spend cash on this kind of incarceration for what is presumably a first offense, and a simple assault at that, is baffling.

More confusing is the fact that despite being "maximum security" the cell door has an opening in it, without any gate or lock, large enough to pass objects through. The wife smuggles a laser weapon inside a rebreather, which the guard allows her to pass to her husband uninspected.

I'm not sure why the writers or producers of the show didn't feel as if moving to prehistory wasn't an exciting enough step on its own that unnecessary drama needed to be created to surround the family's trip back into the past.

Once there, though, the unnecessary drama continues. Apparently the trip back is one-way, something the oldest son seems to not even be aware of until moments before traveling back. Whether or not information passes back and forth is unclear. Certainly the only policy towards such criminals as population control violators in a new colony like Terra Nova would be amnesty. If no information can pass forwards into the future, then there need not be any worry about such amnesty encouraging such violations in 2149. This, apparently, was the reason for allowing the wife and two children to go back, but not the third child as well-- in order that it not appear as if scofflaws were being rewarded.

The show can't seem to decide whether going back is a reward or a hardship. Some are recruited for a cross-section of necessary skills, and at one point, the leader of Terra Nova wonders why Elizabeth would choose to travel back, given that as a successful doctor she could have managed a nice life back in 2419-- presumably much better than the dirty, squalid apartment she was living in. At one point, the oldest son is asked if he is a recruit or a lottery winner; so some people are winning trips back.

One of the big problems is that the economics of this venture don't, and probably can't possibly work. Colonies in the past have been ways for countries to expand their wealth and influence-- by sending people to remote corners of the world to populate and domesticate it and send back natural resources to the home country. That's the payback on the initial investment. For physical goods at least, though, the trip is one way, so there's no payback. The residents of Terra Nova apparently inhabit a "different timestream"-- meaning that the future they came from in 2149 is not the future of Terra Nova-- so even just information about the past is not useful, since Terra Nova is not Earth's past. It is, for all intents and purposes, a coincidentally similar world in an entirely different universe.

How they "discover" this fact is also bogus. The colony has a statue of an automated probe that was first sent through the portal. Apparently, scientists expected to discover it somewhere on Earth in 2149, to discover where in space the portal terminated. Failing to find it anywhere, they concluded that Terra Nova is a different timestream. The problem is that failing to find it proves nothing. If they had found it, that might have indicated where on Earth the portal terminated. Not finding it could be a result of many things, not the least of which could have been the probe's destruction, or merely just a failure of knowing where to look.

Of course, it barely matters. By the end of the episode, this whole story is revealed to be a lie, meaning the show is actually taking a much less interesting approach than it could have. Rather than looking at a new, pristine timeline-- which is the cover story-- what's really going on here is the use of time travel to the past to manipulate the future. Just as Falling Skies ended up showing a lot more of the petty interactions between people than interactions between people and aliens, what Terra Nova is going to be showing us isn't the struggle to make-- or break-- a brand new world, but just a traditional power struggle over the old, familiar one.

Despite these issues, people and goods come through regularly and within walking distance of the Terra Nova colony. Why this should be true is never explained; in fact, the colony's leader, , was the first man through the portal to arrive, but the group sent moments after him didn't actually arrive until 118 days later, according to his subjective timeline. If the portal can move that much in time, why not in space? Why mightn't it open anywhere on this world, or in another world, or, more obviously, anywhere in empty space? How does the portal manage to coincidentally and yet consistently hit a bulls-eye on a rapidly moving, rotating target like a planet?

Terra Nova looks more like a luxury resort than a self-sufficient colony. The entire settlement is comprised and full of high tech manufactured goods, from the vehicles, weapons and medical devices to houses and structures. Who paid for all these to send them back is unknown. Why anyone in 2149 should wish to continue to do so is also unknown, but at one point a PX is referred to, which indicates that consumer goods continue to flow back to the past. How is this exchange possible? Local currency in Terra Nova could be exchanged for locally produced goods, but goods from 2149 flow back and cannot be paid for by any work done in Terra Nova. The only possible conclusion is that this is a government project, but how does anyone benefit from anything other than allowing the entire population to eventually take the journey?

So, back to Jim and Elizabeth. The sensible move is for the colony's leader to give the couple a break, but make sure they intend to follow the colony's laws in the future. Instead, we get a pointless pissing match which results in Jim's temporary assignment to agricultural duty, which turns out to be hacking vines off a perimeter fence. Then he spots a suspicious character concealing a gun and protects the leader from assassination, leading to his promotion to the police force. This, despite the fact that the entire colony seems more like a military camp, it seems the only one with an aptitude for law enforcement is a 2149-era Chicago vice cop. This transition is too quick and too illogical to be the least bit believable.

I was looking forward to this show, but its protagonists simply haven't been emotionally authentic up to now for me to care what really happens to them, and the world they inhabit has already been revealed to be a lot more traditional and a lot less interesting than it might have been.