If Steven Spielberg-produced television shows were a family, Falling Skies is the hard-working but mediocre middle child that no one realized was practicing his spiral until he earned a starting spot on the football team. Terra Nova, on the other hand, is the good-looking, charismatic older brother who draws you in with his winsome smile only to stand you up on a date or show up, but spend the entire time talking about his killer score in Call of Duty. Terra Nova was canceled earlier this month after its first season ratings failed to live up to the expectations set by its ginormous budget. I say good riddance! I liked the younger brother better, anyway. Here are a few things Terra Nova could have learned from Falling Skies.
1. Give one of your kids to the enemy.
I know. It sounds harsh, but you know what else it sounds? Interesting. Falling Skies started off its run with one of protagonist Tom Mason’s children as a prisoner-of-war in the alien camp. It was very dramatic as Tom had to balance the safety of his other two children with the rescue attempts for POW Ben. As the series progresses, the question of why the Skitters are taking the human children becomes central and makes the enemy aliens more complex. I’m not saying the Sixers (or the dinosaurs…I’m not picky) need to start snatching up all the kids from the Terra Nova camp, but one of the main characters might not hurt. I vote for Maddy. She’s inquisitive and independent, and could hang out in the Sixer tree house for a few episodes soaking up all kinds of information. Maybe she could start seeing some things from the Sixers’ perspectives which would make her reunion with her second-in-command father and square of a military boyfriend more complicated (read: interesting).
2. Use special effects for story, not setting.
A big budget can be a good thing, especially when it comes to a science fiction show, but it is not necessary. Sometimes, as in the case of Terra Nova, it allows superficiality to rise at the expense of substance. Falling Skies, which as a cable television has a much smaller budget than Terra Nova, garnered some criticism for its lackluster battle scenes (they are supposed to be at war), which can sometimes seem anti-climatic. However, whether by necessity or design (probably a bit of both), this allowed Falling Skies to spend more time with its characters. We see the tension in the camp in the lead-up to the battle, and the despair or triumph of the aftermath. It doesn’t matter how jaw-dropping the action is if we don’t care about what happens to the characters.
Falling Skies seemed to use most of their special effects budget in close-quarter scenes with the Skitters, exploring the motives behind the alien invasion and the complexity of the creatures. The characters interact with the creatures (which are puppets, by the way) in meaningful ways. One of the best moments of the entire first season was when doctor Anne kills the captured Skitter she had earlier been trying to protect. It speaks volumes about her complexity as a character. On one hand, as a doctor with a respect for life, she does not want to kill unnecessarily, but when the need arises (they have to determine if the aliens can be killed at close range for a rescue attempt), she does not hesitate. Before that moment, because of her even demeanor, it was easy to forget the part of her that is the mother of a child who presumably died in the invasion.
Meanwhile, on Terra Nova, dinosaurs pop up every once in a while to eat some leaves, kill a red shirt, or make youngest daughter Zoe work on her only defining characteristic: adorable.
3. Make things tougher for our heroes.
It’s called drama. No one likes a show when everything works out for the characters. Sure, it’s nice to see them win every once in a while and Terra Nova is admittedly going for a lighter tone than Falling Skies, but always coming out on top so boring. In Terra Nova, everything seems to work out for good-guy cop Jim Shannon. He is an escaped convict who came to Terra Nova illegally, but he manages to work his way into the Commander Taylor’s good graces mighty quickly and, before we know it, they are going on fishing trips together.
Meanwhile, in post-alien invasion New England, former college professor Tom is trying to raise his three sons alone while fighting off Skitters left and right. As of yet, he has not gone on any fishing trips with commanding officer, Captain Weaver, who – though usually competent – nearly jumps off the deep-end one episode while reminiscing about the time his daughter died in his arms. Which brings me to my next point:
4. Remember your character’s backstories.
Jim Shannon spent years in the worst prison the future had to offer, but seems to have no memories or feedback of any kind from the experience. At the very least, he spent three years away from his family, which should cause some awkwardness, if not deeper issues. To be fair, they explore this in the first episode (and by explore, I mean son Josh yells at his father a bit and Jim and wife Elisabeth look uncomfortably at each other), but it is mostly “resolved” by the second episode. Most of the time, watching the Shannon family is like flipping through a Gap catalogue. Even their fights are glossy and conservative.
In Falling Skies, the topic of pre-invasion very much informs the identity of the characters and the camp in general. The absence of loved ones from the characters’ lives (like Captain Weaver’s daughter or Tom Mason’s wife) have a real effect on their actions in the present. One of the main themes of the show is to what degree its respective characters are willing to let go of the past to survive in the present.
This is the story of a show that tried to rely on the special effects its big budget allowed vs. a show that was forced to get creative with its special effects and, whether by necessity or choice, focused on character development instead. Sure, that statement is over-simplistic. Terra Nova was on Fox, a network that demands higher ratings from its programs (especially for Terra Nova, given the production cost of each episode).
As a summer show on a cable network, Falling Skies had lower expectations and less competition. But the fact remains that Falling Skies, though it has its flaws, is a better show than Terra Nova, which never really trusted its viewers. There have been so many amazing shows that were canceled before their time. Before they deserved to be. Terra Nova is not one of them.