Posts Tagged Terra Nova

Hey. Hey Apple. Apple. Hey.

A little secret: I stopped watching Once Upon a Time.  So I don’t know whether they’ve continued the Honey Crisp/Red Delicious screw up.  What I do know is I’m still getting Google hits every Monday morning for some variation of “once upon a time honeycrisp apple.”  What I also know is that apples have shown up on another genre television show, a show that’s been frustrating the hell out of me, even as I give it more chances than I think it really deserves.

Yup.  The apples have gone 85 million years back in time to appear on Terra Nova.

This time it had nothing to do with the variety of apples used, but rather an apple blight and a CGI beetle that loves eating apple blight.  It was tangential to the primary plot of the show, but worked something like this.  Step one: blighted trees, ruined crop.  Step two: release beetles.  Step three: beautiful trees, bounteous crop.  All in the course of less than a week.

Blight really doesn’t work that way.  It destroy entire yields of crops, it kills trees.  No amount of magic CGI beetle is going to surgically remove just the infected bits of an apple and leave beautiful fruit behind for everyone to enjoy and bake into pies to feed to young children who never got to have an apple pie back home because the future was just that miserable!  Deep breath.  This seems like such a little nit to pick, but it leads up to my new rule for genre television:

Judge shows by their use of apples.

Let’s break it down, shall we?

Once Upon a Time: Couldn’t be bothered to properly source the right kinds of apples for scenes.  Terra Nova: misunderstands just how devastating a blight is to a crop and paints it as a reversible thing.  American Horror Story: when Zachery Quinto is raging out about gala apples, by god, they’re gala effing apples.

And which of those three shows is the strongest?  Easily American Horror Story.

So now I’m going to be on the lookout for apples in other genre shows, just to see if the pattern holds up.  And it does make sense as a pattern, because this really has nothing to do with apples and everything to do with just paying attention to the little details.  Because those are often just as important as the big ones.

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A Writer Reviews: What Remains vs The Naked Now

If I am to criticize a show for what I feel it is doing wrong, I suppose it is only fair that I applaud when it corrects course.  And so I am here to applaud last night’s episode of Terra Nova, which did something I’ve never seen a show do before: use amnesia to further characters.  But first, because I’m a fan of when things go wrong, I’m going to look at a show that went horribly wrong with a similar plot device.

I’m going to look at Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Specifically a first season episode called The Naked Now.  This is an infamously bad episode, nestled firmly in that rocky first half of a first season that included vaguely African civilizations used to recreate the Ponn Farr duel from the original series, and Wesley Crusher at his most annoying.  The Naked Now was the first episode after the pilot, and if you don’t recognize the name, most fans of the show will recognize it from one scene.  It’s the episode where Data is “fully functional.”

There is oh so much that can be criticized about that episode.  If I were writing a full review of it, I’d scarcely know where to start.  But if I’m talking Terra Nova, I’m talking characters, so I’m going to stick to that.  This was a new show, fresh of an ambitious pilot meant to relaunch a franchise to television.  In doing so, it chose to pull a familiar plot line from the original series, The Naked Time, and I can’t fault it for doing so in order to create continuity.  What I can fault it for was the decision to take the second episode of a new series, when viewers don’t yet know the characters, and choose to make them all act out of character.  As the sort of contagious drunkenness moves through the crew one by one, they lose their inhibitions and become entirely different people than they will be for the rest of the series.

This is not characterization.  This is the exact opposite.  It’s something that requires a well established baseline so we, the viewers, can sit down and say “aha, Picard wouldn’t act like that!  He must be infected!”  But we don’t know these things.  The show wasted what was its first chance to establish characters for the crew, many of whom got only brief introductions in the pilot.  Instead, we’re left with a confusing mish-mash and a disturbing mental image of android/human sexual relations.

When I saw the trailers for last night’s Terra Nova episode, I worried the show was going in a similar direction.  These ads promised a virus that was wiping out the memories of the settlers, one-by-one.  While it’s not a highly contagious virus simulating drunkenness, amnesia is still a plot device that causes a character to act against type and against previous characterization.  It is also, to be blunt, a weak plot device often better deployed in sitcoms as they run out of steam and are desperate for stories.

Color me surprised, therefore, when the show found a unique twist on amnesia by having characters not forget who they are.  Instead the virus only allows them to remember who they were, rolling their brains back roughly twenty years.  This allowed the show a way to fill in the characters of Commander Taylor, Elisabeth, and Malcolm Wallace, introduced last week.  Through the retrograde memory the viewers got a chance to see their pasts in a way that didn’t require flashing back to the rather expensive dystopian future shown in the pilot.  Jim also got a chance to interact with Malcolm, and briefly the new girlfriend and boyfriend of his son and daughter.  The character played against some of the archetypal problems highlighted previous, and actually became a character in the process.  Specifically, it feels like he’s turning into Jack Carter from Eureka, but that’s a far better choice than the Jim Shannon from the first three hours of Terra Nova.

Characters, then.  They need to exist.  And I mean that more than “you must have characters,” I mean that in the sense that characters need to feel like real people.  Like you could meet them on the street.  This is what Terra Nova finally felt like it was doing last night.  If characters are going to act inconsistently for plot purposes, there needs to be an established baseline of what consistent is.  That was the trap of The Naked Now, and that was the trap that What Remains came nowhere near.  This is important in serialized television, it’s important in novels, it’s important in short stories.  I’m hoping Terra Nova is on the right path now with actually characterizing their characters.

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A Writers Reviews: Terra Nova

I typically use this feature to talk about movies, but I wanted to do something different today and look at one of the new television shows I’ve caught this season.  I want to talk about Terra Nova.

First, I’ve been enjoying this show.  It’s hard not to.  The opening scenes in the Blade Runner meets Soylent Green future were fantastically bleak.  The dinosaur effects are the best effects I’ve seen in a television series.  Yes, they’ve gotten some crap for the effect quality, but that’s making a comparison between huge budget movies, and big budget television series.  It’s differences of scale.

But that’s not what I want to talk about, because special effects don’t really have much to do with the writing craft.  I want to talk about the one thing I feel is missing from Terra Nova.  The one thing that could make the show better.

The show needs characters.

Oh certainly there are humans there on the screen.  They walk around, they talk to each other, they drive the plot.  But the show doesn’t have characters.  It has archetypes.  And that’s a problem I’ve seen in short stories and novels, it’s a problem I’ve seen in my writing.  And it’s a tough problem.

Look.  Archetypes are great.  They exist for a reason.  But much like their close relatives, clichés, they have their places, their uses, but must be properly handled.  Let’s look at the family at the heart of Terra Nova, since it’s marketed as a family drama that just happens to include dinosaurs.  It has Jim, the dad who’ll do anything for his kids.  Elisabeth, the mom who just wants the family to be a family.  Josh, the protective older brother.  Maddy, the brainiac sister.  And Zoe, the youngest daughter who I can’t even adequately describe as anything other than “the youngest daughter.”  Which is a shame because her mere existence is the catalyst for the entire series.

That’s it.  I can’t give any better description of the family members after three hours of television. Yes, there’s still 10 hours left to the season, but characterization isn’t something that should wait.  It isn’t something that should take a back seat to plot.  It’s something that should be integrated into the plot.  Character development spurs plots, plots dictate growth.  The two should not exist separated from each other, one should not take its turn and the other wait.

Let’s look at this week’s episode (second or third episode, depending on how you count).  Tiny pterodactyls attack the compound.  Elisabeth meets an old flame in the compound, Jim discovers the flame is who put her in for inclusion with the project.  The kids have to shelter together during an attack.  This is all plot, and this is great.  Some of it is single episode plot, some of it feels like it could be the start of a longer drama within the show.  But through it all, the people on the screen staunchly refuse to be characters.

There’s no conflict within Elisabeth about the discovery of her old flame, about the implication that he brought her back in time in hopes that her husband wouldn’t or couldn’t also come.  Jim reacts, but only within his “must protect family” archetype.   Josh takes on the protective role when it’s forced upon him during the attack, but there’s been no conflict between him and his sisters that would make this an actual growth moment.

The one brief exception of archetypes not becoming characters came in the form of the compound’s leader, Commander Taylor.  His archetype is the gruff military alpha male (a part Stephen Lang is well suited for), but he’s given a moment against archetype when it turns out he’s also been acting as surrogate father for a teenage girl whose parents disappeared.  That’s a good bit of actual characterization, having a character play against the archetype that’s been set up for him.

I was talking to someone about the show and mentioned that it was a shame that the show’s biggest asset, it’s cinematic style, will probably be its downfall when it came time to make a cancel-or-renew decision.  And it’s great that the show is more cinematic than the typical television fare, but that I’m seeing that as the main asset of the show is somewhat damning.  The show is going to quickly need characters, because I’m already getting frustrated by archetypes.  And that’s something that I’m going to look for more and more in my stories, ensuring that I’m not just casting archetypes in place of characters because it’s quicker and easier that way.

Archetypes are a starting point for characters, just like clichés can be a starting point for plots.  But they don’t stand on their own.  They need to be tweaked, modified, and crafted until they’ve gone from being two dimensional to three.

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