The cast and crew of Fox's upcoming science fiction series Terra Nova sat down with Spinoff Online at WonderCon on Sunday to talk about the scope of the big-budget drama, comparisons to Avatar, and why it's more like Star Trek than anything else.
Terra Nova is set on a dying Earth in the year 2149, where the future of mankind is in doubt and the only hope for survival is to send people millions of year into the past to rebuild civilization. The catch is that it’s a one-time trip, so once you’ve traveled into primeval history, you’re stuck there. Brannon Braga, who’s written more episodes of Star Trek than anybody else alive, is the showrunner. Jason O’Mara stars as Jim Shannon, a family man who stows away through the portal to reunite with his family. Stephen Lang plays Commander Frank Taylor, the leader of the human colony who went back through time seven years earlier.
“[This human colony] is very much the International Space Station," said Alex Graves, who directed the pilot episode. "They have a found a place to go where they stand a chance of figuring out how to save the future and also save the human race by migrating there and starting over.”
The time travel-heavy setup sounds similar to O’Mara’s last project, the short-lived U.S. version of Life on Mars, about a cop who is thrown back in time and forced to find his bearings in an unfamiliar environment. “I only do shows now that have time travel in the premise," he said. "The more far-fetched the better."
”I try to go for scripts that are interesting and a bit different," O'Mara continued. "I don’t mind playing a cop as long as that cops in an extraordinary situation. I like it when my imagination gets tested and stimulated.”
Lang is faced with similarities to past projects as well, as he his best known as the hard-edged, militaristic Col. Miles Quaritch in James Cameron's Avatar, the 2010 blockbuster about a group of humans invading another planet for its natural resources. “One involves a planet far, far away, and this is time travel,” he said. “If it’s my lot at this point in my career to play authority figures who have a military history, I have no problem with that.”
“In both cases, thematically, they are similar. Both things are founded on a second chance, creating a new life out of a life that was not so good,” he said, adding that “both of these seem to postulate living in harmony with the environment.”
O’Mara’s character Jim Shannon will also have his own problems. During the course of the pilot, he escapes from prison, sneaks into a time-travel device, reunites with his family and then has to defend them from dinosaurs. However, O’Mara said, “It’s not just the dinosaurs that we have to worry about. There are things going on in the colony itself -- human things.” Through it all Shannon is faced with the fact that he “wasn’t welcome, wasn’t invited to the party,” because of his status as a stowaway.
Lang’s character Frank Taylor plays in stark contrast to Shannon. Taylor came through first, helped create the settlement and acts as the overseer of the entire operation. “He’s not a founding father, he’s the founding father," Lang said. "He’s the first one through the portal. How that operates you in terms of stress, in terms of ego -- all the ramifications of that can be really, really interesting. Everything he’s done is based on righteous, and not self-righteous, idealism. He wants to bring about a better world.”
“There’s not one stone that’s been laid in that community, not one timber that’s been put up in that community. that I don’t have a personal relationship to," he continued. "I’m vested. I’m vested in the success of this place, I’m vested in the history of this place.”
Making a new society in the land of dinosaurs can be tough, although and Taylor may be close to the breaking point before the show even begins. Lang added, “It’s not a pressure you leave behind on the weekends. It’s a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week situation there where everything you do is new and presents an all new series of creatures and challenges you haven’t seen before.”
Because of this, viewers can expect some conflict eventually between the two leads, but not right away. “We start out as allies, I become his deputy,” O’Mara said.
“When the show opens I’ve been there for seven years,” Lang said. “So my antenna is just tuned to things. When Jason gets there he’s jumpy, jumpier then I am. I know what’s what.”
Terra Nova is a show of unprecedented scope and effects, ranging from recreating a prehistoric environment, time-travel effects and, oh, yes, giant dinosaur rampages. When seeing the script for the first time, Graves thought, “This is damn near impossible to do. How do we do this? When do I start?”
”I read the script and thought, ‘There’s no way we are gonna be able to pull this off!’ and that’s what makes me excited,” Lang said. "In the end, it comes down to do you care about the people. You can love the creatures, but if you don’t care about the people, if their fate is not really important to you on a week-to-week basis, then we won’t succeed. If you do care about the people, we’ll be in good shape.”
But don’t expect Terra Nova to turn in to an epic soap opera the way that shows like Lost and Battlestar Galactica became in their later seasons. The show will, according to the producers, be focused on a tight done-in-one episode treatment where problems are introduced and solved in the span of an hour. "One thing the writers tried to avoid was the Fringe/Lost dynamic of ‘this is a cult thing for a core group of people who watch it every week,’" Graves said. "This is not like that at all.”
“We will answer those questions right away, but we will answer them in an unorthodox way that we think is really cool,” Braga added. “It’s closest to Star Trek than anything else I’ve done since Star Trek in that it’s a very humanistic show. It’s about second chances for humanity, it’s about bettering humanity, and the episodes will be mostly standalone episodes that tell metaphorical little sci-fi parables in this frontier Western post-modern town.”
Don’t expect everything to be laid out, though, as O’Mara’s character will still hold some mysteries about his background, such as just why he was in jail in the first place. “Some of the stuff they told me, some of the stuff they couldn’t," he said. "They had to say ‘trust us, we know what we’re doing,’ which always makes me nervous. It’s Hollywood after all."
Terra Nova shoots in Queensland, Australia, an area the cast and crew hope is able to convey the beauty and majesty of the age of dinosaurs. “It looks absolutely stunning,” O’Mara said. “We all agreed as a cast, it makes you feel like you’ve gone on a journey to arrive at a place that’s out of this world.”
Brisbane serves as Chicago in the year 2149. “It was sort of our version of Blade Runner," Graves said. The set for both future Chicago and the technology, weapons and outfits for the prehistoric age all had to be created from scratch. “There’s nothing that exists for Terra Nova that we could use,” he added. “I’ve never seen a television show with production design like this ever.”
Terra Nova is executive produced by none other than Steven Spielberg, whose connection to dinosaur-themed fiction is obvious. Spielberg isn't a silent producer, however, and was very active in the production of the show. “He riffs on ideas like comics riff on jokes," Graves said. "It’s fun to sit there and watch his brain unravel.”
One specific idea of Spielberg’s that Graves discussed was that the air of the distant past is so clean and free from pollution, that it literally poisons many colonists when they first arrive. They get oxygen poisoning and are forced to wear the gas masks they use in the future because of pollution, but this time because of a lack of it. Spielberg is also bringing with him Jack Horner, the paleontologist he consulted for Jurassic Park. Horner is helping to ensure the creators get the dinosaurs and animals right, but also to make sure the environment and plant life are accurate.
”Every new show I do feels like a terrifying first experience,” Braga said, conceding that not even his experience running Star Trek for more than a decade could help him cope with Terra Nova. “[Terra Nova] is also very Gene Roddenberry-esque in that it’s about leaving behind greed, ignorance, the emotional components, the more corrupting components of human beings and their behavior; we are hoping to leave them behind in the dystopian future and start again.”
Terra Nova debuts this fall on Fox.