Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Cancellation of Terra Nova

Terra Nova has now traced most of the trajectory of big-budget science fiction shows on the major American television networks (especially FOX), from a launch with great fanfare and unrealistic expectations – to the ignominious end when the Suits lose their nerve and cancel it. Now we are in the post-cancellation phase where there is still talk of the show being continued on another channel, something that very rarely happens.

I don't get the sense that many will miss Terra Nova the way they did Dark Angel, Firefly or Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, though. Yes, the show had a promising concept and appealing visuals, for which it won a great deal of praise, but many also complained of lackluster characters and the overall quality of the writing. The complaints seemed a bit exaggerated at times (as other shows, not really much better, attracted far less complaint of the kind), but they were certainly not baseless, and are easier to understand when one considers those who complained mostly loudly – generally those who follow science fiction television most closely.

Despite its futuristic setting, reliance on classic, "hard" science fiction tropes (like travel to parallel universes) and flashy visual effects, the makers of Terra Nova gave short shrift to the tastes of "hardcore" science fiction fans. The show was actually rather light on world-building, extrapolation and general conceptual development compared with the television space operas with which its premise invites comparison. It made no effort to appeal to the considerable portion of this fan base which is intertextually inclined, the way that, for instance, Heroes and Sanctuary, two of the more significant hits of recent years, did. Even worse from their perspective was the fact that it was a family show, quite far removed from the dark, edgy treatment of its themes many of those who'd looked forward to the show expected, given its dystopic image of the twenty-second century, and the ways in which that milieu had presumably marked its characters.

Unsurprisingly, "bland" was a word I frequently encountered in discussions of the show in the blogosphere, and I suspect that the complaints were all the more pointed because, Terra Nova having been intended as lighter, family-friendly fare, the weaknesses of the writing were not obfuscated in the ways to which we have become accustomed – the cheap button-pushing that looks like intellectual, political or dramatic daring to superficial viewers; the obnoxiousness for obnoxiousness's sake on the part of the dramatis personae so often mistaken for a "courageous" willingness to present unlikable characters (while their verbal abuse of each other is praised as sharp and witty dialogue); the head games that can make a show's lapses in logic or coherence instead appear to trusting viewers like part of some intriguing mystery that will be satisfactorily solved later; the soap opera-like subplots which distract the audience from a story going nowhere by fixing their attention on such questions as who is sleeping with whom (or trying to); and the fan service that makes watchers more forgiving of the flaws that do come to their attention. (The remake of Battlestar Galactica offered plenty of all these – from its exploitation of current issues like the War on Terror and the culture war, to its muddled religiosity, to its sexuality – with the result that many a fan was shocked, shocked, when the finale proved that the show's story had never been anything but a pile of nonsense. Lost, too, had plenty of head games and soap opera, and likewise let many a viewer down when it was all over.)

In all this, Terra Nova was comparable in its feel and its fate to genre shows the Big Four made in the mid-'90s before virtually abandoning this territory to syndication and cable - like Earth 2 and Seaquest (which also had an especially large budget, and the Steven Spielberg name attached), and a reminder of the dilemma facing producers of genre shows on the major networks. On the one hand, the hardcore fans looking for innovative science fiction are not numerous enough to warrant their special attention, forcing them to look beyond these to a more general audience (like the families with dinosaur-loving kids the network was clearly shooting for with Nova).1 All too typically they end up pleasing neither group, alienating the genre fans without really winning over the more casual viewers (small-screen spectacle can do only so much from week to week, as Entertainment Weekly's Darren Franich points out), and so – launch with fanfare, disappointment, cancellation, a cycle that was a bit quicker and more intense in the case of Nova, I suppose, because the execs keep their creatives on shorter leashes, and because after the booms of the 1990s and 2000s, genre fans have become more demanding, further distancing them from those larger audiences the programmers hope to capture.2

Still, for all its faults I did think Terra Nova was improving as it went along, the way many science fiction series do on their way to being good or even great - including Star Trek: The Next Generation, which made so much else possible. I never expected anyhing quite so consequential for genre TV from this show, even if it did get the chance that I was fairly sure FOX wouldn't give it – but I would certainly give a second season of the show a look if it were to materialize.

1. I calculated this at 10-15 million for the United States in my article "The Golden Age of Science Fiction Television: Looking Back at the 1990s."

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