Terra Nova: hit or miss TV?

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This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 4th October 2011.

Steven Spielberg’s latest science fiction creation for television, Terra Nova, premiered this past Sunday night. A big budget affair, there are high hopes for this series from its studio Fox and production company, Spielberg’s Amblin Television.

Terra Nova begins on Earth in 2149. The polluted atmosphere is barely breathable and the law dictates that couples may only have two children due to overpopulation. Scientists have discovered a rift in the space-time continuum allowing vital personnel such as doctors, scientists and lawyers (I’m joking about the last one) plus lucky lottery winners to jump back 85 million years to Earth’s Cretaceous period. Fortunately, this Earth is also in an alternate time stream so the events of the past cannot affect the future.

In the new settlement of Terra Nova, doctor Elizabeth Shannon and her two children are secretly joined by her former cop and now prison escapee husband Jim and their illegal third child. Can they survive in a world populated by hungry dinosaurs living in a fenced village (or is it a hamlet, I can never remember) under military rule? Only future episodes and ratings will tell.

So far, things are looking up for this fledgling series. Ratings in the US are acceptable (just) and reviews have been generally positive with an aggregated score of 65% on Metacritic. Thirteen episodes have been ordered so at least we’ll get a decent story arc and season one box set to buy.

Executive producer Steven Spielberg has a mixed track record when it comes to television. He has overseen critical and popular hits such as The Pacific and The United States of Tara as well as flops such as Seaquest DSV and Amazing Stories. He is also not afraid of covering familiar ground and recycling old ideas. Alien abduction series Taken was a retread of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This year’s Falling Skies feels a lot like War of the Worlds. Band of Brothers was a close relation to Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment also produced Earth 2, a short-lived sci-fi series with an extremely similar premise to Terra Nova.

Reportedly Spielberg vetoed Terra Nova’s proposed filming location of Hawaii in favour of Queensland. Jurassic Park’s lush forest locations were mostly shot in Hawaii and Spielberg wanted to differentiate them from Terra Nova’s lush forest locations.

I’d like to suggest that it’s not the trees that would make viewers think that Terra Nova is Jurassic Park-lite. That would be the fenced compound, armoured vehicles and the, wait for it, dinosaurs.

It certainly hasn’t been smooth sailing for the show so far. The pilot episode premiere was pushed back from May to September due to delays in completing the visual CGI effects. One of thirteen executive producers, David Fury, departed due to creative differences, and torrential rain delayed filming and damaged sets in Queensland.

I enjoyed the two hour pilot episode. The no-name cast was appropriately believable, the set and locations decent and the dinosaurs menacing. My only gripe was that perhaps too much was packed into the storyline. The rebellious teenage son got himself in and then out of trouble. Dad was shunned and then accepted into the security team. We met the breakaway settlement (the bad guys) and they attacked. Dinosaurs ate stuff, including people. How could so much happen in one day? It’s a good thing the storyline has established that the time travelling is one way only, otherwise I’d be on the first trip back to the polluted future.

With a production budget of $4 million per episode, Terra Nova is one of the most expensive TV series ever. Decent sci-fi is hard to find so let’s hope it survives past one season. A good indication will be if it manages to hold onto its Sunday 8:30pm timeslot. The ominous sign of a shift to 11:30pm on Wednesday right after the Proactiv ads will be an indication that Terra Nova is an endangered species.

Terra Nova airs Sunday nights (for now) at 8:30pm on Ten.

Published in: on October 17, 2011 at 05:18  Leave a Comment  
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Masterchef Mindbender

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This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 7th June 2011.

Are you a reality TV fan? Are you addicted to watching a bunch of starving, bickering Americans on a tropical island? Perhaps following pairs of bickering Americans race around the globe floats your boat? Or maybe you prefer something a little more home grown?

Masterchef has become a ratings phenomenon and made stars out of its contestants and judges. With spinoff cookbooks and merchandise, product endorsements and personal appearances, the show has become a cultural and marketing juggernaut. It’s changed my life. I wouldn’t know how to spell croquembouche if not for Masterchef. I also now know that I shouldn’t cook the bait.

On the surface, Masterchef is a show about cooking, personal triumph and caramelised stuff. It’s about real people doing a real life activity that most of us have to do everyday, albeit a little better. However, I think Masterchef is the most unreal show on TV, far more complicated than any episodic drama or sci-fi series.

Think about this. You’re watching a standard episode of Masterchef. You’re witnessing a contestant baking a cuttlefish or perhaps something more exotic. The next moment, the same contestant is speaking in an interview about their thoughts and motivations in real time. Wait a minute. How can the same person be in two places at once? They’re living and reflecting on the same moment simultaneously. It’s an instant director’s commentary.

Compare this to a documentary. In this format, you might see footage of a subject doing whatever, let’s say, protesting for the rights of cuttlefish. Then you’d cut to an interview with the subject, speaking about the cuttlefish protest in the past tense. They know the outcome of the protest and any future developments. And they acknowledge it.

On Masterchef, the contestant doesn’t appear to know what happens next. You see them burn the cuttlefish, they speak about the stress of burning the cuttlefish but they don’t then say, “Actually, it all worked out in the end because I won anyway as George liked my cuttlefish flambé.” It’s like a good (or bad, your choice) Star Trek episode about parallel universes.

OK, so I understand that this is not actually the case. Obviously the Masterchef production team must grab the contestants from time to time, or perhaps at the end of the day, to watch footage of the day’s events and then reflect on them, without giving away the outcomes. Clearly there must be some very switched on production assistants who observe everyone and everything, taking notes on who would be the most interesting contestant or contestants to interview and follow, storyline wise, for that particular episode.

A single episode of Masterchef is a masterpiece (no pun intended) of editing. Footage from the past in the kitchen is spliced together with interview footage, also from the past, to produce an episode that to the audience appears to be in the present but as a whole, is also from the past considering that it is pre-recorded weeks in advance. The cuttlefish that was baked tonight and interviewed about it at the same time, was actually baked and eliminated weeks ago. This is more mind blowing than an episode of Lost.

And let’s not even mention the insertion of that annoying explosion that happens just before every mystery box reveal, decision or cuttlefish dissection. The winner is…whoosh! The mystery ingredient is…whoosh! I think Matt Preston just accidentally ate someone. Oh no, it’s…whoosh!

So ladies and gentlemen of the jury, as you’re enjoying your favourite reality show about bickering contestants, remember that what you’re watching is a feat of editing genius and is possibly more unreal than any work of fiction.