Yes, it has dinosaurs. But at its core Fox's new sci-fi epic "Terra Nova" is an environmental fable. And a pretty darned expensive one at that.
In fact, even though it has no big-name stars raking in giant paydays, "Terra Nova" is probably the costliest TV show ever, with a two-hour pilot that reportedly ran nearly $20 million. This in a world where an hour-long network drama typically shells out about one-tenth of that sum for each episode.
Part of the dough went to the labor-intensive special effects needed to create those magical prehistoric beasties, who alternately menace and beguile a family (led by Irish American actor Jason O'Mara and British actress Shelley Conn) that in the nightmarish world of 2149 is zapped back 85 million years to a utopian camp in a pristine but hardly harmless Eden.
Then there's that lengthy list of executive producers, which happens to include a Jurassic-savvy guy named Steven Spielberg. Then there was that remote Australian shooting locale, plagued by flash floods, communication woes and even a few inebriated surfers. This summer the producers have kept tinkering with the pilot, entirely revising the opening with new footage, braving the ire of TV critics who preferred the old version.
Fox is hoping all this investment will yield a major breakthrough, one of those TV dramas that come along every few years and redefine the form. Already, "Terra Nova," which premieres Sept. 26, is one of the most-talked-about — and heavily promoted — of the new fall series.
"We're striving to have the most impressive special effects that have been seen on television," said Gary Newman, who runs the 20th Century Fox Television studio arm with Dana Walden, although he admitted that some of the early going — including painful personnel changes among the top writer-producers — was "rocky."
"The network has gone all-in," added executive producer Aaron Kaplan, a former agent who has been with the project since the beginning. "We wanted to make sure that creatively it was perfect."
But whether that quest for perfection will translate into big ratings for "Terra Nova" remains to be seen. The record of sci-fi series on TV has been spotty at best. ABC's "Lost" became a sensation, but audiences have tended to find weekly series with complex and apocalyptic themes downbeat and too exhausting to follow. Witness the short, troubled runs for CBS' "Jericho," ABC's "FlashForward" and NBC's "The Event."
Then too, these are not halcyon days for network TV dramas. No drama has topped the list of the season's most-watched series since CBS' "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" did it back in 2002-03 (Fox's "American Idol" has been No. 1 since then). And noncrime shows have faced an even tougher climb, with many edgy dramas migrating to cable, where the bar for success can be set much lower. One example: "Falling Skies," another Spielberg sci-fi drama, ran this summer not on broadcast but on TNT.
Steve Sternberg, an independent TV analyst, wrote that "Terra Nova" "has the makings of a great mini-series, but we'll need to wait and see if it makes a good weekly series. This type of show can develop a very loyal niche audience — appealing to a broader base is more difficult for a sci-fi series."
But the producers of "Terra Nova" subscribe to the view that forging a new path is always risky — and potentially richly rewarding.
The project started when Kaplan, a former William Morris agent looking to kick-start a TV producing career, stumbled across a 15-page treatment by young British writer Kelly Marcel. Called "Gondwana Highway," the tale envisioned Earth 150 years in the future, an uninhabitable shell wracked by ecological catastrophes, its inhabitants fleeing through a portal into supposedly unspoiled prehistoric times. The environmental theme rang true for a post-"Avatar" age, Kaplan believed.
But it wasn't easy to find allies at first. "We had a lot of convincing to do," Kaplan recalled. "In a world of medical, cop and legal procedurals, people literally looked at me and thought I was insane." It didn't help, he added, that "Land of the Lost," Will Ferrell's reboot of the dinosaur-themed TV show, had just flopped in theaters.
Kaplan and Marcel joined with Craig Silverstein, a veteran TV writer, and pitched the show to networks. Fox, whose "American Idol" has kept it the No. 1 network among young adults for several years, was perhaps best positioned to take a big swing with a risky concept. Once the network bit, it brought in Spielberg — Fox TV chief Peter Rice personally pitched the project to the celebrated "Jurassic Park" director — as well as Peter Chernin, a former No. 2 to Rupert Murdoch at News Corp. now running his own production company with a lucrative Fox deal.
Spielberg, busy with his own film projects, wasn't involved day to day but approved all the major casting choices, lobbied for the hiring of actor Stephen Lang ("Avatar") as Commander Taylor — the putative villain who runs the prehistoric camp where the Shannons live — and contributed several key ideas, the producers say, including one scene in which the Shannon clan feeds brachiosaurs over a fence. The image was inspired by Spielberg's own recent visit to a zoo, where he saw families offering food to giraffes. (Spielberg and Chernin were not available to comment, spokespeople said.)
With Spielberg aboard, "Terra Nova" was suddenly one of the highest-profile TV projects in town. But its troubles were just beginning.
Silverstein was forced to exit because he was already committed to "Nikita," the CW's espionage caper (in an interview, he said he hadn't watched the complete pilot: "I've avoided watching early cuts simply because for any writer, watching anything after you've been rewritten is a tough thing"). Brannon Braga, a writer-producer who's worked extensively on the "Star Trek" franchise, was brought in to help oversee the writers' room, with Rene Echevarria, another "Star Trek" veteran, eventually hired as a show runner.
Further complicating matters: Fox had decided to plunge right in to making 13 episodes rather than waiting to see how the pilot turned out and then deciding whether to order a series. As the producers wrangled with filming the first two hours, which shot over 26 days in late November and December, they laid off most of the original writing staff, which fostered a sense of a production in trouble (a second set of writers was later hired).
Meanwhile, the Australian set, in a lush forest not far from the coastal resort areas near Brisbane, saw numerous setbacks, including flooding, shooting delays and a few incursions from hard-partying surfers.
The complexities have made for some high-pressure situations.
"We may get more money, but we don't get any more time, really, to shoot this," lamented O'Mara, who plays Jim Shannon, the ex-cop protagonist who strives to protect his family in a new world. "We're trying to make a TV show here in eight or nine days [per episode], just like every other TV show, but what we have to put in that show is so much more."
"Terra Nova" does get extra time in post-production, however, which is where those complicated special effects are added. Echevarria said each episode requires an additional six weeks in editing, or about twice as long as the typical episodic drama.
This summer — after the first hour had already been screened for dozens of journalists on the Fox lot — the producers tweaked the opening to add additional scenes about the Shannon family, which they felt would help viewers relate more to their plight. The producers downplayed the hasty fix, which raised eyebrows among some critics at the TV press tour in Beverly Hills in July. As director and executive producer Jon Cassar put it: "I can name you 10 pilots they're doing reshooting on."
Echevarria added: "Most of the time when you hear reshoots, it's somebody deciding, 'We need more action, we need more stunts, we need to go spend some more money, we need more pop and sizzle.' Ours was the exact opposite trajectory. We wanted more character and more family."
That last part sums up the ethos behind "Terra Nova" as it finally inches toward its unveiling: The show can't just be about prehistoric reptiles — even if that's what gets people to plop down in front of the TV to begin with. And even if, as Echevarria promises, dinosaurs will appear in every episode.
"On one occasion a dinosaur uses me as a springboard to leap into a tree," O'Mara said. "On another occasion a dinosaur attacks me and takes a chunk out of my hand.
"But we can't just do dinosaurs every week. That would get really old after a few episodes."