Easily the most exciting show of the fall season, Fox’s “Terra Nova” has such obvious, instant and demographically diverse appeal — sci-fi fans, fantasy fans, 5-year-olds, 50-year-olds, Al Gore — that you have to wonder why no one thought of it before.
Perhaps because headlining executive producer Steven Spielberg was occupied with other projects, or perhaps because as simple as the concept seems — “Lost in Space” meets just plain “Lost” plus dinosaurs — it isn’t really. Not at all. Part post-apocalyptic epic, part family drama, part monster-thriller, the two-hour premiere of “Terra Nova” manages to introduce a panoply of narrative threads and themes while telling a remarkably clean story, both in terms of plot line and tone; “Terra Nova” is whole-family friendly.
We open in 2149 and things are going just as badly as “An Inconvenient Truth” predicted. Beneath an unbroken canopy of smog, Earth’s resources have been sucked dry, leading to a strictly enforced two-children policy — a law that has been broken by the Shannon family. When forces of the state come to take his youngest child away, Jim Shannon (“Life on Mars’” Jason O’Mara) throws a punch that puts him in jail for five years.
It is during Shannon’s prison sentence that his gifted doctor wife, Elisabeth (Shelley Conn) is recruited by Terra Nova, Earth’s last-chance Utopian colony in time rather than space. Not the kind of family to be daunted that one of them is in prison, the Shannons, including angry teen Josh (Landon Liboiron), super smart Maddy (“Lemonade Mouth’s” Naomi Scott) and adorable Zoe (Alana Mansour) are soon traveling 85 million years, back to the forest primeval (here the forest Australian). There they join settlers attempting to survive the past and change the future.
Delivered rather cleverly by Maddy, the explanation of how this all works involves separate time streams (timey-wimey for “Dr. Who” fans) and nicely references the famous Bradburian butterfly of “A Sound of Thunder.” But it is safe to assume that all the time-and-space kinks have not been worked out.
Meanwhile, the Shannons have to accept you can’t outrun your troubles, not even through a time portal. Josh is understandably angry at his father and acts out by ditching orientation to hang out with Skye (Allison Miller), a girl so lovely you know she’s trouble.
Jim, who is indeed a hot-head, quickly makes good use of his street instincts and ingratiates himself with the tough-and-no-doubt-hiding-something-important Commandeer Nathaniel Taylor (Stephen Lang), who runs Terra Nova, which is besieged by more than just fast-growing jungle and Cretaceous-period dinosaurs. Renegades led by the steely Mira (Christine Adams) also lurk outside the settlement walls, launching occasional attacks in search of supplies and, it would appear, vengeance. Mira’s beef with Taylor is clearly personal, and the root of it remains to be seen.
Between the action — yes, there will be rampaging voracious dinosaurs — and the exposition, the premiere is jam-packed, but creators Kelly Marcel and Craig Silverstein pace things just right, which is half the battle in a show with epic ambitions. The extraordinary landscape of thundering falls and towering dinos is nicely balanced by the simpler details of life in a new land; Elisabeth quickly finds that medicine in Terra Nova is defined by the modern and the medieval. Likewise, director Alex Graves is careful to not overwhelm or desensitize viewers with too much of any one ingredient.
The story remains focused on the family and, through its members, the community, which will no doubt broaden to include all manner of people to keep things interesting. For all its excellent green-screen usage, “Terra Nova” is remarkably old-fashioned, rejecting the angst and existentialism of “Lost” to tell the exquisitely American story of colonists, strangers in a strange land come not so much to conquer as to flee, a familiar tale rendered here ferociously and gorgeously new once more.