To get the first episode of Fox's dinosaur drama Terra Nova made, it reportedly took $15 million and more than a year to plan; there were production delays, changes in the writers room, pilot reshoots, and plenty of time spent on getting those CGI dinosaurs to look as good for TV as they did in 1993's Jurassic Park.
"Some people do heroin, I do high-concept shows," jokes series star Jason O'Mara, who last played a cop traveling through time the critically lauded but short-lived series Life on Mars. After reading the first script for Terra Nova, the actor says he had just one thought: "Well, there is no way they're going to be able to make this for TV."
And it's no wonder. The logline reads more like the plot of a big-budget summer movie than a weekly network show: In Terra Nova, the Shannon family flees the overpopulated, heavily polluted world of 2149 for a land 85 million years in the past where they will be part of a colony designed to give humanity a fresh start. In their way? Human nature. And dinosaurs.
It's an ambitious and expensive bet, even for Fox, which gave us the equally risky musical comedy Glee two years ago. Expectations for Terra Nova's premiere on Monday (8/7c) are proportionately high. Despite the delays, everyone's sounding confident. "Yeah, there have been some bumps along the way because it is really tough to do this for TV, but we're giving it our best shot," O'Mara says.
Executive producer Brannon Braga (24) adds they've also figured out how to have 12 executive producers involved. "The worst phase was the e-mail phase, because that's not efficient at all, but we finally found a way where everyone could communicate. It's a very smart group of people and at the end of the day, they've been helpful because every detail of the show is tended to and nobody misses a thing."
But the real make-or-break question is whether or not they've pulled off a world filled with computer-generated creatures and landscapes sleek enough for post-Avatar audiences. The good news is that much attention has been paid to the look of the series — so much so that the network's planned May debut was moved to September to ensure the special effects were up to snuff — and Terra Nova will even boast new breeds of dinosaurs. "They don't all look like versions of a Komodo dragon or a crocodile," O'Mara says. "Some of our dinosaurs ... [have] personality. Some are pretty vicious and just really sick."
Jack Horner, a renowned paleontologist who worked with Steven Spielberg on Jurassic Park, also fleshed out what was previously known about well-known dinosaurs. Velociraptors, for example, are now believed to have feathers, which they'll sport on the show.
Terra Nova's got other dino-sized selling points, too: Spielberg is listed as an executive producer — by all accounts, his fingerprints are all over the show — and the story is firmly family friendly. "We're not going to be able to keep the kids away because they're dinosaurs in it," O'Mara says. "What we're going for is something like a good Pixar movie that gives adults enough to enjoy but the kids get a kick out of it, too."
So don't expect the terror — and, yes, the gore — to be toothless. Braga says the tone is not unlike classic action-adventures series such as The Swiss Family Robinson. "It was filled with humor and warm moments," Braga says. "But what would it be without scary things and threats and danger?"
That's where the more grown-up stuff comes in. Dinosaurs are frightening, but most of the threats will come from the humans themselves. Overseeing the colony is self-appointed leader Commander Taylor (Stephen Lang), a formidable, enigmatic man who unilaterally runs the compound as though it's a military operation. He's at odds with a mysterious group of colonists who broke away from Terra Nova called the Sixers, and they take their orders from unknowns in 2149.
Producers say ethical questions about how to rebuild civilization will also come up. In one early episode, someone in the colony is murdered and several will go head to head with Taylor over how to handle the criminal. Asks Braga: "At what point does this become a democracy as opposed to benign dictatorship? How will they work out all of these sociological problems? These are all questions we'll explore in the first season."
And then there are all the mythological questions raised by the premise alone: What are the rules of this world? Why does the portal through time go only one way? If it goes one way, how are the Sixers communicating with people in the future? Who are the Sixers anyway?
"I think the decision was made quite early on that whatever questions we ask, we also answer," O'Mara says. "There's nothing we can't explain."
And how's this for one solid answer from executive producer Rene Echevarria: "We know who the Sixers are and why they're here and we intend to dramatize that this season."
Check out a preview of Terra Nova, premiering Monday at 8/7c on Fox: