After a famously rocky production history, which saw the show’s premiere pushed back time and time again, Fox’s Terra Nova is finally set to premiere September 26. On Saturday, Comic-Con attendees got the first good look at the series, when Fox showed the first half of the series’ two-hour pilot during a presentation about the show. Afterward, executive producers Rene Echevarria, Brannon Braga, and Jose Molina, plus star Stephen Lang, held a brief panel talking about their work on the show.

The Steven Spielberg-produced sci-fi series takes place both many years in the future and many, many years in the past: In the year 2149, Earth is dying thanks to centuries of pollution and overdevelopment. The best hope for the human race is an experimental colony called Terra Nova, located in prehistoric (read: dinosaur) times. Jason O’Mara stars as Jim Shannon, the head of a family selected to join the Tenth Pilgrimage of settlers to the new land. Shelley Conn, Landon Liboiron, Naomi Scott, and Alana Mansour fill out the rest of the family; Christine Adams and Lang also star.

Fox showed roughly the first fifty minutes of Terra Nova, enough for us to get a good taste. How did it look? Were the delays worth it? Do the dinosaurs look good? Does O’Mara take off his shirt? Hit the jump for answers to those question and a review of the footage, plus highlights from the panel.

As you might expect from the first episode of such an ambitious, high-concept series, Terra Nova starts off with a lot of exposition and world-building. As such, it’s tough in some ways to say whether Terra Nova will work in the long run. Based on what I saw, the premise seems very interesting and the visuals look great, but I didn’t get a good sense of who the main characters were.

It’s fairly obvious that Terra Nova has grand plans for the kind of serialized, twisty plotting that makes shows like Lost so addictive. The occasionally clunky exposition revealed a couple of intriguing new plot points that I expect will be revisited later. One, the colony is located in a different “timestream,” and as such nothing the characters do in their prehistoric land should affect anything in 2149 — in theory, anyway. Two, Terra Nova is not the only colony in the prehistoric land. There’s also a group of settlers called the Sixers, who have their own shadowy agenda and don’t get along with the Terra Novans.

I am pleased to report that the extra time and money spent on visual effects have paid off handsomely. If nothing else, the show looks absolutely gorgeous. The CGI dinosaurs are very well done, especially considering that they were created on a TV budget, and look reasonably realistic even next to actual, non-CGI sets and people. The sets are sprawling in scope, encompassing not just the colony but the lush forests, mountains, plains and rivers outside Terra Nova’s borders as well; the Earth of 2149 looks similarly complex and convincing.

Where I’m less sold is on the show’s character work, or lack thereof. At least in its first fifty minutes, Terra Nova seems far more interested in the world of the show than in the people populating it. Most of the players seem like bland stock characters, with trite interpersonal dramas. Jim is a heroic former cop who looks and acts just as heroic former cops always do in shows and films like this one; Son Josh (Liboiron) has some terribly uninteresting father issues. Lang is strong as always, playing the leader of the Terra Nova settlement, but his character, too, seems all too familiar: he’s the tough, practical badass who favors tight t-shirts and may have a hidden agenda of his own.

The frustrating thing about all of this is that O’Mara shows even in the pilot that he can be quite compelling when he’s allowed to be. In one scene, Jim is assigned to the agricultural detail, and finds himself out of his element. The scenes of O’Mara acting confused, bored, and frustrated are funny and endearing (and yes, this is the part where he takes off his shirt). In another, Jim has a bittersweet moment with his youngest daughter. It’s the only truly emotional moment in that first hour, and O’Mara’s up to the task. He shows love, anguish, and hope all in one expression, and is utterly charming as he tries to mend their relationship.

In short, the first hour of Terra Nova wasn’t great, but it had enough positive elements to give me hope that the series will pick up after a few episodes. My fear is that Terra Nova will wind up like The Walking Dead, another show that had a great setup but totally failed its characters and wound up a huge disappointment as a result. My hope is that the series will end up more like Lost, a complex, plot-driven series with enough good character work to resonate with the audience on an emotional level. We’ll see as the show unfolds later this year.

And now, some quick highlights from the panel:

  • Echevarria, on how the 2146 world would tie in to the series: “Some of our storytelling will take place in the future as things get worse there. It’ll increase pressure on the colony and on Taylor… [We'll see] how the Sixers’ agenda is tied to the future.” However, “the first batch of the story is focused on how [the colonists] set up life in Terra Nova.”
  • Molina, on whether we could expect to see more dinosaurs: “It is a dinosaur show. You will see dinosaurs… It’s gonna look badass.”
  • Lang, on whether we could expect to see more people eaten by dinosaurs: “Considering the reaction [a scene of a man getting eaten by a dinosaur] got from this room, I figure there’ll be a mandate from the network that there be one eating per week. Agreed Molina: “Epic dino-on-man action.”
  • Braga revealed that the Tenth Pilgrimage, of which the Shannons are a part, will not be the last group of people to move to Terra Nova: “There will be other pilgrimages coming.”

Discuss: Will you watch Terra Nova when it premieres in September?

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