Believe it or not, the creative team behind “Terra Nova” were just as concerned with creating a convincing family than realistic dinosaurs.
The new, highly anticipated Fox series executive produced by Steven Spielberg is built on an imaginative premise: when humanity is threatened with extinction in the year 2149, time-traveling settlers make a pilgrimage 85 million years in the past to colonize prehistoric Earth, a settlement threatened by the dominant lifeforms of the era – carnivorous dinosaurs. At the heart of the story is the Shannon family, new arrivals to the Terra Nova colony, who bring their own bonds and dysfunctions to the Cretaceous Period.
“A lot of people like to talk about ‘"How are you going to do this week to week? How are the dinosaurs going to look? How are you going to pull this off?’” says executive producer Brannon Braga (“24,” “Star Trek: Enterprise”). “Well, our proudest accomplishment and luckiest accomplishment is assembling the cast that we assembled, because it really is about the Shannon family. And that was far more challenging to do than create any dinosaur, was finding a believable family that you can fall in love with. That was the hardest thing, and fortunately that's the thing that's working the absolute best about the show right now.”
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“You've got to get the family right first,” agrees executive producer Jon Cassar (“24,” “The Kennedys”). “I think we're very happy with that, and then the mythology has to be there too. The writers are all very conscious of all the types of people that are going to be watching this show. You don't want to make it just a family drama because we're not just brothers and sisters – we're different than that. You can't make it completely sci-fi, because we're not just 'Battlestar Galactica'. So you're trying to find what you are, and so that's been the challenge. I think we're very conscious of science fiction, we're very conscious of those fans and what they like and the mythology of that. And trust me, there's enough mythology to keep those fans very happy.”
Cassar says the fact that the family is trying to make their permanent home among the dinosaurs distinguishes it from all other prehistoric adventures. “Anything else that goes back with dinosaurs, those people were trying to get the hell out of there,” he explains. “They're there by mistake usually and they just want to get out. They just want to survive long enough to get back in the machine to get home. This is different: This is about being there. They have to stay and they want to stay. This is the opening of the Old West: it really has those kinds of similarities. It's like, 'Okay, we're going to go there and start all over.' The fact that we have our first murder – how do you deal with that? You don't have a court system. Is it the one guy? So all of those things get mined, which I don't think has really been mined before in that world.”
Braga says that the inherent drama of the settlement will dominate the direction early on, while the series’ ongoing mythology will grow quietly in the background for a while. “There's so much just in the premise of going here, surviving here, building a world,” he says. “There's so much story just in that, and this family that is our focus and our point of view."
“Yeah, there is a mythology,” adds star Stephen Lang (“Avatar”), who plays Terra Nove founder Nathaniel Taylor, whose agenda will prove hard to pin down. “There are things going on that we only will learn about over a long period of time, but it's extremely important that you be able to tune in to Episode Four and be able to understand immediately, to be able to comprehend what's happening there. So that's the mandate for the show and it's not an easy thing to do. Nevertheless it will be done. Mythologies have a way of creating themselves.”
And with all the attention paid to the characters and storylines, the dinosaurs weren’t skimped on either. Braga says Spielberg has been deeply involved in developing the show’s dinos, insisting the show skip over the T-Rexes and Velociraptors he made famous in the “Jurassic Park” films.
“Steven blessed us with Jack Horner, the world famous paleontologist who he worked with on the 'Jurassic Park' films to capitalize on the latest dinosaur research, which is links them very close evolutionally to birds,” says Braga. “We've been working with Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Horner very closely and creating these dinosaurs that are a little bit different from anything you've seen before. They're just as frightening, but a little more birdlike. Some of them even have plumage and it's pretty cool.”
"Terra Nova" debuts tonight at 8 PM ET on Fox