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Extinction-Level Event

Tedious, expensive 'Terra Nova' offers nothing new

Well, that happened. Nearly two years after it was first announced and four months after its pilot was initially supposed to air, the ambitious "Terra Nova" finally premiered on Monday night (Sept. 26) on the FOX network. With Steven Spielberg as an executive producer, "Star Trek" vets Brannon Braga and Rene Echevarria as showrunners, and one of the biggest budgets in television history, the series, which will air 13 episodes in its first season, has certainly attracted attention, buzz and a healthy amount of skepticism.

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In the year 2149, the Earth has become so choked with pollution and humans that our civilization is on the verge of collapse. People have to wear breathing masks outside all the time and families are legally restricted to two parents and two children. The one possible way out is an experimental program that has created a wormhole that leads 85 million years back into the Cretaceous era. Recruits and volunteers are sent through the wormhole to join the first human colony, Terra Nova, where humanity will attempt to rebuild itself in the past (actually an "alternate timeline," so that the present we know is not affected).

On the surface it's an intriguing premise, rich with possibilities -- most of which are sabotaged by cornball writing, flat characters, predictable plotting and, incredibly after all the delays and money spent, subpar special effects in the two-hour pilot.

Two of the main problems that hurt "Terra Nova" from the outset are the same ones that have plagued shows like "Falling Skies" and "V": The lead characters are dull. Our focus here is the Shannon family, consisting of ex-cop Jim (Jason O'Mara), his doctor wife, Elizabeth (Shelley Conn), and their three kids. O'Mara is a blank, uncharismatic hero, reminiscent somewhat of that dude who starred in last year's terrible "The Cape." Conn is not much help, although she at least pretends to be awake in a few scenes.

But the other, bigger problem is the Shannons' teen son Josh (Landon Liboiron), who exists purely to be all brooding and rebellious and whose ability to get himself stupidly into trouble will no doubt fuel the plot of many an episode, as it does in the second hour of this one. Liboiron (where is the factory that produces these teen automatons?) is so annoying that he almost makes you appreciate his overly chatty and nerdy sister (Naomi Scott).

Terra Nova commander Taylor is also on hand for exposition and gritty leadership, with Stephen Lang essentially portraying a kinder, gentler version of his Col. Quaritch from "Avatar." Speaking of which, there's an "Avatar"-like digital sheen to "Terra Nova" that is especially noticeable in the lousy CG city we see in the opening scenes set in the future, and which resurfaces in the past whenever a dinosaur gets copied and pasted into the Australian locations.

Ah yes, dinosaurs. They are plentiful in these first two hours at least (we'll see how many show up in later installments) but the CG is hopelessly distracting and they don't begin to make one forget Spielberg's own brilliant creations in "Jurassic Park." Dinosaurs, however, are not the only problem facing our brave Terra Nova colonists: There is a breakaway colony, called the Sixers, who are at odds with Quaritch -- sorry -- Taylor; there is Taylor himself, who may have a secret agenda; and there are some mysteries outside the perimeter of Terra Nova that we are briefly introduced to and which will no doubt be fleshed out in later segments.

In fact, there's a lot of stuff in these first two hours: raids, dinosaur attacks, Josh getting a hottie girlfriend (Allison Miller), his sister finding a hottie boyfriend (some Taylor Lautner imitator), the teens getting in and out of trouble, etc. Problem is that all of it is formulaic, none of it is suspenseful or intriguing, and in the end it's just baby food for the mind.

What "Terra Nova" doesn't do is give us much real insight into the Earth of 2149 before we are whisked into the past, and once there, there's very little in the way of exploring the interesting issues raised by the setup: How is this place actually governed? How do we intend to avoid the same mistakes we made the first time around? And even though this is an "alternate timeline" and not our own past, how does what the colonists do affect future events? Why did it have to be an alternate past anyway? Wouldn't knowing that we could affect our own future have much more dramatic potential?

Perhaps we'll get to all that in future episodes, but in the first two hours all we got was a lot of running around, dinosaur attacks, teen shenanigans, laser gun battles, more running, more teen shenanigans and a few more dinosaurs. But, jeez, even after all that, whoever thought time travel and dinosaurs could be so boring?

Send us your thoughts on all things sci-fi, horror, etc. Write us at heymsn@microsoft.com

Don Kaye covers film, TV and entertainment for MSN.com

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