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Science in Focus: Alissa Wilkinson

Terra Nova, Part 3

Science in a future without religion

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Science fiction often operates on a simple principle familiar to fiction writers of all stripes: take a familiar character, drop him into an unfamiliar situation, and watch him go. It's just that in science fiction, the settings and situations are really unfamiliar. There's outer space. Or maybe alternate universes. Or maybe our hero's on earth, but he keeps running into aliens. You get the idea.

Yet the setting must be familiar enough for us, the viewers, to imagine ourselves there as well. This is for a simple reason: science fiction aims to show us something about ourselves by casting the familiar into relief. From sci-fi, we learn to see our very human dilemmas—ethical, political, religious, and otherwise—in new ways. Science fiction is never just a good story. The best science fiction subverts our assumptions and makes us uncomfortable.

The FOX show Terra Nova (now cancelled after its first season) used some familiar sci-fi tropes in its setup: it's 2149, and the earth is dying after being stripped of its resources. The air quality is so poor that humans are forced to wear special filtering masks just to get through the day; overpopulation has resulted in a two-child-per-family policy. Technology here in 2149 is pretty fancy, but it hasn't been able to fix these problems. Things aren't good.

Yet there's hope: someone has stumbled on a rift in spacetime through which humans can travel back 85 million years to the Cretaceous period, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and the air was clean. So the humans—under whose authority, it's not clear at first—have started a series of pilgrimages to a colony called Terra Nova (Latin for "new earth"), which is ostensibly in a different "time stream," so as to avoid any unfortunate butterfly effect. In Terra Nova, the grass is green, the air is fresh, and humankind can make a fresh start.

Terra Nova is an odd prehistorical place, since the pilgrims have brought a lot of technology back with them. Surgery is done virtually, with doctors operating on screens that correspond to what's going on inside the subject. The entire history and knowledge of the universe is in a handy sort of mega-brain pod that ordinary folk can go consult. Guns tend to stun, not kill. But of course, not all is well in Terra Nova, because humans—even when embarking on a fresh start—always have an agenda. There is trouble inside and outside the gates.

Terra Nova quickly reminds the viewer of a few recent masterpiece shows of the genre. It's hard not to hear echoes of the lamentably short-lived Firefly, which also had technology and a world of another era (this time the Wild West) living side-by-side. And any mass exodus of the human race to a younger world must recall the late great Battlestar Galactica.

Yet Terra Nova was lacking two essential ingredients—which is perhaps what led to its demise. First, these characters are not all that compelling. What makes shows like Battlestar Galactica great is not just the good guy vs. evil guy dynamic but also the darkness lurking in the good guys' hearts. But here, even when the reasonably complicated Commander Taylor does something bad, it's usually for good reasons. Everyone else is predictable. And, intriguingly, there's no religion to complicate matters at all: religion seems to have been left behind as a relic of that dying 2149 world.

Second, and perhaps more important, the really interesting questions aren't answered at all. In one episode, the characters confront the sort of absolute justice that an essentially militaristic system of governance implies, but it's all wrapped up in an episode and we never really get to answer the big questions: What happens when the Guy in Charge makes errors? Could not a "new start" for humanity mean a chance to implement a more fair system of government? And why is everyone speaking English? Are only English-speakers being sent back to Terra Nova? The story on the other side of the spacetime rift has the potential to be a lot more interesting than what they've given us.

Furthermore, Terra Nova had the opportunity to show us how technology and science—which are the source of both the problems in 2149 and the solution—can be used for both good and evil. Remember: the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica start out as an unmitigated evil brought on by those who would play God, but it turns out the technology had repercussions nobody expected, and the situation gets complicated fast. By contrast, science and technology in Terra Nova are generally just good. Even when the electricity gets knocked out, and the inhabitants have to do surgery (and everything else) the "old-fashioned way" for a bit, the opportunity for reflection is lost, or at least postponed. In this religionless world they've built, science, it seems, would become increasingly important as a source of authority. So who will control technology in this new world? Who will get to decide what science can do, and what it shouldn't do? When will the scientists supersede the authority of Commander Taylor? Given the record of science and technology in 2149, you'd hope those seeking to make a fresh start would make a go at setting a good course for the path of science. (And there's that pesky impending Ice Age, too …)

Now that Terra Nova's been cancelled, and shows no signs of revival, perhaps we'll never know if there was a greater intrigue at work. But shows like Firefly and Battlestar and that great classic, Star Trek, keep us coming back because they are rife with ethical dilemmas; we are entertained but also challenged. Terra Nova was all set to entertain (I mean, there were dinosaurs), but to be challenged, we'll have to look elsewhere.

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