Friday, September 30, 2011

A Tale of Two Series: Science Fiction in Different Dimensions

The cast of Alphas and the New York City skyline
Bye-bye, Alphas. Your season finale left me looking forward to seeing you again in 2012. Hello, Terra Nova. Have I already seen enough in your recent debut to know you’re no substitute for Alphas?

For discerning fans, the current human condition filtered through the lens of forward-thinking ideas is far more interesting than futuristic spectacle. But Hollywood is Hollywood, a place in the thrall of explosions and CGI. The creators of Alphas, on the SyFy channel, set their contemporary drama in New York City (but shoot it in Ontario, as per usual). The always formidable David Strathairn appears as a psychiatrist who guides a clandestine team of crime-fighters with special powers. Don’t label these quasi-federal agents who frequently clash with the bureaucratic U.S. government as superheroes just yet, though. Their limitations are derived from serious personality issues. They’re too normal-looking to qualify as mutants in an X-Men scenario, despite the fact that Alphas co-creator Zak Penn wrote the 2006 sequel of that movie franchise, The Last Stand.

On the Fox network, Terra Nova like Falling Skies, executive-produced by Steven Spielberg ricochets from a smog-choked and repressive 2149 back to pristine prehistoric days of yore (as imagined by production designers in rural Australia). It follows one particularly photogenic nuclear family that wins a lottery to join the Tenth Pilgrimage of pioneers willing to slip through a “fracture” in the space-time continuum. They leave behind an Orwellian nightmare for the potential paradise of an unruined Earth, albeit one with necessary supplies sent via the magic portal. But this is one-way-only travel to a new frontier that harbors dinosaurs and more mundane dangers galore. As Jean-Paul Sartre so helpfully pointed out, hell is other people. 

Jason O’Mara and Stephen Lang in Terra Nova
Judging by the first episode this week, maybe we’re talking Jurassic Park meets Lord of the Flies meets Lost. The stated goal of the experiment is to rebuild civilization, avoiding the mistakes that have led to catastrophe. Yeah, right. The possibility of, say, accidentally wiping out an entire species is side-stepped by deeming this primeval place an “alternate reality.” But the Terra Nova adventurers are familiar types from everyday reality: good guys, bad guys and guys that could go either way. Personalities have not been finely crafted.

The designated Alphas in Alphas tend to be an innovative and testy bunch. Strathairn’s Dr. Lee Rosen, the only member of the group without freaky abilities, often values intellect over emotion. The disaffected Cameron (Warren Christie), who has trouble maintaining relationships, can catapult his body and various inanimate objects like bullets along theoretically impossible trajectories. Nina (Laura Mennell) only has to make eye contact with others to “push” them into doing whatever she suggests but has crossed a few legal and ethical lines in the past.

Formerly with the FBI, Bill Parker (Malik Yoba) has an anger management problem exacerbated by his heightened fight-or-flight reflex, primarily choosing the former to summon superior strength when needed. In doing so, he risks stress to his heart. Perpetually lonely Rachel (Azita Ghanizada) is hypersensitive to the sights, sounds and smells ordinary people don’t notice. When Gary Bell (Ryan Cartwright) refers to himself as a “high-functioning autistic,” the term has a double meaning. The youngest person in the mix, he’d do exceedingly well in life even without his considerable skill at reading any wireless signal and electromagnetic wavelength in town. This comes in handy, as they criss-cross the Big Apple to battle rogue Alphas fomenting death and destruction.

David Strathairn, Ryan Cartwright and Azita Ghanizada
Although his developmental disability means he provides comic relief by saying inappropriate things that happen to be true, Gary is never ridiculed or condescended to by the writers. Instead, his increasing self-awareness and independence rank among the greatest attributes in a show with depth and smart dialogue. Assigned to work together on an investigation, Bill notes that they’re partners and Gary observes: “Bill, partners are equals. You can’t tell me what to do.” Bill introduces him to other law enforcement officials as Agent Bell, “our resident computer genius.” Gary says: “No, no, Bill, that’s not my cover. We have to tell people I’m a data analyst.” Moments later, he explains: “I’m Bill’s partner. I’m a computer genius. No, I’m a data analyst.” And, when the others refer to him in a discussion of the planned operation, he’s so pleased that he interjects: “Everyone’s calling me Agent Bell.”

The dialogue in Terra Nova leaves something to be desired. For example, a rogue inhabitant named Mira (Christine Adams) offers this lame quip when Taylor refuses her request for ammo in a swap to get a needed medicine from the renegades: “Well, you can’t blame a girl for trying.” We can, however, blame a series for not trying harder to steer clear of clich├ęs. She’s one of the Sixers who arrived in the sixth contingent to reach the Cretaceous period but broke away from the mainstream for reasons yet to be revealed. They’re the rebels.

Under a nom de guerre banner called Red Flag, the rebels in Alphas are generally gifted and oftentimes also conflicted. One of them is Anna (Toronto native Liane Balaban), a brilliant young woman with a much more profound form of autism than Gary’s: she can’t even walk or talk. But, while communicating electronically, these supposed enemies bond in a way none of their colleagues on either side can quite comprehend. In some of the best television I’ve seen this year, these are unique characters portrayed by immensely talented actors.

A Terra Nova “slasher”
Wish I could say the same about Terra Nova, which had a reported $20 million price tag for just the two-hour pilot. Some of that money is wasted on a predictable teens-in-peril plotline, used in numerous horror/slasher movies over the decades. Think Jaws 2 in 1978 (not directed by Spielberg). The rule-breaking adolescents of 2149 include Skye (Allison Miller), who takes newcomer Josh (Landon Liboiron could he be an ancestor of Star Wars’ Lando Calrissian?) under her wing for a party-like-it’s-2150 gathering outside the high walls of the settlement. They’ve got a moonshine still in the wild. Kids those days! Naturally, the Sixers are nearby to take advantage of their vulnerability and the “slashers” – acceraptors, which run 45 miles-per-hour and boast razor-sharp tails attack. The youngsters fare a bit better than their cinematic counterparts did with a Great White shark.

Josh is the angst-ridden hunky son of Jim Shannon (Jason O’Mara), the hunky Terra Nova chief protagonist. He’s a cop who has arrived there with his physician wife Elizabeth (Shelley Conn) and their other offspring, 15-year-old science nerd Maddy (Naomi Scott) and Zoe (Alana Mansour). She’s five but somehow small enough to be smuggled through the “fracture” in a large backpack, after her parents were punished for having a forbidden third child on the overpopulated planet of the 21st century. Once marginalized, the Shannons are each now in demand as they struggle to adjust to the enclave of equally attractive colonists. Zoe even befriends some enormous brachiosaurs, vegetarians as gosh-darn cute as penguins.

Commander Nathaniel Taylor (Stephen Lang, who seems to have rekindled his Avatar role) is an iron-fist boss with secrets: He doesn’t want anyone else to know about mysterious drawings on a stone cliff beyond the community, his past encounters with Mira are murky and his own son has gone missing. The Terra Nova leader is full of contradictions but not nearly as complex as Alphas guru Lee Rosen, who has less imposing biceps but a more impressive brain. Moreover, I suspect Red Flag could kick Sixers butt in any millennium.

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

1 comment:

  1. Terra Nova: what a waste of good money and talent. They should have taken a million off the 20 million budget to spend on an actual script.