WARNING:  "Terra Nova" is the episode; spoilers, however, should be a familiar idea.

In brief:  Definitely a slow starter, but with some very interesting cultural examinations.


"Terra Nova" Enterprise Season 1, Episode 5 Teleplay by Antoinette Stella Story by Rick Berman & Brannon Braga Directed by LeVar Burton Brief summary:  The Enterprise investigates an old Earth colony that vanished 70 years earlier.


"Terra Nova" was very much a mixed bag.  Where "Unexpected" struck me as a potentially good idea executed exceptionally badly, this week's show is almost the opposite.  A lot of the very fundamental ideas behind "Terra Nova" work, though almost all the justification for it was suspect as best -- but once you look beyond that, there's a decent bit here to like.

For starters, I suppose I share Mayweather's views:  lost colonies and such strike me as fundamentally intriguing.  There's a reason that the lost colony of Roanoke still fascinates people today, and why Amelia Earhart's disappearance was considered dramatic enough for Voyager to build an entire episode around it several years ago.  When a disappearance that momentous occurs, it stays in the community's mind for quite a while.  Given that, I'm not at all surprised that one of Enterprise's first missions was to check out Earth's first deep- space colony and find out what happened to it.  Even the heavy exposition sequence, where Archer pretty much explains the entire backstory of this colony to the audience and to T'Pol, seemed to come off about as well as one might expect given how much information had to be dropped in our laps.

After that basic premise, however, the show seemed to stumble around for a while.  The first act wasn't particularly bad, but it felt sluggish -- lengthy chase sequences, somewhat slow-paced dialogue, and lots of dark "let's explore this cavern" scenes which seemed to run far too long.  Individual moments certainly stood out here, though -- our discovery that the colonists couldn't have fled because they cannibalized their ship seemed especially effective.

The core of the story, however, comes when the "alien race" Reed discovers and is subsequently captured by turns out to be human after all, and in fact the descendants of the original colonists, who through an asteroid impact have been driven underground and through a misinterpretation blame humans for the plight of their "Novan" species.  At this point, Archer decides that he has to gain their trust rather than go in guns blazing.  On a character level, this works -- his outburst to Mayweather that "if I can't make first contact with other hu... I don't have any business being out here" seems very true to his explorer's ideals and his somewhat volatile nature (to quote T'Pol).

On a plausibility level, though, I can't quite let myself get swept away into the story.  Even if we assume that the youngest members of the colony could survive when the adults were killed (something which seems highly unlikely to me), we're shown that Nadet, one original colonist, was altered physically by the radiation *and passed that alteration along to her descendants*.  That's akin to the arguments that giraffes stretched their necks to reach leaves on tall trees, and thus passed longer necks on to their offspring.  Children of people exposed to large levels of radiation may well be altered in some ways due to a higher chance of mutations in their cells, but they're not going to be born with severe radiation scarring, for example.

On a more story-related level, something about the "the kids heard their parents blaming humans for an attack on the colony, so grew up thinking humans are the enemy" plot doesn't quite ring true to me. These colonists had been gone from Earth for several decades, but there's no indication that they thought of themselves as anything other than humans.  I could easily see survivors telling their descendants that "Earthers" caused this problem, but why they'd suddenly call themselves something other than humans just feels off. Berman, Braga, and scripter Antoinette Stella were clearly trying to create and then shatter a "humans vs. aliens" approach, and I appreciate that, but somehow the connections don't quite seem to get there.

That said, however, if you can put those plausibility questions out of your head most of the episode works fairly well.  It helps that the two main Novans were well acted (I particularly liked Erick Avari, but I've frequently been partial to his work), but even beyond that the episode had two significant things going for it.

The first is that the Novan culture felt fairly complete, if not as well realized as those of long-standing Trek cultures like the Vulcans or the Bajorans.  Their language, for example, was still recognizable, but had a lot of new phrases and new idioms, which is what you'd expect of any language after 70 years of isolation, particularly when those creating it had the vocabulary of a 5 or 6-year-old.  (Think about how many phrases pepper the English language today that someone from 1930 wouldn't understand ... and we haven't been isolated from everyone else.)  The musical interlude Reed witnessed was a bit bizarre, but somehow seemed to fit -- these people felt real, at least to me.

The second big plus of the episode is that, as only an episode set pre- TOS can do, it managed to raise the equivalent of a serious Prime Directive issue without having to invoke the Most Holy PD in the process.  Instead, Archer and T'Pol actually got to debate the issue *as an issue* and as uncharted territory, rather than as a simple question of "do we break the Prime Directive again this week?" T'Pol's entire argument that Archer cannot "just pluck them up, bring them to a strange world and hope they learn to conform" was easily the best argument of this type I've seen in years, and also one of the first times I'd seen a lengthy T'Pol scene and *not* winced at the character or her portrayal.  It's arguments like that which could easily lead to the creation of the Prime Directive, and for now it's extremely interesting to me to see some of the circumstances which could create it.  That interest is enough to make me overlook, or at least downplay, a lot of the plausibility questions -- when an episode can get me thinking about something this broad, it's doing something right.

The ending, unfortunately, didn't quite live up to the promise of that framing issue.  After we'd all been forced to wonder whether Archer's justified in trying to take the Novans off-world, the gods of fate pretty much wave their hands and make it all better.  The southern continents are entirely safe, so the Novans don't need to adapt much -- and Archer works together with Jamin to save another Novan, which gives him enough trust to make his arguments hold water.  Very neat, very tidy -- and thus a little disappointing.  I think the episode comes out ahead overall, but the early days of deep-space exploration shouldn't all be resolved in as pat a way as this.

Other points:

-- Wording nitpick:  I don't think T'Pol can get away with saying that the radiation is only "800 millirads" and thus safe.  That would refer to an absolute dose -- if she says it's 800 millirads in a given time period (say, an hour or a 6-hour reconnaissance mission), fine.

-- While it was perhaps a little too convenient that Archer managed to find a picture of Nadet (and know it was her) in the nick of time, I liked the fact that the other Novan characters had the same sort of truncated-but-recognizable names.  Nadet's son was Jamin (as in Ben), and the other two Novans with speaking roles were Athan (Jonathan?) and Akary (Zachary, one would assume).

-- Archer's got a good point early on -- where *are* the bodies?  If the radiation killed everyone but the kids, where are all the dead adults?  Did the Novans drag them underground?  Did the radiation flash-fry them?  Were they carried off by mutant time-displaced descendants of Porthos?

-- Speaking of time-displacement, my initial guess once we found out the Novans were descendants of the original colonists was that the radiation somehow got the planet temporally out of sync with the outside universe and that this culture had thus been around for several hundred years rather than 70.  While it might have addressed the look of the colonists more plausibly, I can confidently say that I was very happy to be wrong.  :-)

-- Could Lt. Reed have been any *more* stereotypically stiff-upper- lip Brit this week?  When he reassured Archer that he could be left behind with "Don't worry about me, sir," my immediate addendum was, "I'm British, after all."

-- Archer has an interesting view of what humans' "birthright" is -- apparently everyone should have a lot of the same core values, at least to the level of living on the surface and enjoying the sunshine. What does he think of boomers, one wonders?  I'd like to see this examined further somewhere down the line.

"Terra Nova," then, is a somewhat mixed bag, but a more interesting show at its core than the last couple of shows we've seen.  There are certainly a lot of clunky things about the episode I'd have changed and some significant objections, but it's somehow appealing despite all the clutter.

Wrapping up:

Writing:  Lots of detail-oriented problems with the premise, but a lot         of the fundamental questions were worth it -- and the         Archer/T'Pol scene was worth the episode by itself. Directing:  Very sluggish to start with, but basically fine after that. Acting:   Bakula isn't quite at his best with the "slow and patient"         tone he took early on, but overall I was happy with everyone         -- even Blalock, for a change.

OVERALL:  6.5.  Clunky, but worth sticking around for the meat.


It's not so much an either/or question as an Andor question...

Tim Lynch (Castilleja School, Science Department)        <*> "When you get them back to Earth, what will you do?  Send them to school, teach them to read and write?  Wear human clothing, eat human food?  Teach them to live on the surface, enjoy the sunshine?"         -- T'Pol -- Copyright 2001, Timothy W. Lynch.  All rights reserved, but feel free to ask... This article is explicitly prohibited from being used in any off-net compilation without due attribution and *express written consent of the author*.  Walnut Creek and other CD-ROM distributors, take note.

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