In brief: Surprisingly uninvolving and with a timid imagination.
"Terra Nova" is a bit more thoughtful than "Unexpected," but that's not saying much. Its messages have been well worn in the Trek universe, and as an hour of television it has a tendency to drag. Slow plots are one thing. Obvious, uninspired, uninformative plots are another.
Terra Nova was called "the great experiment." It was an early human colonization mission, which set its sights on the closest uninhabited but habitable planet. Their vessel, at such low-warp speeds, took nine years to reach this world, almost 20 light-years away. About five years after establishing the colony, Something Happened. There were arguments with those back on Earth about a second landing mission — a second mission that the first mission's colonists didn't want to happen. In the midst of having these arguments, Earth mysteriously lost contact with Terra Nova. No one has heard anything since.
It's in a story like this that I'm beginning to wonder about humans in space prior to the Enterprise launch (but after the Terra Nova mission). How many humans are out here? How densely or sparsely scattered through space are we? How far have we already reached? We have Travis Mayweather on board the Enterprise, our series' resident "boomer" who was born in space, but beyond the vaguest of dialog we still don't know the answer to many questions. Just what did these early space travelers do? Where did they go? How long have they been out here? How long did it take them to get from world to world? They weren't going warp 5, so how fast were they traveling? And what about the topic of ship-to-Earth communication? "Terra Nova" seems to suggest that there was near-instantaneous faster-than-light interstellar communication even 70 years ago. I'm not so sure that's a great idea for a "prequel" Trek series.
I'm also not so sure the writers even know the answers to many of these other questions. If they do, they certainly haven't asked or answered them on the screen. It's moments like "Terra Nova" that I begin to worry about the execution of this series' premise. It leaves out massive chunks of history in between Cochrane's first warp flight and the present storyline, and I'm not sure we'll ever find out what happened during those missing 90 years — like how Starfleet came to be, for example. There are big holes, and the series seems more interested in pressing forward than in looking back and filling in those important gaps.
With "Terra Nova," the series does indeed take a look backward. But I can't say I'm at all impressed by the view. It's tunnel vision, at best.
Archer & Co. beam down to Terra Nova and find the colony deserted. The colony's vessel, once landed, was dismantled to set up the outpost. It's still here, but where are the people? Suddenly the landing party is attacked by aliens. But wait — these aren't aliens. They're the descendants of the Novan colonists, humans who have been somehow changed and don't trust outsiders. Lt. Reed is kidnapped by them, recycling the most reliable of plots: When in doubt, have the script grab itself a hostage as an excuse to give our characters additional motivation.
It's subsequently discovered by the Enterprise crew that an asteroid hit the planet not long after the Terra Novans colonized the planet. This impact poisoned the rain that led to human mutations (so that's why they look kinda alien!) and forced the colonists underground into the caves. The coinciding disagreements about a second Terra Nova mission led the original colonists to believe they were attacked by a subsequent human-led mission. I find this to be hopelessly contrived. For one, why would the colonists even object to a second mission when they literally had a whole damn planet at their disposal for just a few hundred people? That's colossally absurd. For two, why would the colonists assume this disagreement would lead to an attack from their own people? This isn't logic; it's scripted paranoia.
All of that was nearly 70 years ago. So now, two generations later, the descendants of the mutated survivors are primitive cave-dwellers who don't trust humans because they've been brought up to believe that humans attacked them and are responsible for their predicament.
How tragic for the entire Terra Nova mission: These brave humans spent nine years getting here, only to be devastated by a natural disaster. Tucker notes the unfortunate nature of the situation, but I personally chalk it up to cynical scriptwriting.
And not just cynical, but uninspired and familiar. Let's talk about the issue of primitive cave-dwellers: Could anything be more derivative? We have our valiant Enterprise crew trying to reason with a primitive culture operating on incomplete information. This leads to the usual barriers with language, confused glances, and interminable distrust. I do find it somewhat intriguing to see how a catastrophe can instantly set back an advanced human culture to the stone age, but "Terra Nova's" take on the matter doesn't tackle the issue with any real depth. And it moves at a relentlessly slow pace.
These primitives still have some supplies passed down from the original colonists, specifically machine guns that they use to initially repel the Enterprise landing party. Fortunately for the Novans — or at the very least for our viewers who must have their RDA for "action" satiated — after 70 years these cave people still happen to have plenty of bullets for their guns, and the guns are still in perfect working condition.
Archer tries to prove his Good Intentions to two of the Novans, Jaymin (Erick Avari) and Nadet (Mary Carver). Nadet is 75 years old and is in fact one of the original colony survivors. She was 5 years old when the asteroid hit, and might be Archer's best hope for reasoning with the Novans to get them to leave their caves. You see, Archer has a ticking clock here because the radiation has contaminated the Novans' underground water supply. He has to find a way to move them or they'll all get sick and die within a matter of months.
So. The story's major crisis comes down to a painfully familiar You Have to Trust Me plot. Archer must convince Jaymin, who doubts him at every turn, that he has the Novans' best interests at heart. The turning point for trust is ostensibly demonstrated (but actually not) by a sequence in which Archer's shuttle sinks into a cave when the ground collapses beneath it, and then Archer and Jaymin help rescue a Novan who has become pinned underwater by a big piece of a tree. (I think it's a tree, though I'm not sure how it got so far underground.)
This sequence is obviously manufactured (it feels like filler in order to make the hour seem more "eventful"), but what's worse is that even this proof of good faith doesn't win Jaymin over — he's still bent on ignoring Archer's advice about the poisoned water supply! It's only through Nadet and her memory of events from before the asteroid impact that the story is finally able to budge Jaymin from his stubborn distrust. It takes too long, and it grows too tedious.
The one scene that reveals a modicum of debate and insight is the one where Archer and T'Pol argue about the fate of the Novans now that they've lost all touch with who they once were and have become their own essentially alien culture. How can and should they be moved? Should they be taken by the Enterprise and absorbed back into humanity? Should they be left to their own devices and allowed to die? Is it Archer's place to save them? Reasonable questions, though Archer comes across as a bit needlessly hotheaded (Bakula seems to raise his voice through half the episode) and I'm still uneasy about the woodenness of T'Pol as performed by Blalock.
On the whole, "Terra Nova" is content to coast on the fumes of creative fuels that were barely supplied from the outset. Star Trek is supposed to be about dialog and ideas. The problem with "Terra Nova" is that none of the people descended from the Terra Nova colony is permitted any worthwhile dialog. By making the Novans a group of primitives with incorrect information, the story has basically dropped its anchor before leaving the dock.
I envision an infinitely more interesting and hopeful vision for Terra Nova. It has a thriving human society that for one reason or another has been out of contact with Earth for 70 years. It has become its own human subculture, with ideas and opinions and technology — and an accurate historical record. It fills in story gaps for the audience with dialog about human history in the immediate aftermath of First Contact with the Vulcans. And to the people of this colony we now reveal the presence of a groundbreaking new starship, the Enterprise, which can go from star to star in the process of hours, days, or weeks rather than years. What do these colonists think about this achievement? Are they awed? Intrigued? Perhaps frightened by the possibilities?
Instead we get cavemen with machine guns who are unwilling to believe Archer when he has the evidence sitting right in front of them. We move 'em elsewhere on the planet to save their lives. The Enterprise proceeds to its next adventure.
Next week: Andorians!