REMOTE OUTPOST written by Mark Onspaugh
“IT’S OVA, TERRA NOVA
(Or Why I Decided to Forsake Living Dinosaurs for the Undead of THE WALKING DEAD)”
Dear TERRA NOVA,
I’ve already packed my stuff (thanks for the raptor egg!) and will be shutting down my home portal to you immediately. It’s not that you were less than congenial or nice to look at. You were just… too safe.
Don’t get me wrong, I love stories about scrappy humans against hostile worlds filled with strange customs and/or vicious beasts. Robert A. Heinlein’s book, “Tunnel in the Sky,” was a childhood favorite, and many of the stories of Robert Sheckley took a satirical look at those tropes.
But you were just too bland, TERRA NOVA. Your city looked like something out of the original Star Trek. You had clean, well-lighted homes, big electrified fences and plenty to eat, good doctors with holo-imagers and lots of smiles, smiles, smiles.
Oh sure, there were vicious beasties and a group of rebels, but they were usually repelled without the loss of someone important. That’s the trouble with TV, isn’t it? You usually don’t want to kill off your core characters, and the audience knows this… So your perils better be really perilous or your characters better be very interesting.
But despite talented actors like Jason O’Mara (the American version of the show LIFE ON MARS, from 2008) and Stephen Lang (AVATAR, 2009), your characters were pretty bland, their problems very Disney-esque: plagues and murders overshadowed by little girls adopting baby dino pets and awkward teens with their awkward first dates or slow dances, while Mom and Dad smile and shake their heads knowingly.
I know, I know, this is a family show, and you’re on a network and must shy away from content that is too gory or profane or sexy.
But you should have been more SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON (1960) and less FATHER KNOWS BEST (1954-1960).
Remember Ray Bradbury’s classic tale “A Sound of Thunder”? It became a terrible movie in 2005, remember? In Bradbury‘s story, wannabe hunters go back to the past and kill T-Rexes, but only ones that were fated to die, anyway. The hunters and their guides walk along an elevated path, and the big rule is NEVER STEP OFF THE PATH, because the (premature) death of a single organism could alter the future (our present) irreparably. Guy in the story (SPOILER!) steps on a butterfly and puts a dictator in power…
TERRA NOVA, your not people are not only stepping off the path, they’ve ripped it up and are killing everything in sight… not to mention creating a whole human civilization some 65 million years before the first humans will exist… Yet the timeline seems unaffected… How? Are your descendants going to compete with those proto-humans, thereby preventing their rise to dominance? Won’t you, in effect, undo the human race, and the time portal, and yourselves?
What the hell, TERRA NOVA?
Ummmm… maybe it’s a pocket reality? A little girl’s dream? Oz with dinosaurs?
You seemed to hint that you would examine some of these questions, but you’re very slow in getting to it… Unlike LOST, your mysteries and your characters just aren’t compelling.
Wouldn’t it have been interesting if some things started to alter around your people because the timeline was being affected, and their reality became slippery and uncertain?
How cool would it have been if there was some microorganism in the primordial past that attacked synthetic materials – if your people suddenly found their homes and vehicles and holo-imagers and sonic toothbrushes crumbling to dust? If they had to build forts like early settlers, and tan hides for clothes and invent weapons with natural materials, all the time fending off the beasties and the rebels?
Or how about a saboteur who believes we have no business in the past?
Even LOST IN SPACE (the 60’s adventures of the “Space Family Robinson”) had Dr. Smith, and he was funny (unlike anyone in your group.)
You don’t offer anything like this, TERRA NOVA, and I don’t have the time or patience to wait until you finally bring out your big box of surprises. I have a feeling its contents will be bland and smiley and safe, like a stegosaurus who becomes a grumbling but harmless family pet.
But if I’m wrong (as I was about ENTERPRISE, 2001-2005), we’ll meet again on DVD… but I doubt it.
from The Remote Outpost
Everything wrong about TERRA NOVA is right in THE WALKING DEAD.
The series, based on the brilliant graphic novels of Robert Kirkman (art by Tony Moore, then Charlie Adlard) and shepherded to TV by director Frank Darabont (THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, 1994, THE GREEN MILE, 1999, THE MIST, 2007). (A number of the actors in DEAD have appeared in films Darabont directed, but I have yet to see any regular or guest star strike a false note.)
Also crucial is the participation of makeup genius Greg Nicotero, who individually and collectively with KNB Effects Group has been involved with a myriad of cool horror and special makeup effects since the 80’s, from Evil Dead 2 (1987) to DEADWOOD (2004-2006) to THE PACIFIC (2010) and THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (2012).
The series begins with Sheriff Rick Grimes waking from a coma in a hospital. He’s thirsty, confused… No one comes to his aid. He finally gets out of bed and shambles down the halls in his gown and bandages… the hospital is empty, litter and signs of struggle everywhere he looks. He finds a set of double doors that are chained up, and a spray painted message reads DON’T OPEN – DEAD INSIDE. Then one of the doors is forced open just enough for a pale, grasping hand to reach through… The opening is subtle but chilling, and we know we are in for a hell of a ride.
Rick is played by Andrew Lincoln, a Brit who starred in the BBC supernatural series AFTERLIFE (2005-2006) and was in LOVE ACTUALLY (2003). Lincoln is perfect as Rick, an idealistic and moral soul who is cast into a world that is literally Hell on Earth.
Rick soon learns that the his county (perhaps the world) is overrun with the living dead. If that first zombie (a pale hand) led you to believe the makeup was going to be “on the cheap,” have no fear—one of the next zombies Rick meets up with is half a zombie, trailing its intestines as it crawls slowly across a field. Once Rick discovers this unfortunate is still alive, he kills it out of mercy rather than fear. Rick is our moral compass in this world gone mad, and he finds his ethics and his values completely at odds in a place where both the dead and the living have turned dangerous, even monstrous.
Returning home, Rick finds his wife and young son gone, and goes in search of them. He learns through trial and error what kills a zombie, and has some hair-raising close calls. The zombies here are the Romero shambling, lurching type, capable of speed when motivated. They don’t run but they are persistent and strong, and their appearance (as well as their smell) can be overwhelming to even the toughest survivor.
Rick finds his wife and son with a ragtag group of survivors being led by Shane (Jon Bernthal: EASTWICK, 2009-2010), his former deputy. Shane left Rick in the hospital, figuring he was as good as dead. He even told Rick’s wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies : PRISON BREAK, 2005-2009) that Rick was dead. This gave Shane the opportunity to step in as surrogate husband and father, something he has secretly desired for some time.
Now Rick is back, and Lori holds Shane in contempt for lying to her. Shane, for his part, feels he is the better leader, that he is brutal enough to make the hard choices Rick will not. Shane’s envy and resentment toward his best friend are now taking their toll, and we have already seen one instance where Shane sacrificed someone else so he would survive.
The characters here are wonderfully realized by the writing, acting and directing. When Lori confesses to Rick that she had slept with Shane, he takes it in stride, acknowledging that she thought he was dead. Whether or not Rick becomes jealous of Shane in later episodes, it was refreshing to see this scene play out without Rick beating the crap out of Shane (or vice versa).
Among the survivors in Rick’s group are Glenn (Steven Yeun), the group’s daredevil and “wheel man”; T-Dog (IronE Singleton), a somber and troubled African American; Dale Horvath (Jeffrey DeMunn, from THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, THE GREEN MILE and THE MIST), the cranky and eminent sage and RV driver; Carol (Melissa Suzanne McBride: AMERICAN GOTHIC, 1995 and THE MIST) an abused wife and mother; Andrea (Laurie Holden: THE MIST, FANTASTIC FOUR, 2005), a former attorney who will become the group’s best sharpshooter (if they follow the graphic novels); and Daryl and Merle Dixon, a pair of redneck brothers, played by Norman Reedus (BOONDOCK SAINTS, 1999, PANDORUM, 2009 and the as-yet-unreleased NIGHT OF THE TEMPLAR 2011) and Michael Rooker (HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, 1986, THE 6TH DAY, 2000, and SLITHER, 2006).
Both Daryl and Merle are good hunters, and their knives and proficiency with bow and arrows allow them to dispatch zombies in almost complete silence (gunfire and loud noises alert all zombies in the area that there is food to be had). Trouble is, they’re racist assholes, especially older brother Merle. Rick ends up handcuffing Merle to a rooftop when Merle beats T-Dog. He gives T-Dog the handcuff key to punish Merle. When zombies come a-callin’ T-Dog fumbles the key and it goes down a drain. They have a hacksaw, but there is no time to saw through the cuff and T-Dog cannot bring himself to cut off Merle’s hand. The scene where Merle is struggling to free himself as the undead are breaking through chained doors was a bravura performance for Rooker. When Rick and Daryl later come back for Merle, all they find is Merle’s hand and wrist, still hanging in the cuff.
With his older, bullying brother out of the picture, Daryl finds himself increasingly drawn to join the small community, especially when Carol’s young daughter Sophia goes missing.
The series continually gives its characters room to grow and develop, and there are conflicts that have nothing to do with living in a zombie apocalypse, but are exacerbated by it. Moments of humor are often set off by moments of white-knuckle suspense. In the episode “Guts” (where Merle gets handcuffed to the roof), Rick and Glenn must get to a box truck so that the survivors can get away. Trouble is, there are dozens of “Walkers” (the show’s name for zombies) between them and the vehicle. They cover their clothing in the literal guts and remains of a captured zombie, then must lurch and shamble through the crowd. It is one of the most agonizing moments your old pal at the Remote Outpost has ever seen – and there are a lot of those on THE WALKING DEAD. In addition, characters you might think would survive don’t, and this adds to the tension. Hell, even a pastoral and lovely farm has its own deadly secrets.
The other great thing is that the series does not slavishly follow the graphic novels. However, with creator Kirkman as one of the execs, the series hews true to the high quality of the comic.
Sadly, Frank Darabont was fired by AMC, and the mid-season finale was the last episode he had a hand in. How the series will fare in his absence will be seen in February when it resumes.
(By the way, I won’t spoil how the second season’s mid-season finale ended, but I will say this: if you saw it and didn’t weep or at least tear up, then you may be dead already.)
Again, it may just be me, but I’d rather bite my nails watching zombies than nod off watching happy hijinks in the Cretaceous.
SUPPLEMENTAL TRANSMISSION: DEAD SET (2008) is a five-episode zombie mini-series from Britain that I highly recommend. During filming of the reality show BIG BROTHER, a zombie apocalypse strands both the housemates and the crew in a TV station. The series has lots of gore, some outrageous humor and a final shot that is simply heartbreaking. Well worth checking out.
REMOTE OUTPOST… out.
© Copyright 2011 by Mark Onspaugh