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Treading old ground

SO, TERRA Nova . . . what's all the fuss ova? (Sorry, I just couldn't resist that.)

Well, for one thing there's Steven Spielberg, whose name tops a long list of executive producers and whose trademark paw prints are all over it.

For another, there's the budget: $50m, the highest ever for a television series, $20m of which was spent on this two-part pilot, which Sky showed back to back.

You can see the money has been splashed all over the screen, even in the opening sequences of a convincingly realised dystopian future that recalls both Blade Runner and Total Recall.

Where the series' creators seem to have been penny-pinching is on the script and characters. They're so familiar, hackneyed and derivative, it often feels like Terra Nova is a remake rather than an original concept.

Jurassic Park: The Series, maybe, or less flatteringly, Land of the Lost, a cheesy 1970s Saturday morning kids' show that was big in America but never quite caught on the same way over here -- although you might have been unfortunate enough to drag your ankle-biters along to the spoofy film version, made a couple of years ago.

Anyway, it's 2149 and the world is in a right dirty old mess.

Environmental pollution has grown so bad that everyone walks around wearing re-breathers to avoid choking to death.

Children have never seen white clouds or the moon, and the sun can't penetrate the permanent dusk.

The population has mushroomed, too, prompting the US government to impose a two-child limit on families.

The only hope of a decent future lies in the distant past, via a time portal (not unlike the one in Stargate) which whisks hand-picked colonists back 85 million years to when dinosaurs walked the Earth, in order to rebuild society from scratch.

The snag is it's a one-way journey; once you go, there's no way back.

Hard-working cop Jim Shannon (Irish actor Jason O'Mara, from the flop US version of Life on Mars) and his wife Elizabeth (Shelley Conn from Mistresses, retaining her English accent) fall foul of the authorities when it's discovered they have three children. Jim socks a soldier and ends up sentenced to six years in jail.

Two years later, and rather improbably given what's happened, Elizabeth and their two teenage kids -- a smart girl and a surly boy, who resents his dad for getting himself locked up in clink -- are offered the chance to go back in time, so Jim, having broken out of prison with ridiculous ease, rushes through the portal after them, with contraband child No. 3 hidden in a backpack.

Terra Nova, the colony these brave time explorers land in, turns out to be a bit like a high-class Center Parcs, with pristine chalets and armed guards patrolling the perimeter fences to keep out the dinosaurs.

It's ruled over by grizzled army captain Nathaniel Taylor (Stephen Lang, playing exactly the same type of character he played in Avatar), who assigns Jim to light gardening duties -- chopping arm-thick weeds while coping with three-foot long insects.

But he's swiftly promoted to security agent when he brings down an armed would-be assassin who tries to bump off Taylor.

This guy, it turns out, is one of "the Sixers", a group of dissident colonists who came through the portal on the sixth trip and are intent on wrecking the whole set-up.

But are the Sixers really the bad guys, or is it Taylor that Jim should be keeping a close eye on? And what about those strange runes near a waterfall that Taylor keeps off limits to the other Terra Novans? Could they hold the key to some dangerous secrets?

Terra Nova, filmed in stunning Australian settings, is a lively, if slightly corny and underwhelming chunk of expensive hokum that seems aimed at a broad family audience (even the sight of a dinosaur munching on a teenager's leg had a distinct PG feel).

As long as it doesn't end up as Lost with dinosaurs, I'll be happy.

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