A couple of years ago I was a bit too eager to link to news items about how Dollhouse, then in development, was in trouble (it was in trouble, as it turned out, but I was harping on it more than a not-yet-aired show deserved). So I’m going to try not to dwell upon the fact that Fox has another high-profile drama project that is clearly in trouble before the pilot’s even finished: Terra Nova, the science fiction series from Steven Spielberg’s company. It already had casting problems and cost overruns without even shooting a frame of film; one of the executive producers, David Fury, walked out a while ago. Now, forced to delay production for several months, Fox has laid off all the writers who don’t already have contracts with the studio, hilariously insisting that “the movie doesn’t mean [the show] is in trouble.”
The problems Fox is having with the project are hard to figure out without, you know, having seen it or read a script. But in addition to the simple fact that some shows get out of hand and need to be re-thought and re-written, this particular project has something else that probably worries the network: it’s based on a trend that has already died out before the thing even airs. As a big expensive serial with time jumps (“it toggles between the 22nd century and prehistoric times”), science fiction and fantasy elements, and over-arching missions, it was supposed to be the biggest-ever attempt to create a successor to Lost.
Except that all the Lost imitators have failed — or are barely hanging on like The Event — while frothy light entertainment has suddenly come back to rule the big networks. Any show this big is a gamble, but a big, risky attempt to do something that isn’t particularly popular any more must make a network terrified. Though the success of The Walking Dead might inspire them to make it less of a “family” show as originally described and have more scary dinosaurs and futuristic monsters in it.
As for the writing staff issues, it’s kind of amusing, for those who remember how much he’s hated by Star Trek fandom, that Brannon Braga (the executive producer) keeps his job while most of the writers are let go. But as the linked article says, Fox could only kick out the writers who weren’t already under long-term contract to the studio. I’ve talked earlier about the potential danger of staffing a show with too many “contract” writers, people who are being put to work by the studio but would really rather be off creating their own shows (and will be developing other shows, hoping for a chance to leave, all through their time on this other person’s show). There’s another potential issue for a studio, that having assigned them to a project that’s been delayed, they can’t get those writers onto something else unless they leave voluntarily, the way David Fury did.
And that’s all the Terra Nova talk until (if) it airs, unless something really interesting or hilarious happens with it. But this is surely the big In Trouble project of the season.
Oh, one other thing, tangentially related: the plan was — who knows if it still is — to start Terra Nova with a two-hour pilot, like Lost. I’m really surprised this hasn’t come back more, considering how successful it was for Lost. The double-length drama pilot used to be very common, and it’s often a good idea: you get more time to introduce everybody and set up the premise while still having plenty of time for excitement.
The two-hour pilot was also good for the studio, which could get added value out of a pilot that ran as long as a feature. Sometimes, as with Twin Peaks, the pilot would be sold overseas as a movie, and sometimes, as with Mullholland Drive, an unsold two-hour pilot could be released as a feature film in North America. (Of course most pilots are not by David Lynch, but the added-value aspect of long pilots was known even before him; the pilots of Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers were both released as features in North America, even though the shows actually aired.) You’d think that with the huge casts of today’s big dramas and the difficulty of introducing everybody in 40 minutes while still having a plot, there would be more of these extra-long pilots. They still happen; as befits the Battlestar Galactica franchise, Syfy will launch the next Galactica spinoff with a long pilot. But they still haven’t returned as strong as I would have expected based on Lost.