TERRA NOVA: Jim (Jason O'Mara, R) and Taylor (Stephen Lang, L) battle a mighty Carnosaur in TERRA NOVA airing Monday's (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2011 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: FOX

It’s taken more than a year and a half to get Terra Nova to the airwaves, the effects-laden premiere episode cost millions to produce, and among the many (many) names credited with bringing the sci-fi drama to fruition is Steven Spielberg.

And while all that time, money and tinkering didn’t result in a pilot at the level of a Lost or Alias premiere, Terra Nova, which premieres on M-Net on Wednesday at 8.30pm, is must-see viewing.

Because a spectacle this big warrants a spot in your prime time line-up at least once.

There’s something for everyone in the Terra Nova premiere: dinosaurs, cops, family drama, time travel, rogue explorers, environmental concerns, a prison break, population control… maybe a little too much, since it’s not clear during or after the pilot which plots are going to get the most attention as the series continues.

The basic story: it’s 2149 and Earth has gone to hell. Over-population and an environmental disaster have left Earthlings breathing polluted air and dealing with nearly extinct life, and the government has instituted a maximum two-child-per-family rule.

The solution, for those lucky enough to win a spot via a lottery, is Terra Nova, a new civilisation set 85 million years in the past, thanks to a time travel portal. Setting off to this new land is a ticket to survival, so when the Shannons get a shot to go, they’re thrilled.

There’s just the little matter of breaking cop dad Jim Shannon (Life on Mars star Jason O’Mara) out of prison, where he’s been sentenced after an altercation with police over their discovery that he and surgeon wife Elisabeth (Strike Back’s Shelley Conn) have three kids.

Once at Terra Nova, the Shannons meet the gruff Commander Taylor (Avatar’s Stephen Lang), who’s running the show, and find out they’re surrounded by dinosaurs and “the Sixers”, a group of people who fled Earth earlier and now want to destroy the gated community known as Terra Nova.

Why? We don’t know, but their subversive activity gives cop Jim a purpose and sets up one of many potential storylines.

Will the show focus on the Sixers vs. Terra Nova drama? Why are the Sixers so against Terra Nova? What about the Shannon family’s three-kid problem? Is the brusque Taylor friend or foe? What’s happening on Earth while the Terra Nova folk try to manoeuvre prehistoric territory?

And why, with all those millions thrown at the screen, don’t the dinosaurs look… better?

Still, here’s hoping Terra Nova can live up to some of its fuss.

The show drew a solid audience of 9.7 million viewers on its debut in the US, and reviews were mostly positive.

The New York Times said the story was “lavishly produced by television standards, at a level of visual and technical sophistication”.

The dinos of Terra Nova don’t look or sound like their theatrical predecessors, and for good reason.

Jack Horner, the show’s palaeontology expert who worked with Spielberg on Jurassic Park, made sure of it.

“Jack set our show in the Cretaceous period, 85 million years ago,” explains visual effects supervisor Kevin Blank. “That’s a period where the fossil record is the least defined. They only know about 10 percent of what existed at that time.”

So Blank and his team were able to give audiences dinos that they may have heard of, like the menacing carnotaurus and the gentle brachiosaurus, as well as some we probably haven’t heard of.

The Slasher Tails in the premiere episode, for instance, never existed but they might as well have, says executive producer Brannon Braga. “We needed a big, climactic dinosaur, so I thought: ‘What’s one that didn’t exist but could have existed?’ Then we just go for the Jack Horner seal of approval, in terms of appearance and behaviour. We do that for any animal we create.”

Creating the behaviour of dinos is “the fun part” for the writers. “You can’t just throw a dinosaur up on screen, especially if it’s one you’re making up,” said Brannon. “They have to have specific behaviours. Maybe they travel in packs, like the Slashers do. And maybe one scouts the area, and when it finds its prey, calls for others. First there are two Slashers… and then there are a dozen others”.

But it is most important that even the made-up dinosaurs look real to audiences. “If a six-year-old who loves and studies dinosaurs spots something that doesn’t look right, they’ll cry: ‘Fake!’ And Jack says he gets those letters all the time,” said Kevin.

And that all leaves one critical question. How do the special effects wizards create the sound of a dinosaur?

They’re a mixture of sounds, it turns out, but one element is common: they all roar. – Reuters