Terra Nova’s Take on Birth Control: Science Future or Science Fiction?

The promotional blitz for Fox’s Terra Nova made it tough for anyone with a television to miss the show’s premise before its premiere episode aired: in the future, “a family is four.” With Earth a polluted wasteland, resources are dwindling, and the state (exactly which state isn’t clear) has determined that the human population must be kept in check. The Shannons, the show’s core family, have three children. They’re lawbreakers. Early versions of the pilot offered a reason why the Shannons violated the family planning policy. The version that eventually aired did not.

Three episodes in, it’s not looking like those blanks are getting filled in anytime soon.

Critics like Time’s James Poniewozik have been wondering if the change–or rather, the omission–reflects an effort to make the series more family friendly.  Though he offers a more nuanced meditation than my cynical self can muster, in this case “family friendly” seems to mean “offending no one” rather than “appealing to a family audience.” I don’t need to see the forensics report to suspect that the cuts were made by executives worried about keeping the content advertiser friendly.

Unfortunately, these days it’s tough to say anything about family planning or population control when the right wing’s idea of a rational discussion of either is to cry “Abortion is murder!” in a crowded theater. (Or to let sonograms speak to passers-by at the Capitol Visitors’ Center.)

But Terra Nova gets its narrative juice by being humanity’s last best chance of survival. If nothing’s at stake but a handful of lives and limbs, the show is Land of the Lost. (Either version.) A fun ride, for sure, but basically a dino buffet. (There’s a reason the original had Chaka and the Sleestaks.) For good and ill–and I’m sure with much writerly consternation, the show is stuck trying to find a way to talk about birth control in a way that maximizes the dramatic potential and minimizes the political risk.  Let’s just say they don’t make it look easy.

It should go without saying that Terra Nova operates under the assumption that mainstream viewers think laws restricting family size are evil—and not necessarily necessary ones. Mention them and what comes to mind? China. And thanks to the supremely effective rhetoric of the anti-abortion lobby, the results of China’s one-child policy—abortions, femicide—have been inextricably conflated with its aims—controlling the rate of population growth. I’m no more a fan of a policy that prohibits a woman from giving birth any more than I am of a policy that forces a woman to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term, but given the fact that the world’s population is rapidly approaching 7 billion people I do think we ought to be adult enough to admit that there are less onerous ways to address the problem.

At least Terra Nova lets us believe that the Catholic Church does eventually lose its fight against any non-abstinential form of contraception. After all, what kind of regime would impose a limit on family size without ensuring its citizens had the means to be law-abiding? (Yeah, I know. It’d be sorta like thinking people would never think of having sex if not for those awful feminist types telling them to hop to it!)  But the means of (re)production are for the most part kept under wraps on Terra Nova. Many a narrative hoop is jumped through in the effort to keep us from wondering if humanity is worth saving. (Clearly the place to ponder that is on cable. When will we ever see another Battlestar Galactica or Caprica?)

Terra Nova may venture into big question territory at some point, but in the fragile audience-building phase, it’s playing it safe. No one questions the value of the portal-to-the-past species rejuvenation plan–even though it’s a one-way ticket to a completely different time stream. (They can’t change the future. Or at least that’s what the portal controllers want them to believe. Cue the menacing strings screech.) And the darker questions about “a family is four” enforcement policies are skirted (almost) handily. Dad Jim Shannon isn’t imprisoned for illegal fathering. He’s locked up for punching out the jackbooted thug who’s scared his illegal daughter hiding Anne Frank-style in his apartment. Sure, we’re supposed to worry about what’s going to happen to Zoe–just as we’re supposed to wonder whether the punishment for having an illegal child is to restore the balance. But mostly what we get are some serious frays in the narrative fabric.

I have to agree that it’s probably better for the audience to believe the authorities are too dim—or arrogant or ill-equipped—to doubt that mama Shannon is going to timeslip to Terra Nova without her illegal child or her imprisoned husband. But my reasons are selfish. Better that than allowing the specter of state sanctioned child murder to give social conservatives another opportunity to remind us how they feel about abortion.

Then again, maybe the show should dip a pinky toe or two into the debate. Maybe it already has. The very idea that there are wanted and unwanted children, even if only the bad guys do the unwanting, is progressive when people are arguing for the personhood of a fetus that can only exist inside another person’s body. And what better way to point out the contradictory impulses that make moral absolutes problematic when dealing with flesh and blood humans than to put on a show where a family is four? Except when it isn’t.

About Jodi:
Jodi is a freelance writer and recovering academic with more enthusiasm for sports than athletic talent and a prodigious taste for the health food known as dark chocolate.


  1. Lisa Brown says:

    Wonder if the series is picked up for another season where they will go with this topic. I haven’t seen the series but the ads I saw reminded me of Land of the Lost as well!!

    Good article!

  2. Adam Wattstein says:

    Excellent point on how TV shows today are made for the advertisers and not the viewing public. They would rather water it down than face the Terry Rakolta’s of the world. Such a shame!!

    Great article.

  3. I watched the premiere, and thought it was just okay. Although your Land of the Lost comment is perfect. Interesting point about how the Catholic church, I guess I hadn’t thought it out that far. Nice read!

  4. I haven’t seen Terra Nova, but I’m glad you made a reference to Battlestar Galatica. They dealt with birth control and abortion issues in such a head on, nuanced way on that show. The episode where President Roslin makes abortion illegal, even though she’s fought for a woman’s right to choose her entire life, was interesting, since humans are on the brink of extinction. And then the episode where Starbuck in is a fertility farm . . . talk about “The Handmaid’s Tale” taken to a very terrifying extreme.

    • Oooo, absolutely! That fertility farm just creeped me out bigtime. I loved BG and Caprica, too, but sometimes I just wanted a little more hope for humanity. Sure, we make the same mistakes over and over again, but at least as far I’m concerned, a flawed humanity is better than the Cylons’ grand plan to press the reset button :)

  5. An that is why you are a writer! I came away from reading this thinking, “damn, I didn’t pick up on the nuances of birth control/abortion/government enforcing and all that when I watched Terra Nova.” I just bought into the population control law. I’ve only seen episode one though, so don’t know yet if it is followed up in subsequent episodes. I like the show, I just like to watch marathons, so I have to hurry and watch the episodes I’ve missed.
    Great article. I love looking at your perspective on life.

  6. I’ve been watching Terra Nova and enjoying it. I love this post because I keep wondering when they are going to address birth control and abortion! Because, hello, even with three kids those parents are obviously using some kind of birth control, willingly. I did have a very similar thought re the Catholic Church, too, when I caught that first glimpse of the “Family is four” billboard. My thought was more like: ok, so the scary quiverfulls don’t win, at least in this version of reality, and that’s good! It will be interesting to see, if the show continues, how they wind up dealing with this – if only as part of the teenagers-falling-in-love storylines.

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