Has Spielberg's $50m gamble on time-travel dinosaur epic paid off?

First Night: Terra Nova, Sky 1

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The Independent Culture

The main action in Terra Nova – Sky One's dinosaur's n' time-travel spectacular – takes place 85 million years before its opening scene.

The inspiration for the opening scene, on the other hand, is much closer to home. It's only 29 years since Blade Runner was released – and though Steven Spielberg is executive producer, it's Ridley Scott who first sets the mood.

The year is 2149: oranges are a luxurious novelty, the air is as thick as porridge and third children are a criminal offence, which is why Jim ends up getting six years in a maximum security prison without a respirator.

When his doctor wife is recruited to head back in time with the teenagers, Jim has to break out and bluff his way through the portal with child No. 3 concealed in his backpack.

On the other side of the time gate James Cameron takes over the job of supplying unpaid artistic input. That's because Terra Nova looks suspiciously like the planet Pandora from Avatar and Stephen Lang turns up again, playing another steely military commander: "Together we are at the dawn of a new civilisation", he tells the new arrivals, "No pressure."

The new civilisation itself looks less like a frontier outpost than a tropical version of Center Parcs, with family chalets laid out along wood-chip paths and a handy supermarket within walking distance.

However, this Center Parcs has dinosaurs. Before long Zoe (contraband kid) is out by the fence feeding a CGI Brachiosaurus. And for the first time Spielberg gets a look in as a creative presence.

He doesn't seem to have fretted unduly about the script. The budget for Terra Nova is reported to have been over $50m (£32.2m) but there evidently wasn't a lot left over for writers.

"It seemed like a good idea at the time," says Jim flatly, when asked to explain why he and his wife had ignored the two-child maximum back in Smogville. And Commander Taylor himself has a tendency to use lines that feel as if they've been around since the Cretaceous: "C'mon... let's take a drive. There's a lot about this place you need to know," he grunts manfully, after Jim has convinced him to reassign him from light gardening duties to the his security team.

Meanwhile, Jim's teenagers are down the mall – sorry, marketplace – making awkward 2011 small talk with the local hotties. Judging from appearances, the task of recruiting colonists for Terra Nova was contracted out to the hiring department at Abercrombie & Fitch.

It's best not to ask too many questions about this set up, such as why a society that could invent a functioning time machine hasn't found an easier way to put things right than violating all known laws of physics. But as long as you don't ask too many questions you should be able to have fun. The dinosaurs are nimbly animated and the final half hour is salted with promising teasers. For one thing, who exactly are the Sixers, a group of dissident Terra Novans? And what are the mysterious runes out by the waterfall that Commander Taylor has declared off limits?

It would be a very undiscerning sort of viewer who went back for the people, or their cardboard emotions. But the dinosaurs, and those question marks, might just hook you.