There are many things that AMC’s The Terror is about. There are many layers to its symbolism and story as well, but most of all it’s about a clusterfuck: a nightmare on ice, where the “full measure of God-given misery and terror and mortality” embrace Murphy’s Law and make for riveting TV.
Executive producer Ridley Scott based this series on American horror author Dan Simmons's novel of the same title, about English explorers getting stuck at the top of the world, on one of the most isolated and harsh territories to be marooned in, and, since this is a Simmons story, of things going from bad to worse to off the charts sideways in nail-biting escalation.
Episode one’s title card succinctly sums up what the series is all about.
“In 1845 two Royal Navy ships left England in an attempt to finally discover a navigable passage through the arctic. They were the most technologically advanced ships of their day. They were last seen by European whalers in Baffin By awaiting good conditions to enter the Arctic labyrinth. Both ships then vanished.”
Those two ships are the HMS Terror and the HMS Erebus, and Simmons's novel is a fictionalized account of that lost expedition and of how these Englishmen, from 1845 to 1848, tried to force their discovery of the Northwest Passage. Aside from the excellent source material as handled by someone like Simmons, there are two things we loved about the show.
First, the fact that showrunners David Kajganich and Soo Hugh chose to posit the story using a style that can only be described as compassionate misery porn. It’s where every kind of conflict out in the ice—whether it’s man vs nature or man vs man or man vs, uh, monster—is played out with context and symbolic meaning that’s obvious enough to engage the viewer and yet leave him free to ruminate on its values.
That we are made aware that it was a naval disaster from the start is irrelevant, what matters is that all the increasing bad juju for the crew are depicted in vintage horror schlockfests from the late ’70s or early ’80s: think Alien or, closer to the genre, John Carpenter’s The Thing.
Second, that the characters are impeccably played and, therefore, excellently cast in the first place. There are about 10 main ensemble characters here led by a mini-reunion of HBO’s Rome actors with Ciarán Hinds (who played Julius Caesar) and Tobias Menzies (who played Brutus), now playing Sir John Franklin (Captain of The Erebus) and James Fitzjames (second in command of The Erebus) respectively.
Both Franklin (whose idea this whole exploration thing was) and Fitzjames are not only naval officers, they’re also wealthy society Englishmen, with all the advantages and stupidities that the rich are burdened with.
See, Sir Franklin is a nice and likeable enough man, but his spirit of adventure is certainly greater than his actual skill or experience in leading a mission of such danger, or of an expedition of such complexity and importance. While Fitzjames is that jock friend of yours who’s simultaneously vain, arrogant, and bristling with self-important war stories of heroism that he will tell to anyone who’ll listen and then repeat them ad nauseam, unaware he’d already told you.
Then there’s the captain of The Terror, Captain Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier, who’s played to exceptional skill by The Crown’s Jared Harris.
Simmons wrote: “Francis Crozier believes in nothing. Life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. It has no plan, no point, no hidden mysteries that make up for the oh-so-obvious miseries and banalities. Nothing he has learned in the past six months has persuaded him otherwise.”
You can probably surmise Crozier isn’t such a nice guy. The dude lacks basic people skills and is almost as much a downer as the frigid waste the sailors are in, but Crozier is also the superior seaman between the society captains. That is, if he isn’t, depressed, or drunk, or pining for his lady love back in London.
That he’s also Irish, and therefore prone to natural alcoholism, is already a point against him in a Navy where Englishmen make up a bulk of the enlisted population. But Harris makes Crozier the kind of character that the viewer can root for, someone whose streaks of brilliance and kindness shine through despite all his flaws and grumpiness. And then his heroic arc really does pick up once shit hits the fan and once he realizes that his flaws are endangering the only real thing he loves: the care of his men.
Other minor characters also make a lasting impression and form a valuable counterpoint to the general conditions of moral crappiness that infest two ships full of desperate men. Paul Ready, as the surgeon Dr. Henry Goodsir, brings a sturdy moral compass, while Nive Nielsen as the Esquimaux girl dubbed by the men as Lady Silence is a constant reminder of the mysteries of the ice lands and the men’s vast ignorance about its savage ways.
Also watch out for the dark horse Adam Nagaitis in his thespian best, playing the shrewd and confident Cornelius Hickey, shining in his role as...well, you’ll find out.
The facts in the case of the vanishing of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus are well known and that they’d set out as truly a military mission with a mix of Naval sailors and Marines with supplies for their expedition that was supposed to last for three years including 8,000 tins of preserves and 2,000 gallons of liquor—which, if you’re familiar with sailors’ drinking habits, likely wasn’t enough.
In any case, the crossing of the Northwest Passage had already been charted from both the east and west sides but never entirely navigated straight through, so it was Sir Franklin’s ambition to be the first to do that is quickly dispersed when severe Arctic conditions maroon both ships into the ice like bathtubs in a vast white wilderness.
This is the best kind of historical drama because it’s less actual drama—albeit the back stories of the crew and the officers are pretty compelling by themselves—than it is 10 hours of nightmare on ice with every type of survival and crisis situation from the obvious ones like starvation, outbreak of disease, and awful food packaging, up to the force majeures of accidental death, maiming by injury, mutiny, and let’s not forget that staple of zero food movies: cannibalism.
In one scene, Dr. Goodsir couldn’t help himself and declared: “All this natural misery. Why do you men have to add to it?! Why does our species always have to take our full measure of God-given misery and terror and mortality and then make it worse?”
To add spice to the proceedings, because again this IS a Dan Simmons novel, there’s something stalking the trapped men across the bleak Arctic landscape. Blending in with the white and using the weather as cover for guerilla attacks, is it just a smart beast or a full blown supernatural monster? The sailors, in fact, simply call it The Thing. The sailors know it by heart by episode two, with its growls and the trail of corpses it leaves it has laid out a heavy, long ambience of palpable terror on both ships.
Along with poetic visualizations of the Arctic, illustrated through a broken landscape of jagged ice and shredded ground the texture of gravel, intermittent downpours of snow and hail the size of crystal balls, circular plates of ice floating on the water like the bases of pond lilies, and more gradations of white than you can count The Terror’s pace of languid storytelling, with bursts of terrific Grand Guignol moments shot with detailed gore and violence, make a terrific soup of compelling TV worth your time.
There will be an almost irresistible urge to binge it just from the first episode, knowing full well how it’s all going to get worse each time. Give in to that impulse.