In 1845, two ships – The Terror and The Erebus – left England to discover the Northwest Passage. Both went missing and were never heard from again. Erebus was eventually discovered in 2014, and The Terror in 2016 but aside from some disturbing details, the fate of the crews remains a mystery.
Based on the Dan Simmons‘ novel of the same name, AMC’s The Terror is a fictionalised account of what happened to these two ships. Showrunners David Kajanovich and Soo Hugh take the known historical facts and season it with a healthy dose of horror, as the crew of the ice-bound ships are terrorised by the demonic Tuunbaq, before facing the real enemy within. It’s a disquieting, creepy series, with pitch perfect dialogue, an ethereal, chilling score by composer Marcus Fjellstrom (who tragically died during production), and an intelligent script that trusts the audience to pick up on plot points without spelling anything out.
The entire cast is pitch perfect. Ciaran Hinds is full of bravado as the commanding officer Sir John Franklin. A lesser show would have him a blustering idiot, but Hinds’ performance is full of nuance. He is frustratingly misguided, but it’s also impossible not to warm to the way he comforts his crew. The same goes for his wife Jane, played brilliantly by Greta Scacchi, whose speech about “the past tense is a very sturdy thing… taking for granted that one has survived” shows her as more than the status obsessed wife she initially appears.
On the flipside of this is Jared Harris‘ alcoholic Crozier, the formidable captain of Terror, who is constantly proven right, but is also shown to be an unsuitable leader at first – the scene where he effectively informs his officers that he’s going to go cold turkey is one of the most raw, moving moments of the series, and perfectly delivered by Harris. His “I may beg you” is quietly devastating. His combative relationship with Tobias Menzies‘ pompous Captain Fitzjames, provides much of the drama in the first few episodes and proves to be one of the highlights of the series – openly antagonistic at first, but growing into mutual respect. Menzies’ delivery of the line “Are we brothers, Francis? I would like that very much.” is heartbreaking, and demonstrates just how much his character has grown over the course of the series. Both Harris and Menzies are brilliant in moments like this, which are even more effective than the spectacular action sequences.
Meanwhile Paul Ready is the most endearing character by far as the mild-mannered Dr Goodsir, who essentially serves as the shows conscience, a far cry from the spoon-wielding torturer he played in Utopia. His relationship with the Netsilik shaman Lady Silence (Nive Nielsen) is incredibly tender, and shows that despite the horror setting and the numerous examples of the horrific things men can do to one another, they are also capable of acts of intense kindness.
I haven’t even touched on the revelatory performance of relative newcomer Adam Nagaitis as the chief thorn in Crozier’s side, Cornelius Hickey – surely one of the most hateful TV characters of all time. Crucially the show differs from the book, where Hickey is portrayed as villainous almost from the first page. Here, he is largely sympathetic, or at least relatable for the first half of the series, with his more insidious nature only revealed later on.
What makes The Terror stand out from similar TV dramas is the way even minor characters are given humanising moments – Christos Lawton as the weak-willed Lieutenant Hodgson is a sidelined figure for the majority of the series, but is afforded a meaningful speech in one of the final episodes, where we are given a deep insight into the choices that have led him to this moment. Lawton is superb in this scene, and it’s just one example of the incredibly rich cast of supporting actors who are there the whole way through, each of whom are given a moment to shine. The way Crozier’s manservant Jopson (Liam Garrigan) tenderly cares for his captain is quietly touching, as is the subtle love story between Bridgens (John Lynch) and Peglar (Kevin Guthrie) which plays out largely in the background.
You could make the argument that the supernatural, overtly horror elements aren’t necessary, and the further we get into the story it feels increasingly surplus to requirements, but what this does is prevent the story from being one long trudge into misery. Unapologetically bleak, The Terror still manages to be strangely life affirming, with small moments of triumph, and personal victories. Death is ever present but the way characters approach their demise often reveals their true character. Some retain a small amount of control of their final moments. Others are so desperate to survive that they utterly debase themselves just to cling onto some semblance of their lives.
The monstrous Tuunbaq itself is an example of a creepy design with a poor execution, but thankfully the CGI is used sparingly, and there’s no denying the sheer suspense and excitement of many of the scenes involving the monster – especially the sequence where Ian Hart‘s Mr Blanky is chased up the mast. It’s a masterfully executed set-piece, and the show does such a great job of conveying the severity of the cold in the arctic, and the perils of having exposed skin outside (skin sticking to metal, some crewmembers suffering from frostbite) that even a small moment like Blanky losing a glove is loaded with significance.
I love The Terror. It’s a truly unique series, and a rare case where I would argue the adaptation is better than the source material. Yes it’s bleak, but there’s still joy to be found in the rich dialogue, excellent characterisation and multi-layered performances. A measured, intelligent drama, this is one of the most vital and must-see TV shows of the last 10 years.