I’m usually behind on the most current television. Because I don’t have cable, I have to wait for the DVDs or until something hits a streaming service, and that’s not something that ordinarily troubles me. But every now and then, a show premieres, and I am bitterly disappointed that I am behind everyone else. That was definitely the case with AMC’s recent miniseries The Terror. I’ve been so excited for this show ever since casting was first announced a couple of years ago. Just ask Julie. I’ve been preemptively pestering her about buying it ever since. 🙂
And now it’s here! And it’s just as excellent as I had hoped it would be! (Thank you, Julie, for not only buying it but also good-naturedly humoring my repeated purchase requests.)
The Terror is loosely based on a notorious 19th century Arctic expedition, the failed Franklin Expedition. They set sail in 1845, looking for the Northwest Passage aboard ships named the HMS Terror and the HMS Erebus. (Note to future explorers: Don’t pick ships that are named after creepy foreshadowing adjectives or Greek gods of darkness.)
It is no spoiler to say upfront that these explorers disappeared. Nobody is entirely sure what happened to them, but the show (which is an adaptation of Dan Simmons’ novel) presents a version that incorporates known facts about the case, like lead poisoning and scurvy, as well as a supernatural element.
The resulting tale is, as you can probably imagine, a disturbing one, but I particularly liked how the show approached it. Rather than trying to cram a ton of exposition and backstory into the early episodes, it starts after trouble has already descended on the expedition. This is not the tale of the rise and fall of the expedition or its leaders. When we meet the characters, frustration, resentment, and, ahem, terror is already starting to take hold. The plot then works in the background more holistically, through flashbacks and conversations. The result is a vivid immersion in the world of Arctic expeditions and 19th century British Navy life that can be a bit overwhelming at first, but the viewer’s patience is amply rewarded.
The story is an interesting one on its own; however, what really makes this show is the superb cast and the excellent characterization. It features many of my favorite British supporting actors–some of them actually in lead roles for a change!–and outstanding relative newcomers, as well.
Ciaran Hinds (Rome, Game of Thrones) stars as John Franklin, the charismatic gentleman explorer leading the expedition while Jared Harris (Mad Men, The Crown) is Francis Crozier, Franklin’s decidedly more experienced but also substantially less socially acceptable second-in-command. Tobias Menzies (of Rome, Game of Thrones, Outlander fame) is another of Franklin’s officers, James Fitzjames, a daring but pompous gentleman with zero polar experience. I’ve always been impressed with the acting of these 3 in anything I’ve ever seen them in, and this show was no exception.
I was equally impressed with some of the other performers I am less familiar with, including Inuit actress Nive Nielsen, who plays a local shaman’s daughter whom the men nickname Lady Silence, and English actor Adam Nagaitis, the troublemaking petty officer Cornelius Hickey.
A lot of horror stories rely on very thinly-drawn characters who are short on logic. So, I appreciated that the characters of The Terror are a lot more complex than that. Many of them are not initially what they seem and are surprisingly layered. Also, a lot of their misfortune is self-inflicted, but the decisions that lead to these misfires are understandable. I didn’t spend my time shouting at the characters’ stupidity, which is my usual response to horror stories.
The story, though, is definitely a horrific one. Nonetheless, I appreciated that the show doesn’t try to oversell the horror aspect with jump scares and musical cues. They were not necessary because the story is freaky enough on its own. The eerie, ominous, unsettling atmosphere of the series is pitch-perfect, with superb cinematography and music.
Though some of its most savage moments are ones derived from the time period’s rigid sense of social class, this show is definitely not for the squeamish. I am not easily disturbed–I eat while watching Game of Thrones–but some of the scenes in The Terror had me hiding my eyes. So, if you’re not okay with watching gory deaths or graphic violence and medical procedures, you’re probably not going to like this.
It’s been said that we’re living in a golden age of prestige drama television. I firmly believe The Terror is a very worthwhile contender as one of the best shows of the year. It’s definitely the best one I’ve seen all year. If you like your historical dramas with a supernatural twist or your horror with a degree of complexity, such as exploring notions of civilization and empire, I suspect you’ll enjoy this show as much as I did.
Recommended for those who enjoyed Fortitude.
And, of course, you can also find the novel the show is adapted from, as well as the real-life story of the Franklin Expedition, at the library.
Did you enjoy The Terror? What’s your favorite new show from this year? What would you name your ships if you were an Arctic explorer? Tell us in the comments! Please follow this link to our online library catalog for more information on The Terror or any of the other items and to place them on hold.