[TV Review] AMC’s “The Terror”

by Joe Meyers

“The Terror”

Series Premiere Air Date: March 25, 2018
Season 1 Finale Air Date: May 21, 2018

Starring:
Jared Harris as Captain Francis Crozier
Tobias Menzies as Commander James Fitzjames
Paul Ready as Dr. Harry Goodsir
Adam Nagaitis as Cornelius Hickey
Ian Hart as Thomas Blanky
Nive Nielsen as Lady Silence
Ciarán Hinds as Captain Sir John Franklin

Based on the 2007 novel, “The Terror”, by Dan Simmons

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“Based on a true story.” That line has been used on so many works of the horror genre, and beyond, that it sometimes seems like it’s lost any real meaning. However, in the case of AMC’s “The Terror”, it’s 100% earned. The series is the recounting of Captain Sir John Franklin’s expedition to the Arctic, via the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, to locate the Northwest Passage in 1845–1848. The expedition was lost, it took over the next 150 years for people to piece together the crews’ fate, and the two ships were not discovered until September 2, 2014 (the HMS Erebus) and September 12, 2016 (the HMS Terror). Of course we don’t know exactly what happened to the crew on their voyage, but Dan Simmons uses the factual information we have to create several plausible reasons in his novel for why the crew was doomed. Oh, and he also throws in a monster that stalks the crew members as they’re trapped in the icy wasteland.

The showrunners, David Kajganich and Soo Hugh, did a great job guiding the adaption of the 784 page book into a ten episode story. This was all about building atmosphere, wallowing in the dread, and allowing the characters to develop over time. The cast is outstanding, with Jared Harris, Tobias Menzies, Ciarán Hinds, Adam Nagaitis, and Paul Ready as clear standouts. The look of the series is quite breathtaking as well. From the opening credit animation to the set design, it all melds to feel desolate and overwhelming. This helps put you in the mindset of the characters as they struggle to survive.

The plot revolves around the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror becoming stuck in the ice pack as they search for the Northwest Passage. Things only get worse when the crews’ actions unwittingly releases a monster upon themselves. When the ice doesn’t melt enough for the ships to move on, some hard decisions are made. Further compounding their problems is the food stored for the journey may be slowly poising them as the crew begins to succumb to various symptoms. Finally they deiced to leave a small contingent behind at the ships, and the remaining crew takes off on foot in an attempt to eventually, hopefully, get rescued.

While the monster takes on way more significance in the novel, the series uses it sparingly. It delights more in using the terror of the ugliness of the human race, and the uncaring force of nature itself to create horror. So, while the monster is a threat, the greater menace is the darkness in man and the depths they’ll go to in order to survive. Make no mistake, “The Terror” is a bleak, slow burn of a character study.

I have very few complaints about the series. I do wish the monster wasn’t shown as early as it was, and the CGI used to render the creature could have used more of the budget. There was a chance to really build some tension throughout the ten episodes regarding the creature that wasn’t taken advantage of but they decided not to allow the mystery to linger. I also thought they didn’t quite convey the passage of time well. These episodes take place over the course of three years, but I think that doesn’t get shown properly to the audience. A friend I spoke with about this show actually thought they had missed an episode at once point because of this issue.

Besides that though, “The Terror” was a triumph of horror television. As with most adapted stories I prefer the source material. I’m actually glad I waited a month to write about the television series. When it first ended I was comparing to the novel too much, and time made my enjoyment of the show grow. If any of you even half way enjoyed the series, please pick up the Dan Simmons novel. It’s easily one of my favorite books over the last 15-20 years. While this tale is over, “The Terror” as a television series may not be done yet. The producers are working with AMC to see if it will be renewed. The idea is to use the series as an anthology, with each season being a self-contained, and non-connected, tale of horror. With “American Horror Story” long ago deciding to tie all of their seasons together, I welcome this idea. Everyone involved in season 1 proved they know how to put together a top notch product, and I’d love to see where they take it from here.

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