In 1845, the British Empire was at the top of its game with colonies and territories all over the world. For decades they had been looking for a route to Asia through the northern Canadian archipelago. This so-called Northwest Passage would cut out enormous amounts of time and resources from the normal route across land or around Africa. Led by Captain John Franklin, two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, departed that year to try and find it. They made it to King William Island in the Nanavut territory September of 1866 and became iced in. They would never sail again. By the summer of 1848, all 129 men had died. Based upon the book of the same name by Dan Simmons, the first season of AMC’s new anthology series The Terror fictionalizes what happened to them. With just ten episodes, it has become the best horror series I’ve ever seen and I’d put it pretty near the top of my favorite series ever.
It begins with the two ships having just wintered on Beechey Island in the Canadian archipelago setting sail as the summer warmth begins to melt the ice. Captain Franklin (Ciarán Hinds) leads the men with great optimism that they will be the first to find the Northwest Passage and become heroes to history. His second in command, and captain of the Terror, Francis Crozier (Jared Harris) is not quite so assured. He never wanted to make this journey, is still licking his wounds after his proposals of marriage were turned down by Franlin’s niece, and is a bit of an alcoholic. He sees doom and destruction at every turn. Franklin is ever the optimist. We see in flashbacks that he must make good with this expedition or lose both his position in the navy and his high stature in society. Their trip is not long, and the summer even shorter as they soon run into more ice and must spend the winter frozen at sea.
The Terror is such an assured show that between the end of episode one and the beginning of episode two eight months have passed, what must have been a long hard winter gets passed right over. What comes after is much, much worse. Winter may be over but the weather is still brutally cold, the ships are still immobile in ice, and it turns out their food is poisoning them. Made by the lowest bidder, their canned food was poorly sealed with molten lead, which has been slipping into the food stuff and being consumed by the men from the very beginning. Another summer has come but the ice isn’t melting. Franklin sends out men in every direction to find a thaw, most come back with no good news and one group comes back with tells of a giant, killer, possibly supernatural bear and and two native Inuit people, one of which they accidentally shot. To sum up, the men aboard this expedition must face another winter being frozen in, must eat food that is poisoning them, will potentially be avenged by the natives, and now must face a killer bear. Things will not get better.
One look at the history pages and you’ll find that none of the historical figures on these ships survived, and as an opening title notes, the fictionalized versions won’t fare any better. It's an interesting thing creating a series letting your audience know that the fates of your characters are sealed before they even begin. Yet the series brings those characters to life, it makes them real, gives them depth, and most importantly makes us care for them. Though I knew they would not survive, I couldn’t help but hold out hope that they might.
The Terror is a dark, relentlessly harrowing series. It is aptly named for terror does lie at every corner. Yet it is not hopelessly bleak. The writing is sharp and the characters well drawn. We see their humanity, we watch them care for each other even as things become more and more dire. The acting is impeccable. There isn’t a dud amongst the actors. Jared Harris gives a career best performance in a list of credits that includes Mad Men, Lincoln, Fringe, and The Crown.
It's only weak spot is the bear. It is an enormous, gruesome thing that not only kills the men at will, but also acts in a way very unlike a wild animal. At one point, it cuts two people in half and then stacks one person's top half on another person’s legs and positions it in a way to fool the watch guard on the ship. It seems to be controlled by one of the natives at times. There are enough horrible, natural things the crew must survive that a supernatural monster isn’t really needed. Though I will say it does add in a bit of horror chaos that is effectively scary.
It is gorgeously shot. The first half or so mostly takes place in the bowels of the ships in the midst of a long winter. It is dark but carefully lit so that you can always clearly see what’s happening. Outside, the never-ending wasteland of ice and snow is simply stunning. Eventually, the men move to a rock-strewn island for their last summer and its brightness is in stark contrast to the darkness of its first half, yet it too is breathtakingly beautiful.
Marcus Fjellström’s score is at times beautiful, eerie, and utterly unnerving. It adds exponentially to the series horror and its other-worldliness. Yet it knows when to remain silent too, allowing the atmospheric noises to be heard. Below decks we hear the straining of the ship’s lumber as if it may explode at any moment. Topside, the constantly, steady sounds of the wind create aural landscapes that heighten what horror could just lie beyond eyesight.
Extras are pretty scant consisting of three very short featurettes on the making of the show. It would have been nice to have more on both the series and the real life expedition at the very least.
The Terror is top-notch television. The production values and the acting are exceptional and the story is both terrifying and somehow hopeful. I highly recommend this series.