If you were looking for scares and shocks in the opening two episodes of AMC’s The Terror, you probably came away disappointed. The season premiere of this ten-part horror TV show deals heavily in menace and foreboding, its slow pace setting the scene and establishing the characters, rather than forcefully yanking the audience towards their screens and screaming “WATCH ME!” In many ways it’s refreshing to see a show take its time; preferring to gamble on the caliber of its cast and the potential of its set-up, rather than trying to wow viewers with instant action. And, to be clear, that confidence to start slow really does pay off.
We join the crews of the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror on their voyage to map a route through the Northwest passage, expanding the British Empire’s trade links with China and the East. Immediately, you’re struck by how bleak and unforgiving the Arctic landscape is. As we’re staring out into the icy nothingness one of the crew plummets brutally to a watery grave when the Erebus gets a large block of ice wedged in its propellor. The subsequent mission to unblock the propellor is a harrowing reminder of how alien that environment is, and the chilling underwater scene creates a palpable sense of dread, even without the resurfacing of the dead crewman.
The Terror is based on a book by Dan Simmons, so you can get ahead of the game by reading it...
And if episode 1 establishes the savagery of the setting, episode 2 really hammers home the consequences of underestimating it. Which is where the main cast really comes into its own. Ciaran Hines is superb as the painfully stubborn Captain Franklin, and is matched perfectly by Jared Harris’ dour, pragmatic Captain Crozier. Franklin’s Victorian bluster and absolute confidence in his own reputation (and his cache with The Almighty) not only brilliantly captures the pioneering spirit of the time, but it’s also the perfect set-up for the impending disasters that will inevitably follow. It’s as if Crozier speaks for the entire viewing audience as he warns the arrogant pairing of Franklin and Fitzjames (the Erebus’ second-in-command, played superbly by Tobias Menzies) about the dangers that lie ahead, making it exponentially more frustrating when he’s roundly ignored. It’s classic foreshadowing, done with a sympathetic eye to the authenticity of the show, as are the flashback scenes which hint at the tensions in the relationship between Franklin and Crozier.
The below-decks story, which happens simultaneously, is equally fascinating and gives a more overt glimpse at the supernatural horror to come. When a crew member is suddenly struck with consumption, it sews the seeds of paranoia among the rank-and-file sailors, adding an extra layer of tension. One of the best scenes in the opening episodes, in fact, comes when ship surgeon Harry Goodsir (Paul Ready) talks his patient into accepting his own death, and attempting to go peacefully. While the Inuit vision is a definite nod to the start of the supernatural elements, it actually detracts from an otherwise sobering, terrifying scene of someone accepting they’re going to die. The subsequent autopsy is pleasingly graphic, yet the somber and bleak burial that follows is a more powerful scene, especially when one fellow sailor climbs into the grave to retrieve a cheap ring promised to the dead man’s sister. Weighty stuff, especially as it shows a drop of tender humanity in an environment (and situation) sorely lacking in it.
I was genuinely surprised by how quickly the show decided to move time forward, but it’s no bad thing that the opening episodes advance time by several months to show the consequences of making the wrong call in the Arctic. It’s where the resolve of the senior officers (and the rest of the crew) starts to fracture, and the expedition parties very much tease the start of the terrified panic we’re all eagerly waiting to see. The only real shock of the whole opening 90 mins comes when one of the crew is snatched by what appears to be a massive polar bear (although, really, is it?) and the exploring party accidentally shoots an Inuit man. It’s a scare made so much more effective by the slow-burn start as it really comes out of the blue, just when you’re beginning to wonder why everyone has been describing The Terror as a horror show rather than just a survival drama.
The sparing appearance of ‘the creature’ feels very much like the original Alien, and it’s no coincidence that Ridley Scott is Executive Producer on The Terror. It all speaks to how restrained the show has been in these first couple of episodes, and how confident it seems in its own concept and cast. No, it isn’t the scariest of horror shows so far, but The Terror’s premiere is wonderfully menacing TV with some smart storytelling and accomplished acting. If this show can now capitalise on the dread and authentic foundations it has built, ripping it all apart with an excellent ‘monster’ and some even more horrifying moments of humanity at its most morally bankrupt… this could be some of the best TV we see in 2018.