There are few things more terrifying than being stranded in the Arctic. Snow and ice stretches out in all directions, as far as the eye can see. It’s so cold that frost forms on your face, and falling through a crevasse is instant death, as you’ll either be crushed by the shifting ice or freeze to death in the seawater below. In a matter of seconds. You’re totally reliant on rations, the ability to create warmth for yourself, and the strength of your own mind which is severely tested every time you look out onto the endless ice. It’s frozen hell. The Terror (and some mild spoilers follow for episodes 1 and 2, which air back-to-back) takes this unforgiving scenario, stretches it out over the course of months, and throws in a supernatural ‘creature’ that can rip a man clean in half, like a child opening a candy bar.
AMC’s new TV show - which starts airing in the US on March 26, and April 24 in the UK on BT TV - is executive produced by Ridley Scott, and you can feel the Alien vibes threaded throughout the whole story. Swap the crew of the Nostromo for 19th century sailors, and the Xenomorph for something equally horrific, but perhaps less alien, and you get a good idea of where this is going. The main difference here (other than the fact this is a ten-part TV series, not a 90 minute movie) is that the tight confines of a spaceship are swapped for the dizzying expanse of the Arctic. While there was nowhere to run in Alien, there’s simultaneously everywhere AND nowhere to run in The Terror. There are shades of The Thing too (not just in the setting), and that blend of uneasy alliances, fear of the unknown, and stifling paranoia cuts deep through this show.
But let’s dial back the comparisons and discuss what The Terror actually is. Set in 1847, and based on a novel by Dan Simmons, it follows the crews of two British ships - The HMS Erebus and The HMS Terror - as they attempt to map out a trading route between England and China by cutting through the Arctic circle. Lead by Captain John Franklin (Ciarán Hines), with Frances Crozier (Jared Harris) and James Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies) his seconds in command, the expedition quickly finds itself in trouble as the ships become wedged in the arctic ice as the sea freezes over for winter. Although they’re well provisioned, the threat of being crushed as the ice-pack moves creates tension among the senior officers, and after one exploration party meets what they initially suppose to be a polar bear (clue: it really, really isn’t) everything goes from bad to worse…
Whereas most shows are keen to reveal their horror upfront, The Terror opts for a far slower-burn, letting the unforgiving Arctic setting do most of the work for the first couple of episodes. Panoramic vistas of the frozen wilderness show the insignificance of the ships as they cut a path through, an underwater scene highlights how lifeless and alien the landscape is, and the constant, menacing creak of the ice around the ship’s hulls create a sense of dread equal to any musical score. The showrunners truly bring the danger of naval exploration to life, and make a real enemy of the ice itself.
The cast carry it well too. Ciarán Hines is excellent as Captain Franklin, who’s naive religious optimism pushes the crews into unnecessary danger. He’s well countered by Jared Harris’ Captain Crozier, who sees every situation with a grim, pragmatic pessimism, and the relationship between the two leaders unfolds neatly throughout the rest of the show. In other words, there’s something personal between the pair which creates extra tension. Tobias Menzies' James Fitzjames beautifully inflames the conflict, unwittingly helping the chaos completely unravel as the show goes on. It's quite a trio. Harry Goodsir (Paul Ready) - the ship’s surgeon - is another highlight, his charming kindness a stark contrast to the complete savagery of both the conditions and the supernatural elements that prowl in the darkness. Most shows would suffer for such a slow pace, but the authenticity and the caliber of the performances carry you amicably between scares, and nicely set the scene during the opening episodes.
And when the scares come, they’re bloody and uncompromising. In keeping with its authentic ethos, The Terror not only shows the brutality of exploration itself - diseases, man-overboard, 19th century autopsies - but chooses to showcase its supernatural elements not in their horrific form, but in the gore-soaked wake they leave behind. As with most good horror experiences, this show chooses to show little of its actual ‘monster’ (at least not for a while), and instead uses confusion, tension, and the bloody results of an attack to create the fear. You can practically see Ridley Scott’s film-making footprints in the snow.
Based on initial viewings, I’m sold. My only remaining doubts about The Terror revolve around longevity and the eventual pay-off. It does an admirable job of taking viewers away from the Arctic setting, via flashbacks and scenes with the Admiralty back in London, who are wondering what happened to the expedition, but it needs to escalate in the second half of the season to deliver on promises made in the early episodes. Given the quality of what I’ve seen so far, it seems very likely that’ll happen - and with style. And then there’s the pay-off. To an extent it’s reliant on the source material, but so many horror shows drop the ball right at the end, their eventual reveals and victories paling by comparison to the dread and menace that came earlier.
Regardless of what happens next, The Terror is a well crafted show about the very real and very unreal horrors of isolation and extreme conditions. It’s a neat look at what happens when British imperialism and religious bluster come face-to-face with forces they can’t bully. And it’s a genuine, if bleak, delight of sight and sound. All this makes it rather unique among modern TV shows, so if you’re looking for something genuinely new to keep you awake at night… well, the clue really is in the name.
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