There’s slow-burn horror and then there’s AMC’s new series The Terror, which makes the most of its chilly, sinister atmosphere to deliver a tense tale of survival in extreme conditions. The series, an adaptation of the novel of the same name from author Dan Simmons, is a fictionalized account of the doomed mid-19th century arctic expedition carried out by the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, seems to anticipate a flurry of questions from the audience unfamiliar with either the actual expedition or the novel, and as such leaves things tantalizingly ambiguous early on. That ambiguity is a bit of a double-edged sword for The Terror, however, as it seems destined to result in questions of what this series is supposed to be, instead of those relating to the circumstances at hand.
Not long into the first hour of the two-hour premiere, those circumstances see the two ships at the mercy of their arctic environment, as the expedition to locate a Northwest Passage stalls when the vessels become locked in the ice, effectively stranding the crew until warmer temperatures come to their rescue. As far as set-ups go, that one isn’t too bad, and The Terror makes great use of its chilly environs to create an palpable sense of dread that goes beyond starvation, mutiny, or succumbing to the elements. Early on, The Terror offers a teasing glimpse of something that might be a polar bear stalking the men of the Erebus, and and might also be something else entirely.
It’s easy to see how leaving the audience wondering whether it’s in the midst of watching The Edge or The Thing or a Master and Commander On Ice would seem like a surefire way to get them to tune in for episode 3. And from that standpoint, the narrative’s leisurely pace seems more justifiable. But it’s not just a matter of the series’ pace; it’s also a matter of coherence, which those watching may find themselves wanting The Terror to have more of early on.
Despite that, the Ridley Scott-produced series is largely sustained by its atmosphere and the strength of its cast, which includes Ciarán Hinds, Jared Harris, and Tobias Menzies, as the commander of expedition a his two captains. Harris plays Francis Crozier, captain of the Terror, while Hinds plays John Franklin and Menzies takes on the role of James Fitzjames, who has something of a professional rivalry with and personal dislike for Crozier. The passive-aggressive infighting between Crozier and Fitzjames soon becomes ancillary, however, once Franklin makes a bad call that results in the ships’ stranding in the ice. Months pass and as spring approaches a smaller crew is formed to determine the exact whereabouts of the expedition, leading to a deadly encounter with some indigenous people and whatever it is lurking out in the harsh and unforgiving landscape.
With supplies running low and the threat of starvation and mutiny looming, The Terror has all the ingredients of a thrilling survival story; it is man vs. nature at its most extreme. And therein lies series’ real interest lies, too. As such, the creature hunting the crew feels secondary, almost to the point it doesn’t belong in the series at all. The Terror struggles at times to figure out how the creature fits into the already hazardous circumstances in a way that ever clarifies or justifies its addition to the story.
At times, The Terror registers as two stories competing for the same cramped space. This leaves the impression that some essential part of both has been left out in the cold. There is a compelling tale of survival ready to be told here and there is also a thrilling horror story with hints of Jaws and The Relic sprinkled about for good measure. Whether it is by design or due to cost, The Terror shows remarkable restraint in revealing its monster through the first few hours, though its presence is increasingly felt as men are picked off one by one. Yet the series seems reluctant to commit fully to either angle, hoping its decision to deliver parts of both will even things out in the end. Part of that has to do with the episode count. The Terror likely would have been better suited for a six-episode run, as the slow-moving narrative feels stretched thin by the eighth hour, and the series still has two hours to go.
Mixed feelings aside, the show’s cast is superb, with both Harris and Menzies delivering strong performances as men in positions of power who are essentially powerless in their situation. Harris in particular brings Crozier’s internal conflict to the forefront, as his bitter disappointment with his station in life — romantically as well as professionally — seems to well up in him as the losses mount and the state of both ships and their crews become increasingly untenable.
The same is true of the show’s atmosphere, aided by some impressive visual effects that convey the bitter cold more convincingly with each passing hour. The show is gorgeous to look at from start to finish, as the series' visual effects deliver a stark, forbidding environment that goes a long way in making up for that fact that this is essentially an adventure series with no place to go.
In the end, The Terror makes due on the strength of its performances and the chilly, unsettling atmosphere that surely will come to define the series. This will likely please fans of the novel, and be difficult for genre fans to pass up. But even if you're in the market for a solid historical drama, you could do worse than The Terror.
The Terror continues next Monday with ‘Gore’ @10pm on AMC.