It seems like the 19th century is television’s era of choice these days with shows like TNT’s The Alienist and FX’s Taboo leading the way back into the bizarre past. Fans of these programs (as well as naval dramas which also originated in the 19th century) will undoubtedly enjoy AMC’s adaptation of Dan Simmons The Terror, as the first two episodes of the series welcome viewers to a world of icy despair and desperation.
The series is produced by Ridley Scott and based on the harrowing true-life account of the H.M.S. Erebus and H.M.S. Terror, which disappeared without a trace on a mission to discover the Northwest Passage nearly two centuries ago (and if you are looking for more on the “true story”, Nova recently featured an examination of the discovery of the remains of one of the ships, which occurred in 2014).
The cast is stocked with actors who embody all aspects of characters that could easily drift into stereotypical depictions of surly sea captains and aloof British “dandies”. Instead, the cast gives nuanced performances that truly flesh out familiar character types. Ciarán Hinds (Game of Thrones’ Mance Rayder) portrays Captain John Franklin who commands the Erebus and the mission in general. He embodies the invincible attitude of a military man who has never seen “the sun set on the British Empire”, but he also hides his misgivings behind a cheery disposition and calm exterior. This is best seen when congratulating soldiers in dire situations (such as chipping ice from the ship’s propeller with the aid of a deep sea diving suit) and assuring his crew that spending the winter frozen in the ocean is the perfect opportunity for high adventure. To counteract Franklin’s positive attitude, Tobias Menzies as James Fitzjames delivers a smarmy, elitist performance as the third officer, a man who is happy to criticize others and brag incessantly about his former glories (which may not have happened exactly as he reports).
The commander of The Terror is Francis Crozier (played by Jared Harris), serving as the most skeptical and cautious officer. The interplay between all three quickly establishes the conflict that persists in these episodes, between hubris and safety, glory and common sense. Crozier also seems to be the officer with the least tolerance for custom, highlighted when Franklin and Fitzjames travel over to his ship to enjoy a “royal dinner” that could be taking place in one of the finest restaurants in England (but instead is commencing in the middle of a tenuous position between living and freezing). This regal feast takes place at the same time that the common sailors are dining on slop, only a wall away (this scene also features a clever nod to Scott’s film Alien; let’s just say that a dinner table is once again the object of the spilling of copious bodily fluids). It is clear that Crozier understands that this is no time to stand on ceremony, especially when everyone’s life is at stake, a fact that doesn’t seem to dawn on the other officers.
The Terror offers plenty of believable naval concerns and tragedies, which create a feeling of claustrophobia and dread for the viewer. The supernatural elements only begin to creep into the series in small doses, such as when Dr. Harry Goodsir (Paul Ready), whispers words of comfort to a young man afflicted with consumption. Unfortunately, the words prove no comfort to the sailor, and he is beset with visions that the doctor can not see or comprehend, and this poor man’s death begins to open the door to a more sinister, ancient horror. Near the end of the second episode, we get our first glimpse of a beast which seems to resemble a polar bear, but may actually be much more.
Director Edward Berger infuses The Terror with detailed production values which bring the few set pieces to life, creating everything from murky underwater scenes to white rocky vistas. It appears that the production crew didn’t spare any expense (a surprise for the normally frugal AMC) as the ships, costumes, and locations seem authentic and just as luxurious as any feature film would contain.
It is clear that the first two episodes are just “the tip of the iceberg” (sorry about that one..) for this series, and fans of atmospheric drama, infused with a slowly building preternatural menace will greatly appreciate The Terror.