Four episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
The Terror, AMC’s historically-spun horror tale of Arctic exploration gone chillingly wrong, hits slower than its title suggests at first glance, but it still may hook audiences hungry for a 19th-century seafaring screamer.
Adapted from Dan Simmons’ epic 2007 novel of the same name, the miniseries tracks the imagined misfortunes of two Royal Naval bombing ships – the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror – that departed in 1845 on what the British crown hoped to be the most consequential exploration of a generation. They never returned. The expedition’s commander and captain aboard HMS Erebus, Sir John Franklin, attained folk-legend status as a leader who bravely fought a crisis in conditions most would consider uninhabitable.
As told in a brief prologue to the opening hour (“Go for Broke”), The Terror’s central hope is the captain of HMS Terror, Francis Crozier (Jared Harris). A veteran of both Antarctic and Arctic travel, Crozier positions himself as the voice of caution — clearly a wise voice to listen to when the audience already knows the trip went wrong.
This may put him in opposition to Sir Franklin (Ciarán Hinds), beloved by the men on both ships who can almost taste the glory that will come with their successful journey. But not long after the series picks up (premiering with two hours on March 26th at 9 pm) the crew find themselves haunted, or perhaps stalked, by something they don’t understand.
Franklin’s promise was finding the theorized “Northwest Passage” from Britain to Asia through the Arctic Circle in a pre-Suez Canal-era when the only available boat route between the continents was around the southern tip of Africa. The explorers believed themselves to be finding the passage’s last legs, and were equipped with high-19th-century-tech bomb vessels for their thick hills in the ice. The expected reward from their journey was almost incalculable, giving the crew the faith they need to brave the ice.
Making his maiden Arctic voyage is third-in-command James Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies), whose contempt shared with Crozier is concealed by neither party. The excellent casting of these top three – all presenting different associations to audiences who know their past roles — plus strong supporting performances from Paul Ready as Doctor Henry Goodsir and Adam Nagaitis as crewman Cornelius Hickey make the ensemble work excellently against the inherent limit to casting white men of a certain age (and Naval believability) as crew.
That said, The Terror’s focus is not entirely on the explorers nor the trade goals they serve. Greenlandic Inuit actress Nive Nielsen appears as an Inuk (called “Eskie,” or worse by some in the expedition), who becomes uncomfortably entangled with the travelers. Crozier, already ill-regarded by the men and seen as an adversary of their beloved Sir Franklin, also attracts skepticism simply for being an Inuktitut speaker; communicating with the new native appears disloyal in some way to the struggling crew.
A second inherent challenge for the series comes in the setting. Though surrounded by ice as far as the eye can see, the two cramped ships feel indistinguishable at times. And while an acknowledged similar aesthetic exists in the crew’s mission and bonding as in Game of Thrones’ “free folk” as led by Ciarán Hinds’ Mance Rayder, The Terror has none of Thrones’ whip-around intrigue in multiple kingdoms. The series could easily come off as bland in the wrong hands.
The Terror’s weapon to counter the problem then is passage of time; the changing months in the Arctic Circle are the difference between a sun that shines at midnight and night lasting a month. Though the novel’s non-linear structure is abandoned, months can pass between episodes and the expedition faces new challenges accordingly.
With the casting solidly in place, this execution falls on the series’ directors. Edward Berger admirably handles three of the first four episodes and Sergio Mimica-Gezzan helms the third. With Tim Mielants also reportedly directing later episodes, it’s clear that AMC put its full effort behind attracting the right talent to do the job. But even with months-long time jumps, The Terror is a strange television experience – a slow-burn miniseries.
Audiences understandably expect “disaster” pieces to go wrong fast – whether they look like The Walking Dead or Captain Phillips – but the crew still have many questions and no answers about what might be haunting them after the fourth episode. True horror elements that are teased early also loom larger in the struggles to come than when the series first picks up on the journey in progress.
The Terror will be a certain watch from the get-go for those lured in by the premise, even if its rhythms may be better suited for later streaming. But boasting Ridley Scott as an executive producer and with plans for anthology-style sequels, AMC may have an intriguing future for horror junkies looking for something far from already-covered ground.
A strong cast keeps The Terror afloat long enough to keep watching, as AMC searches for a 19th-century companion to The Walking Dead.