In 1845, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror set sail from London, the former under the command of Sir John Franklin, and the latter under the stewardship of Captain Francis Crozier. Their mission was to discover the Northwest Passage, a route to the Pacific Ocean via the Arctic Ocean that would provide a quicker and more profitable means of trading with Asia. With Franklin assisted by his right-hand-man Commander James Fitzjames, the crew—which numbered over 100 men in total—would slowly discover that their assignment was far more difficult than they could have possibly imagined.
After three years of hardship, much of it spent with their vessels literally frozen in ice off the coast of King William Island, they were never heard from again. And though both ships have since been discovered (in 2014 and 2016, respectively), the ultimate (fatal) fate of its adventurers remains, to this day, a mystery.
AMC’s new series The Terror, however, has an idea or two about what might have happened to those doomed individuals—and it involves poisoning, madness, cannibalism and a mythological monster that calls the Arctic its home.
Based on Dan Simmons’ 2007 novel, David Kajganich and Soo Hugh’s 10-episode nightmare—which premiered last night, and is intended as the potential first installment of an anthology series—is a work of harrowing historical fiction, one in which supernatural menace looms large over the proceedings, and yet is ultimately less threatening—or terrifying—than man himself. Its title referring to multiple elements of its tale, it’s a portrait of hubris, ambition and insanity, led by a collection of excellent performances that root the action in a complex sense of emotional and psychological upheaval and disintegration. And it’s also, it should be noted, a gasp-inducing depiction of the dreadfulness of 19th century life aboard an expeditionary ship. Few shows have ever made one so happy to be a landlocked citizen of the modern age.
Those with weak stomachs will find much to feel queasy about while watching The Terror—and I’m not only referring to the occasional gore that peppers its chapters, from cadavers being sliced open for autopsy investigation and frost-bitten toes being snapped off via doctor’s pliers, to dismemberment in service of preparing hungry mouths with a meaty dinner. Kajganich and Hugh’s story is steeped in period maritime detail, which means it’s a cold, dank, grim affair that hammers home the arduousness of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus’ voyage into the vast, sub-zero unknown. And a the center of that journey are the three men tasked with achieving glory for Great Britain and, by extension, themselves—as well as the initially unassuming deckhand who soon emerges as the material’s true embodiment of evil.
Before such revelations can materialize, The Terror establishes the primary, thorny relationship between confident and upbeat Franklin (Ciaran Hinds) and the stout but alcoholic Crozier (Jared Harris), the latter of whom embarks on this undertaking after—per flashbacks—his attempts to marry Franklin’s daughter Sophie (Sian Brooke) are shot down by both Franklin and his wife Lady Jane (Greta Scacchi). That potentially troublesome dynamic is further complicated by Fitzjames’ distrust of Crozier, whom he views as a drunkard and a coward. Given this state of affairs, it’s thus no surprise that, upon discovering that the Erebus has been damaged and won’t be capable of operating at full speed, Fitzjames sides with Franklin in refusing to heed Crozier’s advice to alter their plans—a decision that, as it turns out, has dire consequences for everyone involved.
When the Erebus and Terror get stuck in an ice patch stretching as far as the eye can see, the men opt to “winter” in their vessels for the season. During a routine expedition out onto the frozen ground, tragedy strikes when one of them accidentally shoots and kills an older Inuit man with no tongue. This greatly aggrieves his younger female companion, who’s brought on board and dubbed “Lady Silence” (a great, expressive Nive Nielsen)—a fitting moniker given what happens to her shortly thereafter. The reason for the Inuit’s self-mutilation isn’t immediately apparent, yet it doesn’t take long to understand that it has something to do with a giant wooly beast that, after the Inuit elder’s murder, begins attacking the crew in ways that suggest a ferocious bear. Except, that is, for the fact that its tactics are too cagey, and its size and abilities too great, for it to be a run-of-the-mill animal.
The Tuunbaq, as the creature comes to be known, makes regular appearances throughout The Terror, but Kajganich and Hugh (staging their drama on green screen-aided sets and on location) primarily employ it as an unseen threat—and, thus, as a symbolic manifestation of the myriad dangers plaguing its characters. It’s not long before the Tuunbaq becomes a mere secondary concern for Franklin and Crozier, what with their canned food rations (veal and tomato!) becoming contaminated by lead poisoning, which in turn starts driving the crewmen batty. Such toxic pollutants are discovered by the expedition’s surgeon Dr. Henry Goodsir (Paul Ready), but they’re of little concern to his superior, whose arrogance and pig-headedness is matched only by his intolerance for Lady Silence and her Inuit brethren.
And if that weren’t enough to outright ignite this combustible situation, there’s also Cornelius Hickey (Adam Nagaitis), a ruthless schemer—and lover of sadistic pleasures—who soon spies an opportunity to seize power for himself, in ways both conniving and hideous. To say more would ruin the surprises in wait, but suffice it to say, Nagaitis is a revelation, and you can prepare to detest his self-satisfied smile long before the series reaches its final installment.
The Terror is a gripping descent into a deviant heart of darkness, and those with a fondness for true-life enigmas embellished with midnight-movie flourishes will take to its unsettling comingling of the factual and fantastical. Better still, it places a premium not on grisliness but, rather, on the twisted passions and motivations of its fallible protagonists, here embodied by the commanding Hinds and the nuanced Harris, whose Crozier evolves over the course of the show from a defeated explorer in thrall to his demons to an indefatigable crusader unwilling to succumb to the threats before him. It’s a shift that’s emblematic of Kajganich and Hugh’s superb writing, which—be it in the growing bond shared by Crozier and Fitzjames, or the maturation of Ready’s compelling Goodsir—views humanity as capable of miraculous transformation, even if it’s nonetheless doomed by its inherent nature.
Survival horror of the finest sort, it’s got monsters inside and out.