The Terror review: It's a few heroic men vs nature, and a spooky predator, in AMC's latest

Rohini Nair

Apr,24 2018 15:54:15 IST

Amazon Prime's English TV programming has been something of a hit and miss so far. It's had triumphs like Mozart In The Jungle (cancelled after its fourth season), The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, and the started-off-promising-but-ended-up-patchy Electric Dreams, among its more high-profile offerings. However, having grabbed the streaming rights for AMC's The Terror definitely counts as a win for the platform. Not least because it's a show Netflix would have loved to cadge!

AMC has had some pretty big shows to its credit — zombie TV behemoth The Walking Dead, and Breaking Bad spin-of Better Call Saul among them. The Terror — despite being a limited series — is a worthy addition. Split across a single season of 10 hour-long episodes, The Terror is based on Dan Simmons' 2007 novel of the same name. However, it diverges from the book in several details and borrows some aspects from the real-life events which Simmons himself was inspired by.

The Terror chronicles the doomed Arctic exploration of Sir John Franklin. Image courtesy AMC

The Terror chronicles the doomed Arctic exploration of Sir John Franklin. Image courtesy AMC

Those events refer to the doomed Arctic exploration of Sir John Franklin, which left England in 1845 with the express purpose of exploring the Northwest Passage (defined as the sea route to the Pacific Ocean through the Arctic Ocean, along the northern coast of North America via waterways through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago). The Franklin expedition included two ships — Erebus and Terror — which had 134 men on board (including the commanding officers). Five were soon discharged, and the journey continued with 129 men. By 1848, all 129 men were believed dead.

The real-life events, Simmons' book and The Terror have this much in common: That Franklin's ships ran into pack ice and were frozen in for nearly three years; that Franklin himself died in 1947 along with several other men from the expedition; that the remaining men — guided by Terror's captain Francis Crozier and the second-in-command James Fitzjames — abandoned the ships and took to the ice, hauling boats and sleds for several hundred miles in an attempt to make it to safety; that their coal was gone; that much of their tinned food was spoiled (possibly because the cans were improperly soldered shut); that many of them died of scurvy, and some — maddened by starvation — turned to cannibalism. And that by the end, none of them lived to tell the tale — or at least the one person who may have been, never spoke of it to anyone from the Western world.

Tobias Menzies and Ciarán Hinds as James Fitzjames and Sir John Franklin in The Terror. Image courtesy AMC

Tobias Menzies and Ciarán Hinds as James Fitzjames and Sir John Franklin in The Terror. Image courtesy AMC

What Simmons' book introduced and which The Terror TV series builds on, is the presence of a predator, possibly supernatural in origin and deeply rooted in the mythology of the Inuit people, which hunts and kills the hapless members of the Franklin expedition one-by-one.

Among those members are the three commanding officers — Sir John Franklin (played by Ciarán Hinds), Francis Crozier (Jared Harris), James Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies), the ship's surgeon Dr Goodsir (Paul Ready), a scheming sailor who serves as caulker's mate on Terror — Cornelius Hickey (Adam Nagatis), and an Inuit woman the expedition encounters — Lady Silence (Nive Nielsen). There are several other wonderfully etched supporting characters as well — Terror's ice master Thomas Blanky, the ship's lieutenants John Irving and Edward Little, Captain Crozier's faithful steward Jopson, to name a few.

Crozier is the hero of the series, and Jared Harris plays the tough, flawed and humane captain to perfection. But the other actors' nuanced performances make you equally invested in the characters they're portraying. Tobias Menzies, as James Fitzjames, proves yet again that he's too fine an actor to have been wasted in a bit role in Game of Thrones. His depiction of Fitzjames is of a steady, quiet man, with courage that always rises to the occasion — whether he's facing down bullets, or certain death. Adam Nagatis plays Cornelius Hickey — the only human antagonist on the show (the others being the ice, the weather, and the predator) — with all the Machiavellian elan one might expect of a superior villain. He's quite unhinged and evil, but no less complex a character for it. Lady Silence is as enigmatic  And then there's the gentle Dr Goodsir, perhaps the only entirely good human being on the expedition, for whose eventual loss of faith (if one can call it that) you grieve.

Jared Harris as Captain Francis Crozier in The Terror. Image courtesy AMC

Jared Harris as Captain Francis Crozier in The Terror. Image courtesy AMC

The real star of the show, however, is the story — for what a story it is! Accounts of the many failed (and later, few successful) expeditions to both poles make for fascinating reading/viewing, even more so to us today when so little of the world remains uncharted. To think of a time when swathes of the world map still had no definite markings on them, when the Royal Geographical Society was sending out its members to far-flung parts of the globe (from where many would never return), when the earliest airplanes were more than half a century away from being invented — even the Mars mission cannot compare to what these early explorers were attempting.

And even as we've progressed and human development has changed the planet in ways those explorers could have never imagined, nature's fury continues to stop us in our tracks every once in a while. That fury — or rather nature's frightening implacability — is on full display in The Terror. Even before the predator begins to kill them for sport and food, the men have been well and truly beaten by the ice. It wrecks their solid wooden ships, their plans, any possibility of movement or change. In the Canadian Arctic where the ships are frozen solid, even the 'summer' brings no thaw — with temperatures at minus 50 degrees, holding a metal object (like one's gun or a telescope) with an ungloved hand leads to the skin being ripped off. To make matters worse, this is a place where there's darkness for six months of the year — the perfect hell for the men to suffer their individual and collective torments.

If there's a quibble one might have with the show, it is that in the early episodes, the actors seem a little too comfortable for the environment they're supposed to be in. It detracts a little bit from the frozen waste the visuals depict the men being trapped in. Moreover, the episodes diverge in several places from the book, and the tweaks are not always for the better. In terms of certain characters or their arcs being conflated together, or changes in minor plot points that isn't too much of a concern, but towards the end, the series takes a different path altogether. (Author Dan Simmons himself has expressed satisfaction with the way his book's been adapted.)

The Terror makes for a rare viewing experience — its world so different from anything else on television today. It's also the kind of taut, compelling tale about desperate men in desperate circumstances that you'll be wanting to devour at one go. Grab a blanket before you do though.

Updated Date: Apr 24, 2018 15:54 PM