Inside the vessel, below deck, too many men, too close. Sweat and grime and noise – but even then, you’re too cold and have been for months and months. The food is bad and the days monotonous. Outside, blinding whiteness and the unreal beauty of the Northern Lights. Also, a creature with an uncanny knack of attacking when it is smartest and doing the most damage. Last time, it was your mate to the left that was killed; next time, it might be you. Will you ever make it back home, or is the best you can hope for a quick, clean death?
On paper, The Terror would seem to be a very different beast from what it actually is. The series, like the novel it adapts, takes Captain Franklin’s Arctic expedition of 1845-48 that, most likely, ended in disaster and death, and then adds a generous helping of supernatural horror. It sounds like a setup for perfect pulp – but that’s not what The Terror strives to be.
Instead, The Terror (whose writer, David Kajganich, worked on the recent Suspiria remake) isn’t all that interested in mixing manly nautical derring-do with the gory action of a creature feature. Outright horror isn’t what makes it tick; instead, what drives it is mounting existential dread, and the series delivers this feeling better than almost anything else I’ve watched. It is also the first genre series I’ve watched in a long time that didn’t feel like it extended over ten episodes because that’s just how long a TV series has to be in the age of prestige television.
The Terror begins its story at the very end, letting us know with some certainty that things wouldn’t end well for HMS Erebus, HMS Terror and their crews. That sort of foreshadowing can work well, but it can also kill a story dramatically: if the audience already knows that the characters they’re about to get to know are doomed, they may not engage emotionally. Why get your heart broken by coming to care about characters who are already dead, so to speak? However, it is the care that The Terror puts into its world and characters that makes them deserving of our sympathy – though the series also makes the viewers work to meet them halfway. The cast of The Terror is large, and for several episodes I confess I found it difficult to call several of the characters anything other than “The one from Mad Men“, “The one who played Julius Caesar in Rome” or “The one who had Voldemort stuck to the back of his head.” In this respect, the series and its dramatis personae surprisingly turns out not to be a hundred miles removed from, say, The Wire: you are expected to do some homework in order to get the most out of it.
The Terror repays its audience’s patience manifold, though, and on many levels. Its detailed depiction of life on board a navy vessel is as fascinating as it was in Peter Weir’s underappreciated 2003 film Master and Commander, and while the characters are depicted with often subtle, quiet brushstrokes, many of them soon become compelling: the haughty Sir John Franklin (Ciarán Hinds) and his right-hand man James Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies, better than in anything since he and Hinds starred in Rome together), the pessimist Francis Crozier (Jared Harris) whose captaincy of HMS Terror first risks becoming its downfall and then proves to be the main reason why the men under his command survive as long as they do. The lower ranks are equally well cast, in particular Paul Ready as the caring, humane Dr. Goodsir and Adam Nagaitis as Cornelius Hickey, a crewman whose considerable smarts belie a more troubling streak. What is especially intriguing is how in a cast composed of almost exclusively men, many of them do not conform to traditional ideas of masculinity, in particular the characters that end up most central to the narrative. (There is one central female character, played by Nive Nielsen with strength, great presence and expressiveness.) The characters the audience comes to care for most are by and large not distinguished by supposedly manly qualities but by their empathy and sacrifice.
The men aboard HMS Erebus and HMS Terror soon find themselves in a struggle with various forces, first and foremost the alien, implacable Arctic, an environment that is not made for human beings, in particular Europeans raised on notions of empire and dominion that turn out to be laughable in the face of the harshest conditions that nature can muster. However, after the expeditioners accidentally kill an Inuit shaman they encounter, they begin to be stalked by a more unexplainable nemesis that picks them off one by one.
It is the supernatural element that I’ve seen criticised most often in reviews of The Terror, and there is something to the argument that the series didn’t need a demonic adversary, seeing how its characters are already besieged by their environment as much as by other dangers based on details of the expedition confirmed by historians – and men who find themselves starving and going mad in the merciless white of the Arctic are rarely the safest people to be around either. At the same time, the supernatural antagonist can arguably be read as a symbolic embodiment both of the forces the British expedition find themselves fighting and of their own flaws and wrongdoings.
Where The Terror could have become the kind of adventure yarn that could have been written in the century the story is set in, the horrors the crewmen are up against are finally more metaphysical. The series tells a story how easily human beings who find themselves in exceptionally hostile situations can lose their humanity – and how some can uphold it, even in the face of an environment that can destroy a man’s soul as readily as it destroys his body.