The Terror is available on AMC
Whilst nobody tends to think of their job as easy, spare a moment to pity the poor marketing department for AMC’s new period misery fest The Terror. The Terror is based on the real-life disappearance of the ominously named H.M.S. Terror and H.M.S Erebus which went looking for the ‘northwest passage’ through the arctic in 1843 and vanished without trace. The Terror is very upfront with the fact that none of the vast cast of characters you meet are getting back to Blighty: the ten episode series opens to a stark paragraph summarising the disappearance, which effectively serves as an ‘abandon hope all ye who enter here’ to any terminally optimistic viewers. Generally, even in shows like Breaking Bad, which are clearly heading towards a bad end for their characters, things are not spelled out this bluntly. By the end of the first episode the two ships are rooted into the ice like butterflies on pins, with the clear promise of worse to come. Ten 45 minute episodes is a sizable investment in time and emotion to spend with characters whose doom is writ large upon the merciless arctic tundra. The question that this unfortunate marketing department have to contend with is, why should anyone bother?
The facile answer is that: rather than charting the slow decay of the crew of these two ships, The Terror (which was based on a 2007 doorstopper novel by Dan Simmons) channels the historical facts through a bloody prism of supernatural horror: Mutiny on The Bounty meets The Thing. The unexpected octane added by the addition of a monstrous beast for the crew to contend with alongside the stark lunar ice, give the show drive and a fearful focus (and more than a touch of of Executive Producer Ridley Scott’s canonical Alien). However the real reason to watch the show is the sheer embarrassment of dramatic riches provided by both a crackerjack script and a cast of some of the top British character actor’s currently working, many of whom delivering career best performances. Thanks to the script and the actors, the humanity of The Terror’s doomed crew practically burns out of the screen. Instead of a morbid meditation on death; The Terror is an exploration of mankind in extremis, with all of the soaring highs and monstrous lows that implies.
Considering that the overwhelming majority of the cast are all white men in uniform (admittedly with a dizzying variety of elaborate facial hair) the various men could be in danger of blurring together, but instead The Terror stretches it’s focus in a manner similar to HBO’s Band Of Brothers. The ships are teaming ecosystems of rivalries, romance and sedition and every shipmate from personal valet to doctor gets an hour to strut and fret upon the frozen stage; even Macbeth couldn’t accuse their desperate lives of signifying nothing. Beyond the human element, The Terror is tightly wound in (sadly since deceased) composer Marcus Fjellström’s experimental score. A humming, esoteric marvel that swells and eddies through the action like a writhing wind. It proves the perfect counterpoint to the vast, borderline alien landscape of The Terror’s landscape, which unfeeling immensity seems to put the proof to Captain Crozier (Jared Harris at his finest) whisky sodden decree that “this place wants us dead”. The Terror is a strange beast, a ragged banner of humanity that transcends the more exploitative show than its genre might suggest and offers something bright, terrible and vital.