THE TERROR Premiere Review: Prelude To A Massacre

AMC's limited series gets off to an ominous, atmospheric start.

Having recently moved from temperate New Zealand to icy Montreal, I've gained a new appreciation for the cold. I used to think it was bad when you had to put on a thermal underlayer; I had no idea of the sting sub-zero temperatures could deliver. When you start feeling the moisture of your breath freezing around your nose hairs, that's an entirely new dimension of cold. And yet, it's still nothing on the Arctic environment in which AMC's new limited series The Terror is set.

Cold is but one of the forces threatening the crews of the HMS Terror and Erebus in executive producer Ridley Scott's latest investigation into human suffering. Based on the novel by Dan Simmons, itself based on the true story of Sir John Franklin's doomed 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage, The Terror doesn't waste time painting a bleak picture of the Great White North. Even in its initial two episodes, which aired this week, the Arctic is a bad place to be, with even the icy, skeleton-laden opening titles acting as harbingers of the numerous deaths to come.

What other threats face the cast of this show? Here's a partial list, from only the anxiety-inducing first two episodes:

  • Freezing to death.
  • Drowning (itself hastened by the coldness of the water).
  • Illness, including but not limited to consumption.
  • Starvation, thanks to limited food supplies and a paucity of game.
  • Shock, caused by, for example, encountering one's dead crewmate underwater.
  • Falling from the ship's mast.
  • Getting lost in a sea of ice.
  • Getting stuck in a sea of ice.
  • Blunt force trauma, via giant hailstones.
  • Poisoning, via rotting food.
  • Being discovered in - and given the time period and situation, probably punished for - a clandestine homosexual relationship.
  • Getting ripped to pieces by a huge, terrifying snow creature, the origins and nature of which aren't immediately clear.

Clearly, this is a bleak situation for the expedition crew, but to listen to many of them, you'd never know it. A key element in The Terror is the hubris with which the English sail into the unforgiving North, disrespecting the landscape and the people who live in it. As occasional flashbacks reveal, these expeditions are the subject of romanticised storytelling back home, all bravery and adventure and majesty, but in practice, they're never-ending ordeals of misery, suffering, and misanthropy. The tension on board between these two extremes - felt most palpably in the relationships between men of differing ranks - is one of the most fascinating elements of the show. Plucky English stoicism can only face so much hardship, and boy, there’s some hardship to come for the crews of the Terror and Erebus. As history promises us - nobody knows exactly how the expedition came to disaster, and the shipwrecks themselves were only discovered this decade - all these people are going to die.

Shame, too, because The Terror's ensemble cast is one of its strongest assets. Though the best character developments come in later episodes, the two-episode premiere still offers a strong introduction to the impressively-muttonchopped key players. Representing the British admiralty, Franklin (Ciarán Hinds, better here than as Justice League's Steppenwolf) is an upper-class leader with a bold vision but little in the way of pragmatism or fire. On the other hand, low-born captain Francis Crozier (ever-reliable character actor Jared Harris) is all experience, with a knowledge of the local Inuit dialect and a healthy respect for Arctic danger. Between them is Commander James Fitzjames (Game of Thrones’ Tobias Menzies), who begins the show as an insufferably stiff asshole, but will ultimately become the subject of quite a satisfying character arc. 

Elsewhere, Paul Ready (unrecognisable from his memorable turn in Utopia) delivers a terrific essay of kindly, soft-spoken doctor Goodsir; Ian Hart (Harry Potter's Quirrell) offers a gruff reading of veteran sailor Thomas Blankly; and Adam Nagaitis is all guarded mystery as sneaky crewman Cornelius Hickey. More mysterious yet is the Inuit woman known amongst the crew as Lady Silence (Nive Nielsen), whose relationship to the region’s natural world will become a key element in the story. Other characters bloom later, but this core group starts the show with immediately identifiable, highly watchable performances, making the show's quiet, creeping dread feel all the more real.

I've seen the entire first (and, it should be no spoiler to say, only) season of The Terror, and I daren’t ruin the plot and character turns to come. But they are many, with the show moving at a compelling clip (often employing significant time jumps), and I can't wait to talk about it when it's all played out. For fans of The Thing, Master and Commander, the criminally underrated In the Heart of the Sea, historical fiction, or terrifying bleakness in general, The Terror is must-see television. Don't sleep on it - you might well find yourself freezing to death. Or worse.