Pilot Review: ‘THE TERROR’ Is Beautifully Grim

AMC’s new miniseries (or anthology?) hits all of my sweet spots: gorgeous craft, mysterious monsters, and grizzled men on frozen boats.

This place wants us dead…There be no melodramas here, just live men, or dead men.

–Francis Crozier

On any normal naval voyage, there are already countless ways to die. You could get a disease, for example, or your vessel could be destroyed by a whale. You could drown. You could be the victim of a mutiny, or an attack from another ship. Despite our shared fascination with the sea, it’s often hard to understand why anyone does it — and that’s before we get to the events of The Terror, where within the first two hours, we’ve already seen a man vomit up bright crimson blood, another be swept overboard and go into shock before he can be rescued from the icy water, and yet another, in the pièce de résistance, be eviscerated by a terrifying bear-like monster.

Based on the 2007 novel by Dan Simmons, AMC’s The Terror is a fictionalized account of a very real voyage. Sir John Franklin led an expedition in 1845 to find the fabled Northwest Passage for Queen and country, but neither his ship, the HMS Erebus, nor the HMS Terror, captained by Francis Crozier, were ever seen again. Both men were seasoned veterans, having made successful treks before to the Arctic and Antarctic (including with James Clark Ross to the South Pole, just two years before). Fascinatingly, the Terror itself was finally rediscovered in 2016, but no trace has ever been found of the crew. It’s a legitimate historical mystery.

Simmons posited “monsters,” and his taut prose (with a surprisingly climate-minded conclusion) got the attention of creator David Kajganich, executive producer Ridley Scott, and AMC, looking to back up the Brinks truck for a new genre hit. The result is the best-looking and most evocative new series of the year — a slow-building thriller with a prestige cast and more atmosphere than several blockbusters put together. It’s basically Master and Commander meets The Thing, and if that doesn’t float your boat, stop reading now.

The first two episodes, “Go for Broke” and “Gore” (now there’s a title), aired Monday night on AMC, and did remarkably efficient work introducing us to over a dozen major and minor doomed characters while laying the tension on thick. The series’s central relationship is between Captains Franklin (Ciarán Hinds) and Crozier (Jared Harris), longtime friends with starkly different philosophies. Franklin is loved by his men, but insists on an aggressive (and risky) course through the ice. Crozier is less inspiring, more cautious, and perpetually melancholy — as Franklin’s first officer FitzJames (Tobias Menzies) cracks, “There’s nothing worse than a man who’s lost his joy.”

The men’s friendship is sorely tested when Franklin’s decision gets the ships stranded in the winter “pack,” with no choice but to wait long months for the running water to return. Even then, Franklin keeps his unshakable faith that God will see them through, but the many stunning God’s-eye shots of the endless, pitiless leagues of ice give the impression that even He’s looking down and saying…”Nah.”

Other characters, who I find myself getting attached to despite constant reminders that they’re all going to die, include Doctor Goodsir (Harry Ready), the first to get the clue that Something Bad is going on; the charismatic Hickey (Adam Nagatis), who’s not trying all that hard to hide his relationship with another sailor; Blanky (Ian Hart), Crozier’s First Officer and the only man who can make him chuckle; and the mutton-chopped Collins (Trystan Gravelle), who goes under in a claustrophobic diving suit to break apart some ice, but is interrupted by a spectral figure. There’s also an Inuit woman (Nive Nielsen) credited as “Lady Silence,” who ends up on the Terror when her father is mistakenly shot by a scouting party, warning Crozier in her native language that they will soon all “disappear.”

The question of what’s real and what’s a hallucination looms over The Terror, as unexplained noises and visions of men in creepy masks haunt the dying and soon-to-be-dying alike. After the shivering Collins is pulled back up, Franklin’s “Is there anything else to report?” hangs in the frozen air, finally answered by just a nervous shake of the head.

And then there’s the monster itself, which we only get a brief glimpse of in “Gore” (and honestly, I’m fine with the show saving that effects budget for the stunning backdrops), and which some sailors fear has tracked their scouting party back to the ships. This was a stylish and tense as hell couple of hours, with director Edward Berger and cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister setting a moody template of grays, icy blues, and sickly candlelight. We can see how quickly the cold seeps into your bones up here, so far from help they might as well be on the moon. And it looks like it, too.

Yet for all the misery on screen, and with much more to come, The Terror is hardly miserable to watch. Partially that’s the production value, with the immaculate detail of the ships and awe-inspiring Arctic vistas. Credit is also due to the top-shelf cast, especially Harris and Hinds, who convincingly play tug-of-war with Victorian-era hubris while making you root for both of them. But the series also finds ways to cleverly relieve the constant dread without fully diffusing it: a quick shot of the ship’s resident monkey, or by intercutting Collins’s submerged adventure with Goodsir’s autopsy of another poor sailor — the breaking of ice and and bone in perfect, horrific synchronicity.

I admit that I’m an easy mark for this show. Not only do I love a good historical adventure, I’m fascinated by stories of journeys into the unknown for the sake of the discovery itself — it’s partially why I rode so hard for Interstellar, or last year’s criminally underseen The Lost City of Z. I remarked to my wife last night that The Terror must have been engineered in a lab specifically for me, to the point where I don’t even have anything to complain about. It’s absorbing from the jump, a prologue in an Inuit tent long after the fates of these men have been decided, where a tribesman passes on to James Ross what he says are Crozier’s final words: “Tell them we are gone…Dead, and gone.” The Erebus and the Terror may be at the bottom of the Arctic, but the mysteries they contain are as alive as ever.

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