Strong acting and excellent attention to detail propel this historical horror/drama into becoming one of the best miniseries of recent years. Spoiler Warning: Goes into detail for first five episodes.
The Terror is an adaptation of Dan Simmons’ novel of the same name, as well as a collection of historical record, and legends of mythical creatures. There is a lot going on here, and the true story behind it all is also interesting. Two ships, the HMS Terror and the HMS Erebus vanished in the late 1800s, and were not found until 2014 and 2016. What happened to these men is a great mystery. The show adds in a mystical explanation that turns this into more of a horror/drama than historical fiction.
I enjoyed the show thoroughly. I do not mind that the characters were not as bundled as they needed to be for the climate. The characters here are more bundled in layers than most films/shows set in the artic. However, in real life no skin could be exposed, which would muffle voices and make it hard to tell who is who. If you’re the type who will hate a change for obvious viewing reasons, you will probably disagree with my review. I also did not mind that we rarely get frost breath from the characters. For me, it looks worse when added in digitally, and it shouldn’t be surprising that they did not want to film in freezing temperatures.
It is unfortunate to focus so much on these omissions, and not praise the show for working diligently to recreate these ships as accurately as possible. The care that went into the sets and costumes is excellent, and these small details go a long way into helping us get sucked into the show.
The cast is massive, and this is sometimes a problem for the show. We tend to focus on Captain Francis Crozier (Jared Harris), Captain John Franklin (Ciaran Hinds), and Captain James Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies). Oddly, these three men could all win an award titled “Actors who are inexplicably not in more stuff because they always do an excellent job.” These three men make up the bulk of the narrative from the officers’ point of view. Dr. Henry Goodsir (Paul Ready) serves as one of the bridges between the officers and the men. Numerous characters appear who are interesting, but Cornelius Hickey (Adam Nagaitis) serves as one of the many faces of the non-commissioned men aboard the ships, and becomes the series principle antagonist.
Captain Franklin heads the expedition, which aims to find the northwest passage—something that has been tried unsuccessfully before. He is foolhardy, and doubts that anything can go wrong in the mission. Captain Crozier provides a counter-balance to this, but is ignored until it is too late. As the crews rush to beat the harsh winter freeze they push on, and this fails quickly, leaving the ships stuck in a frozen slab of artic ice. Now, they are stuck and must winter through as the ice shifts and risks crushing the ships to pieces. What makes matters worse is that the ships remain stuck after summer, and another winter.
Where the show shifts from the historical record is that an additional threat is added. A mysterious creature seems to be hunting them, and its ferocity, intelligence, and strength are unlike anything seen before. Paranoid, freezing, and under constant siege, the crews of the Erebus and Terror are on the breaking point by the end of the first episode. To make matters worse (and this seems to be historically accurate) the tinned food was not made properly, and the men are poisoning themselves as they eat. Threats circle them from within and without, and there is no reprieve.
Aside from the creature, the catastrophic incidents that face the crew happen slowly, and the men get to watch death come for them. We see moments of bravery, beauty, and cowardice. What propels many of these moments is the excellent and passionate dialogue. In a latter episode, a lengthy talk occurs between Crozier and Fitzjames as they are walking, and this conversation rounds out these men in ways that few films can achieve.
Additionally, these characters are not fixed. Genuine growth of character occurs through many of them, and makes this series as much a character study as anything else. The handling of the Eskimo treatment is interesting and well done. Our primary representative is the Lady Silence (Nive Nielsen), who finds herself stuck with the crews after a terrible accident. The Eskimo (I am spelling it the American way—it is different in the show and book) are feared, hated, gawked at, and loved by different people on the boats. I also must applaud the show for actually hiring indigenous actors to play these parts. (We must never forget the terrible and offensive casting of Johnny Depp as Tonto). Lady Silence brings a calm but forceful presence to every scene she is in.
As the terrors begin to close in, things begin to fall apart, and the narrative turns greatly in setting during the second half of the series. The consistent high-level performances make this one easy to watch. I don’t watch many shows (as evidenced by this being the second I am reviewing in about three years), but I watched this one in a week. Compelling and excellent work from an incredibly talented cast and crew.
There are some issues in the show, but these are minimal. I would warn anyone about to watch it that there are significant changes from the book. I did not mind this (and it seems Simmons didn’t either, since you know, he helped produce the show), and it made the experience fresh for me as well. I did not know what was going to happen at every moment. Further, after Simmons released the novel (which is worth a read on its own merits) new information was discovered.
Perhaps the largest issue for audiences will be the appearance of the creature. It looks somewhat odd, but I am not sure what else they could have done. The descriptions in the book are weird, and CGI creatures can often look a little rubbery. It ranges from okay to somewhat silly here, and it might have been more prudent to show less of it. I have mentioned before that horror fans are conditioned to not mind CGI that isn’t the best, so it wasn’t a deal breaker for me. I think I had more issues with the actual design than the CGI use, but this is just my opinion.
The show could have used a couple more episodes as well. Hickey’s character shifts a little too quickly, as does many of the others. Making a bit lighter of a curve through more time with these men would have helped. Oddly, this criticism is perhaps also a compliment, the show is so good I could have had more of it.
It isn’t perfect, but it is excellent in many ways. The Terror proves that television is still a medium for great and captivating stories. With the departure of True Detective (though that might be coming back) and Breaking Bad it was refreshing to see another top tier genre bending narrative. I recommend this one for just about anyone. 9.5/10