A remarkable amount of prestige TV lately has emerged from genre fiction, including Emmy winners like “Game of Thrones” and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” as well as current basic cable hits like “The Walking Dead” and “The Alienist.” Add to this world the success of shows like “Stranger Things” and “Westworld,” and it feels like a TV series adaptation of Dan Simmons’ hit novel The Terror was inevitable. Produced by Ridley Scott, this is a lavish event series that could be called “Master and Commander Meets The Thing.” It’s not quite as exciting as that pitch makes it sound, but it is a show that builds up steam around the fourth episode. The question is if audiences will be patient enough with it to make it that far. Those who are should be satisfied. Those who aren’t will likely check out early.
Simmons’ horror book is actually built on the foundation of a true story. In 1845, two ships named the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror set sail in search of the infamous Northwest Passage. Through the ice-crusted landscape of the Arctic, the ships sought a channel that they would never find. Both ships disappeared with all hands on deck. (The wreck of the Erebus was found in 2014 and the Terror was found 30 miles away in 2016). Written before either of these discoveries, The Terror imagines a version of what might have happened to the crew of both ships in one of the most unforgiving landscapes on the planet.
That landscape is arguably the best thing about the AMC series that shares the same name. “The Terror” should have premiered a couple months ago because it feels like such a winter show. You can feel the wind and the cold blowing through every scene. As a character says, “Nature does not give a damn about our plans.” Some of the best moments in “The Terror” lean into the idea that it’s not anything supernatural or unknown that will kill these people but the very human, stupid pride that convinced them they could do something that should never have been attempted. There are wide shots of small boats against massive backdrops of ice and snow that are terrifying. And then the carnage starts.
As the crews of these ships—including characters played by Jared Harris, Ciaran Hinds, Ian Hart, and Tobias Menzies, among other, newer faces given notable screen time—venture out to try to find passages, a few upsetting events unfold in the first few episodes. First, a crewmate gets violently ill, in a way that’s pretty clearly going to lead to his death. As he approaches the door to the other side, he has a vision from his deathbed that’s downright frightening. Anyone coming into “The Terror” thinking this will be a tea-and-crumpets period piece should be startled right about here in the premiere. In that sense, “The Terror” is a fascinating study in unexpected shocks—long scenes of dialogue and character punctuated by extreme violence—which ably represents a mission that was likely numbingly boring for most of the day until those moments when it was undeniably deadly.
After a mission finds a pair of terrified Eskimos, “The Terror” really kicks into gear. There’s something out there beyond the ice that’s scarier than any bear. You should be warned that “The Terror,” at least for the first half of its ten-episode season that I watched, is not an action show. Don’t go in expecting quality kills and action sequences. It’s a very talky piece that plays with tension more than action. To that end, it gives its actors a lot to work with, especially Harris, who’s become one of those performers we can safely call “always good.” And Hinds’ unique look makes him perfectly suited for an arguably power-hungry ship captain.
Much like “The Thing,” “The Terror” becomes more interesting as a study of what fear does to people, especially men, more than a monster story. Sure, it’s a genre period piece, but it’s also about elements of the human condition that never go away, including the kind of stupid pride that gets men killed, the desire to conquer mother nature, and the competitive drive with colleagues that can blind men to true danger around them. Like a lot of modern TV, I think “The Terror” takes its time a bit too leisurely on occasion and likely would have been stronger at eight episodes, or maybe even six, but it’s a solid addition to this new trend of TV literary adaptations. Projects like “The Terror” used to be reserved for prestigious feature films with Oscar aspirations, but networks like AMC have provided a better platform for them over the last few years. Only time will tell how long this trend lasts, but viewers attuned to this kind of programming should be happy to add this one to their weekly rotation.