★★★★ out of ★★★★★
Baby, it’s cold outside! The Terror brings thrills and lots of chills.
Puns! Can you blame me? As many of you may know, I just finished listening to the Dan Simmons audio-novel of the Terror. It is an epic tale, and well worth the investment of time. And it is, as Amy is correct to point out, one massive doorstop of a book. The audiobook was a good 34 hours worth of listening, and AMC has compressed that to 10 1 hour episodes… and I think this is about right. This story is right in AMC’s wheelhouse, as it echoes what The Walking Dead did when it was at its peak. The isolation of a brutal environment that contains a hardy group of survivors gets tested by a monstrous force that they can’t comprehend. Replace the zombies with the arctic temperatures, and pin them down with a big beast that is ripping your mates to pieces.
The Terror is an apt and ironic title, as it is both the name of one of the two ships in the ill fated Franklin Expedition, a true historic disaster, in which the Royal Navy attempted to find the Northwest Passage in 1846. In a bit of double irony, the other ship, the Erebus is a Greek titan of darkness… somebody probably should have renamed the ships something more charitable, or tropical. This story utilizes many of the facts of the expedition, for which Canadian archaeologists have managed to discover in recent years, and augments it with a supernatural force that besieges the unfortunate crew.
For those of you who were fans of the book, rejoice! The show is loaded with acting talent, and the key roles were cast on point. Jared Harris is outstanding as the captain of the Terror, Francis Crozier, a cantankerous, boozy, but fully capable commanding officer. Ciaran Hinds plays Franklin as the foppish, compensating and foolhardy leader of the expedition perfectly. Franklin is the embodiment of the perils of the British Empire trusting bloodlines over merit, and Hinds wears the epaulets well. Paul Reidy was the big surprise for me in his portrayal of the bookish surgeon Mr. Goodsir. They blended his role with Lt. Irving, and it works, neatly combining two prominent roles to economize the story. (Though Lt. Irving is in the production, his role has been subsumed by Goodsir.) Adam Nagaitis is cheeky and charming as Cornelius Hickey, but the hints of his dark side oozes through in his performance. I can’t wait for his villainous turn. Keep an eye on that lad! Last, but not least, Nive Nielson is compelling in the pivotal role as the Inuit refugee/hostage Lady Silence. Like Mr. Hickey, her character will be pivotal later in the show. (Hopefully.)
For those of you who are not familiar with the book… you may find identifying the characters difficult. Like Game of Thrones, there are so many men with beards (and bundled in cold weather gear) that I wouldn’t blame you if you can’t tell who is who. But like Game of Thrones, the acting is great, and the characters get forged through the pressure of the situation, so have patience. As a period piece, producer Ridley Scott brings Master and Commander level sets and cinematography. The icy landscapes, and particularly the Northern Lights are a marvel to behold. It all looks really, really cold as well. Word is that the studio in Hungary was filmed in the winter, and they kept the studio doors open to keep the set cold… and the cast looks suitably uncomfortable, bolstered by some fine make-up effects work. There are a couple of fabulous details that put you at unease in this show. The ships did not freeze in a level position, so much of the show is shot on sets that are sloping, and the camera is level, so it is a bit disorienting. Also, the ships are being slowly crushed, and the noises are pervasive and ominous. When in the ships, you feel the claustrophobia and you want to break out of the dank confines. When off the ship you feel the agoraphobia, and you sense the need to get back to shelter. It’s a nice trick.
At this point (Episode 4) the crew has not yet been subjected to the full force of their isolation. They still have food, though they have discovered that much of their stores was improperly canned (uh oh!), and they still have coal for the burners so they have not yet been subjected to the full force of the arctic winter yet. But all is not safe, as there is a mega predator prowling the stranded ships, and is ambushing the crew. Much mauling has taken place. After watching the series, I have come to recognize what Simmons recognized. Watching men freeze and starve isn’t the most exciting drama, though it is tragic… so let’s spice it up with a monster! Add some urgency to the situation. The beast is huge. The beast is fast. And the beast has a wicked sense of dark humor. It assembled the remains of two men he killed by depositing the top half of one man on top of the lower half of another. How’s that for a welcome wagon?
But, here’s the rub. We haven’t SEEN much of the monster yet. And this has the potential to frustrated horror fans, I’m sure. Four episodes in, we’ve seen it bounding around in the distance, and you briefly see a monstrous claw, and you see the men get dismembered… but so far it’s a bit intangible. The crew suspects it might be a big polar bear, though, by episode 4, it’s clearly something more than that. I am loving most everything about this show, but I’m getting desperate to see the beast!
Is the show scary? Yes. But, I’m probably not the best one to evaluate the amount of scary, since I have all the foreshadowing of the book, so I’m keen to know what’s coming. The execution has been impeccable, and the building of the dread is palpable. The context of being trapped and isolated is pervasive and constricting. I am both looking forward to, and dreading what’s coming in the upcoming episodes, and it shouldn’t come as a big surprise, but it will be brutal. The Franklin Expedition famously went down as one of the great British disasters in history.
This show was tailor-made for me, and really, who doesn’t love watching men come down with scurvy! Good times! I would say that the show, like the Walking Dead, is pretty close to the source material, but the editorial decisions to consolidate the story are clearly evident, but necessary so as not to bog the audience down with naval exposition. If you’re not a fan of historical counter-fiction, and period piece drama, this might not appeal to you, but I promise you this… if the monster reveal is as good as I am hoping it to be, I’ll give it the fifth star.
And, since I’ve already posted the trailer… here’s a “No Small Parts” IMDB film about Jared Harris on IMDB who is killing it on the show right now.