The ice, the fearful ice, is everywhere in The Terror.
The AMC series (the two-hour premiere starts tonight at 9 p.m. ET) is half-truth and half-fantasy, but even the nonfiction parts are unlikely. In 1845, two British explorer ships set off for the Arctic, searching for the mythic Northwest Passage. History is not full of happy stories about people looking for the Northwest Passage, and even the names of the ships sound pessimistic. The expedition’s leader, Captain John Franklin, helmed the flagship Erebus, named after the Greek god-concept defining darkness and death. Another captain, Francis Crozier, commanded the Terror.
Things turned out badly for them. The question is: How badly? Science-fiction author Dan Simmons adapted the story of the expedition into a dark historical fantasy novel. The AMC series maintains the book’s fantastical elements—some horrific thing is patrolling the white wastes. But the first episode is more like a realistic portrayal of genuine fantasy. The two ships carve their way through the ice, and the setting feels like something out of the later levels of a Legend of Zelda game, a region so cold that just breathing depletes your health bar. Early in the first episode, a man falls into the water, and that is where he stays, almost flash-frozen.
It’s a harsh climate, warmed up by the two performances that define the early episodes. Game of Thrones‘ Ciarán Hinds plays Sir John, the sort of optimist who can only be doomed. He’s prone to glorious pronouncements about God and country: “We are two weeks from finding the Grail!” is how he describes the expedition ahead. His second-in-command isn’t so sure. As Captain Crozier, Mad Men‘s Jared Harris looks like the shipwreck he expects to die in. A boozehound with none of Sir John’s polish, he’s also a canny sailor with a keen sense of their adventure’s calamitous potential. He sees the winter coming, and worries about being stranded in subzero temperatures. “We are about to commit an act of hubris we may not survive,” he tells Sir John. “You know what men are like when they are desperate.”
The Terror could just be that story: The two Captains, their ships, men descending into a freakily natural state of suspicion and violence. I’d watch that show, but I’m the target demographic: Just once in my life, I’d like to sit at the dinner table with Jared Harris and Ciarán Hinds. (I wouldn’t talk, because why embarrass myself?) Hinds finds a touch of madness in Sir John’s steady optimism, and flashbacks to brighter days back home heighten the surrealism: Here’s a man who belongs in a courtly BBC drama about lords and ladies, adrift in a confusion fireless hellscape. (He’s backed up by his long-ago Rome costar Tobias Menzies, who plays Sir John’s lieutenant; just seeing Caesar and Brutus reunited on a boat makes The Terror worthwhile for a certain generation of cable TV fan.) And Harris brings a dark humor to a man whose apocalyptic cynicism matches the apocalyptic emptiness of the surrounding Arctic.
Executive producers David Kajganich and Soo Hugh have divergent resumés. He wrote A Bigger Splash, Luca Guidagnino’s pre-Call Me By Your Name Italian holiday. She worked on Under the Dome and The Whispers, two network serials that couldn’t quite live up to their genre ambitions. They’ve found a nice rhythm in the early episodes of The Terror, which slowly watches as the crews gradually realize their fatal predicament. The big name in the credits is Ridley Scott, whose status as executive producer seems to always bring big budgets to the small screen. The Terror creates its Arctic out of special effects, but the setting is impressive. There’s a horrifying scene in the first episode where one crewmate descends under the ice, and you feel yourself getting lost in the void.
Then there’s that whole, ah, monster-y thing. The opening episodes of the series gradually build up to the revelation that the men are being hunted. The horror can be gruesome, and hilarious. Red blood bursts across a frozen monochrome; a coffin is buried, with only a leg inside. The creature horror makes The Terror an ideal network sibling for The Walking Dead, but I’m not sure how well it works alongside the show’s portrait of the imperial madness underpinning the expedition. The crew run afoul of an Inuit woman, who they name Lady Silence (Nive Nielsen), and who is closely tied to the strange creature in mysterious ways. It’s a colonialist nightmare, Men of Civilization vs. The Wild, and the early episodes don’t quite get past some broad colonialist tropes: natives with curious ties to the mystical, the kind man of science and the mad-eyed man of god.
There’s a culminating shock in the third episode, but I worry about The Terror‘s ability to sustain itself. This season will fully adapt Simmons’ book; it’s ten episodes, which is a long time to be stranded anywhere. And so far, the supernatural elements are less compelling than the very human drama onboard the ships. The men eat their shoes, shiver in the shadows, trek across an empty expanse. Hinds pontificates, and Harris mutters. People start to die, in ways that are obvious and then unexpected. The Terror can be scary, but it’s real achievement is climatological. The freeze is tangible. When you watch it, wear a sweater. B+