The Terror isn’t Terrible

When I saw the trailer for TV drama “The Terror” I couldn’t help thinking that this is something right up my street – historical drama with an element of the supernatural. I started viewing on BBC iPlayer and ended up binge watching all 10 episodes. This is a show with a heavyweight cast – Jared Harris (Chernobyl, The Expanse), Ciaran Hinds (Munich, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), Tobias Mendes (Outlander) and Ian Hart (Finding Neverland) among others showing a stiff upper lip and stoical determination.

The story is based on the centuries old search for the Northwest Passage – a once mythical sea bound, short cut between Europe and Asia skirting the top of Canada through ice and snow. I haven’t read the book of the same name by Dan Simmons (2007) so I can’t comment as to whether this adaptation stays faithful to any extent although I do know that a malevolent creature is added in this version to amplify the horror aspect. The fact that events are based on true life underpins authenticity. So the scaffolding on which this tale is built dates back to 1845. HMS Erebus and HMS Terror are the ships destined to meet their apocalyptic fate in the Arctic. Captain John Franklin (Hinds) holds the command overseeing some 129 souls in a perilous expedition that feels doomed from the outset.

With AMC producing the show and exec involvement from the likes of Ridley Scott (Alien) and David Zucker (The Good Wife) it’s apparent that production values will be high and that’s what we get with bleak, ice and snowy backdrops and a claustrophobia borrowed from the set of The Walking Dead. In a similar way to the studio’s all conquering zombie creation, here again we get a survivalist setup with tensions on board both ships stoked by a stalking, howling threat largely unseen until the reveal during a night assault by the raging invader. So maybe this is where the wheels come off a bit with the centrepiece monster looking like a refugee from a Foxes glacier mint advert. CGI is an amazing application that doesn’t always compensate for more conventional approaches to animalistic villains.

The tension from within is mainly between Captain John Franklin and Captain Crozier (Harris). Minor differences snowball as the two men disagree on plans following the dramatic repair of a propeller on The Erubus. Franklin overrules his more cautious counterpart deciding to plough on with the mission despite the threat of becoming stuck in ice, potentially for years. The gamble fails and the ships become marooned with dwindling supplies and creeping paranoia seeping through the crew.

The introduction of the mystic subplot comes from an excursion to a shoreline. The scouting party glimpse a shape in the gloom and inadvertently shoot a tribal shaman. His accompanying daughter is distraught and both are escorted back on the ship in an attempt to save the ailing elder. As his life slips away with his desperate offspring calling hysterically for his final moments to be on land, the ensuing unnatural death has dire consequences with the Tuunbaq now triggered to avenge the indigenous old man’s demise. The Tuunbaq can be seen in a controversial light in the inference that bad magic lurks among “uncivilized” peoples. It’s still hard to get away from assumptions like this even in the globalised world we live in today but it remains standard fare for horror plots that invariably call upon wendigoes and the like to bring a graveyard to life and those buried beneath it back from the world of spirit (see “Poltergeist” (1982) “Pet Cemetery (1989)”).

The Terror’s plot calls for patience with a sedate pace through the first few episodes. The script concentrates on building the characters through dialogue and a back story that intermittently takes things back to London and the origins of the rationale for the adventure, establishing that those chosen to lead were far from first choice suggesting that others considered this a fool’s errand. There’s a certain Britishness that comes from officers and shipmen clinging to decorum and discipline even if the viewer can see this unravelling as time moves on and time spent stranded drags interminably. The script moves slowly enough for us to build relationships with the main characters and root for the heroes whilst being reviled by the villain(s).

Notable performances come from Paul Ready (Bodyguard) as Doctor Henry Goodsir and Adam Nagaitis (Chernobyl) as Cornelius Hickey. It’s the good ship’s surgeon who has to endure many a blood-soaked, 19th century operating table with a conveyor belt of injured victims. His ultimate sacrifice is both grisly and memorable, dovetailing with the machinations of the duplicitous Hickey. The scene with the nefarious seaman being subjected to an inordinate amount of lashes is grim, relentless and nicely crafted with the punishment depicted graphically but still managing to show the sly defiance through facial close ups of the Colonel Sanders look-alike. Nagaitis reminded me heavily of Robert Carlisle’s crazed cannibal – Colonel Ives – in the Antonia Bird directed black comedy “Ravenous” (1999). There’s little humour on show in The Terror whilst the Guy Pearce vehicle from the last century has an undercurrent even if it’s not for the faint hearted.

My ratings bible Rotten Tomatoes gives “The Terror” an aggregated critic score of 94% and audience score of 87%. These numbers are up there with the best including the astoundingly good “Chernobyl” from whose cast this production borrows. It’s not as good as the disaster series about the ill-fated nuclear reactor in Mother Russia but it is good and well worth a watch. There is a season 2 that’s already been shown in the US with a UK release date TBA.

The Terror is currently showing on BBC2 and available on BBC iPlayer.


I watched this up until the old man died on the ship, leaving his daughter prophesying doom. I can't remember if I've seen it before. It's certainly worth a watch. I'm with you on the subplot about the Yeti-like creature. A good rule of thumb, before it's torn off, is never to show the creature. 


Less is more sometimes. I understand the supernatural aspect in the book is mainly inferred. I guess audiences these days need to see a monster.