Stay Tuned: Slow but steady intrigue on ‘The Terror’
It’s an ominous title and “The Terror,” a drama about the British Royal Navy’s ill-fated voyage to find the Northwest Passage, delivers a dose of fear but with mixed results. While the series excels at using the polar region’s extreme conditions to create an intense atmosphere of anxiety, the frozen terrain that traps the men of the HMS Terror and its sister ship the HMS Erebus, also produces an unfortunate supernatural subplot.
The head of HMS Terror and second in command of the expedition is Captain Francis Cozier (Jared Harris), an astute sailor who tries to curb the dangerous ambition of Sir John Franklin (Ciaran Hinds) the leader of the expedition and Captain of the Erebus. Francis’ warnings are ignored and when both ships are frozen in place, the crews are trapped for several years.
Both captains are defined by their inner demons — Francis turns to alcohol to deal with the career-long disappointment of his efforts being overlooked while John battles to gain the men’s respect after a previously failed arctic mission. Harris and Hinds both deliver strong performances of damaged men struggling to maintain personal control. Harris, in particular is very watchable as he plays Francis with a deft combination of authority and vulnerability.
The frozen ships make the crew an easy target for a supernatural beast that looks like a polar bear. The creature appears and disappears at will, killing its victims with grisly precision. It’s called forth after the crew kills a shaman from the region’s Netsilik people. His daughter, who the crew names “Lady Silence” (Nive Nielsen), is forced to travel with the men. She is the key to protecting the men and her people from the supernatural disaster the creature’s presence threatens to unleash.
While the Lady Silence/supernatural subplot is an interesting way to express the idea that Europeans are upsetting the balance of a land they seek to conquer but not understand, it feels like hasty symbolism used to increase the drama’s gross factor as men are literally ripped apart. The addition of Dr. Henry Goodsir (Paul Ready), a character who wants to connect with the land’s indigenous people and therefore sees the relationship between the crew’s actions and the supernatural forces at play, lends more seriousness to the subplot. But not enough to overcome its limitations.
What the show does better is depict the psychological impact of isolation, failure and the loss of hope. When a party meant to alleviate boredom and raise spirits turns catastrophic, Francis orders the men to abandon ship. Low on food and most not knowing that they are slowly being poisoned from canned goods that are leaching lead, the men must literally walk to their salvation. Some men lose their minds while others struggle to hold onto their humanity.
“The Terror” is fundamentally a story of man versus the elements and the pace, while often slow, is punctuated with compelling personal moments. The men’s unraveling in the face of nature is the drama’s true terror.
“The Terror” is on Mondays at 9 p.m. EDT on AMC.
— Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s ‘The West Wing.’” She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.