It’s difficult to pull off horror in an episodic format. The genre seems perfectly-tailored to feature films: movies are short and punchy, and something that is scary the first time is rarely the third or the tenth. Good horror TV has been attempted before, even somewhat successfully, but these series usually rely on fearful visuals to deploy scares. Spooky shots and creepy production design keep people watching, yes, but perhaps these shallow horror techniques have kept most horror shows from the annals of ‘prestige’ TV. Few horror shows are ever mentioned in the same breath as narrative greats such as Breaking Bad, The Wire, and Lost (which has horror elements, but would never be categorized as a ‘horror show’). Shows need be too long, too episodic, too tempered to craft the plotted urgency and narrative tension that great horror films from The Shining to The Babadook deliver with a scant 2 hours. One would be forgiven for thinking horror TV simply cannot be done well. The Terror sets its sights on that elusive goal, and not only does it reach the mark, it transcends mere genre television to become something far more than a great horror show.
Created by David Kajganich and Soo Hugh, The Terror is based upon the eponymous 2007 novel by American author Dan Simmons, which I’ll confess I’ve never read, but alters enough key plot-points and characters to where knowledge of the book is not a prerequisite. The series recounts the true story of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, two technologically advanced British vessels under the command of polar explorer Sir John Franklin, tasked with discovering the Northwest Passage in 1848. Both vessels and all 129 men on the expedition were lost, and even after the recent discovery of the ships’ sunken remains, it’s one of those rare mysteries that remains unsolved. The show ostensibly aims to answer the question of what exactly happened to Captain Sir John Franklin (Ciarán Hinds) and Captain Francis Crozier (Jared Harris), but after the first episode it becomes abundantly clear that The Terror is about so much more than a failed polar expedition.
It’s no spoiler to say that within mere days of their ships being trapped in sea ice, the crews realize something otherworldly is hunting them out on the floats. This supernatural aspect of The Terror, known as ‘Tuunbaq,’ is utilized to supreme effect – withheld from the bulk of the story and deployed suddenly in moments of brief violence. As with the best survival horror, the real evil is not the beast hunting ‘our heroes,’ but their own corruptive nature. As a viewer, knowing from the outset that the expedition is doomed does nothing to diminish the impact of the dread infusing the atmosphere. If anything, exploring the “how?” of the crews’ demise allows for far more range of narrative movement than if the story was focused on the “will they, won’t they?” of survival. Most importantly, this certainty of death allows The Terror to delve into the nuances of toxic masculinity and the evils of colonization, including classism, and how men motivated by duty and station entrap those desperate for stability and purpose into exerting dominion over the natural world.
Starring a who’s-who of prestigious British actors (including what seems like half the damn cast of Game of Thrones), The Terror will absolutely drown you in a sea of chapped-lipped, sallow-faced white men. For the most part their names do not matter, though you’ll soon learn to match gruffly-grumbled surnames with cold-worn faces: arrogant James Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies), kind Harry Goodsir (Paul Ready), the aforementioned captains Crozier and Franklin, gruff Thomas Blanky (Ian Hart), the enigmatic ‘Lady Silence’ (Nive Nielsen, a revelation in her role as a mute), and the resident ‘agent-of-chaos’ Cornelius Hickey (Adam Nagaitis). There are more characters to whom your sympathies will wax and wane, but for the most part the all-male crews of the Terror and Erebus flicker in and out of the frame looking like carbon-copied emissaries of 19th-century British masculinity. This is deliberate. The confusion you will experience attempting to discern bearded white face from bearded white face contributes to the overwhelming feeling of fog and doubt that descends upon the entombed crews. They whittle away their days staring at increasingly bedraggled and hungry visions of themselves staring back, awaiting a deliverance beyond their understanding.
The one starring woman on the show is Nive Nielsen’s ‘Lady Silence,’ an Inuit shaman with a mysterious connection to the creature hunting the explorers. Her role could have easily been pigeonholed as just another ‘native guide’ stereotype, but her character conveys a depth of knowledge and trauma that she withholds from the crewmen. Her actions drive the plot, but the show reveals the bare minimum of her exploits in order to maintain an aura of mystery and ambiguity around the mechanics of the supernatural. The few scenes filmed from her point of view contain nearly no dialogue, and the visual storytelling is so steeped in symbolism and aesthetics that it’s difficult to discern meaning. This ambiguity holds until the final moments of the series, emphasizing the words of Captain Crozier: “We were not meant to know of it.” Embracing the unknowability of the supernatural (though who gets to decide what is natural and what is supernatural?) calls to mind the writings of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Chambers, and further emphasizes the series’ commitment to prioritizing atmosphere and tension over shock and fright.
All other women feature only briefly in cutaways to British high-society, where the relatives of the men out on the ice attempt to convince the British admiralty to send a rescue mission after their loved ones. These sequences are perhaps the only notable flaw of The Terror, insomuch they add little to the weight of the story, and amount to naught at the end but a plot-only revelation that justifies the opening scene of the series.
The show features multiple same-sex relationships between the crew members (and officers). These are scarcely discussed openly by the rest of the crew, seemingly tolerated by the conventions of life aboard ships. The Terror deserves commendation for exploring historical homosexuality with an ease and normalcy that most series would trade in for gay-bashing and homophobic spectacle. Rather than provoke conflict, these relationships offer reprieve from the violence and penetrative determination of the explorers, and indeed with one notable toxic exception, every romantic relationship portrayed on-screen between two men – however subtle – is a welcome respite from the woes of survival. What this says about gay men as opposed to straight ones I’ll let you figure out for yourselves. Suffice to say that The Terror pulls no punches in exposing the fundamental motivations of male protagonists – honor, brotherhood, fame, glory, duty – for what they are: pathetic in the face of reality.
The essential masculinity of The Terror is so important not because The Terror suffers for telling a story mostly about men (though not necessarily by them; co-creator Soo Hugh and several of the producers are women), but because it steeps the conflict in a world inhabited only by men, into which the codes and norms of toxic masculinity are revealed unfettered and unchecked. The ‘atmospheric’ horror in The Terror arises not just from the claustrophobic wooden halls of the ships and the groping spires of ice out on the frozen sea, but from the corrupted hearts of the crew. Their uniform faces scrying salvation, even in the midst of continuing the poisonous behaviors that have led them to a hell of their own making, reveal a hint of comprehension that their situation is as self-inflicted as it is dire. If you’re looking for a more concrete example of this commitment to building tone from within, look no further than an undisguised (pun-intended) mid-season homage to Corman’s Masque of the Red Death. Heady stuff, but never pretentious.
Confession time: aside from being beautifully filmed, deftly acted, meticulously researched and maturely written, The Terror is extremely my shit. Watch befuddled white colonizers get brutally slaughtered by a mythical Inuit spirit while they tear each other apart through petty squabbles and self-aggrandizing acts of phony chivalrous heroism? Sign me the fuck up. Yet one of the most remarkable qualities of The Terror is that, by the final two episodes of the show, it manages to make you care about the remaining British explorers. The deftness and the subtly with which The Terror invests you in the plight of some truly unlikeable men is astonishing. The ever-evolving relationship between Fitzjames (Menzies) and Crozier (Harris) might spur some tears, and the unfailing kindness of Mr. Goodsir (Ready) is nearly impossible to disparage. Humanity can be found even among the most unthinking and cruel of men, and while there are monsters and devils among the crew of the Terror and Erebus, they are not inhuman. The level of care given to character growth would be commendable even in a show not about a spirit-beast lurching through the Arctic killing 19th-century explorers.
The fact that The Terror not only finds time to build a great story and great characters, but prioritizes it, proves that there are no gimmicks to be found here. This is not a spectacular visual-effects period piece. This is a story about a very real Heart of Darkness, more Conrad than Kipling. It’s a story about men – their shortcomings, their ills, and the damnation that awaits them. Rather than glorify some false romance in their failure, it blasts an unflinching Arctic sun on the violent natures of their soul, and pays them back for their crimes in equal measure. Tragedy is destined in The Terror: the tragedy of the Arctic, destined to be conquered and colonized and destroyed by climate change; the tragedy of the Inuit, destined to be nearly extinguished from this Earth; the tragedy of the British Empire, destined to go to seed amongst the roots of its own corruption. Perhaps the only consolation we will ever receive is the knowledge of the perpetrators’ suffering by the folly of their hubris. At Terror’s end, however, this too rings as hollow as ships they arrived upon, dying gently below the surface of the ice.
The Terror fills the hole in good TV horror with an existential soul-twisting fear the likes of which deserve a content warning. Co-creators David Kajganich and Soo Hugh have turned a mysterious footnote in the vile history of colonization into a deeply considerate and unflinching exploration of the evils of humanity, the destructive power of toxic masculinity, and the consumption of nature and culture by ravenous white expansionism. This is a show as steeped and layered in allegory and symbolism as it is in history.