A good horror TV show can be difficult to come by. Sure, there’s American Horror Story, but that series is often more camp than scares. There’s The Walking Dead, which has always felt more like a soap opera to me because it goes on and on with no endgame in mind. Speaking of soap operas, The Haunting of Hill House serves as a recent example of great horror TV, striking an ingenious balance between shock and family drama. As I’ve said before, in order for horror to succeed these days, it has to be creatively blended with other genres so it will be unique. This is especially true for TV because straight horror doesn’t really work for the medium.
The concept behind The Terror is twofold. First, the series is an adaptation of a book by the same name. Second, it is historical fiction based on actual events with some supernatural elements thrown in. The events on which the show is based revolve around two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, that departed England in 1845 in an effort to find a route through the Northwest Passage, a theoretical trade route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific via the Arctic. Both ships were lost and all the men are presumed to have perished in the attempt. The novel was written in 2007, but the wreckage of the ships was discovered more recently in 2014 and 2016, circumstances which were likely the inspiration behind creating the show.
Sir John Franklin (Ciarán Hinds), captain of the Erebus, is steadfast in his need to complete his mission. Francis Crozier (Jared Harris), his second-in-command and captain of the Terror, is less optimistic and doesn’t want to take any chances on the off chance the ships get stuck in the ice. As the series continues, Commander James Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies) plays a pivotal role as well, first as a foil to Crozier, then as a partner. These are the main three characters who drive much of the plot for the first couple of episodes while we get to know others along the way.
The series doesn’t waste any time getting into the story, and since there are only 10 episodes, such expediency is warranted. Almost immediately, the ships are having troubles getting through the icy waters of the Canadian Arctic. The first few episodes do a great job of setting up the main characters and the few side characters we’re led to care about such as Lady Silence (Nive Nielsen), one of the local Inuits native to this barren world. The mood and atmosphere are perfectly set for what promises to be a depressing plot, complete with murderous, seemingly otherworldly creatures. Slowly the crew is driven apart and destroyed by forces from within and without.
The only issue I had with the season is that there are a lot of characters, and each one has their own motivations. Some of them end up being more important than others, but in the beginning, it’s not very obvious which are which. It can be difficult to keep them all straight when some have their faces partially occluded by winter gear and general filth. Then they start growing beards and look completely different again. It’s possible this is by design in order to make the viewer anxious about not really knowing what’s going on or who’s doing what. If that’s the reason, it’s very effective. There was barely a moment when I wasn’t on the edge of my seat, waiting for the next shoe to drop.
The Terror had an excellent way of going through various events while still making the pace seem slow, plodding, and melancholic. The oppressive mood will make you begin to empathize with the men who went on this doomed voyage. Even the crazy ones can come off as somewhat sympathetic, like they’re just trying to survive in this hostile environment that just wants them dead.
I think you might be guessing where I’m headed with this one. When even the few faults seem like they may have been intentional which simply adds more to the show, it’s safe to say that if you love historical fiction or horror–psychological, Lovecraftian, or otherwise–you will love this show. Season 2 should be out this year and will be based on events taking place on the west coast during World War II.