THE TERROR Review – A Chilling Decent into Madness
NO SPOILERS FOR THE TERROR SEASON 1
The Terror is a survival horror series based on the 2007 Dan Simmons novel of the same name which itself is a fictionalised version of the infamous Franklin Expedition which saw the disappearance of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus in 1845. The series follows the crews of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus who during their search for the Northwest Passage become trapped indefinitely in ice and soon find themselves being hunted by an elusive presence. This is one of the best survival horror shows out there as at times it’s a claustrophobic thriller, there’s mystery, suspense, and very well executed horror throughout the 10 episode run. Overall there is so much more to this series than just your average man vs beast tale, the story goes in directions you’ll never see coming and it’s very much an exploration of the disintegration of the mind and body and people’s will to survive. It’s a slow 10 episode descent into hell for the crew of these vessels with an emphasis on the slow. The series doesn’t go anywhere fast and where that is the entire nature of the story being told it’s better executed in the latter half of the series than in the first.
The series progresses at a very slow pace and to some extent it uses this lack of speed excellently to emphasise the gradual descent into madness as the crew spend an increasingly long amount of time trapped in the middle of the Arctic. But with this slow pace it creates an issue for the first 3-4 episodes of the series where there is a lot of character building and establishing of relationships and societal structures on the ships that isn’t always engaging, especially when dealing with the brief flashbacks and some lesser known secondary characters. There are great intense horror sequences sprinkled through these earlier episodes but much of their runtime is made up of dialogue sequences and secondary character subplots that try to establish a large roster of characters and it becomes too much. I honestly found it much easier to recall character names, ranks, and dispositions once the plot began to really build going into the latter half of the season, which renders a number of those early dialogue driven scenes somewhat superfluous. You know what it is, it isn’t that there was a lack of content in the earlier episodes, it’s that there is so much it’s trying to setup whilst still providing thrilling horror that it occasionally stumbles. The second half of the season still covers a large chunk of content but it’s a lot more focused on some specific plot points and characters who I can now discern from one another where earlier I couldn’t.
Now the solution to this I don’t think would be to quicken the pace of the first half of the season because then you’ll have an issue where the contrasting halves will feel like two different shows tonally. I believe that rather than a 10 episode run, it could have benefited from a shorter 7 to 8 episode run where you keep the gruelling pace intact and just have greater time jumps in the earlier episodes and leave the latter episodes intact. That way it’s less of a rear-heavy series in terms of content and more evenly spread.
On the plus side, there is an ample amount of flawlessly executed horror strewn throughout this entire series and the majority of it comes not from the immediate presence of the beast but the spine-chilling atmosphere that’s set up very early on and never leaves. There is a constant sense of dread and danger looming over this crew in every moment and it creates this feeling of uneasiness as you watch these men unravel out in the wild. Some individual sequences are so well crafted I got genuine chills and truly felt the horror the people were going through. One of these moments is an underwater sequence which is absolutely harrowing and the most effective atmospheric horror moment for me. The way the characters’ immediate environment is constantly shrouded in fog creates the feeling that you have no idea what lies beyond. and so your eyes are constantly darting for any movement. There is the presence of some elements of psychological and supernatural horror that are featured but never really fully explored. I did like the secrecy surrounding the supernatural elements because it builds that mystery and puts you in the position of these men where you don’t always know what’s going on. The psychological side of things does come into play a few times and in varying intensity. I’d have appreciated a deeper look at some of this but what is there is all positive.
The show does get a little gruesome and a little bloody at times but it’s not without reason. It’s done to really emphasise the brutality of what these men are going through and it adds to the overall experience. Besides, the aesthetic of blood on snow has always been a beautiful one.
The core focus of this story in every moment is the characters and how everything that happens to them every day shapes and changes them for better or for worse. There are characters who stand out right from the beginning and who you instantly latch onto and then there’s those who grow on you with time (as you start to figure out who’s who going into the back half). As the series moves at a very slow pace there is a lot of time that the show spends fleshing out characters and thus each of the actors are given their moments to really shine and bring something unique to their role. By far the most engaging performances are from Tobias Menzies (James Fitzjames), Ciarán Hinds (John Franklin), Jared Harris (Francis Cozier), and Paul Ready (Harry Goodsir) who with time built up their characters to where I became wholly invested in their stories. The standout here above everyone else is Jared Harris who is absolutely riveting in every scene and has a number of powerful moments that are some of the more memorable of the series. He brings the most emotion to the series followed very closely by Ready whose character has a personal journey pivotal to the core story. Mr Hickey (Adam Nagaitis) is a character whose place in the show early in the season I wasn’t really sure about. It wasn’t entirely clear what direction this character was heading and so I didn’t really enjoy watching him. But with time his role in the series becomes much clearer to the point where he becomes one of the main players in the story and brings clarity to his journey and purpose.
In the end The Terror is a fantastic series that tells a gripping survival horror story about this crew stranded in the middle of nowhere who are succumbing to the presence of a beast. But that’s what it is on the surface, it goes deep into human survival as these men face difficulties and obstacles far worse than any of them imagined and this falls into the unpredictable nature of the story. The performances from the main cast are astounding and bring their characters to life in ways that allow you to invest in their personal journeys. But the series isn’t without its flaws, many of which lie earlier in the season where there is the occasional secondary character subplot that isn’t engaging and the introduction of the many characters results in some who’s who confusion. But once that all clears up it’s a worthwhile show to watch as long as you can appreciate calculated slow pace.