What caught my eye initially about the program was the involvement of Ridley Scott (as executive producer) and the initial visuals that I saw. Set the Arctic in 1846, The Terror was largely videoed in CGI. The actors performed in a digital environment that was visually stunning at times. The still images I saw on the internet captivated me before the premiere. The excellent production values, historical accuracy, successful interweaving of literally dozens of characters, and the ever increasing tension and outright fright factor kept me watching through the whole series.
To judge by the viewership, the series was a big flop. Whereas about 3.3 million viewers tuned in for the opening episode, only about 790,000 watched the finale. Not very impressive. And yet those of us who stuck with the relentlessly slow-building anxiety and measured but powerfully unexpected shock effect were richly rewarded. The critics seemed to agree. As of this post The Terror received a favorable 92% rating from critical reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and an 87% rating from viewers. It seemed the few people who watched did so rather enthusiastically.
The series is a take on the ill-fated Franklin Expedition to the Arctic in the 1840's. We know before we see anything that this expedition was an utter failure, with two specially designed British exploration ships lost along with all of the crew. The two ships were only found in recent years and virtually nothing is known about the fate of the crew except there were apparently no survivors.
The Terror is based upon the 2007 novel by the same name which examines the mission, the ships, and the crew with much detail to historical accuracy, hypothesizing about what fate might have befallen the exhibition. The 10 episodes feature well over 100 speaking parts, crisply written, believable characters with a lot of historical detail. The show feels real, which is part of what makes it so effective.
There are some spoilers from here on, though knowing what happens and actually seeing it are two completely different experiences. We already know the fate of the mission before we see anything, but the show is nevertheless captivating for me. The two ships, the Erebus and the Terror have full crews and a compliment of marines. Their intent is to find the fabled Northwest Passage. They have the latest technology from the 1840's available to them including, importantly, food stored in tin cans for longer preservation. Altogether, the mission carries enough supplies for three years at sea, five years if the food stocks are rationed.
The two ships become stuck in the winter ice before they can push on through the Arctic. The entire mission is trapped for not one, but two years in the ice as there is no thaw the following spring. In the meantime the crew must make the most of their time together, fighting boredom, close quarters, and generally getting along (or not).
As if this wasn't trouble enough, a scouting party happens across an Inuit woman and old man, inadvertently shooting and killing the man, who was a shaman. The woman is apparently his apprentice. The significance of this event lies in the fact that the shaman controlled a type of spirit or creature that roams around the ships, picking off a crew member or two at a time. Most effectively, however, we as viewers only see the effects of the creature on mangled bodies to begin with. We do not see the creature itself. Over the course of the next several episodes the creature comes and goes, sometimes a terrifying menace, sometimes just an existential threat. Only later in the series do we catch glimpses of the thing, never getting a good look at it until the very end.
That is a classic Lovecraftian technique. It is better to address a given threat's effects and the resulting tension and anxiety about the mystery than it is to reveal the nature of the mystery. This effectively produces a strong sense of atmospheric dread. The viewer (or reader in Lovecraft's case) can project their own fears onto the narrative with the dual effect of thereby becoming more invested in the story and conjuring up their own interpretation of what the threat might be as opposed to being told. A projection of one's own fears onto the narrative is more effective than the author dictating the specifics of whatever fear the narrative demands.
The Terror works this angle to perfection. But it is only an underlying concern throughout most of the show. The creature is out there, it might reappear at any moment, but in the meantime there is a complex narrative involving multiple well-conceived characters that drives the series. After two years of being stuck in the ice, the crew is starting to shows natural physical and psychological cracks.
Jared Harris, who does an outstanding job portraying Captain Francis Crozier, is an alcoholic, for example. As the mission enters its third year, his excessive drinking becomes a huge personal struggle when the supply of scotch runs out. Meantime, everyone is eating the assortment of food supplies including a large number of tin can goods. These tins are a new process of storing food stocks, but an imperfect one. As it turns out they are inadvertently filled with lead. Symptoms of lead poisoning began to manifest throughout the crew, in most physically, but in others psychologically.
The crew is trapped in more ways than one; in the ice, threatened by a largely unseen monster, and forced to rely on lead-poisoned food stocks or starve. Finally, after a few more deaths from the creature and from lead poisoning, the decision is made to abandon the ships at the start of the third spring and to attempt to walk in the abundant light of the Arctic summer 800 miles to the nearest known British outpost.
Suffice it to say that things go from bad to worse and the series becomes increasingly bleak, though fascinating in the nature of the crew's predicament, the fantastic CGI landscape they are hiking through, and the various subplots that merge as fewer and fewer men survive. And, of course, there is the creature - which ends up being sort of a cross between a polar bear and a dinosaur, for lack of a better description.
How it all plays out is, as I said in the beginning, mostly already known, though, this being television, there are some liberties taken with how things finally end up. The Terror struck me all along as the framework for a metaphorical tale of some sort. It was only after the series was over that I learned the show's producers had toxic masculinity as a theme in mind. However you wish to interpret it, The Terror received a lot of excellent press during and after its run.
The Atlantic rightly claims that The Terror is "a fascinating step forward in the survival-horror genre on TV." Newsweek, which covered each episode, hit all the bases when it recently stated: "Whether in the show’s aesthetics, the writing process or the powerful hallucinations punctuating the concluding episode, [the showrunners] tailored The Terror to pull us in, as close as possible, to the lives and thoughts of men at the absolute extremity of human experience.... The result is a horrific, humanist masterpiece, heightening the magnitude of events by placing us in empathic touch with the doomed explorers. And the closer we feel to the characters, the more The Terror can stretch itself into surreal and unexpected new places."
Vox opined that the series "takes TV horror in a new direction - all mood, atmosphere, and waiting for death." Again, Lovecraft would be proud. But The Terror surpasses Lovecraft in my judgment to the extent that it gives greater weight to character development and a myriad of believable subplot interactions that both ratchet up the tension, broaden the scope of the overall angst, and, ultimately, make the series more about our humanity than about the mystery, all while remaining rigidly established in the history of the period.
My guess is that this show will attain a cultish hue going forward and that more people will end up seeing it on streaming services and DVD than watched it during its original run. The Terror will grow on audiences and its critical acclaim might even result in some important award nominations. It is gripping television with a lot of human depth and breadth. Its slow pace will turn off many of this ADHD generation but those who stick with it will be affected more deeply than they could possibly imagine.