The Terror

3 out of 5

Developed by: David Kajganich

covers season 1

Historical horror is a sub-genre that could do with more entries.  For whatever reason, spook fests set in pre-modern times – those that don’t already have it blended into their background, a la Dracula – are automatically appealing, perhaps owing to the ‘simplicity’ of having the Unknown appear at a time when characters could truly react to it as an unknown, and not with the awareness that tipples in to 70s, 80s, and 90s setting, or, of course, the technology that makes current day stuff a tougher sell.

The Terror’s first season sounded incredibly promising, not only because it was adding to the historical horror pot, but also because its premise – a mid 1800s Arctic exploration of 100+ men across two ships from which not a man returned – seemed rife with potential, blending known real-life horrors and harsh conditions (lead poisoning, hypothermia, cannibalism…) with whatever could be dreamt up as existing in the cold beyond.

The first episode left me kinda dry, though, exposing one of the series’ main two flaws: it is horribly sequenced for broadcast.  The title break and commercial breaks are never used for proper punctuation (the stops just happen when time demands it, seemingly), and there’s no such thing as an episode’s conclusion – similar to the breaks above, there are no cliffhangers – although they’ll end on a shot or statement as if it should serve as such.  This is combined with some discrepant production and compositional aspects: that it never really feels too cold in the Arctic, and that the music will occasionally swell with these off-kilter electronic flourishes, which would be amazing as an ongoing score, synced to a more surreal style, but felt wrong in isolation.

Fairly glowing reviews in the show’s concluding wake convinced me to give it a go on a streaming platform, which definitely helps to move past the main bulk of that criticism, and revel in the characters and performances.  And there the show definitely shines: Jared Harris and Ciarán Hinds play off each other perfectly as the ships’ captains, with the writers and directors offering well-timed flashbacks to describe their prickly relationship.  Tobias Menzies’ boastful commander seems like a caricature at first, but, in the back half of the show, becomes another amazing component.  Paul Ready and Adam Nagaitis both play crew members, and though shaded, generally, as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ each actor brings an enormous amount of humanity to their roles, helped along by pacing that earns our belief regarding their behaviors and actions.  This dimensionality extends to the majority, if not all, of the crew, and though the show gets guilty on occasion of offering us too many meaningful speeches, the balance is that we’re not forced into watching needless background or subplot bits that don’t directly impact the story on the ship.

Over the course of the season’s ten episodes, things go wrong – first externally, as the ship gets stuck – and then internally, as problems from within start to rot.  The bulk of that is gripping: avoiding the laziness of intra-crew arguments, the ships’ staff and leaders are generally bonded by duty or brotherhood, even when dedication leans toward one captain or person or another, and due to this, we get mostly logical and sound responses to each of the tragedies that occurs.  This is a key to horror: if you cannot imagine how you would have responded differently (thus breaking the immersion) – and I can’t say that I could, in this case – then you’re just as stuck in the shit as the characters, isolated in the Arctic, hopes stripped step by step.

And then there’s the second big problem with the show: there’s a supernatural aspect lumped on top of it.  While this seemed intriguing from afar, it truly feels like something shoved into the plot, even though it was part of the book from which the show was sourced.  Part of what assails the ship and crew, once stuck, is a creature – maybe a polar bear, maybe something else – that the local Eskimo suggest is inhabited by a spirit of sorts.  As an existential threat, this could work; as a poorly CGI’d and rather oddly design creature, not so much.  The bear is frustratingly unconvincing when it appears, and it ends up appearing rather often, and because this entire part of the story never quite bears fruit (though it does offer us a worthwhile character in Nive Nielsen’s ‘Lady Silence’), it’s doubly frustrating.  There are so many other tense horrors going on on the ship that this additional one really wasn’t necessary, and does feel like a lazy calamity when we could’ve cut down to 6 or 8 episodes and just focused on the more grounded horrors.

As a week by week viewing, I applaud those who had the patience to see it through.  I was happy to watch it in a binge format, but every time that damn bear appeared I kept wishing some crack shot would just off it so we could get back to the interesting bits, and every commercial break or episode ending left me befuddled that some editor or writer thought that was a good place to pause.  The Terror is, nonetheless, a welcome entry to the historical horror sub-genre, showing excellence in its character focus and, when non-beared, pacing, but also showing off some weaknesses it can hopefully learn from in its second season as an anthology series.  …And this time, I will stick with it week by week.