AMC’s ‘The Terror’ Offers a Chilling Take on a Lost Expedition

We know from the beginning how AMC’s frostbiting fear fest “The Terror” is going to turn out. The series opens with the gory details as they are being translated to an investigator. A Royal Navy expedition went missing in the Canadian Arctic. Every crewmember on the two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, died. “The Terror” is an adaptation of the novel by Dan Simmons which told the true story of Arctic explorer Sir Franklin’s doomed 1845 expedition, which cost 129 men their lives. Dark myths and legends sprung up from the original predicament of the shipwrecked men, including mutiny, madness and cannibalism. The series dares to impose a horrific creature of Lovecraftian proportions.

For the majority of “The Terror,” the audience only sees the monster through the eyes of the characters. The most telling reaction comes from Rear-Admiral Sir John Franklin, played by Ciaran Hinds, who led the free folk on HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” Sir John’s entire world is torn in half. His worldview, everything he believed possible, comes unhinged at the sight of unimaginable horror. Hinds, who played Julius Caesar on HBO’s miniseries “Rome,” spends the majority of his on air time luxuriating in command during an existential crisis. Sir John believes in God, has given his entire intellect over to faith, and what he sees is an abomination to his reality.

The admiral sets his compass by his arrogance and plots a course for disaster. He is aided by his second-in-command, an officer and a gentlemen who has the right chipper attitude for exploration but no experience to back it up. Tobias Menzies, who plays Captain James Fitzjames, excels at playing a shit. He turned Brutus in “Rome” into a pile of pious political leavings and wallowed in cowardly crapulence on “Game of Thrones.” He has one moment of redemption in “The Terror,” when he picks up a rifle and charges into battle against an unknown enemy. It doesn’t last long, and it doesn’t turn out so well, but it speaks volumes to his promise under pressure. Up until then he had only been an enabler and an imperious bore who repeats endless stories.

Jared Harris takes command as Captain Francis Crozier. He suffers under the baleful gaze of his social superiors with their holier-than-thou insinuations. He is the only one on the officers who traversed these waters and is fully responsible to the crew. The Admiral got them into the situation with too much god and not enough navigation. Crozier predicted the situation, give or take a few degrees, by consulting more scientific scriptures, his charts. The captain bears the weight of his dedication by making the hard choices the spoiled naval aristocracy find themselves above. They are humbled in time.

“The Terror” unfolds with glacial slowness. The entire premiere episode barely hints that it is a supernatural thriller. We get a full backstory on the officers, the interplay that led to the manning of the mission, and the gossipy circumnavigation of their social machination. None of higher echelon of command would have been the first choice to lead the expedition. Admiral Franklin considers his subordinate Captain Crozier to be a melancholy man, devoid of imagination or the bearing for command, and Captain Fitzjames is little more than an irritant. The scenes between the three actors highlight the series.

Harris brings gravitas and social tension to every scene he enters, but the depressed distance he keeps from his co-commanders is indicative throughout the ranks. The ship’s surgeon, Dr. Henry Goodsir (Paul Ready) has a certain respect for humanity and bedside manner his boss, Dr. Stephen Stanley (Alistair Petrie) sorely lacks. The senior officer has little patience for patients who aren’t on the ship’s roster. He appears to be put out when the younger doctor saves the father of The Lady Silence (Nive Nielsen), and can’t get her off the ship quickly enough. He brushes off medical findings, like a surgical procedure to cut out the tongue of the Eskimo spiritual gatekeeper, as unimportant. The disconnect between the classes comes between sensible decisions, and can rock a boat frozen in time.

Director Edward Berger conjures suspense from both the most intimate settings and the widest berths. Mundane moments, like taking a historic photograph, turn more menacing than a light in a darkroom by the second. Painstaking aerial shots show the insignificance of the two ships on the vast expanse of the frozen waters.  At that distance, the crew isn’t big enough to be fit for finger foods.

The underwater shots of the crewman checking the props before the ice has encroached, are breathlessly filmed. The fear and magnificence of the submerged universe are tempered by the workmanship manner of the fortunate sailor. He doesn’t know what he thinks he saw or sensed out there in the water. He can barely articulate his pride in witnessing the undersea world from the confines of his scuba suit. His adrenaline gets the better of him and seals the mission.

Almost-safe moments make this series, which includes wonderful soft touches of subliminal horror. A party looking for leads in the ice make landfall and maneuver their way to a stone structure in the vast expanse. They seal and leave a note in this time capsule, foreshadowing their own fate. This is also a subtle nod to recent history. The two ships from the original expedition, The Erebus and the Terror, were discovered in 2014 and 2016. The excavation provided little insight into what happened to the crew, but it fed the imagination of bestial possibilities the Royal Navy would have preferred to keep on ice. “The Terror” navigates through uncharted terror-tory with flawless pearls of performance and masterful angles.

The Terror” premieres on March 26 and airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on AMC.