Review: Arctic Horror and Terrific Writing—‘The Terror’ is an Exemplar of Small-Screen Storytelling

“The Terror” is a force to be reckoned with. The chilling, tense, and deeply unsettling, season one of supernatural horror anthology series “The Terror” is based on Dan Simmons’ 2007 novel of the same name, a fictionalized account of the lost Franklin Expedition, where a crew of 129 sailed into the Arctic in search of the famed Northwest Passage and were never seen again. With showrunners David Kajganich and Soo Hugh at the helm, A.M.C. first released “The Terror” in 2018 and recently made its British Broadcasting Corporation debut on March 3, 2021. On the decks of the expedition ships, we viewers are taken from Arctic straits to the shale of King William Island (Inuktitut: Qikiqtaq), on, as Captain Sir John Franklin (Ciarán Hinds) puts it in Episode One: “an adventure of a lifetime.” Spoilers ahead as well as a discussion of graphic topics such as cannibalism and suicide.  

One of “The Terror”’s chief successes is its characters. From the cocksure and toffish Commander—later Captain—James Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies) who hides a ruinous secret, to the cynical and volatile Captain Crozier (Jared Harris) whose resolute dedication to his men condemns them all, no character is one-dimensional and all are given their due. Even minor characters with no more than a few lines throughout the show are treated with the same respect as major characters. A substantial amount of the strength of “The Terror”’s characters comes from the fact that they are not only believable and compelling, but human. Each character’s arc is tightly woven, thematically cohesive, and often deeply tragic. Take Assistant Surgeon Harry Goodsir (Paul Ready), for instance. He begins the series an optimistic and friendly anatomist who shyly corrects officers when they mistakenly call him a doctor—he ends having lost his faith in humanity, having been forced to butcher his crewmates for cannibal mutineers, dreaming of natural phenomena as he seizes and shudders alone in a dark tent, a bloodied shard of glass in his hand. Similar fates follow: a steward dies believing his captain has abandoned him; a marine sergeant dies marching to face the creature he sobbed in fear of the episode prior, musket in hand; a doctor self-immolates; a man carries his lover to a sledge boat to die, and later lies down beyond the camp to die of exposure with his lover’s journal tucked into his shirt. Watching the evolution of these characters, as the expedition’s circumstances become more dire, is truly a terrific wonder to behold. 

“The Terror” also calls Victorian society and British imperialism into question, as well as paints a portrait of an ice-locked ship, unravelling at the seams that takes social convention along with it. In one scene, Fitzjames prepares for a carnival, holding a slinky costume dress up to himself and later attending the carnival in drag as Britannia. Crozier is framed as a maternal figure to his steward, Jopson, first being nursed through his withdrawal while Jopson tells him of his own mother’s addiction, then later tending to Jopson when he has grown too ill to work. Lady Silence (Nive Nielsen), an Inuk shaman whose father the crew mistakenly shot, is a symbol of the catastrophic effects of imperialism on Indigenous peoples. Though stacked with a primarily white male cast (there are only three female characters and one lead character of color), “The Terror” does a surprisingly good job refusing to glorify its crew, acknowledging the devastating effects of their expedition. While important criticisms may arise at the possible framing of many of its Indigenous characters as mystics in the form of controlling a polar bear spirit, the show does its damndest to avoid falling into stereotypes (interestingly, showrunner David Kajganich was actually forced to keep the spirit in the show or face A.M.C. refusing to greenlight the show). 

Stranded in the pack ice of Arctic seas or sledging boats across King William Island on an 800-mile march to Back River (Haningayok), season one of “The Terror” is a must watch. It refuses to fall into used horror cliches (aside from an indulgent and absolutely delightful Wilhelm scream by Harry Goodsir in episode two), relies on the strength of its writing to carry its tension (rather than the threat of jumpscares), and most importantly, trusts the viewer and doesn’t spell everything out for us. While some may find its pacing awkward or its plotlines confusing, the show is an absolute joy (in a little bit of a roundabout way—there’s initially a lot of frustrated screaming at the screen). Its story is strong, its characters are stronger, and it leaves us with quite a few complex questions to chew on. All I have to say is: enjoy, please—ideally with all the windows open on a winter day. 

Season one of “The Terror” receives a 5/5 for its incredible writing, complex characters, and exploration of social issues in Victorian England.