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The Terror (BBC Two) was originally broadcast by AMC/BT in the Before Times – the halcyon days, did we but know it, of 2018. It’s an adaptation of Dan Simmons’ 2007 bestseller about the imagined fate of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, which went missing along with 129 crew in 1845 as Sir John Franklin led them in a search for the fabled North-West Passage through the Arctic. The series could be regarded with detached interest then. Now, the tale of two ships and their men trapped for two winters in unyielding pack ice, bored, isolated and made increasingly paranoid and unstable by the uncertainty of rescue … well, it has more resonance, let’s say.
Apropos of nothing, I note that Franklin (Ciaran Hinds) is a man disastrously underqualified for his position as expedition leader. He has succeeded in life through confidence and showmanship and is better at delivering bombastic speeches than listening to reason or executing a plan of action that will save his men. He prefers to be liked than take difficult or unpopular decisions and so seems set to doom the men under his care to unnecessary suffering and death. The enabler of all his weaknesses is his cabinet – I mean, sidekick – Captain James Fitzjames (played with customary elegant malevolence by Tobias Menzies).
The only real kink in this perfect analogy to our benighted county’s lockdown situation is that the voice of reason, intelligence and tough decisions that might actually work is the vainglorious leader’s second-in-command rather than a committee of medical and scientific advisers. The ever-magnificent Jared Harris plays Francis Crozier, a dour man disappointed in love, held back in his naval career by his Irish heritage and 10 times the seaman Franklin will ever be. They are stuck in the pack ice because Franklin ignored his advice to play it safe and keep some slack in the unforgiving system.
The dynamics and characters of those in charge and of those they command are impressively dense and detailed. Franklin and Crozier’s relationship – its bonds and its strains – are gradually illuminated via flashbacks to pre-expedition times (dear God, everyone looks so warm and happy and free in their theatres and ballrooms and at their leisurely, non-socially distanced dinners).
The ordinary young lad who suddenly starts vomiting blood at the dinner table and dies by the end of the opening episode is drawn so well that his dying terrors are heartbreaking. You feel his loss as starkly as the doctor (Paul Ready) who tries in vain to comfort him. And then there’s caulker’s mate Cornelius Hickey (Adam Nagaitis), a potent mix of social ambition and street smarts, and a man who can spot another fellow’s weaknesses at a hundred paces. An interesting person to have aboard any ship, let alone the trapped HMS Terror.
You hardly need the horror element that is soon introduced into the mix. In some ways, the tension actually dissipates with the advent of a monstrous bear-cum-angered-Inuit-spirit. Once the creature starts tearing exploratory parties to pieces, there is focus and legitimacy to the fears of the trapped men. But it is surely the sprawling and deepening nature of these fears that provides the true horror for us all. Or maybe that’s just 2021 speaking. Maybe vicious giant bears roaming the icy wastelands were more frightening, and will be again one happy day.
History, horror and much of human life is here, and it’s all done well. However, it never quite catches fire into the blazing glory you might expect from the acting talent involved and the pedigree behind the scenes. The executive producer is Ridley Scott, a man who knows his way around a trapped ship housing a monster keen to pick off its crew members one by gored and bloodied one. It’s directed by Edward Berger, who was responsible for Deutschland 83.
Nor does The Terror live up to the beauty and period detailing of the set design, as it alternates between the claustrophobic interiors of the two vessels and the bright, desolate expanse outside. Maybe it is trying to do too much, or maybe 10 episodes is simply too long to keep sufficient suspense going.
But, assuming you are one who prefers to lean in to a situation rather than escape it via reruns of, say, Scrubs or Brooklyn Nine-Nine, there is much to enjoy here, and you can tick those 10 episodes off whatever mental or actual countdown chart you are keeping during our collective incarceration. Don’t let the bears get you down.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: The Terror review – an icy chiller with echoes of our present | Television