The Terror – A masterpiece in sustained tension

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I spent the early part of this year anticipating the obvious highpoints (new series of Legion, The Handmaid’s Tale, Westworld etc.) so The Terror crept up on me like a great piece of horror should. It came from nowhere, grabbed me and shook me thoroughly and mercilessly. Once upon a time, I considered a great horror TV show an impossibility, mainly down to how difficult it is to sustain the necessary levels of tension over eight hours or so. I’ve been proved wrong.

Jared Harris as Francis Crozier with Adam Nagaitis as Cornelius Hickey

Not that The Terror can easily be pigeonholed as horror. It’s terrifying, chilling (in more than one way) and is filled with dread from start to finish, but there’s so much more to it than that. We pick up the story at sea in 1845, as two Royal Navy ships, the HMS Terror and the HMS Erebus, venture out to discover a trade passage through the Arctic Circle to China and India. The eternally optimistic Sir John Franklin (Ciarán Hinds) leads the expedition from the Erebus, while his second, Captain Francis Crozier (Jared Harris), drinks and offers cautious counsel from the Terror. Against Crozier’s advice, Franklin pushes forward and soon both ships are stuck in thick ice, destined to wait out the winter and pray for summer thaws. However, the snow is the least of their worries as predicaments start to mount up, particularly a strange creature that stalks the men.

Ciarán Hinds comes face to face with terror

The show builds its foundations on truth, just as the novel it’s based on did before it. There actually was an expedition in 1845, led by Franklin and Crozier, which ended in a mysterious tragedy. The ships got stuck in the winter of 1846, the thaws never came and the entire expedition vanished. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the remains of crewmen were found on King William Island, displaying signs of scurvy and cannibalism. In 2014, the wreck of the Erebus was found, the Terror turning up two years later. What happened in between, nobody knows.

Paul Ready as Dr. Henry Goodsir

The Terror takes this eerie, gruesome mystery and spins its hypothetical explanation into TV gold. While Franklin and Crozier are well-defined from the start (the foolish blowhard and the alcoholic naysayer), it takes its time letting the rest of the men come into focus, which they eventually do to startling effect, not least the characters of Mr Goodsir (Paul Ready) and Mr Hickey (Adam Nagaitis). Nagaitis is an absolute revelation, imbuing Hickey with a desperation that is entirely human and a moral flexibility that is a little less so.

Adam Nagaitis as Cornelius Hickey

But it’s Jared Harris who steals every single scene. His Crozier is a reluctant leader, a man uncomfortable with false platitudes and encouragement but one who inspires through action. He has a grounded humanity that his superior lacks and his scenes with Ian Hart’s Thomas Blanky that offer the most effective respites from the awful, lingering dread. He might never get the recognition that his father did, but Crozier is up there with his performances in Mad Men and The Crown.

  • Watch here the trailer for The Terror:

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