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Review: History and horror flood Ridley Scott’s ‘The Terror’ series

The AMC series puts a horror twist on the real-life expeditions to discover the Northwest Passage.
Tobias Menzies as James Fitzjames and Ciarán Hinds as John Franklin in The Terror. (Aidan Monaghan/AMC)
Tobias Menzies as James Fitzjames and Ciarán Hinds as John Franklin in The Terror. (Aidan Monaghan/AMC)
Published Mar. 23, 2018

History is just the tip of the iceberg for Ridley Scott's new monster series.

The Terror, premiering Monday night on AMC, puts a horror twist on the real expedition to find the Northwest Passage (the route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific via the Arctic), undertaken by the British Royal navy from 1845-1848. The series also brings to life the 2007 novel by Dan Simmons.

It's a well-acted prestige drama about 19th century Arctic explorers, and it doesn't take long for things to go very, very badly for the crews of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror.

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The series gives much-deserved lead roles to Jared Harris (Mad Men, The Crown), Tobias Menzies (Outlander) and Ciaran Hinds (Game of Thrones) as Royal Navy officers, captains and sea veterans with all the hope in the world that they'll find the coveted passage to the Pacific.

But trouble soon finds the nearly 130 men aboard the two ships, when the vessels become lodged in a thick patch of ice that stretches as far as they can see. They're stuck in a whiteout wasteland with no means of communication other than sending out scouts to look for land or water.

And then men start dying. Not from sickness or starvation just yet, but from a yet-unseen beast stalking them.

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A terrifying story of doomed characters will draw in viewers, but they'll stay for the show's cinematography. The Terror frequently pans from the dim, claustrophobic insides of the ships to the blinding vastness of the tundra. The Arctic is clean, cold and cruel, but the Northern Lights are a stunning backdrop.

In one scene, a sailor is crammed into a "heavy footer" dive suit and lowered into the water to dislodge a piece of ice from one of the ship's propellers. Once under the icy, greenish water, it's eerily quiet for the man, who quickly picks away the ice chunk before he starts panicking to be pulled back up. It's the first scene that teases to unseen horrors yet to come.

Executive produced by sci-fi-horror master Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner), The Terror isn't exactly science fiction, but it presents the same paranoia and helplessness against a monster as seen in the Alien franchise.

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History says these men are never seen again. Remains of Erebus and Terror weren't discovered until 2014 and 2016, respectively — both at the bottom of the Northwest Passage. It's still unclear what exactly happened to the men, but native residents of the Arctic — the Inuit — tell tales of the ships being stuck in the ice and the men suffering from scurvy and starvation before sinking to cannibalism.

The Terror could tell another story. It already is with its exploration of the drawn-out demise of the ships and crew due to the piercing cold, infighting and a polar monster.

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The only concern is how long AMC takes to tell this chilly tale. Ten, almost hour-long episodes is a bit of a stretch for something that could conceivably be contained to a blockbuster film.

Then again, condensing The Terror to a movie or even cutting out some of its episodes would leave out those cinematic moments of eerie ship creaking, the deafening silence of the Arctic and the growing feeling of hopelessness etched on the men's faces as they realize they've signed up for an icy grave.

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Contact Chelsea Tatham at ctatham@tampabay.com. Follow @chelseatatham.

Watch

The Terror

9 p.m. Monday, AMC