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Review: History will horrify you in 'The Terror'

Posted Tuesday, August 21, 2018 at 3:27 PM Central

by John Couture

AMC has a long history of success when it comes to original prestige dramas and horror programming. The success of shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead are simply examples of how the cable network is carving out a niche somewhere between network TV and pay Cable offerings from HBO and the like.

Simply put, AMC programming must constantly toe the line between being a bit more risqué than the networks, but not in a graphic way that you would see on Showtime or Starz. It's a fine line to be sure, but one that they have come to embrace as indicated by The Walking Dead. I mean, it's a show about blood-thirsty zombies and the survivors that kill them exponentially week to week.

Their latest offering The Terror is another fine example of a show that leans heavily into the mores of pay cable channels while still maintaining that basic cable sensibility that appeals to a far larger audience. It also doesn't hurt that the show is well written and produced within the same standards that we have come to expect from AMC.

The Terror is based on the 2007 best-selling novel from Dan Simmons by the same name that fictionalizes the account of a lost British expedition to the Arctic in 1845. Two British ships seeking a shortcut to the Northwest Passage set out for the Arctic circle and become trapped in the ice. Over the next couple of years, the crew attempts to survive the cold, the natives, a mysterious creature and themselves until rescue comes or the ice melts enough to dislodge their ships.

The first thing that strikes you about The Terror is the top-notch cast including Jared Harris, Tobias Menzies and Ciaran Hinds. Given that a vast majority of the series takes place as the expedition is stranded within the unforgiving ice, the performances need to be dynamic in order to capture and maintain the audience's attention. The series works so well as it does mostly to their performances.

Another interesting thing at play in the series is the whole based on a true story angle. While the plot in the book and the series is certainly fictionalized, they are based on the true exploits of Captain Sir John Franklin and his lost expedition to discover the Northwest Passage.

As Americans, we often tend to focus on our own exploration exploits during this time as we forged West to the Pacific ocean and gloss over the rest of the world. So, this story is a novel reminder that we weren't alone in our curiosity and desire to connect with distant places and cultures.

Where The Terror works best though is during this fictionalization where a monster is introduced. The original expedition counted 129 souls across two ships and with so many people in such dire conditions, only one's imagination can limit the horror that they must have felt as the inevitability of their fates started to crush into them. There was speculation (now confirmed by recent research that uncovered the original ships) that the group resorted to cannibalism and may have suffered from nutritional deficiencies as well as lead poisining. All of these conditions only underscore just how truly horrifying this excursion must have been.

Ultimately, the performances turned in by the whole cast drove home the perils of isolationism. A lesser talented group of actors most likely would have led to a far inferior product. Much like The Thing, a group of people isolated from the rest of the world in a desolate frozen tundra is stalked by an unknown creature. It's a very real fear that continues to resonate with audiences again and again. It's no wonder that The Terror was such a massive hit with critics and audience alike.

While The Terror is really season one in an on-going event series from AMC, the events in this collection sum up the entire ill-fated Franklin expedition. AMC has given the go-ahead for season two, but it will reportedly be centered around the west coast of the United States during World War II and the creation of Japanese-American internment camps. The Terror: Season One has set the bar high, but if I know AMC, they will relish the challenge of making season two even more compelling.

The Terror: The Complete First Season is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.