In 1845, two British ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, set out in the hope of navigating the Northwest Passage to the Pacific. They were never heard from again. After leaving Baffin Bay, neither vessel was seen until 2014, when a Canadian team found the wreck of Erebus in Queen Maud’s Gulf. The Terror was found two years later.
The mystery of what befell the 129 men onboard has inspired many works of fiction, among them Dan Simmons’ 2007 novel, The Terror, on which this 10-part series is based. Although it’s only just hit the BBC, it’s an AMC production, executive produced by Ridley Scott, which debuted in the US nearly three years ago. No matter. It’s an ageless story of mystery and fear, and easily the most compelling new drama to reach British screens this year.
Aside from a few clues hinting at violence, despair and cannibalism, almost nothing is known about what happened to Erebus and the Terror, so the writers are free to build their own story. The result is a strange, unsettling, gruesome study of men pushed to their limits, mixing psychological horror and the supernatural with attention to historical detail. As Terror and Erebus try to pick their way through the inlets and sounds of northern Canada, they are ensnared in the pack ice, a few hundred metres apart from each other. White stretches to the horizon in every direction, beneath a sun that doesn’t set in summer or rise in winter. In these fertile conditions for nightmare, the men start to see things, not all of them familiar. What’s that coming over the hill? Is it a monster? Yes, it is.
The first episode establishes the ships in their icy prison and hints at the misery to come. We know that the crew are on a one-way trip, but the the how’s and why’s are unclear. Yet what lifts The Terror from the start are not its genre flourishes but the rock-solid characterisation and intelligent, soulful dialogue, brought to vivid life by an enviable cast. The expedition’s overall leader, and captain of the Erebus, is Sir John Franklin (Ciaran Hinds), well-meaning but past his prime and given to hubris, even after the elements and the Inuit try to warn them to stay away.
Franklin’s number two, and captain of the Terror, is Francis Crozier (Jared Harris), a lowborn Irishman and a more cautious, fatalistic soul. There’s something of Valery Legasov, the character Harris played in Chernobyl, in the way Crozier tries to do the right thing within the confines of a rigid hierarchy that has a nebulous overall mission. Ostensibly these men are there to complete a mission for queen and country, but personal ambition clouds their judgement.
In particular there’s the bolshy young commander James FitzJames (Tobias Menzies), ranked below Crozier but hungrier for glory. This isn’t the first time the men have met. Flashbacks to their life back home, where they are feted as heroes, reveal personal allegiances and resentments that have little to do with the task at hand.
Alongside this core trio are a supporting cast of soldiers and seamen whose stories variously come to the fore as their quest for survival grows more desperate. There’s Adam Nagaitis, another Chernobyl veteran, as the unsettling Cornelius Hickey, a petty officer on the Terror. Paul Ready is Dr Harry Goodsir, an assistant surgeon but more compassionate than his boss, Dr Stanley (Alistair Petrie). Whatever awaits these men on the ice, no monster is more frightful than a man at the end of his tether, thousands of miles from home.