“The Terror,” a handsome and well-acted period drama about polar explorers, is fine as far as it goes. But be forewarned: It does not go very far.
Don’t let the Royal Navy uniforms fool you: This is a fairly stationary tale. There is a spirit of nautical adventure in the air in the first episode, which, like most of the series, takes place during the 1840s. At the start of “The Terror,” which is based loosely on real events, two ships filled with energetic British officers and sailors head far north, in search of a Northwest Passage to China. But it’s not long before their ships become trapped in Arctic ice, and there they stay for a good deal of the series. Like the ships themselves, the storytelling gets stuck on a regular basis — and some may find it moves too deliberately.
There are some adventures away from the ships, as various parties set off to hunt and to explore whether the ice is breaking up elsewhere in this treacherous and forbidding realm. But much of the drama of “The Terror” remains centered on two ships — HMS Terror and HMS Erebus — which are pinned down by the ice as months turn into years. The tight grasp of the frozen sea threatens the structural integrity of both vessels, and there are only small windows of opportunity for rescues — or for members of the crew to abandon ship and take their chances on a trek to remote outposts hundreds of miles away.
“The Terror,” which hails from executive producer Ridley Scott, looks terrific; it establishes and builds on its moody sense of Arctic isolation, and the stark beauty on display is something to behold (amid all the worries and dangers, the Northern Lights are gorgeous). The close quarters of the ship are skillfully contrasted with the wide open landscape, a monochromatic space dotted with raised chunks of ice that look like modernist sculptures.
There are moments of real beauty, as when a brave man dons a cumbersome diving suit — one of the “high-tech” items the ships officers are quite proud of. There’s a poetic elegance, and dash of understandable fear, in that sequence as the sailor goes beneath the water to remove ice from a jammed propeller. And when the show’s repressed characters lash out at each other or argue about which priorities matter most, the fine cast brings those moments to vivid life.
“The Terror” gives Jared Harris a much-deserved starring role, after excellent stints on quality dramas like “Mad Men” and “The Crown.” He is wonderful as the watchful Francis Crozier, a captain whose dashed romantic hopes have left him only the long voyage north.
The overall commander of the mission, and the captain of HMS Erebus, is Sir John Franklin (Ciaran Hinds), a bluff and cheerful veteran of the Navy whose Victorian optimism verges on reckless naivete. Hinds is such a master of roles like these that he has no trouble finding the human being behind Franklin’s pious, ambitious facade. As events begin to go wrong, and then very wrong indeed, Franklin’s positive spirit is one of the main factors keeping the men from descending into frozen despair, and he clearly takes that responsibility seriously. And Tobias Menzies (“Outlander”) who brings considered and soulful precision to every performance, is excellent as John Fitzjames, who starts out as a boastful, vain officer with a lovely coiffure, but begins to lose his composure as his personal appearance also begins to slide downhill.
It’s actually strange how sane and even-keeled most of the men remain, even as their ships begin to tilt and groan weirdly as the unrelenting ice tightens its grip. After years of cold weather, death and short rations, they don’t lose as much of their composure as most of us would after two days without central heat or smartphones. Still, that stiff upper lip mentality — which begins to develop cracks as the endless winter marches on — works against the AMC drama at times.
“The Terror’s” biggest problem is that it apparently wants to be a taut, atmospheric chamber piece in which the psychological pressures on a set of stranded men lead them to pursue ever more desperate and unpredictable actions. But there’s too much slackness in the narrative for “The Terror’s” core dilemmas — or people — to become truly enthralling. Though it depicts extreme conditions, “The Terror” is a little on the tepid side emotionally. The core relationships aren’t deepened in surprising or rich ways, and a series of flashbacks intended to flesh out the officers’ motivations seem a bit superfluous.
By the midpoint of the season, the officers and sailors of the ships have come into contact several times with Indigenous people, and Nive Nielsen is impressive as a local woman who rightly regards the ships’ crews with wariness. A few know her language, and an earnest medical aide takes the time to learn it as well, but cultural barriers — not to mention imperialist condescension — keep her and the Navy men from establishing a deep or substantial bond.
Perhaps that relationship, and the spiritual implications of some of the strange occurrences that affect both ships, are developed more adroitly in the second half of the season, but 10 episodes seems like too many for this tale. Still, though its pacing is not all it could be, “The Terror” gives Harris a chance to develop a portrait of Crozier not as a resentful drunkard — which is the view of Fitzjames and some other officers — but as a realistic man up against forces that he cannot predict. If he begins to drink too much in this endless white space, can anyone really blame him?
At least he doesn’t display the heedless, often arrogant can-do spirit that was so prevalent among Western explorers in the 19th Century. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the ships are merely the playthings of Nature, who has her own agenda, one that cares nothing for those who would “conquer” her.