In a case of perfect timing, the same night “The Alienist’s” 1890s serial-killer mystery wrapped, another atmospheric historical horror-thriller debuted. “The Terror” (9 p.m. Eastern Mondays on AMC), though, closely hews to a real event: In 1845, British naval Captain John Franklin (Ciaran Hinds) led an expedition to find the last leg of the Northwest Passage, a (believed to be) 200-mile stretch linking up what had been mapped so far from the east with what had been mapped from the west.
A remarkable major-project debut from David Kajganich, “The Terror” takes its name from one of the two ships on the voyage, the other being the Erebus, captained by Francis Crozier (Jared Harris). Today, vessels sail north of the Canadian mainland, through the waterways of Canadian Arctic Archipelago islands, without incident. But the 19th century climate was much colder, and when the expedition gets near King William Land (today called King William Island), the ships get frozen in place.
Based on Dan Simmons’ novel, “The Terror” evocatively brings us into a world where Mother Nature will slowly but surely kill you. Crew members are peppered with scary information that they try to accept with a happy countenance for the sake of morale. As viewers and Wikipedia readers, we know the information spells their doom. If the ice doesn’t melt in the summer (and it appears it won’t), it’ll pile up higher the next winter, and possibly crush the ships. Eskimos live in this wilderness, so there is game to be hunted, but perhaps not enough to feed the ship’s substantial crew.
There are traditional horror elements, too: A crew member coughs up blood and dies without obvious cause. And an argonaut dons a diving suit and breaks up the ice in the propeller when he glimpses a shape underwater.
In the second episode, the title’s other meaning is more clearly defined. On an outing to scout for a passage that isn’t iced over, the men suspect they are being stalked by a bear. But an Eskimo woman (Nive Nielsen) hints that it’s worse than that and that they should turn around (which they can’t do). Flash-forwards to an expedition a few years later find another Eskimo warning Englishmen of a creature that can move on four legs or two, and that has magical abilities.
“The Terror” lets us into shipboard life in the mid-19th century, from the captain’s “seat of leisure” (a toilet that opens directly to the outside) to the rows of hammocks in which the crewmen sleep. It also gives us a bit of the captains’ backstories, showing why they are driven to be adventurers (something that seems oh so glorious in England but is soul-crushing and likely deadly in reality). Crozier says all the right things about naval pride and loyalty, but deep down he has something to prove, as Franklin’s daughter has rejected his marriage proposal.
But the show’s biggest achievement is portraying slow-burn terror on a part of the globe where man had not previously ventured; Mother Nature seems to be telling them they are not meant to venture here. Several scenes build mood, like a burial on the frozen tundra – a task so exhausting that the men can’t be bothered to put the casket cover back in place when it jars loose. There’s no point in standing on ceremony, they believe, when you’re not in civilization anymore.
A giant magical beast can’t compete with bleak and brutal northern Canada. In fact, I’d almost say the monster should be a relief of sorts to the crew: If they can kill it, they can perhaps stave off starvation longer.