In 1845, two ships under the command of Captain John Franklin set sail from Britain on a mission of exploration. Three years later, both disappeared in the Arctic. None of the 129 men on that expedition came back, and the battered wrecks of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were found in 2014 and 2016, respectively. Quite how Franklin and his crew died remains a mystery. Historians have only scattered Inuit reports, a few abandoned messages, and the remains of disease-wracked and partially eaten bodies. What’s all but certain is that the sailors’ predicament was terrifying, and their demises horrific.
It’s perhaps little surprise that The Terror, AMC’s chilling new 10-part series about the expedition, would decide to make that horror more explicit by adding a monster. The show, adapted from Dan Simmons’s 2007 novel by the same name, proceeds from a simple, killer hook: two ships trapped out on the ice, a crew under increasing strain, and a murderous, largely unseen presence stalking them through the howling snows. The basic setup is familiar from Alien, The Thing, and plenty of other creature features.
But while the seven currently aired episodes of The Terror offer their share of monstrous thrills, the show’s real strength lies in the ways it plays with the trappings of survival horror, a category broadly concerned with the fear of being caught unprepared in an exceedingly dangerous situation. Through careful writing and by avoiding the genre’s more common pitfalls—weakly sketched characters, pat philosophies about the fragility of civilized behavior, exoticized natives—The Terror offers what is perhaps television’s first good example of survival horror.
When viewers meet Captain John Franklin (Ciarán Hinds) in the show’s pilot, he has no reason to think he’s not a modern argonaut embarking on a great colonial adventure. Sure, the two ships under his care—the Erebus and the Terror—are inauspiciously named, and their mission to locate the fabled Northwest Passage is a treacherous one now that the Arctic summer is winding down. But the only immediate trouble at first seems to be minor personal tensions between Franklin and Captain Crozier (Jared Harris) of the Terror, a sharp-tongued alcoholic whose affectionate relationship with his commander has grown strained. When the Erebus breaks its propeller on floating ice, the optimistic Franklin decides to forge ahead in hopes of reaching open water. It’s a bad gamble, and soon both ships are irretrievably stuck.
Over the next six episodes, the ramifications of that mistake echo outward. A mission to a nearby shoreline ends in a glimpse of a terrible, loping shape out in the dark, the accidental shooting of an Inuit shaman, and the capture of the shaman’s daughter, whom the crew dubs Lady Silence (Nive Nielsen). Provisions begin turning up spoiled, or riddled with bits of lead that leave crew members with splitting headaches and rotting teeth. When they can get Lady Silence to speak, she warns them in her own language of something called a “Tuunbaq,” and tells them they must leave as soon as possible. But as the elements and monster close in, it becomes clear that leaving or staying are likely to mean the same thing: death.
Survival horror is a nebulous term, and one that’s more popularly applied to video games—the Resident Evil franchise is one classic of the genre. Still, when you look at other media, you could argue that Jack London’s short story To Build a Fire and films like The Descent or Open Water are good narrative examples of survival horror. In these kinds of works, there’s never enough food—much less bullets—and no help is coming. The genre tends to cast wild environments as both lethal in their own right and as an impediment to characters facing a more actively aggressive foe.
The spelunkers of The Descent are stuck in utter darkness below the Appalachian mountains even without cannibal troglodytes; to be left alone out in the Atlantic Ocean, as in Open Water, is awful enough without sharks. When the sharks and troglodytes show up, they do so as extrapolations of the environment’s existing dangers, not as an injection of horror into an otherwise normal place. This is part of what makes The Walking Dead franchise, television’s best known member of the genre, a marginal case—a zombie apocalypse certainly counts as an environmental hazard, but it isn’t exactly a logical outgrowth of the Georgia countryside.
By paying careful attention to landscapes, however, The Terror harkens back to the tradition of setting-specific films like The Descent. As rendered using green screens and soundstages, the pack trapping the ships is subtly off-kilter, a maze of ice laid out in alien geometries. Rocky shorelines stretch away beneath empty skies; a brief dip beneath the ice-pack reveals the endless dark waters below the ships. The Arctic temperatures are a constant and deadly enemy: Characters who touch ropes or metal without gloves get the skin ripped off their palms or lose their toes to frostbite. Life below deck is accompanied by the endless creak and groan of the ice pressing against the ships’ wooden hulls. The result is an overwhelming claustrophobia, even in the middle of a punishing void.
The show’s interludes back in London serve only to underscore the crews’ desperation. In The Terror’s fourth episode, Lady Franklin goes before the assembled admirals of the Royal Society in a fruitless attempt to organize an official rescue. Once, she tells them, she went out shoeless in the snow to see how long she could last; she made it barely two minutes. “Our men have been out there in unimaginable temperatures for more than a million minutes,” Lady Franklin says, her voice flat. “No one can convince me that optimism or confidence is warm enough.”
Yet to begin with, optimism and confidence are all the crews of the Erebus and Terror have, and they last a surprisingly long time. (In his review for Vox calling The Terror “a near masterpiece of survival horror,” Todd VanDerWerff praised the show’s slow pacing as effectively anxiety-inducing.) Other shows in the genre, like Fear the Walking Dead, tend to quickly set characters at each other’s throats in an effort to show that civilization is a kind of communal dream, easily cast aside in favor of barbarism.
Here, The Terror zags: Officers and sailors alike cling to decorum and discipline with nervous ferocity. In the third episode, Franklin refuses to let Crozier go for help, worried it will demoralize the crew; the argument that follows cloaks personal grievances in language about protocol and the chain of command. In the fourth episode, Crozier orders the lashing of a seaman who kidnaps Lady Silence. Both scenes are upsetting, and both focus on men playing out social structures that have come all the way from England. Those structures are restrictive and ugly in their own right, but it takes seven episodes and an immense amount of strain for them to finally begin to crumble.
Of course, societies are made of people, and the people—that is, the men—at all levels of the ships’ crew are presented with a keen and sympathetic eye. Crozier’s bitterness stems partially from his Irish heritage, which has hindered both his professional and personal ambitions; yet he’s also a perceptive and caring officer whose addiction is getting the better of him. Franklin’s friendliness masks both quiet desperation and flashes of prejudice that are all the more cutting coming from such an apparently kindly man. For a show set in subzero temperatures, there’s quite a bit of warmth on display, much of it courtesy of the junior medical officer Harry Goodsir (Paul Ready), a man who reveals himself at every turn to be decent despite being in wildly over his head.
The result is a contrast to The Walking Dead, which often uses a convenient shorthand to mark members of the group as seemingly dispensable, or gives them only a single characteristic to play, before killing them off. Characters in The Terror by and large don’t act in arbitrary or foolish ways just to move the plot along: Viewers spend enough time with them in smaller moments that their panicked actions tend to make sense. As doomed as the crew is, you don’t want to see them get eaten.
Several of them do, of course. The consistency of the writing and acting means that The Terror doesn’t really need a monster to be gripping, but it does have a memorable one. The Tuunbaq is mainly introduced by the carnage it leaves behind: ripped tents, broken flesh, and huge footprints circling the ships. For the first half of the show, the Tuunbaq functions almost as a personification of the aggressiveness of the landscape, like Open Water’s sharks. Its initial invisibility makes it an extension of the Arctic’s hostility, as if the winds and snows had conspired to kill the interlopers. The Tuunbaq’s first fleeting appearances suggest something like a polar bear, though the more the crew sees of the animal, the less certain that description becomes. The officers are slow to awake to the severity of the threat. “Educate this creature as to the dominion of the Empire and the will of the Lord behind it,” Franklin jovially tells a group of marines in the third episode. Judging by what happens next, neither God nor Empire has much power in the Arctic.
The Tuunbaq’s presence is an expression of an old colonial trope: the idea that savage magic lurks in unexplored places and among “uncivilized” peoples. Survival horror has an uneasy relationship with this theme. While the genre can function as a critique of classic adventure fiction—in which the wilderness is dangerous but can be tamed—it tends to present nature as actively malevolent, and those who live too close to it as inherently suspicious, whether they’re the sinister tribe of Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno, or the degenerate backwoods-men of Deliverance and other such films. Indigenous cultures and legends often get associated with nature’s alien viciousness—consider the way the 2008 horror film The Ruins uses lost Mayan pyramids as a setting for its carnivorous vines. Native peoples often appear as portentous figures, intended to signal to viewers that the (usually Western) protagonists have entered a realm where civilization cannot reach.
The Terror largely manages to sidestep these dicier implications by treating its main Inuit character, Lady Silence, as complex and human in her own right. A lot of this owes to Nielsen’s expressive performance: Her eyes flick around every room she’s brought into, sizing up the men around her with an analytical and worried gaze, and when she does speak, it’s as if the words are pouring out despite her efforts to keep them in. But the show takes pains to emphasize through translated dialogue that she’s just as desperate, unsure, and terrified as the men around her—in other words, she’s not conspiring with the brutal environment and has been dragged by accident into something beyond her control. And while her relationship with the Tuunbaq is less immediately murderous, it isn’t friendly; and like everything else, that connection is bound to deteriorate.
Works of survival horror tend to have a nasty view of humanity. Social structures immediately collapse; protagonists must suffer for being weak, unready, and unfit. If this gives the genre an ugly, often fascistic edge, it also taps into an ambivalent fear in contemporary Western society: that in severing people from nature, civilization has made them easy targets. The outcome of the Franklin expedition is unfortunately inevitable: two abandoned ships, and a lot of dead bodies. But by honing both the complexities of its characters and the essential danger of the Arctic itself—a danger the Tuunbaq symbolizes—The Terror manages to have it both ways. The expedition is doomed, and so is the crew. The show’s genius is how it aligns the hopes of viewers and characters alike: that someone, anyone, might make it out alive.