The sight of a Victorian-era naval ship listing atop an Arctic ice field, her crew on board, hundreds of miles from civilization, is enough to send chills up the spine. Add blustery male hubris, British classism and a snow monster to the mix, and you have producer Ridley Scott’s aptly titled television series “The Terror.”
The AMC drama, adapted from Dan Simmons’ bestselling novel of the same name, is based on the true story of a failed 19th century Northwest Passage expedition in which two British Royal Navy ships, the Terror and the Erebus, disappeared carrying 129 men.
It was later discovered through written accounts left behind by the crew, and stories told by the region’s native Inuit people, that the ships became stuck when the sea around them froze. After waiting 20 months for the water to thaw, the crew finally abandoned ship in search of open ocean.
“The Terror,” which premieres Monday, turns a macabre slice of history into a beautifully executed, 10-episode tale of the fight for survival. Nerve-racking suspense, a deceptively gorgeous landscape and the deeply developed characters lend a rich, big-screen quality to “The Terror’s” hourlong episodes.
The story spans from the planning of the expedition, when the arguably unqualified Sir John Franklin (Ciarán Hinds) is named commander of a career-defining voyage, to the bitter-cold end, when Captain Francis Crozier (Jared Harris) is fighting for the crew’s lives rather than his legacy.
The true account of the expedition is dramatic enough without the series’ and book’s addition of a fictional creature that eviscerates the crew one by one in supernatural and gruesome ways. Expect plenty of close-up shots of severed limbs, or in the case of an unfinished job on the monster’s part, an amputation by the ships’ saw-wielding doctor. No one ever said polar exploration was a pretty business.
Co-produced by Scott and showrunners Dave Kajganich and Soo Hugh, the personal dynamic between the ships’ captains provides an engrossing narrative before the action even kicks in.
Erebus’ captain, the upper-crust Englishman Franklin, has blinded himself to the dangers of the mission and proceeds with no backup plan in the event that things go south up north. His Irish subordinate, the whiskey-reliant Terror captain Crozier, sees tragedy before they even leave their English port.
Adding to the tension produced by their polar-opposite personalities is the unfortunate fact that Franklin dissuaded his niece from marrying the below-her-station Crozier. So when Crozier tries to warn his stubbornly optimistic commander that he’s steering them toward a certain death, Franklin labels him as a glass-half-full kind of man, eventually hitting Crozier where it hurts: “You’ve made yourself miserable, distant and hard to love.”
Harris (“Mad Men,” “The Crown”) delivers a wonderfully layered performance of a man torn between protocol and societal norms and what he knows to be right. As an Irishman, he’s been sidelined most his naval career — if only he’d been at the helm of the entire expedition.
Hinds (“Road to Perdition,” “Game of Thrones”) is equally convincing in his portrayal of a commander who’s a master at covering his incompetency with a false confidence.
Third-in-charge Captain James Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies) and doctor Henry Goodsir (Paul Ready) also play pivotal roles in the fate of the crew and their understanding of the monster that’s hunting them. The key to the mystery may lie in the secrets of an Inuk woman, known only as Lady Silence (Nive Nielsen), but most of the crew resent and fear her.
The stealth beast strikes in ways similar to whatever that thing was in the jungles of “Lost.” (How does a man get sucked up out of a tent, then spat back out a bloody pulp seconds later?) But because no one really knows what happened to all those poor souls between the time they set sail in 1845 to Crozier’s last dated note in 1848, the monster serves as a physical manifestation of the mystery that’s engulfed the tragic voyage for centuries.
The ships, in fact, were recovered only in the last decade by researchers working at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean. “The Terror” revives the memory of the men on board and adds a modern element of horror for audiences weaned on Scott’s “Alien” — another production depicting a perilous journey into uncharted territory with a deadly entity in tow.
“The Terror” is no pleasure cruise, but a gripping journey back to a time and place that’s all too real, and almost too scary, to be true.
When: 9 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for coarse language and violence)