The Editor’s Desk: The beautiful Terror

The Editor’s Desk: The beautiful Terror

Think you don’t like horror? The haunting TV show The Terror might change your mind.

I don’t often wax lyrical about a TV series I’ve watched, largely because I don’t watch a lot of television. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying “I don’t watch much TV” in a hoity-toity “I’m too busy deciphering fifth century palimpsests to waste my time on something as frivolous as a television show” sort of way; it’s more a case of “So much to do, so little time.” Unlike going to see a movie, TV series require a fair bit of commitment, whether you binge watch them or view them in what I think of as the old-fashioned way: one episode a week for as long as the series runs.

However, as I write this on May 21 I have just watched the final episode (of 10) of AMC’s The Terror, and I’m here to say that it’s easily one of the finest TV series I’ve ever seen, and may well have a claim to be right up there among the finest ever made. Based on the eponymous novel by Dan Simmons, which was in turn based on the events of the real-life Franklin expedition of 1845 (in which 129 men sailed in search of the Northwest Passage aboard the Royal Navy ships Erebus and Terror), the TV series is one of the most evocative, haunting, tragic, disturbing, and beautiful I have ever seen.

Now if there’s one thing that many people know about the Franklin expedition it’s that (spoiler alert!) they all die, which would seem to put a bit of a damper on any book or TV series about it that stays true to history (which both Simmons’s novel, and the show, do). After all, most people don’t want to go into something they read or watch knowing what the ending will be (although that didn’t stop people going to see the movie Titanic).

However, The Terror is a masterclass in showing how the journey, not the destination, is the important thing, and what a journey it is. This is what TV looks like when everything—writing, acting, cinematography, score—is top-notch. Furthermore, everyone involved seems to have decided there’d be no hand-holding of the audience. There are no exposition dumps, no clumsy instances of characters explaining things to each other that they already know just so the audience can go “Oh, I get it.” Tiny seeds planted without fanfare in early episodes take on tremendous import as the expedition continues, and it’s up to viewers to make the connection.

It’s also, over the course of 10 hours, a thoughtful meditation on death, and codes of masculinity, and Imperialism, and what choices we make and why, and what happens to “civilized” men when rules go out the window and all bets are off, like a version of Lord of the Flies featuring men instead of boys. This is a lot of freight for a TV show to carry, while still telling a riveting story of real life tragedy: anyone looking for a historically accurate recounting of the fate of the Franklin expedition need look no further. The Terror carries off all of this, and much more, with aplomb.

Oh, did I mention that it’s also a horror story with a strong supernatural element? No? That’s because a lot of people have a knee-jerk reaction when they hear “horror”, leading them to dismiss something sight unseen. Don’t be one of those people. As the temperature rises, settle in to the Arctic beauty and tragedy of The Terror; a haunting (in every sense) experience that will chill you to the core.

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