#55: AMC’s The Terror, season one
Bringing Dan Simmons’ frosty horror to television — and sprucing it up a bit
This review was posted to Twitter on February 23, 2019
Initial release: 2018 (First season, ten episodes)
Of all the possible things to get made into a TV show, Dan Simmons’ sometimes-gripping, sometimes-turgid historical horror fiction, his enormous novel about the failed Franklin expedition, The Terror, is not something I would have expected, and yet not only did it happen, but it’s outshined the novel in every way. It not only ditched the wholly unnecessary sex scenes, skipped most of the fake magical Inuit mythology, and gave Lady Silence actual agency as a character, it also changed a lot of stuff around, mostly for the better, had a much better ending, and much better pacing. What more could you ask for?
It’s obvious that the success of The Walking Dead had AMC thinking they needed more horror; while The Walking Dead should have been put down by the second episode, The Terror is a different thing altogether, being a sharp and smart condensation of the original doorstopper into ten episodes. It’s a tense, paranoid drama, shot through with moments of terror and madness, that much more effectively weaves together its various character arcs. Most of the cast brings their A-game, even minor characters.
It’s a visually stunning show that goes out of its way to show how utterly alien and hostile the Arctic Circle really is. The showrunners definitely seemed aware of how gorgeous the diving suit scene was, given that they used it in the title sequence. The soundtrack is also sublime, making heavy use of subtle synth drones amidst more traditional instrumentation that evoke nothing so much as the soundtrack to John Carpenter’s legendary body horror outing The Thing.
Amidst a number of major improvements to pacing and character development (giving a lot more screentime to the villainous character of Hickey, developing him much earlier on as a particularly dangerous figure) are complete rewrites or overhauls of major scenes. A big one would be the carnivale scene, which plays out very differently from the book, but preserves the hallucinatory, almost lunatic quality of the scene before it all goes to hell.
There’s also how the show handles the Inuit stuff; where Simmons built a rather offensive faux-mythology off the back of Inuit culture, the show tries to do right by the Inuit. The very first scene builds a framing device, an Inuit hunter talking a pair of white men seeking to learn the fate of the Franklin expedition. It reframes the whole thing in terms of the Inuit experience — which mirrors how the discussion of the Franklin expedition has changed over the years. The expedition is often mythologized as doomed heroes seeking the mythical Northwest Passage, the discovery of which was the dream of many a sea captain (at least until the Panama canal was built.) But to the Inuit, it was an invasion, and while this show is not specifically about the Inuit, it acknowledges this fact. More to the point, the whole impetus for finding the Northwest Passage is, as the Terror’s physician Dr. Goodsir sheepishly puts it, “for our economy… for trade.” In other words, capitalism, keeping the British empire alive on the backs of the indigenous people it crushed beneath its tread.
This is a marked change from how the book handled the Inuit. While the Thing on the ice is still here, and still heavily linked to Lady Silence and a sort of shamanistic class of inuit in general, the show does what the book does not, and leaves out unnecessary details that only serve to stereotype. Lady Silence herself is more than just a prop for the others to react to. She has her own scenes, and even speaks for her first few appearances. It’s an important change, and the role is played brilliantly by Greenland-Inuk actress Nive Nielsen. (Plus, she and Crozier don’t bang.) The showrunners made good use of the expertise of the Inuit who live in the area, particularly the late Louie Kamookak, who was probably the expert historian on the Franklin expedition. It was Kamookak’s research that led to the long-lost ships being discovered a few years ago.
It’s fair to say that the show (and book) might almost be just as interesting without the horror aspect. Most of what we’ve learned about the expedition has only been in recent years once we started listening to the Inuit. But still, who doesn’t love a good horror show? I wasn’t sure what to expect from the AMC series, after the novel had left a bad taste, but I can’t help but feel like I should have skipped the book entirely, going into this thing fresh. I might not have noticed all the little differences, but not noticing them would have enabled me to absorb the show by itself. If there’s one thing I’d change, it’s the monster itself. It’s definitely not how I envisioned it at all, and it’s where the CGI fails most. It’s kind of a shame because for four episodes the show plays tricks, keeping the monster out of view, which really heightens the tension; actually seeing it ruins the effect.
In all, if you’re trying to pick between a gripping historical drama and a thrilling horror show, you can’t go wrong with a show that does both, and far better than the source material at that.