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'The Terror' Arrives on AMC
March 27, 2018  | By David Hinckley

AMC’s The Terror sounds like a horror series and it is. Just not in the way the title might lead TV viewers to expect.

The Terror, which premieres Monday at 9 p.m. ET, isn’t about demons of the supernatural. Instead it revisits one of the most horrific and gruesome failures in maritime history: the 1845 “Franklin Expedition” in search of the elusive Northwest Passage.

Captain John Franklin (Ciarán Hinds, left), a revered Arctic explorer, was chosen by the British Navy to command two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, that Franklin assured everyone would find the passage and open a whole new lucrative era of trade with the Far East.

Things did not go precisely as planned. At the risk of a spoiler here, well-known real-life history tells us that both ships were eventually locked into Arctic ice and over the next three years every officer and crew member would die.

The Terror promises only that the drama here is based on true events, so it may not precisely follow what has been pieced together over the last 170 years about the expedition’s fate.

Do not, however, expect any newfound bursts of good news in this series, or much mercy in the many deaths, which resulted from a grisly mix of scurvy, lead poisoning, tuberculosis, hypothermia, and starvation.

Part of the culprit was fate. Franklin was trying to slip the ships through waters that sometimes thawed in the short Arctic summer and sometimes did not. He arrived before a couple of years when they did not, and scenes here of crew members attempting to break up the increasingly impenetrable ice by hand only underscore the futility of trying to defy nature.

The expedition was also undercut by bad human decisions, however, and naturally that’s the part on which The Terror focuses.

Captain Francis Crozier (Jared Harris, right) argues with Franklin on the eve of the first winter that he should take the ships into a relatively safe harbor and wait the frozen season out instead of risking a push forward.  

Franklin, supported by the more aggressive Captain James Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies), decides otherwise, declaring that if they sail boldly forward at once, they will within a fortnight have traversed the passage.

In retrospect, that was a bad call.

The Terror is a Ridley Scott production and has the grand sweep to prove it. The Arctic waters and land loom large, giving a real sense of how majestic and how dangerously forbidding those waters must have looked to Franklin’s crew.

While the initial focus falls on the officers, we also get to know a few crew members, most of whom seem enthusiastic about becoming part of history.

That it turned out they would make a different kind of history than they expected gives The Terror a somber undertone. The quest itself, however, and the actions of the men who tried their best to bring it home, add up to an authentic tale of adventure that reminds us not every adventure can end in triumph.

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