The Royal Geographical Society was an apt place for AMC to screen the first two episodes of their adventure-thriller-supernatural-period drama, The Terror. Not so much a genre-defying show as a delicious smorgasbord, it gets so much right. Its cast, location, CGI, and pacing are all impeccable. And yet, art and entertainment no longer exist in a vacuum, and for all The Terror gets right, it also shines a light on what television so often gets wrong.
If the Bechdel test had been written about men, this show would pass with flying colours. Its main cast features Jared Harris, Ciarán Hinds, Tobias Menzies, Paul Ready, Adam Nagaitis, and Ian Hart, all of whom were all in attendance at the screening, and held a brief Q&A afterwards. In each of their interactions, whether with each other, the ship, or the ice, each character appears like an onion. Their layers are pulled back delicately with every interaction, and it seems wise to reserve judgement.
Women take up mere minutes of screen time. In fact, female pronouns are barely even used – not even for the ships. Besides a few flashbacks involving a budding romance for Crozier and breakfast with Sir Franklin’s wife, there isn’t a woman in sight. The men hardly talk about missing their women back home, which is a nice change of pace from the stereotypical sailor talk. By the end of the second episode, the audience is granted what one can only hope is its first leading woman, Lady Silence (Nive Nielsen), an indigenous Netsilik woman. Given her name, it’s hard to imagine her taking up much of the dialogue or being given much storytelling power. However, it’s too soon to call. The supernatural element is her dominion, and as it grows throughout the series, so might her presence.
As many have long pointed out, however, the Bechdel test is not necessarily a barometer for what makes good art. And The Terror is undoubtedly good. Its suspense is well executed without making use of clichéd pop scares. Its quiet moments don’t drag, instead, some offer a window into the past (all by flashbacks instead of the much-loved sit-com method of the recap). Its CGI is well crafted, and instead of dominating the actors, it enhances their performances.
The history of The Terror is based on the “British Royal Navy’s perilous voyage into unchartered territory as the crew attempts to discover the Northwest Passage.” This journey was, by all accounts, an abject failure. This is one of the many reasons it was brushed under the carpet of history. The other reasons seem to be what happened to the men as they were stuck in the tundra. Menzies blessed the audience at the screening with a potential spoiler — or red herring. “I can trust you guys, right? We’re friends,” he teased.
The cast operates as a true ensemble. Though Harris, Menzies, and Hinds are the leads, their performances are buoyed significantly by their moments spent with others. There is a particularly gratifying scene between Francis Crozier and Cornelius Hickey (Harris and Nagatis respectively). In this scene, the more subtle cultural implications of there being Irishmen onboard are teased out. As Harris pointed out in the Q&A, most often in the successful naval explorations, the credit was given to the English, leaving behind the Irish, Welsh, and Scottish explorers who were right there beside them. For Captain Crozier, this nationality divide is explained not only through his conversation with Hickey, but also by a fraught flashback that only complicates the dynamic between the men. This prejudice, which one might not think matters aboard a ship stuck in a huge ice-floe, is not actually gone, merely unspoken.
Through Dr Henry Goodsir (Paul Ready) we have a sympathetic lens in the midst of the rough and self-assured navy men. When lead Doctor Stephen Stanley (Alistair Petrie) refuses to touch an indigenous man, Goodsir pleads with Sir Franklin to be given leave to try and save the man’s life. He comforts a sick young sailor, where Dr Stanley and Sir Franklin are both unconcerned.
The audience is also treated to the first glimpse of the supernatural in these two episodes. It is a moment of CGI that feels anachronistically modern. It is also the only blatantly supernatural experience thus far, and as a piece of dramatic irony, it works expertly.
The Terror also highlights, though it may not have intended to, the lack of women-centred stories on screen. Does The Terror need women aboard the ships? No, of course not. And to shoe-horn them in would be absurd and tokenistic at best. The Terror seeks to tell one very interesting, very specific, story. And it is a story that does not include women (except Lady Silence. Represent!)
It should be noted that there are plenty of other real-life period stories that do feature women. Take Nellie Bly. Mary Seacole. Sophia Duleep Singh. Lady Franklin – the wife of this show’s main character.(And the first woman to be awarded the Royal Geographical Society’s Founder’s Medal.) For every show that exists about pioneering men, there could be a show about a pioneering woman, especially a woman of colour. This is not to say that The Terror should not exist. It is a fantastic piece of television, storytelling, and nuanced acting that has so far garnered 100% on rotten tomatoes. Its place in the canon of great television would not be threatened by telling other stories. After all, The Terror is a show that sought to take a relatively unknown tale and bring it into our living rooms. Should that same motivation not be extended further and wider? It’s a big question, but one that has a very simple answer. Yes.
It isn’t a question, however, that The Terror itself needs to answer. It has another question to contend with. Who, or perhaps what, is the true monster of The Terror? It’s a question with many potential answers. The ice? Man? The supernatural? God, even? After all, god is nature’s prescriber, Sir Franklin reminds us. But don’t worry, “the whole story is told in ten episodes,” Harris informed the audience during the Q&A. There will be no lingering questions. “It’s not like Lost,” he added. No, it most certainly is not.
The Terror premiers its first two episodes on Tuesday, April 24th at 9 pm on AMC.