Immersive and atmospheric, “The Terror” is the kind of voyage that the limited-series format allows, a 10-episode quest into the unknown that crafts a supernatural flight from a historical footnote. The final destination, alas, isn’t particularly satisfying, but as binge-able concepts go, the getting there is still pretty intriguing.
“The Terror” is based on the true story of two British naval vessels dispatched in the 1840s to find the Arctic’s Northwest Passage, which both disappeared. Dan Simmons turned that foundation into a novel, one in which the crew wound up being preyed upon by a supernatural creature.
Enter Ridley Scott’s production company, and an impressive cast headlined by Jared Harris, Ciaran Hinds and “Outlander’s” Tobias Menzies. Harris is Captain Francis Crozier, who winds up leading the charge as his increasingly frenzied men must deal with a landlocked ship, oppressive conditions and, not incidentally, whatever it is that has the ability to tear them limb from limb.
Shot in Budapest, the production’s overall look captures the pervasive sense of isolation and feeling of being stranded, with “The Terror” (a dual meaning, since it’s actually the name of one of the ships) only escaping its bleak, claustrophobic whiteness through occasional flashbacks, puttying in some biographical detail regarding its leaders and crew.
A two-hour premiere should help somewhat in harpooning viewers, but as adapted by David Kajganich and Soo Hugh, the series is a slow burn, presenting just enough of the threat in the early going to heighten the suspense and fear. Yet even in this age of TV abundance, it’s a historical period and setting we seldom see, with the seemingly foreordained fate of the men doing little to soften the grueling nature of their ordeal.
One major hurdle is that with a few exceptions (mainly, Harris and Hinds), many of the characters are all but indistinguishable under the grimy beards and bulky clothing, reducing them to the equivalent of the red-shirted crewmen on “Star Trek.” Perhaps for that reason, one of the more intriguing figures is known as Lady Silence (Nive Nielsen), a native woman who seems to know a lot more about what’s thinning the Englishmen’s ranks than she’s inclined to share.
For AMC, “The Terror” represents the network’s latest interesting if not fully realized experiment – a bit closer in tone to the network’s macabre staple “The Walking Dead,” albeit in a package resembling its Revolutionary War drama “Turn.”
Of course, it’s possible to admire that gambler’s instinct – and the courage of these intrepid explorers – while still harboring pretty grave doubts as to whether this icy blast from the past will succeed in its mission to scare up viewers.
“The Terror” premieres March 26 at 9 p.m. on AMC.