I have just watched the first season of The Terror (each season is a standalone story) and I enjoyed it so much that I need to shout about just why I thought it was so good.
The first season of The Terror tells the story of the tragic Franklin expedition. This was a British arctic expedition in the late 1840s, led by Sir John Franklin, which had the aim of finding the North West Passage. The expedition was comprised of two ships, Erebus and Terror, hence the name of the show. It was tragic because everyone died (this is not a spoiler). The circumstances as to how everyone died are still mysterious to this day and there is lots of speculation (although a cursory glance at wikipedia suggests that people are building up some theories).
So, this is a TV show where you know from the outset that it is going to end tragically: everyone you get to know is going to die, and the only question is exactly how. And this is why, despite how much I enjoyed it, I wouldn't recommend the show to everyone. It is not so much scary as it is harrowing: there is gore, there is a monster, and there are disturbing scenes. I finished watching it a day and a half ago and I do not yet feel like I have recovered mentally from what I have seen (give me a few more days and I will be fine). You guys out there will know your tv-watching habits; if you don't like stories that are scary, depressing or dark, this show is not for you. However, if you don't mind watching those themes then I absolutely recommend this show whole-heartedly. It is incredibly incredibly good.
Here is the trailer: https://youtu.be/3WLz6wxEabc
The rest of my review might contain mild spoilers, so I'm going to put it under a cut.
There are several things I love about the show. From the first glance it looks fantastic; you can tell that there was money behind the production. The sets and the setting are lush with atmosphere and historic detail; it really feels like care has been taken (not that I know enough about naval history to assess accuracy, but the little bits I do know felt very right). And those coats! If you know me you will know that I go crazy for well-fitted double-breasted coats with bright buttons. I WAS IN MY ELEMENT HERE.
The acting! You can't fault it. Everyone does a superb job and I think one of the reasons the story works so well is just how compelling everyone is.
But my absolute absolute favourite thing about the show is the writing. I am in ecstasies over how well it was written. It's the best period drama I have seen since 2014. The show is based on a book of the same name, so doubtless many good things from the show come from the book, but I have heard some not-entirely-great things about the book too, so I get the feeling that while the good characters and interesting plot may come from the book, the technical skill that makes the show truly rewarding and compelling comes from the show's writers.
The main thing that they get so right is exposition. It's tricky to do well in any piece of fiction, but it is particularly hard in historical fiction when there is always so much to explain. It seems that often the urge with historical fiction is to explain too much and too frequently, to the point where every line loses its poignancy because it's immediately followed by an explanation of why that line is poignant (Poldark, I am looking at you). The Terror does not fall into that trap at all. Things are not explained; the audience's hand is not held; and the viewer is treated like an intelligent person who can come to their own conclusions. This does, admittedly, lead to some parts where I didn't actually know exactly what happened until I read up about them after I finished the show, but this haziness in certain areas does not detract from the watching experience in any way. The writing is good enough that the viewer always knows the key points of what is happening and what that means for the plot (there is never a feeling of being lost and confused), and the fact that you can get an extra level of detail and interest the more you look into it is an additional joy.
When it comes to how good the exposition is, let us take scurvy as an example. Scurvy is mentioned a lot in the first episode, but not anywhere in that episode is it described. In a lesser show, as soon as scurvy is mentioned the first time, someone would say "oh, you mean the disease where your gums bleed and your old wounds open up?" In The Terror this information is not given in the first episode because it's not needed in the first episode. The information is not actually given until after the first symptoms start to show, and even then it's given in an offhand and believable comment that doesn't feel intrusive at all. This means that for viewers who already knew the symptoms of scurvy, it's not jarring in any way, while viewers who don't know the symptoms of scurvy get a wonderful reveal of what has been happening and are now prepared for what is yet to come.
Augh! It's just done so well! I absolutely can't stand it when TV shows talk down to me, whereas I love it when they treat me as a capable adult who is able to put the clues together by myself.
And then we come to the plot. Going from the trailer, and seeing how high the production values were, I had assumed that the plot would have a level of, what to call it, sensationalism? Hollywood-ness? I was expecting it to be more spectacle and less substance. I was ready for jump-scares and plot-twists and set-pieces, and they didn't come, not really, not in the way I was expecting. There was only one part in the final episode where things veered towards melodrama that was too ridiculous to believe. The rest of the plot is not ridiculous nor is it fluffy nor empty; it feels solid: the pacing works and each plot point follows on from one to another. This is not a show where an unsubstantiated plot twist is thrown into the mix for surprise value (looking at you, BBC 2020 Dracula); this is a show where the hard graft of writing is done, to make sure that the plot is built from the ground up so that the audience can follow it and believe in its progression, regardless of how unbelievable the actual events may seem to be.
One of the main reasons for why this plot progression works so well is that it is almost entirely character-driven. Oh yes, there are events from outside that affect the characters and what happens to them, but the bulk of the plot is driven by the characters and their choices. What is it about character-driven fiction that makes it so satisfying? Certainly stories can and do work without being character-driven, but there's something so good about having a character you can get your teeth into: a character who is a person, with likes and dislikes, and good parts and foibles; a character you get to know and care about. The characters in this story are not mere window-dressing; they drive the plot, and you both love them and hate them for it.
Now, take that well-written, rounded, satisfying character, and multiply them by thirty. This is an ensemble cast and boy does it feel like it! I'm frankly astounded by how many fully-thought-out characters there were. It's not like there are five main characters and the rest are all cannon-fodder. Each character we meet has their own story to tell. There are characters in the first episode who feel like extras, but who come to have important and complex parts as the story moves on. Even as we come to the final episodes there are characters whose significance only then begins to show.
This multitude of characters is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it makes for a story that is rich, rewarding and realistic. But a curse because it is impossible to learn all those names and tell all those people apart. They all look the same! Is that character A in the navy blue coat with the big mutton chops? Or is that character B? I've watched the entire series and for a lot of the characters I still don't know! But this confusion doesn't detract from the enjoyment of the show. Just like the exposition, learning more about certain characters (which is where I think a rewatch would help) will add another layer of interest, but without that it is still easy to follow the main parts of the plot. There are certain main characters who you do come to recognise and to know, and this is enough; the other characters, each with their own richness, even if you don't know it yet, are an extra treat for those viewers who want to watch again and dig into the story a little more.
I won't say that the story is without its faults. I would like to ask the show-makers why apparently all British sailors in Victorian times were white??? And why did the cgi monster have to look like that??? But there aren't enough faults to truly detract from how enjoyable the show is.
Look at me here, trying to be all serious, making points with words, instead of just howling like I want to. What I haven't mentioned yet is how this show consumed me. I ate it up! I watched an episode per day (the short length of the show, being only ten episodes, is another reason why the plot is so tight and satisfying) and I couldn't stop thinking about it! My days were filled with thoughts of boats and mutton chops and my dreams were filled with them too. Even now that I have finished the show, and I have felt just how harrowing it is to watch a show where they all die, horribly, I long for it. I have withdrawal symptoms from it. I'm not yet mentally strong enough to watch it again, but my God I yearn for the time when I will be. It's that good! Whenever, over the past week, someone has asked me how I am, my answer has been "I'm watching The Terror!" as if I felt that from that response alone they could glean exactly how excited and happy I was to be watching it; as if it was my everything at that moment! My God!
And I'm not even mentioning just how much I came to enjoy the character of Goodsir. I was told "there's a character in this who's a bit like Segundus from 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell'; you'll like him." I did not know how accurate that was going to be. I want to slam my fist on the table! Do you know what it is like, in a show like this, to develop a favourite character and to know, to know, from the outset that every single character is going to die? It is heart-wrenching and it hurts, and I am still not over it (not by a long shot) but at the same time the pathos is so satisfying you want to eat it all up. This is 2021. We're not here for good times. Make it hurt. Make it cathartic. Take my mind off of the world of today with a pain that I can control with my TV.
So. Wow. tl;dr The Terror is an excellent show that I highly recommend for people who like this kind of stuff. (And I'm still sparkly-eyed over Goodsir and can't do anything about it.) The End.
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