Monday, March 26, 2018

REVIEW: 'The Terror' - Two Ships Venture Into the Arctic and Are Trapped During the Winter in 'Go for Broke' & 'Gore'

AMC's The Terror - Episodes 1.01 "Go for Broke" and 1.02 "Gore"

An accident at sea cripples a Royal Navy expedition 200 miles from finding the Northwest Passage, forcing its captains to make dire choices. After a long winter trapped in the ice, scouting parties are sent out in search of open water. One of the teams makes a frightening discovery.

In these opening episodes, The Terror proves that it is exceptional at creating atmosphere and a terrifying mood. It's a premiere that establishes this world well while delving into just how agonizing it can often be in the pursuit of glory. The Terror and Erebus embarked on this mission to find the Northwest Passage. It's a discovery that the audience knows they will never find. In fact, the show opens on the statement that both of these ships were lost at sea with it not being known what happened to the crews. There is the additional tease that many of them died and the few that remained are being chased by some creature that defies any kind of rational explanation. That's the note the show starts on. Then, it flashes back four years to show the situation as the ships embark on this journey. They've already been at sea for months. This show has no problem jumping long stretches of time while just asking the audience to go along with all of it. There's no understanding that the character dynamics change in all that time either. The first hour closes with the ships needing to anchor down and be trapped in the ice for the entire winter. The second hour then begins with an eight month time jump to spring as the officers send out scouting parties to see if the ice is navigable anywhere nearby. It's a mission with a direct purpose. The show is very methodical and precise in its behavior. It's captained by men who have made this voyage before. Captain John and Francis Crozier have sailed to the arctic and encountered these conditions in the past. When they've returned to England, they've been celebrated. But now, there is an omnipresent threat lurking over every single action in this world. It only takes a few seconds for things to quickly become lethal. And that's what makes this such a well-executed horror piece.

It's all completely random that the Terror and Erebus get stuck in the ice as well. The opening hour is largely defined by the deaths of two sailors. One succumbs to consumption. He experiences very vivid hallucinations in the end. It gets to the point that it terrifies the surgeon who is tasked with looking over him throughout the night. He sees it as eery and sinister. He doesn't know what to make of it. He has seen people die before. He has tended to people who see things that clearly aren't there. But it seems like this man dies because he is terrified of what he sees. That image is just of an ordinary Inuit man whose head changes into weird and foreign designs. It defies any kind of rational explanation. That's what makes it so random and yet terrifying to watch. The show understands that the power of the visual comes from the reaction to it and not the explanation. It's not something that the doctor can investigate. Instead, he just has to perform an autopsy to confirm that the disease isn't something that can be passed along to the rest of the ship. He does that despite the man's objections to being cut to shreds like a friend of his was. It's a moment of shame. But it effectively reveals the cruel and cold forces that must be upheld in this world. This environment is rough and dangerous. All it takes is the ship hitting one patch of ice for one man to fall overboard. That's a terrifying sight because it happens so suddenly and quickly. One minute he's doing his job. The next he's in the freezing water that is pulling him under the ice. All of that happens and it mostly just becomes a note in the captain's log for this journey explaining everything that has happened.

But the dead have a way of maintaining a presence in this world. There is no scientific reason for this body in the ice to be stalking the Erebus. And yet, that's exactly what occurs. When Captain John sends a man down to remove the ice from the ship, he sees his friend just floating in the water. It seems like he is coming straight at him with vengeance and revenge in his eyes. It's enough to totally freak him out. He is calm and collected while making this voyage below the ship. He has a system in place to pull him out of the dangerous situation. He trusts the men above who will pull him up. But in that moment of fear, he is absolutely petrified over what may occur. It's a rational response. He didn't know what he would see while down there. Captain John is envious of him because he is able to make a trip that he has always wanted to make. He has wanted to explore the depths of the world that exists just beneath the surface. Afterwards, he is curious about what it was like. The man comparing it to a dream feels appropriate. He has the proper tools and focus on the task at hand. But all it takes is one jarring moment for him to suddenly realize the world is false and that he needs to escape it as soon as possible. He has that moment upon seeing his friend. It's a moment he keeps to himself. He doesn't want to be viewed as the sailor losing his mind during this voyage. But it's a pretty ominous note as well. Keeping secrets is never all that smart.

The opening hour also establishes the dynamic between the three main officers - played by Ciarán Hinds, Jared Harris and Tobias Menzies. Captain John is the captain of this expedition. He's the man in charge. Francis is his second-in-command who is manning the Terror while James is onboard the Erebus. John and Francis have had a long friendship. And yet, it's gotten more tense as of late because John cautioned his niece not to marry Francis. He is proud to have him as a friend and ally on the water but not as a part of his family. He tries to make amends but it's also clear that Francis is a melancholic man. This world depresses him even though he keeps returning to it. He has the idea to let the Terror sail away and potentially avoid getting stuck in the ice. John doesn't want to hear it. He sees the two ships staying together as vital to the overall mission. He also has confidence that they can make it out of the ice before it freezes them in. He believes he has several weeks before worrying about it. It's ultimately six days before they are trapped. Francis' way may not have been any better. But right now, it's important that they are stuck. They stay that way for eight months. In that time, they mostly keep to themselves as well. The crew get along well with one another. They have the freedom to move about the ships and have fun out on the ice together. They understand just how arduous this mission can be. But they also signed up for the adventure. And so, there are many men who are willing to go out in the scouting parties once the time comes for it.

The focus of the second hour mostly belongs on the scouting party that discovers land. The other two found nothing and quickly return back to the ships to give their reports to their captain. This third mission is the one stocked with notable characters - though as you can probably tell I already have a problem recognizing them by name. That's probably the largest issue with the series at this point. It does a phenomenal job in establishing this world and the horrors around every single corner. I'm in awe of the production and how they were able to capture some of these moments - like the wide shots of the ships trapped in the snow-covered ice. And yet, I'm not immediately invested in any of the characters. That could be a huge problem if this season is ultimately about watching this crew grow smaller and more desperate as time goes along. The officers don't want to be trapped here for another winter. And yet, that seems like a distinct possibility because they are presented with no good options at the moment. This party discovers land. They see a vast wasteland with no signs of human life. They come across an igloo. They have a procedure for that in letting whomever returns to it that the English navy has come to this area and seeks a claim on any discoveries. But the threats they face are mostly from nature. They need to seek shelter as soon as it starts hailing significantly. They are trapping a bear that has terrorized their camp. But the moment that they fire their weapons, there is an immediate human cost. They shoot an Inuit man. No one saw what they were targeting. They try to help this man survive as well. But the doctors can't do anything to save his life. His daughter is there throughout this whole process. She is afraid of something. That too is an extremely ominous note for the future of this expedition. Francis tries to understand. He's one of the few officers who speak the local language. He tries to form a connection with her. But she only delivers an eery warning that this crew is bound to parish if they don't leave now. It's a responsibility she does not wish to carry but the death of her father now forces her to. That's poetic while also being incredibly tragic.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Go for Broke" was written by David Kagjanich and directed by Edward Berger.
  • "Gore" was written by Soo Hugh and directed by Edward Berger.
  • Right now, the performances that stand out the most come from Ciarán Hinds, Tobias Menzies and Jared Harris. Of course, that may just be my bias because they are the only three performers whose work I have seen before. They are all tremendous actors who have been well cast here. Giving them more to do as their situation becomes more dire should be very compelling as well.
  • Nive Nielsen is a series regular. So that makes it pretty clear right away that this Inuit woman will remain a crucial part of this story. Of course, the show can't tease the mystery for too much longer. She is afraid of something. She can't just keep cryptically dropping teases of impending doom. She has to explain herself at some point. But it's also good to have a female perspective in the show as well.
  • The flashbacks mostly play as background information that is important to have that further fleshes out the dynamics between the officers. Of course, the moment at the play mostly comes across as evidence for who is willing to accept the applause and who is goaded into welcoming it. Meanwhile, the later drama with Captain John's family mostly plays as melodramatic and not all that beneficial.
  • There appears to be a gay romance happening below decks as well. For inclusion and visibility, that's very welcome because those stories are rarely told in this particular genre and time period. However, I'm also worried that it will play into some typical stereotypes of the two never being physically affectionate onscreen and the looming threat that the majority of the crew are going to die before the story is over.
  • One doctor seems very naive to the world. As such, he is much more open to exploring and questioning. His superior has basically seen it all and doesn't want to be disturbed with trivial demands that will only make things more complicated. That's an interesting dynamic. Plus, that autopsy sequence is bone-chilling because the show depicts it the way it would have happened during this time period.