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In the UK: Tuesdays, 9pm, AMC Global. Starts today
Some things just seem to be cursed. The British expedition in 1845 to find the fabled northwest passage didn’t really stand a chance, given the two ships sent were the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus. Sure, they were technologically advanced for their time, with hardened hulls to brace against the ice and carrying railway steam engines to power propellers. But those names? ‘Terror’ and ‘Erebus’, Greek myth’s darkness beneath the world? That was just courting disaster.
Both ships disappeared and later expeditions were unable to find them, although ultimately, it seems like the crews abandoned their vessels after they had become stuck in the ice, after which they tried to make the trek over ice and land to an outpost hundreds of miles away. Ill and running out of food, they might even have resorted to cannibalism to try to survive.
When Dan Simmons wrote his best-selling novel about the expedition in 2007, he must have thought he was on relatively easy territory. The ships had been missing for nearly a century and a half – surely he can write about them safely, imagining whatever he wanted. Yet oddly enough, in September 2014, the wreck of the Erebus was found, submerged in what is now known as Terror Bay in Newfoundland, Canada. The Terror itself remained unfound, however, despite further investigations.
When a TV adaptation was announced in March 2016, that must have kicked the curse back into life because just a few months later, the Terror was found on an island in the middle of Terror Bay – 100km from where historians had previously thought it had wound up. How did it get there? No one’s sure…
Who knows what will turn up, now we have the TV series itself airing.
For the most part, The Terror is simple conjecture about what might have happened to the crews of both ships, based on the evidence available. It sees Ciáran Hinds (Rome) playing the lead captain of the expedition, Sir John Franklin, while Jared Harris (Mad Men) plays the captain of The Terror, Francis Crozier. Also aboard are Ian Hart and Tobias Menzies (Outlander). Initial episodes focus on the ships’ stranding in the ice, with subsequent episodes showing the events that lead to the abandoning of the ships and then the trek itself, as well as the rescue missions mounted back at home by loved ones, including Greta Scacchi.
However, seemingly just to gee things along a bit, there’s also something out there in the icy wastes of the Arctic. Stronger and bigger than a polar bear and as smart as a man, it’s invisible against the icy tundra and in the eternal night of the Arctic winter. It’s also extremely murderous. But what is it?
Two ships of sailors are about to find out…
Period naval fiction – of which there is much, Waterstones in Trafalgar Square even having an entire wall dedicated to it – is largely dominated by Patrick O’Brian’s ‘Aubrey and Maturin’ stories. While they’re hard to translate into the medium of film, Peter Weir managed effectively to combine several into Master and Commander.
O’Brian, being a translator, historian and keen sailor, created books that mimicked completely the language of the early 18th century, and were obsessed with the minutiae of sailing and the culture of the time, be it science, medicine, music, art or architecture. But their main focus was how a society of men, living in a confined space for sometimes years at a time, manages to do so peacefully and with discipline.
And those are the concerns of most of the genre, just with different focuses. The Hornblower series of novels, dramatised on ITV, are about social niceties on board and ambition within the service. Meanwhile, William Golding’s To The Ends of the Earth is the flipside of those concerns. Adapted by the BBC with a ‘before he was famous’ Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead role, To The Ends of the Earth sees Cumberbatch trapped on a ship full of strange rituals and complete bastards, overseen by Jared Harris (I think he likes this kind of story).
The Terror is also a story of men and society. However, it is more about what happens to men in extremis, when food runs out and despair is all you know. Its message is that the best and the worst in men will emerge and true character revealed. Former enemies may become friends, once petty differences are no longer of concern, while other petty differences may become life-threatening points of contention. Cowards can become heroes, while heroes can become traitors; alliances can be broken and new ones forged.
And given that this is a limited series about an event that (seemingly) had no survivors, don’t be surprised that the casualty rate, even among the top cast names, is high.
Life, but not as we know it
But being based on real-life events, it also has concerns unique to the situation. The food on board both vessels, for example, has been contaminated, with both botulism and lead. Yet with no other sources of food, the shipmates are forced to consume what they know to be poisonous, making the story as much about the effects of lead poisoning on the human body and psyche, as it is about rivalries and period detail.
There’s also a Dances with Wolves element to the story, as locally Eskimos/Inuits are on hand, including Nive Nielsen as ‘Lady Silence’. There’s an ambivalence towards the natives, who are frequently compared to the native Americans as warlike figures to fear, even as the story shows them to be a peaceful and helpful people. Yet at the same time, several of the crew speak the local language and certainly towards the end, there are long conversations entirely in Inuit, as more sympathetic crew members get to know them. The sailors also need the Inuits’ help, not just for food, but because they may know what it is that’s after them – it’s (spoiler alert) Tuunbaq, a demon created millennia ago by the Eskimo goddess Sedna to kill her fellow spirits, with whom she had become angry – and how to stop it.
Then there’s the location itself. This is not a beautiful tour of the South Seas or a visit to Australia. Although there are flashbacks to the life they’ve left behind and the beauty of life in London, with its people and culture, The Terror is set in more or less just three locations: the ships, the night-locked icy wastes of the arctic tundra and the lifeless, flat, rocky expanses to which the tundra ultimately gives way. The combination of direction from the likes of Tim Mielants (Legion) and the often atonal compositions of Marcus Fjellström are claustrophobic. Indeed, much like the lead in the tins, they build up over time, creating a constant feeling of dread and horror that the narrative itself rarely pushes. Watch all ten episodes in one go and you’ll find yourself potentially feeling a bit sick by the end as a result, and it’ll have nothing to do with the occasional gory moments that the show throws our way.
But is it any good?
The Terror is a very slow burn. Very slow. Had it been examined using the typical rigour of the Barrometer, I’d have probably given up at the end of the third episode.
However, by around episode seven, the show has found its feet, as have the cast. True, Jared Harris’s Ulster accent is a tad wobbly, but in general, the performances are uniformly excellent. Production values and attention to period detail are first-rate, although ‘the terror’ when you see it in all its glory is a touch Ray Harryhausen. Dialogue goes from snippiness and social chit chat to long discussions of character and philosophy.
The supposed central draw of the story, ‘the terror’, seems simultaneously necessary and unnecessary. On the one hand, it provides a welcome pace and excitement that simple long-term food-poisoning and cold weather wouldn’t have provided the series; on the other, it’s not exactly intrinsic to the story and feels superfluous to the narrative in many ways, being largely a way to sneak this into the horror category. The adaptation also changes the novel’s view of ‘the terror’, making it of less overall import.
But I’m glad I made it to the end. Sure, it’s bleak and dismal, but it’s a show that lingers in the memory long after you’ve watched it. The rocky lifeless landscape of its setting is the stuff nightmares are made of and reinforces the narrative that it doesn’t matter how technologically advanced you are, there are some things in life that are stronger than you – and some people who know more. It’s also optimistic, giving us hope for our fellow man even in terrible circumstances.
Whether there’ll be new discoveries to disprove the fiction – or confirm it – we’ll just have to wait to find out.
For a limited time, if you’re in the UK, you can watch the first episode on YouTube. Or below. I’d say enjoy, but…