"Frozen and isolated at the end of the earth. A chilling tale based on one of polar exploration’s deepest mysteries, with a crew stalked by a murderous presence. From Ridley Scott" (reproduced from the BBC Lockdown Learning website, by kind permission of the BBC press office).
The bare facts of the Franklin expedition are well known and can be summed up in a few words: in 1845 the mariners set out in the ships Erebus and Terror in pursuit of the North-West Passage, and were never seen again. A hundred and twenty sailors, both officers and men, disappeared into the landscape. A few relics were recovered by all-too-late rescue missions along with evidence of cannibalism, and it was not until the modern age that archaeologists located a number of graves and, finally, the two ships.
The explanation for this terrible loss is probably a matter of deadly mistakes and deadly circumstances. There is strong evidence to suggest that the crews were poisoned by the lead seals in their canned food, which may have impaired their judgment; it is equally possible that difficulties arose when Franklin took too long to evacuate the ships when supplies were low; and it is just as possible that a mutiny destroyed all chance of an organized march to safety in northern Canada. What actually happened is impossible to know with certainty. The story remains a horrifying mystery as intrepid Britons perished in the terrible cold of one of the most desolate places on earth. It is a ready-made subject for drama, and the recent series, punningly entitled The Terror, has turned the tale into a fine piece of Gothic television.
Based on a novel by Dan Simmons, first shown on AMC TV in 2018 and aired on the BBC in 2021, The Terror adds an extra dimension to what is already a grim narrative. Locked in by the crushing ice, undernourished and afraid, the sailors also have to contend with a mystical but all too corporeal monster, a tuunbaq, or Inuit spirit-creature, which picks them off and drives them into the territories of madness. Their attempts to survive, and what ultimately happens, is teased out in detail over the ten 45 minute episodes as they move towards their doom.
Several critics have described the series as depressing, but it is better understood as a tragedy in which the hubris of British imperialism is anatomized (quite literally) in withering detail. Written by David Kajganich, whose dense scripts preserve the finely nuanced language of class, the series traces the very many mistakes that lead to disaster. It is obvious from the start that the ships’ little epitomes of upper-class life – all ritual and comfort, with meals eaten off the finest porcelain – is completely at odds with the savage coldness of the Arctic, and there is a painful juxtaposition between the social niceties and luxury of the captain’s quarters and the vessels’ ghostly, frost-riven exteriors. The British don’t fit in this environment and have no right to be there, a message bluntly conveyed by the Inuit ‘Lady Silence’ and made more than apparent as the ships, equipped with the latest technology and designed to subjugate the world, grind to an impotent halt.
From series one, "The Ladder": "Days after another loss, Franklin is dismissive of Crozier" (reproduced from the BBC Lockdown Learning website, by kind permission of the BBC press office).
But the greatest error, and the focus of failure in this reading of events, is the appointment of Franklin as the expedition’s captain. Brilliantly played by Ciarán Hinds, the over-age captain is depicted as arrogant, indecisive, lacking in empathy, inflexible and altogether unequal to the task. Like all poor leaders, he prioritizes the upholding of his authority over the need to accept others’ suggestions, a position that means he is too late to respond to changing situations; already iced in, he proclaims to the crew that they will be the ‘new argonauts’ as the bedraggled sailors look on in dismay. Unable to read his men, he literally tries to plough on. This vanity and lack of understanding is particularly highlighted in Franklin’s refusal to listen to James Crozier. Played by Jared Harris in another complex and deeply felt performance, this interpretation emphasises the oft-stated view that Crozier was an able leader, and ignoring him was a fatal mistake. The contrast between the two is highlighted by dividing the episodes into two halves, roughly speaking: the expedition led by Franklin on the ice-pack is an unmitigated disaster, while the attempt to escape under Crozier’s command had a least a chance of success had action been taken earlier.
Hinds, Harris and an outstanding cast of British actors give a tangible presence to the historical figures, developing their characterizations in great detail which acknowledges their many faults. Directed by Tim Mielants, Edward Berger and Sergio Mimica-Gezzan, the acting is always precise and revealing, with many pieces of close observation adding a powerful resonance to the performances’ psychological impact. In episode 7, for example, we see the moment when Crozier decides to abandon The Terror; faithfully he makes the entry in the log, but his depth of feeling is most clearly revealed in his small gesture of running his hand along an interior wall, a caressing farewell of genuine affection. All he can do is say goodbye to a beloved home.
What lies ahead is a mystery. Those events are themselves informed with careful research, and the series offers a number of speculations on the extent to which the crew were aware of what was happening. It is intriguing, for example, to see that Paul Ready, in the part of Dr Goodsir, is clever enough to deduce that they are being poisoned by the lead seals of Goldner’s canned food – a notion only advanced in modern scholarship. There are several conversations connected to the rancid contents of the tins, and those in the galley, at least, are already aware of the dangers of eating what is essentially poisonous. There are also several half-veiled allusions to what happened to some of the men in Franklin’s previous expedition: did they die of starvation and were they the meals of others? Though only implicit, the ghost of cannibalism and bestiality stalks the journey almost from the start.
None of this matters as the expedition decays, and we are shown at length the stages of disintegration, both physical and psychological. Fear sets in and behaviour takes strange turns, most notably in the surreal masque, played out in a marquee on the ice, to ‘raise the men’s spirits’. It looks like it could be a family event on the lawn in Surrey, emblematic of home; but the sailors are already in a dream world, wearing weird disguises and presenting the frozen dead as mannequins, as if in a depraved circus-act. Mutiny follows in the hands of Cornelius Hickey (a swaggering psychopath, plausibly played by Adam Nagaitis), and the British stiff-upper-lip and decency are nowhere to be seen as the characters decline into uncertainty and confusion. In this connection the ships’ creaking and tilting as they are crushed adds another suggestive layer of meaning, making the physical setting a metaphor of dislocation and anxiety: the time is indeed out of joint.
This is intense drama, with a sophisticated interplay of text and subtext. Equally effective are the settings and trappings. The costumes and interiors are convincingly rendered and recreate a sense of period without giving a sense of museum-starchiness, as so often happens in historical drama. It is the exteriors, however, that take the plaudits. Though partly shot on location, the main action takes place on the ice-pack, which was recreated in the studio using CGI. The effect is breath-taking, a vision of what the ships must have looked like as tiny black oblongs seen from a vast height toiling through an endless white expanse or grounded in the ice, racked with the cold and eerily converted into spectres of themselves. The cinematography by Florian Hoffmeister is far beyond the usual reach of television and creates a poetic vision of otherness, of beauty so strangely at odds with its own deadliness. It is work that reminds us of Ridley Scott’s involvement as an executive producer: an expert who crafted the weird landscapes of the Alien series of films, he surely had a hand in the art-direction of The Terror’s threatening white-out.
What, then, are the series’ messages? Its critique of imperialism and the vanities of empire are plain for all to see. Yet there are other possibilities. The Terror is in many ways a parable of man’s limitations in the face of natural forces, reminding us of the puniness of civilization and the omnipresence of death, a tale, like the story of Icarus, of ambition and overreaching pride. It also yields to a psychoanalytical approach, with the tuunbaq acting as the embodiment of fear, the strange creation, perhaps, of anxiety produced in response to great adversity. All of these suggestions are offered and unresolved, making The Terror into a Gothic speculation on the unknown which might ultimately be the unknown territories of the mind; although a physical journey it is inward as much as outward, an expedition to discover the limitations of the human psyche. All that is left is the power of friendship, especially in the form of the compassion of Crozier and Goodsir as they lament the loss of friends and try their hardest to preserve what little remains. We may not like Franklin, but the crews’ response to his death – with very little to put in his coffin – is pathetic in the true sense of the term.
In short, The Terror is enthralling television. Superbly written, designed, acted and photographed, it keeps the viewer guessing despite the inevitability of the end. We care profoundly for the characters and their tragic demise in a world where the tokens of human culture (or at least Western culture) mean nothing at all and England, recounted in flashback, is just a dream. Tough and uncompromising, with many visceral effects, startling imagery and heart-rending dialogue, The Terror leaves a powerful impression of small and vulnerable figures, forked creatures trapped by their own limitations as much as they are trapped by the dazzling ice.
Please see BBC Two for episodes and clips, available on I-Player in UK at the time of writing. Web. 23 March 2021.