In 1845 a British voyage of discovery consisting of two ships – HMS Erebus and HMS Terror – departed England with aims to chart the fabled Northwest Passage. The expedition was lost. Join Dork Shelf Editor-in-Chief Will Perkins and horror culture writer Peter Counter week-by-week as they recap AMC’s ten episode television event The Terror.
“Be careful how you use that word—close. This is the Discovery Service, close is nothing. It’s worse than nothing. It’s worse than anything in the world.” – Captain Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier
Tell Them We Are Gone
Will: The premiere episode of AMC’s adaptation of The Terror certainly starts with a strong dose of foreboding. Right from the get-go it’s made clear that things didn’t go as planned for the men of the Franklin Expedition. The epigraph tells viewers that they vanished without a trace, but the subsequent account of their fate relayed to Sir James Ross by the Inuit elder paints a much darker picture. He tells Ross the men were pursued by something – the thing made of muscles and spells – and of Captain Crozier’s final message: those who try to find them should not stay, for they are “dead and gone.”
Peter: As a fan of Dan Simmons’ novel The Terror, I was taken aback by the opening scene. In the book, the action opens in October 1847, years after the events of this episode, depicting Crozier on deck of a frozen-in Terror gazing at Aurora Borealis. The show, on the other hand flashes forward to the eventual rescue expedition of Ross, which is beyond the scope of the literary source material. This is exciting, since it shows that AMC’s adaptation isn’t scared of revision and expansion and gives me hope for how some of the more problematic parts of the book will be handled.
Will: As a bit of a polar exploration history geek, Ross’s presence in the opening scene immediately filled me with confidence for The Terror. It not only acts as a great framing device – Ross was a close friend of Crozier and previously commanded the very same ships on an incredibly successful Antarctic expedition in 1839 – but it also speaks to the attention being paid by the writers and showrunners to the mindset of these 19th century explorers. Franklin’s expedition to find the Northwest Passage was one of the most technologically advanced expeditions ever mounted, and it was regarded by the Admiralty and the public as a surefire success due in large part to Ross’s Antarctic triumphs. That Victorian hubris is what drives this show!
Peter: That hubris is present throughout the entire episode. After the flash-forward prologue we see both Erebus and Terror in all their technological splendor. The expedition is framed almost like interplanetary sci-fi, with birds-eye shots reminiscent of the 2005 Battlestar Galactica reboot. Starting with dialogue between Ross and an Inuit man is a stark contrast, emphasizing that viewing the landscape of the North as an alien world is a colonial perspective, and one that will no doubt consume many lives.
Will: Centering the Inuit oral tradition as key to discovering the truth of the Franklin mystery also gives me a lot of hope for the series. Despite being first hand witnesses to the real-life tragedy, the Inuit testimony gathered by Ross and others was largely ignored by the public in England at the time. When you talk about problematic elements from Simmons’ book, the depiction of Inuit culture and spirituality left something to be desired. Perhaps the showrunners mean to right this in their version.
The Men in Charge
Peter: I think you and I agree that the casting of the expedition’s command is one of the show’s greatest strengths. One of the highlights of this first episode for me is Captain Fitzjames’ (Tobias Menzies) opening monologue in the Erebus dining cabin.
Will: Fitzjames’ vivid recounting of being wounded in China (complete with graphic descriptions of burning Chinese soldiers and the smell of roast duck. Gross.) really tells us a lot about his character, no? He’s on this voyage for the story he’ll be able to tell one day. In fact, the entire dinner scene and the scenes leading up to it reveal quite a lot about the expedition’s commanders – Franklin (Ciaran Hinds), Crozier (Jared Harris), and Fitzjames. It’s immediately clear that Fitz greatly admires Sir John and is loving every minute of this frozen excursion; It’s also quite evident that Crozier – a seasoned polar explorer – can’t stand the younger officer or his gruesome war stories (“Tell the one about Bird-Shit Island, why don’t you James?”). Sir John is a teetotaller, while Crozier may have a real taste for the drink if Mr. Jopson’s queries are to believed. It’s good writing that appropriately sets the table for the series. Hinds, Harris, and Menzies’ performances really anchor the pilot episode, to use a nautical metaphor, and their character’s interpersonal dynamics will surely determine the success or failure of this voyage of discovery.
Peter: It was one of the show’s biggest surprises for me, that this dynamic would be so fun. In the novel, Sir John is insufferable and incompetent to the point of lazy villany, but here, Hinds makes the man loveable enough that I actually would follow him on a doomed expedition to the north. I call this the Mance Rayder effect.
Will: Well, I don’t know that I’d follow him if I knew it was a doomed expedition, but he’s definitely more charismatic than I expected Sir John to be – he’s certainly got more hair than the real-life Franklin. That’s gotta count for something, right?
Peter: It certainly counts towards some of the more sanguine symptoms of scurvy, but we’ll get to that later.
At The Pressure Ridges of Madness
Peter: While The Terror is admirable in its depiction of real historical events, places and people, at its heart it is a horror story, and in this regard the first episode does not disappoint. The blood, the atmosphere, the apparitions and the extreme doom, combined with the focus on Erebus and Terror’s cutting edge technology and the retro sci-fi soundtrack (the sound of drowned pianos and synthesizer) is the stuff of weird fiction masterpiece.
In this episode, the horror highlight for me was the diving suit expedition juxtaposed with Mr. Goodsir’s autopsy of poor dead David Young. While I generally disdain “the ship is the real main character” tropes I found this to be an elegant way to show that the ships and the social structures that keep them running are allegorical to the human body. In the same way that corruption will tear a young man apart from the inside, so will a ship and its crew be rent asunder from the blight of low morale.
Will: The diving suit scene was absolute nightmare fuel. The gore and the bonesawing (so much sawing!) I can handle, but ghostly corpses reaching out for the living from the icy blue darkness? That sets my “NOPE” meter to 11. Methinks this terrifying experience is going to stick with Mr. Collins.
Peter: This is something I wanted to ask you specifically, since you are a professed naval history nerd: did HMS Erebus have a diving suit aboard? That scene is unique to the show and therefore set of anachronism alarms.
Will: This may simply be a case of creative license on the part of the showrunners. I’ll be honest, it bugged me too, so it was one of the first things I looked into after watching the episode. Turns out diving suits like this one did exist in the 1830s and 40s, but they were slightly more primitive than what we see here, which looks more like a late 19th century design. Also, as far as I know there is no record of either Erebus or Terror having a diving suit on board. It certainly wasn’t in the book.
Peter: I know it feels like a nitpick to worry about anachronism in a show where masked ghosts ferry away boys to the afterlife, but I guess that’s just the kind of person I am.
Will: Yes, why worry about small inaccuracies while dying men are screaming “It wants us to run!”? Priorities, people.
Live Men or Dead Men
Will: The Erebus’s efficiency has been compromised. The damaged propeller has the flagship down to half-power and the ice getting thicker by the day. The officers convene to discuss a plan of action and Captain Crozier is blunt in his assessment of the situation: the expedition will become stuck in the pack ice if it continues to the west and be left to an uncertain fate. Fitz is quick to chide Terror’s captain, but ol’ Francis is having none of it. He cites his own considerable polar experience and even questions Franklin’s leadership on the matter, making reference to the fact that Sir John was forced to eat his own leather boots on a disastrous overland Arctic expedition years prior. Franklin, however, remains confident that the crew will be sipping mai tais in the Sandwich Islands (modern day Hawaii) in no time and vetoes Crozier’s proposal to abandon Erebus and go for broke down the east coast of King William Land.
Peter: For all of Sir John’s hubristic meteorological miscalculations he is right about one thing as he prepares the crew for an immobile summer, they signed up for the adventure of a lifetime.
Will: Adventure is one word for it. Granted, it’s a hell of a speech that Franklin delivers to the men as they set forth – you’re right, I might follow him too – but I must say that his oratory loses some of its lustre in retrospect when Erebus and Terror IMMEDIATELY become stuck in the pack ice in the next scene. They’re part of it now, Franklin declares. Captain Crozier was right.
Flotsam and Jetsam
Peter: We will not be posting spoilers in these reviews but a word of warning for those wanting to enlist on their own narrative voyage of discovery: the plot of AMC’s The Terror is close enough to the novel that Googling a character name will give you spoilers.
Will: It’s also advisable to steer clear of Wikipedia or any historical writing about the Franklin Expedition, as what is known about their true fate by historians and archaeologists is sure to factor into the series.
Peter: Seriously let me buy this soundtrack. Not since The Knick have I been so down with synth in a historical drama.
Will: Ring, ring ring – The moment when Mr. Goodsir realizes he’s forgotten poor David Young’s ring is sure to come up again. Was it just me or did Hickey seem a little too interested in Young’s body while on burial duty? It looks like he put something in his pocket.
Peter: I get so many Battlestar Galactica vibes from this show it’s nuts. All it’s missing is literally any women in its prime timeline at this point.
Will: And we should also mention right off the bat that there aren’t many women or minorities in this series. While there are several significant female characters on the show (we briefly met Lady Franklin and Sophia Cracroft during the flashback), the setting and time period of The Terror means that this is an almost exclusively male cast. It makes show one of the least diverse TV shows in recent memory, although it seems the showrunners are quite cognizant of this. Yes, The Terror is ultimately a horror show, but much of what we’ve called Victorian hubris can also be described as toxic masculinity. I think this show has the potential to be a fascinating exploration of that particular behaviour.
Read our recap of The Terror Episode 2 “Gore” here.