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.
“One reason that Harry D.S. Goodsir had insisted on coming along on this exploration party was to prove he was as strong and able a man as most of his crewmates. He soon realized that he wasn’t.” – Dan Simmons’ The Terror, p. 134
Eight Months Later
Will: The men of the Franklin Expedition have been trapped in the Arctic pack ice for eight long, cold months. Close quarters and oppressive polar darkness have surely taken their toll on the officers and sailors of this grand voyage of discovery, but for Erebus’ ship’s cat it’s business as usual: hunting rats. In fact, routine seems to be the order of the day, but I wonder what cracks have begun to appear amongst the crew since we last saw them in the fall of 1846. We catch up with Sir John and Commander Fitzjames inspecting the ship’s steam engine, a repurposed locomotive engine, and the crew carrying on as if nothing is amiss. But make no mistake – if the spring thaw fails to materialize, this expedition will be in serious jeopardy.
Peter: For all of Erebus and Terror’s technological glory, there’s no accounting for weather. Only two episodes in, and this show has managed to convey its high-concept themes of doom and human frailty in the face of our planet at its most extreme. It’s almost as if optimism is a tragic flaw here, hopeful thinking immediately punished by the oppressive space. By entrusting the matter of ideal weather conditions to Sir John’s Christian God, the expedition is at the mercy of the one thing English marvels of engineering can’t conquer: a neverending Canadian winter.
Will: We know it all too well. It’s with great fanfare and another rousing speech from Sir John that Lt. Graham Gore (for whom this episode is aptly named) and a well-equipped sledging party set off for King William Land to the west. Other teams are sent east and west to search for open leads the ships could use to retreat. Gore’s team has been entrusted with another mission though: to deposit cylinders containing information on the expedition’s progress, as was standard Royal Navy practice at the time. They are to plant the message in a safe place and return to the ships posthaste.
An interesting side note is that King William Land was referred to as such because no one at the time was sure if it was an island or a peninsula. In this still uncharted region of the Arctic Archipelago, the constant covering of ice and snow made it impossible to know where the sea ended and land began (for the record, the piece of land is now called King William Island). As Gore and company set off, the true state of the expedition’s isolation is made abundantly clear: Erebus and Terror are but miniscule black specks in an ocean of white. Travel well, Lieutenant.
Will: Based on the lingering glance between Francis and Crozier we saw in the previous scene, a split has happened between Franklin and Crozier in the intervening months, likely precipitated by Sir John’s decision not to heed the advice of Terror’s captain the previous year. In an effort to mend fences, Sir John comes to Terror and admits that he was wrong. However, the elder officer remains hopeful about the thaw and again refuses to believe Crozier’s warnings. It’s here that a bit of familiarity with Arctic meteorology will come in handy for viewers. As Francis points out, spring may have arrived but the sun dogs aren’t going away. No, this isn’t some species of dog native to the Arctic Ocean. Sun dogs are a unique atmospheric phenomenon (prominently featured in the show’s opening title sequence) caused by the refraction of sunlight through ice crystals. Their presence in the sky at this time of year means the thaw that Sir John is hoping for may not come. Franklin’s refusal to concede this point means the chilly relationship between the two men may not be coming to an end any time soon either.
Peter: Already it’s clear that The Terror excels at drawing parallels between character relationships and the conditions of the show’s setting. Whether it’s the emotional pack ice between Crozier and Franklin, or the alien plains of King William Land highlighting Dr. Goodsir’s outsider status in his sledging party.
Will: Goodsir is right. The arctic landscape does have a certain desolate beauty to it, doesn’t it? Although I can’t say I’d be eager to drag a heavy sledge over that kind of terrain. It says something of Goodsir’s character that he can appreciate its allure while simultaneously being unsettled by the almost alien quality of this place. It would have been completely alien to these Brits. In 1846 these men might as well have been on the Moon.
Peter: Again we see the sci-fi framing of this terrible adventure through breathtaking photography that alienates the humans on screen. The show’s synth-laden score further emphasizes the would-be Moonmen’s disbelonging, sledging their whaleboat across the frozen desert. As a viewer I’m thankful the showrunners took this planetary-discovery tone, counteracting the growing sense of dread with images of sublime wonder and beauty.
Will: As evidenced by that lonely cairn of stones, to borrow a phrase from the great Stan Rogers, Franklin’s men aren’t actually the first Europeans to visit King William Land. The cairn was built in 1830 by Sir James Clark Ross (who we met in the pilot episode) on a previous Arctic expedition in order to claim the land for Britain and mark the farthest point reached. The location of the cairn is marked on charts back home, so depositing a message for others to find (English tea merchants, Gore prays) seems like a savvy move on Franklin’s part. However, if all is well, as the message claims, one wonders why it bears recording or leaving the message? Is Sir John getting worried? A question for another time. There may be something to be worried about closer at hand. While Gore and the others deposit the tin cylinder, Goodsir seems distracted by something in the distance. What is it that has the mutton chopped anatomist spooked?
A Disappointed Man
Will: Back aboard Erebus, Lieutenant Irving catches Mr. Gibson and Mr. Hickey in the act. It seems at least a few of Franklin’s men have found comfort in one another’s arms during the cold winter months, but such relationships are frowned upon in the Royal Navy. Will Irving report the behaviour? Mr. Hickey doesn’t think so and his reasoning is sound. He believes the pious Irving won’t tell anyone what he saw because he probably didn’t understand what he saw. It’s plain that Cornelius Hickey has the Lieutenant’s number. An observant one, isn’t he?
Peter: For those following along with the book, Mr. Hickey will no doubt seem heavily revised for the better. Simmons paints the man’s sexuality as an indication of his loathsome character, whereas on the screen this situation helps illustrate, as you mentioned, Cornelius’ acute ability to understand social dynamics. I find myself highly invested in Hickey’s storyline now for two reasons: I want to see if his revision will have a larger effect on the overall story, and I just want to spend more time with this complicated and sympathetic character.
Will: As Lieutenant Gore and an advance party travel to leave another message at King William Land’s second cairn, Mr. Goodsir and the remainder of the scouting group return to the sledge. Climbing the pressure ridge separating the land from sea, the men find the sledge overturned and their supplies scattered everywhere. What on earth could have done this? The sledge is huge and incredibly heavy. I have the same question as the men: A bear did that?
Peter: The popular knowledge is that polar bears are the only mammals that will hunt human beings. But the pieces don’t fully add up: the Goldners canned foods weren’t eaten and the destruction of the sledge seemed almost malicious. If it was a bear, it’s time for this icenauts to get a move on and hightail it back to their respective bunks.
Will: Over on Erebus, Sir John and Fitz discuss their deteriorating relationship with Terror’s commander. It’s here that we learn that Crozier was not the Admiralty’s first choice to command the vessel, nor was Franklin the first candidate they considered to command the expedition (fun fact: James Ross, Fitzjames, and Crozier were actually considered before Franklin, but were disqualified for being newlywed, too young, and Irish, respectively). Fitz does his best to cheer up the elder officer, but the two are interrupted when Mr. Bridgens brings word that one of the scouting parties has returned. It’s the team sent to the east to scout leads and the news isn’t good. There are no leads with 11 miles of the ships. And that’s not all: the east team also report that a large portion of the canned provisions they brought with them were spoiled.
Peter: A game of football played on the ice is a telling touch that says volumes about the state of the expedition. First, it shows that regardless of the forecast from the sun dogs, morale is still high enough for team sports. Furthermore, the game shows that the unrelenting pack ice has transformed Erebus and Terror from vehicles into forts. Ideally, those boys would be playing a hypothermic game of water polo.
All of the situational storytelling aside, the game of ice footy brought up one of my primary criticisms of AMC’s adaptation: it doesn’t seem cold enough. Within the first ten pages of Dan Simmons’ book, Crozier reflects on seeing men’s teeth explode from chattering in the Arctic cold. And while this scene takes place in the summer, even the men doing the sweaty work of pulling Lieutenant Gore’s sledge kept their clothes on.
A Look Back
Will: It seems we now know the source of Crozier’s grumpiness. At some point prior to the expedition his marriage proposal to Sir John’s niece, Sophia Cracroft (Sian Brooke), was rejected. Neither Franklin or Lady Franklin (Greta Scacchi) seem to approve of the match, but nevertheless blame Sophia for encouraging Francis’s advances. Not cool, guys. Cut to Francis lookin’ real sad in the foyer. He overheard everything. I secretly hope this shot becomes a meme: Friend Zone Frank.
Peter: Second in command and second in love. Thankfully, Crozier’s personality doesn’t repel Thomas Blanky (Ian Hart) as the two characters treat us to some charming remembrance above deck on Terror.
Will: Just two old sailors reminiscing about reindeer and ice (“Rowing reindeer in our sleighboats like proper little ladies!”) and expeditions past. Mr. Blanky has been a quiet but constant presence in these first two episodes. I really enjoy Hart as a performer, so I hope that Terror’s Ice Master (easily the most badass title on this expedition) gets more to do now that the ships are locked in ice. The options for what comes next for the two vessels don’t sound pretty!
Peter: Blanky is like the Davos Seaworth of AMC’s The Terror. He’s down to earth, doesn’t mince words, is full of stories, and has the darkest sense of humour this side of Westeros. Like you, I’m excited to see more of Hart as the series moves forward.
Will: Back on the ice near King William Land, things are going from bad to worse. Just as Lieutenant Gore and company rejoin the larger party, the gathering storm begins raining golf ball-sized hail on the camp. And whatever creature overturned the sledge sounds like it’s returned.
Peter: It looks like, true to its sci-fi horror roots, The Terror is going full Alien when it comes to this great white ‘bear,’ keeping the thing out of clear view even as it massacres characters. The similarity is not a huge surprise given Ridley Scott is executive producer on the show.
Will: Thunder, and lightning, and bears. Oh my! I would say that scene is a little more Aliens, but I take your point. We’re currently averaging about one solid horror sequence per episode. I’m very okay with this.
Peter: Me too. Another thing I am okay with the introduction of Inuit characters. After all the work the camera did in framing King William Land as some inhospitable space not of this world, the party’s encounter with Inuit people is a reminder that they are not discovering anything and the inhospitality of the arctic is, like everything else dooming Franklin’s men, a matter of colonial hubris.
Will: Yeah, their first encounter with the Indigenous peoples of Nunavut could have gone a little better…
When Irish Eyes Are Smiling
Peter: Speaking of hubris, back on Terror Hickey has gone from keeping warm on the lower deck with Gibson to chilling with the captain in Crozier’s quarters.
Will: This might be my favourite scene of the episode, partly because it raises more questions than it answers. We join Hickey, Terror’s caulker’s mate, doing what he does best (caulking the draft in the captain’s privy) when Neptune the dog relieves himself on the floor of the captain’s ready room. Hickey is Irish? Even for someone not attuned to the accents of the British Isles, this was news to me. He sounds very English. Something is up here. Crozier also seems a bit taken aback by Hickey’s candour – and casual use of the term “mick” to describe people of Irish descent. Would an Irishman really use that word to talk about himself?
Peter: I also loved this scene. To see Crozier drinking with the caulker’s mate helps us understand his character a bit better. That captain’s lack of decorum extends beyond the company of his old friend Sir John. Is he just a friendly boss, in a “Mr. Crozier is my dad, call me Frank” kind of way, or is he looking for excuses to day-drink?
The shared whiskey is interrupted by Lieutenant Irving. It’s almost comical to see his reaction, finding Hickey, who he likely suspects of sodomy (a floggable offense in the Discovery Service, the bigots) in such kinds spirits with the very man he’d report his impropriety to. Ever a man to take his job seriously, Irving delivers the message that Gore’s party has finally returned.
Will: On deck, the men of Terror are cheering for the return of the King William sledging party, but Franklin quickly realizes that Lieutenant Gore is not among those racing towards the ship. Cut to the infirmary and Dr. Stanley (Rogue One’s Alistair Petrie) goes from zero to racist in about half a second, refusing to even treat the Inuit man that the party accidentally shot. Sir John reluctantly agrees to let Mr. Goodsir try to save him. That Goodsir is quickly living up to his name! The young woman is not keen on anyone touching her father, let alone operate, but thankfully Crozier arrives just in time to translate and calm things down. Things are not looking good for the man though.
Peter: Goodsir’s observation of the hippocratic oath had me cursing the mere anatomist’s shipmates, “He’s more a doctor than you could ever hope to be, Stanley.” Similar to Hickey’s drink with Crozier, Goodsir’s heroic efforts helps show that the class structure and titles that keep ships in line are not ironclad.
The Inuit woman witnesses the death of her father after a panicked farewell. “Do not ask that of me, I’m not ready,” she says. “Tuunbaq will not obey me.”
Foreboding stuff, but the beats are played emotionally. Nive Nielsen gives a powerful introduction to her (currently unnamed) character, so by the time Sir John ejects her, I have lost all sympathy for every white man in the room save Goodsir. Nielsen’s performance is yet another gift of revision. Her character has no spoken lines in Simmons’ book, hence her billed name: Lady Silence.
What Happened Out There
Peter: Without any time to recover from his days of exploration, near death experiences, and failed attempt at life-saving, Goodsir is mad to debrief the command. I’m starting to adopt the nervous tick of muttering, “Poor Goodsir…” whenever I see mutton chops.
Will: Poor Goodsir. He’s very broken up about Gore’s death and reports that whatever killed him may have tracked them back to the ship. On a ship full of hard men, the young anatomist seems unusually sensitive and empathetic. Both things are already in short supply on this expedition, so I worry that this may become a liability for the character. Crozier for his part seems more concerned about leads than dead men, but there’s no good news there either.
Peter: Goodsir’s continued concern over the Inuit woman and her dead father is endearing, but his broaching of the topic is met with Colonial ignorance despite the pertinent news that the man who died on Erebus had his tongue surgically removed.
“These people are not our concern,” says Franklin, asserting that same English confidence that marooned the most technologically advanced ships in the world. In the first episode I mentioned that Ciarán Hinds injected much needed sympathy into Sir John, but I will have to say those days of liking the doomed captain are now passed.
Will: After hearing Goodsir’s report, I’m amazed that Francis has the courage to wander back to Terror alone. It’s dark and scary out there on the ice between the two ships. He seems rightfully spooked by the goings on and wants more information from the young woman, who they’ve secreted away aboard the other ship. She’s clearly traumatized by all of this and blames the expedition for her father’s death. When she tells them to leave Crozier explains that they can’t and she responds by saying that if they don’t, they’re going to disappear. She then makes the motion of something being pulled out of her mouth. That’s not at all creepy and I’m sure everything will be fine. Roll credits, Peter.
Peter: I hope everyone likes body horror!
Flotsam and Jetsam
Peter: Sorry to go full book-nerd on this episode, but another major difference between the show and the novel is Mr. Gibson. In Simmons’ novel, Mr. Hickey engages in an affair with Magnus Manson: a gentle and unlearned giant (think Hodor with more words).
Will: Mr. Gibson seems average and semi-learned. Good on you, Hickey. But no apologies required here. I went full history nerd last episode (and will likely continue to do so), so let the nerding continue!
Peter: Every time Goodsir operates on a person or a corpse, take a drink.
Will: Uh… Every time Crozier takes a drink, operate on a person or corpse? Wait, don’t do that.
Peter: Gimme this show’s soundtrack!
Will: For the curious, the show’s music was composed by Swedish experimental musician Marcus Fjellström, who sadly passed away late last year. The Terror is his final work.
Read our recap of The Terror Episode 1 “Go for Broke” here.