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At a certain point in The Terror – Dan Simmons’ doorstop novel and David Kajganich and Soo Hugh’s AMC adaptation – every character reaches their breaking point. Some of them break like frigid iron, shattering into hundreds of disparate pieces. Others bend like warm steel, they may be tested but they will never break.
What each and every character shares though is death. Some will starve, some will be murdered, some will fall to sickness and to fever, others will die through tragic accidents and the least fortunate will be mauled by the bear demon Tuunbaq. In both formats The Terror is a sad journey about masculinity and death in the most hostile place on Earth.
In 1845 an expedition to find the Northwest Passage – the waters between Canada and the Arctic into the Pacific – set sail from England led by Rear Admiral Sir John Franklin. 129 men, Franklin included, disappeared into the cold northern wastes, never to return. Historians posit that becoming trapped in the ice created problems for the expedition and their fate was sealed by poor summer melts and a rotting food supply. All 129 men died but the book and TV show posits that it wasn’t just the cold and starvation that killed them.
Whereas the book begins in media res the TV show follows a more linear timeline. The first third of the ten episode series documents Sir John Franklin’s (Ciarán Hinds) stubborn and arrogant attempts at fording the treacherous waters of the Canadian Arctic against the advice of his second-in-command Captain Francis Crozier (Jared Harris). After sending out an expedition looking for breaks in the ice the explorers shoot an Inuit man travelling with his daughter. The daughter is christened Lady Silence (Nive Nielsen) and her father’s death unshackles the bear spirit Tuunbaq which begins murdering the crew, including Franklin. Beset by starvation and extreme cold Captain Crozier and his new second Commander James Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies) decide to abandon the ships and begin the long trek to safety.
The Terror, like many of Simmons’ other novels, is massive. Nearly a thousand pages in length the book goes into great detail regarding the diet of 19th Century seamen, the type of wood the ships were built from and the intimate, gruesome effects of scurvy and lead poisoning. Whole pages are taken up by Bible verse, near the end of the book Simmons dedicates tens of pages to Inuit mythology. It’s tough going but then so is it’s adaptation.
The series spends as much time on its production design as Simmons did on his descriptive prose. The ships – HMS Terror and HMS Erebus – are lovingly rebuilt. Uniforms consist of the Welsh wigs, snow slops, navy topcoats and thick cable knitted sweaters that were standard Navy issue at the time. The ships doctors use a mixture of cocaine and wine as a remedy for the pains of scurvy. The dismemberment meted out by the flat-faced, human-esque Tuunbaq is visceral and unsparing in its grisly gore.
Worse than all the disemboweling and decapitation is the unending sense of hopelessness given off by the book and the show. One by one each glimmering spark of hope is snuffed out. Hope of a decent meal. Hope of rescue. Hope of a dignified death. The Terror, in its grim plodding death march, refuses to ever yield to the audience or reader’s hope that any of their favourite characters are getting out of this blasted, snowy wilderness alive. Not even the genuinely decent men like Dr. Goodsir (Paul Ready), Ice Master Blanky (Ian Hart) and Crozier’s Steward Jopson (Liam Garrigan) will be given a reprieve from the ghastly fate they will all eventually meet.
For all its faithfulness to the Arctic ice and Royal Navy life The Terror wouldn’t work without the performances of one of the strongest TV ensembles this side of Deadwood. Foregrounded by the dignified suffering of Crozier and Fitzjames The Terror, in both it’s forms, finds time for distinct characters in a landscape only remarkable in its hostile bleakness. If the Arctic is the canvas and the characters the paint then Simmons’ prose and Kajganich and Hugh’s scripts are the elegant, textured brushstrokes.
The series and book even find time for romance between the sailors. There’s the fierce, desperate copulation between mutineer Cornelius Hickey (Adam Nagaitis) and Steward William Gibson (Edward Ashley) as well as the tenderly chaste but doomed yearning between the older, wiser John Bridgens (John Lynch) and Harry Peglar (Kevin Guthrie). Despite the harshness of its setting and the nightmarish fantasy, it adds on The Terror maintains a sense of realism in terms of both place and character.
Outside of their respective timelines both book and series are very similar in their characterisations and themes. Besides Lady Silence and some brief flashbacks to Sir John’s wife Lady Franklin (Greta Scacchi) and her niece Sophia (Sian Brooke) pleading for a rescue mission to be launched the series is very focused on men. Men that love each other and men that hate each other. There are men that would kill for each other as well as men that would kill each other. Eventually there are men that kill to eat each other.
The tensions of a ship on the high seas eventually become the iron bonds of brotherhood in life or death situations. Men work both as a cohesive unit and as well-trained individuals and perhaps, had Hickey’s machinations not so sharply divided them, the men of The Terror expedition might have survived. But death hovers over their journey from the very beginning and its shadow looms above Francis Crozier in both the novel’s last few haunting pages and in the series’ final stark shot.
The deaths in The Terror are many and varied and are one of the few points where the series supersedes the source material. In these moments where the character dig their nails desperately into life or slip away peacefully the show defines itself as a landmark in prestige TV. The POV shot of a legless, screaming Franklin being dragged to an icy, fiery grave. The dreadful final moments of Henry Collins (Trystan Gravelle) as the Tuunbaq digs deep into not only his entrails but into his soul as well. The first death of a cabin boy provides eerie foreshadowing of the Inuit monster that will eventually kill most of the crew. Occasionally the series’ deaths take on a brighter note as Dr. Goodsir sees God as only a man of science could. Another main character’s death seems to refute the ancient claim that all men die alone. Even if they do, is it not better to go while looking into the eyes of a hard won friend?
HMS Erebus was found in 2014 buried deep beneath layers of thick Arctic ice with HMS Terror found two years later. Abandoned tents, supply cairns and mass death sites were found both by the Inuit and Europeans in the preceding centuries. Few were ever properly identified but it is generally believed that Captain Francis Crozier was one of the last to die, seen struggling towards the closest point of human civilisation that was still hundreds of miles away.
In the final moments of both the book and and series readers and viewers alike are with Crozier, not yet in his own final moments but far from the man he once was. In the endless wastes of the Arctic and in the hopeless void left by the lost Franklin Expedition the show and book allow a brief glimpse at something better all while asking: Was any of it really worth it?