Over the last ten to fifteen years, television has produced some truly memorable moments that have genuinely started to rival cinema as both entertainment and art-form. This cultural output has shown no signs of abating. Consider shows like Six Feet Under, The Soprano’s, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead and The Wire.
Recently, streaming services such as Netflix, have been quick to catch up, despite being significantly behind their older and more established televisual rivals in the ‘last century’ media.
However, satellite and cable still has some life left in it and AMC’s latest offering, The Terror, is proving as tense, horrifying, gripping and as compelling as anything ever committed to celluloid or streamed through the internet.
Produced by Ridley Scott and based on the 2007 book, by the author Dan Simmons who is also the Executive producer of the show, it follows the ill-fated Franklin expedition of the two Royal Navy ships, HMS Terror and Erebus on their voyage to discover the mythical North West Passage. This would allegedly link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and allow trading vessels to totally bypass the South Atlantic and the hazardous route around the ‘Southern Cone’ of South America or the lengthy and laborious voyage around Africa and Asia.
The cast of The Terror includes such televisual veterans as Ciaran Hinds, better known as Mance Rayder the ‘King Beyond the Wall’, from Game of Thrones, Jared Harris who recently played George the VI in The Crown and Tobias Menzies who played Edmure Tully, again, on Game of Thrones and is due to play a slightly more older Prince Philip in season three of The Crown. It would appear to be a very small and incestuous world in the acting community nowadays.
The expedition leader, Sir John Franklin, is an honourable and pious, ‘Queen and Country’ type of man who believes that British pluck, fortitude and resolve will win the day, regardless of the circumstances. Decent and honourable, but rigid and inflexible.
In contrast, the second in command, Capitan Francis Crozier, is the more competent, more measured sailor and commander and can even speak the native tongue of the sparse Inuit population. He can see disaster looming on the horizon, but is sidelined due to the fact that he is Irish and appears to have hit the ‘glass ceiling’ that existed for many of his brother officers in the senior service at the time.
The program itself is a tale of Victorian hubris, with slight Lovecraftian overtones and a strong ‘survival-horror’ element. Such hubris is almost understandable given the context of the time. Living in an age where the sun never sets on the British Empire and nature in all its guises was viewed as conquerable by man. An attitude that persevered well into the 20th century.
The foreknowledge that this is based on a true story, with no recorded survivors, adds to the tension. Indeed the show even acknowledges this in its epilogue, showing a much-belated rescue party (investigative party would be apter) questioning the native population of the area for the whereabouts of the derelict ships and missing crewmen.
As a result, The Terror doesn’t rely on a sense of mystery or even of hope. How could it? We know that these men did not survive their ordeal in the end. But this isn’t the crux of the show or even one of the main thematic points.
It’s the sense of desolation, the creeping sense of paranoia that the terror, a paranormal force or entity, which seems to be immune from the musket shots of the marines onboard both ships is out there stalking the crew. The sense that the crew, even with the benefit of all the modern technology of their time are dealing with forces beyond comprehension that cannot be captured, conquered or categorised is palpable.
Early on, the crew accidentally injure a member of the Inuit population who is accompanied by his daughter, who appears to be on a mission to placate something in the great white wilderness, but he dies before his mission is complete. The involvement of the Inuit is foreshadowed by a crewman viewing an apparition of a man wearing a tribal mask in his fevered death throes in sick-bay. Again, emphasising that this is an environment ill-suited to a misaligned Western outlook.
Only a few episodes in and the Terror and Erebus are two utterly insignificant outposts of life, in an otherwise white blanket of desolation with no hope of rescue from the outside. Mere pinpricks of existence in a vast, frigid, icy void. You can hear the creak of old English oak slowly being squeezed to death on a vast, inhospitable, alien ice floe, where it does not belong and was never meant to be.
Britain has had a fascination with the lost causes of exploration throughout its history. George Mallory and Sandy Irvine disappearing into the grey and unforgiving mists of Mount Everest on their final attempt to reach the summit. Captain Robert Falcon Scott, his doomed and exhausted men in a damned attempt to reach the South Pole; all gallant gentlemen to a man. Both explorations were glorious and tragic failures that weren’t even pyrrhic victories for the participants, but somehow turned into a cause celebre for the nation.
The Terror is a modern continuation of this fascination. There can be few better backdrops to a tale of survival, hubris and desperation than the Arctic. This has given the writers and producers a fantastic opportunity to present a compelling and dramatic narrative to the viewer and one that I would highly recommend to the discerning viewer and horror fan.