The British Empire liked to keep the Royal Navy busy between wars by having it map the world. The post-Nelson generation of highly accomplished seamen that included Sir William Parry, Sir John Franklin, Sir John Ross, and his nephew Sir William Clark Ross, made something of a speciality of Polar exploration. Their biggest obsession was to succeed where the great Captain James Cook had failed, by finding the Northwest Passage, a sea route over the top of Canada, which would give Britain a short cut to the Pacific avoiding the dangerous Cape Horn.
Much was achieved and a well appointed expedition of two specialist vessels commanded by the respected Franklin was generally seen as the one last push that would succeed. The total disappearance of both ships and all the men aboard made a huge impact on public consciousness at the time - imagine if Apollo 11 had just dropped off radar screens - and "The Lost Expedition" became particularly embedded in Canadian folklore.
Extensive searches at the time, prompted by the indefatigable Lady Franklin, yielded only tantalising clues, and it is only in the last decade that both wrecks have been found. This leaves ample room for speculation, and The Terror, a ten-part drama, uses that opportunity well.
It seems the expedition had been trapped in the ice for two successive winters, and the decision was taken to abandon the ships and march South. This was in itself no big deal. Franklin and his backers were fully aware of the dangers of it happening - it had happened before - and were well prepared for the contingency. What they did not know was that the contractor who supplied their tinned food had skimped on the job, so that much of it was inedible.
The dramatisation sticks to these basic facts, but adds both a supernatural element and a fictitious element of human conflict. The supernatural element is superfluous, but, commendably, it is implied that it might have a natural explanation. Perhaps we are being shown things from the perspective of men suffering from severe food poisoning. So even the monster we are shown might be no more than how they saw a particularly large emaciated, possibly injured polar bear who was reduced to stalking a convenient herd of humans for want of any other food source. That is in itself a very likely scenario.
The human conflict element would explain a lot if it was true. It is a fact that nearly all the British expeditions that ran into trouble during the Age of Exploration maintained their discipline, and this was crucial to their survival, often against considerable odds. Reference is made in The Terror to the experience of Sir John Ross in this regard, even if the script fails to acknowledge what a great achievement it was that most of his command survived. Other examples include the incredible survival of the 'Bounty' survivors under the unfairly maligned William Bligh, and the later Sir Ernest Shackleton, who, as a civilian, did not even have the legal backing of the Articles of War as Franklin and his Royal Navy colleagues did. While modern dramatists like to have men under pressure emoting all the time, the truth is that our ancestors really did keep stiff upper lips, obey orders, and get out of extremely sticky situations by just plodding on.
It is therefore greatly to the credit of The Terror that it avoids hysteria and shows how the social order of the time was maintained until a very late stage, as was almost certainly the case. Yet the evidence we have suggests things really did fall apart at the end, and the inclusion of a plausible psychopath with megalomaniac tendencies in the crew provides a credible explanation. Even then, the script acknowledges, by making him an imposter, how unlikely it is that such a character would have maintained a career in a highly professional service.
Credibility is the key to the total dramatic success of The Terror. We feel we are in the 19th Century - and for a great part of the time in a pair of claustrophobic ships. The writing and production departments have all done their research well. Above all, the actors act like 19th Century people, not 21st Century people slumming it uncomfortably in a different time. They observe the social restraints of the period, but without any sacrifice of their humanity. This is what acting is about, becoming a different sort of person, even if it is an increasingly rare accomplishment in recent productions.
It is no great surprise that the most memorable performance comes from Jared Harris, who is now, thanks largely to this production and Chernobyl, being acknowledged at last as one of our most talented actors. As Francis Crozier, he is a second in command who has to step up, rather reluctantly, to take full responsibility. First he must take command of himself, by overcoming his alcoholism. At the same time he learns that the perspective of the man who must take the big decisions is very different from that of a man who can complain about them.
It is a wonderful study in leadership that could usefully be shown in military academies, not least because Harris' Crozier is most definitely not a "natural leader" as Franklin (Ciaran Hinds) and the aristocratic third in command James Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies) appear to be. He progresses by trial and error - and he makes some pretty huge errors, but he is able to learn and move on from them. We see him grow from a generally despised drunk to a leader who earns, and deserves, the trust of most of his men. Alas, that proves not to be enough.
The rest of the cast is faultless and all disbelief is suspended very quickly. The always watchable Hinds and the rising star Menzies both add more lustre to their already distinguished curricula vitae. Greta Scacchi, as Franklin's far more formidable wife, continues to develop as a strong character actress. Ian Hart is likeable as one of Crozier's few friends, the veteran "Ice Master" Thomas Blanky. Adam Nagaitis is chilling as the Ship's Psychopath. Paul Ready is poignant as a humane Assistant Surgeon. Clive Russell is a surly Sir John Ross and it is a pity we do not see more of him: it would have been fun to see his clash with Lady Franklin after the failure of the rescue mission he led and for which she had raised the money.
Indeed, one of the criticisms of the project is that many of the storylines that were set in motion find no satisfactory resolution, or no resolution at all. It could, if anything, have done with being a bit longer - which is not much of a criticism really.
The directors of the early episodes, Edward Berger and Sergio Mimica-Gezzan, do a magnificent job slowly building up the sense of terror on the, er, 'Terror' - and also the 'Erebus,' those being the names of Franklin's two ships, giving the title a delicious double meaning. The later episodes, out under the glaring Arctic Summer sky, directed by Tim Mielants, have a different feel to them, evoking the sort of terror Burke found in beauty, and vice versa. It is a sublime experience in the literal sense of the word. Yet one must look out for important points of detail among the spectacular landscapes: a brief shot of initials on a boot has ghastly significance.
The production values throughout are a credit to everyone involved. Yet there are a number of errors or anachronisms (such as a Protestant child being offered the Chalice in a Roman Catholic Mass in the early 19th Century) and writing decisions that simply do not ring true.
The novel on which the production is based apparently buys in to the fashionable notion that the Franklin Expedition was somehow an act of Imperial hubris. That is total nonsense. The Northwest Passage does in fact exist and the route by which Roald Amundsen (a professed admirer of Franklin who was later to develop a habit of stealing glory from the Brits at the last minute) first sailed his way through was where Franklin said it was. It is possible that some members of the Franklin Expedition might have been the first to see it. Their ships, which had been used in the successful Antarctic Expedition of Sir James Clark Ross, represented state of the art technology at that time. Franklin's crews were carefully selected, competent, and headed by a strong cadre of very experienced men.
Franklin was no stranger to extreme hardship and he had proved himself a capable leader in very harsh conditions. He had led two previous Arctic expeditions after being second in command in another and learning his craft as an explorer under Captain Matthew Flinders of Australia fame. As the script concedes, he seems to have been held in very high esteem by the men he led. He was one of a large number of devout Evangelical Christians in the Royal Navy at that time, part of a well established tradition that never saw faith as a substitute for the highest standards of professionalism - quite the contrary. While the script is right that he was not the first choice to command the Expedition, that was mainly because the Secretary to the Admiralty wanted a younger man. It is therefore wholly inaccurate to imply he was a pompous fool. The fact that it was only long after his death that everything collapsed is testimony in itself.
The script is also curiously unfair to its hero. Francis Crozier, a Fellow of both the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society, was a definite high flyer. He had been second in command to Sir John Clark Ross in the Antarctic - in command of the 'Terror,' the very same ship he commanded under Franklin. He was in fact one of the younger men who had been considered for command of the whole Expedition. While there was definite drinking culture in the Royal Navy, for that very reason a man who was known to be unable to handle his consumption would never have been allowed on a quarterdeck, let alone such a prestigious one.
These are perhaps minor points, but they are disappointing in a production that has in other respects obviously taken great pains to get its history right. Yet even if The Terror is sometimes questionable history, it is still extremely compelling drama and is highly recommended as such. Note that this refers only to what is now called the first season of The Terror. Another project by the same production team released under the same title, as it's second, season is a completely separate story with no cast or characters in common.
Review: John Winterson Richards
John Winterson Richards is the author of the 'Xenophobe's Guide to the Welsh' and the 'Bluffer's Guide to Small Business,' both of which have been reprinted more than twenty times in English and translated into several other languages. He was editor of the latest Bluffer's Guide to Management and, as a freelance writer, has had over 500 commissioned articles published.
He is also the author of ‘How to Build Your Own Pyramid: A Practical Guide to Organisational Structures' and co-author of 'The Context of Christ: the History and Politics of Rome and Judea, 100 BC - 33 AD,' as well as the author of several novels under the name Charles Cromwell, all of which can be downloaded from Amazon. John has also written over 100 reviews for Television Heaven.
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Published on August 24th, 2021. Written by John Winterson Richards for Television Heaven.