When everything is upside down

'I envy you, Mr Collins' says Sir John Franklin, ill-chosen leader of the infamously fated Arctic expedition that would end in macabre mystery for him and his men. 'I've long wanted to move in the deep. What was it like?'

'Like a dream, sir' comes the stiff upper lip from Mr Collins, eyes set in chattering head. Before his descent he is the competent, brave engineer of the HMS Erebus. Now, he will never be the same again. We know the truth, but he's not ready to admit it.

The foreboding in The Terror brought forth by this dramatic irony is exactly this: a dream which becomes a nightmare. The two ships that set out to find the fabled Northwest Passage through the Arctic are armed with all the promise of exploration, equipped even with a steam engine and canned food, two 19th century innovations which lent them a Titanic-like bravado that would become tragic hubris when both ships disappeared after embarking in 1847.

Mr Collins' dream duality foreshadows the more desperate conflict to come. To begin with, it's the butting heads of the men in charge, who differ both in their maritime strategy and their conviction that God looks after all Englishmen. Francis Crozier (Jared Harris) the seasoned Irish sailor who was put in place to ensure his superior's judgement is cautious, at odds with Sir John (Ciaran Hinds) and his first officer James Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies) who crave the glory of discovery and find Crozier's attitude a hinderance to their forward march. These attitudes spell out the disaster, and are the reason Jared Harris' description of the show as 'a cautionary tale for Imperialism' is so accurate.

The epic fall from grace is what I found the most chilling element of the horror series, which has plenty of gore and fright but which is truly powerful for its excavation of the dual depths of human depravity and sheer grit. Thinking back on it, I found myself agog at the contrast between the officers eating and drinking with fine china and glassware in the first episodes, while later reduced to the physical and mental extremes of being lost in the harshest of nature's wildernesses. The uniforms, the tone, the palpable sophistication of these earlier sequences make what is to come far more horrific than any beast or storm. It is the height these men fall from that is the most extraordinary thing.

This descent is meticulously marked by breakdown of order at varying degrees: the crew wondering if the ship's dog is a higher rank than them; the bright eyed surgical apprentice both earning his stripes as a doctor and then losing the will to live, the sea becoming land; slaves becoming masters. This is a tale of struggle for dominion: a dirty, dogged fight at the edge of the earth. Eventually, the 'place that wants us dead' wins, but not before a magnificently crafted rising conflict between the men, their environment, and themselves.

And the loss is necessarily total. Out in the bleached expanse of King William Island the men try to claw their way back from (possibly the closest thing to a hell I've seen conjured in film or television) the doctor-by-proxy describes the men attacked by the Tuunbaq, mythical beast of the Nanavut region as 'like a diary with empty pages'. An endless cycle of this too, lost seems never to end and is the perfect, twisted indictment of colonialism and its gall: while what happened to the poor souls of the Franklin expedition remains a desperate tragedy, it can't help being a poetic resolve for the naked superiority of imperial thinking. An economic endeavour like all the others masked as exploration (the Northwest Passage sought for ease of trade between West and East) which tore through the life and liberty of so much of the globe could not be halted only by all men lost, but by men losing all.

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