AMC’s The Terror: Episode 1 Analysis

AMC’s Season 1 of The Terror is a dramatisation of the ill-fated 1845 Royal Navy Expedition, consisting of 129 men aboard HMS Erebus and HMS Terror commanded by Captain Sir John Franklin (played by Ciaran Hinds) to find the northwest passage through the Canadian arctic. Based on the book of the same name by Dan Simmons, the show mixes history, speculation, and horror to produce a compelling drama.

The episode opens after the end, in 1850, with Captain James Ross and Dr John Rae asking an Inuit tribal leader about the fate of the expedition. The Inuit leader says he saw a group of survivors, who were dying. The leader was Captain Francis Crozier (played by Jared Harris), second in command of the expedition. They were being shadowed by a thing called the Tuungaq – called Tuunbaq in the show. Crozier told the Inuit leader “Tell those of us who come after us not to stay. The ships are gone. There’s no way through. No passage. Tell them we are gone. Dead, and gone.” So we know it is not going to have a happy ending.

The scene cuts four years earlier in early September 1846 with HMS Erebus and HMS Terror making steady progress through the arctic. Sir John Franklin projects a constant air of optimism that God, providence, and western technology and know-how will see them through the arctic safely. Franklin’s optimism inspires everyone under his command, except his second in command Captain Francis Crozier who finds Franklin’s optimism to be based on neither sound knowledge of sailing in the arctic or an objective assessment of reality. Franklin listens to Crozier’s stark warnings but chooses not to act on them.

Even in an episode where the expedition is shown in open waters things go wrong. A sailor collapses vomiting blood at dinner and Franklin the sailor taken aboard his ship Erebus to be treated by the ship’s doctors. When the doctor of Terror argues the sailor is in no position to be moved Franklin breezily suggests the cold air will freshen the young man up.

Initially this seems like him ignoring advice and giving into blind optimism. But Ciaran Hinds performance and some of Franklin’s words suggest more than simple optimism behind Franklin’s actions. When Commander Fitzjames (played by Tobias Menzies), the second in command of Erebus suggests that Franklin loves his men more than God loves them, Franklin says “for all our sakes let’s hope your wrong.” Though he puts on a very brave face it is clear Franklin is aware of the danger they are in. But his optimism infuses both the officers and men with a sense of wonder and drive. Indeed, Franklin when talks of their mission, evokes the wonders of exploration and discovery and inspires such loyalty that the dying young sailor confesses to Terror’s doctor without any bedside manner, Dr. Stanley (played by Alistair Petrie), that he hid his symptoms and tried to tough it out because “I didn’t want to disappoint Sir John.”

In sharp contrast to Dr. Stanley’s lack of bedside manner, indeed he goes so far as to tell the sailor bluntly and without sympathy he is going to die, is Terror’s surgeon Goodsir (played by Paul Ready). Goodsir reassures the sailor that he will be at peace soon and as he is a good lad he will doubtless go to heaven and know no more sorrow or pain. However as the young man dies he hallucinates a nearly naked middle aged Inuit man staring at him piteously, alternately with a strange mask on, or the Inuit’s face is exposed. The sailor dies screaming “he wants us to run!” Goodsir is clearly shaken by the young man’s utter terror and goes to Dr. Stanley who is irritated that Goodsir is disturbing his reading.

The social relations, good or bad, are an integral part of the series and many are introduced in this episode. The show makes a point of showing the dinner of the seamen and officers in contrast. The sailors eat in an open area – seated on wooden benches and with crude utensils – and talk about what rank the Terror’s dog is given where he can sleep and walk without having to ask permission. The officers eat in cramped but more ornate conditions. They are surrounded by polished wood panelling, are served their personally cooked meals on china and silverware, and drink brandy. In contrast to the discussion on rank, class, and limits. Fitzjames regails with a tale of his heroism that some officers could not care for, and others enjoy.

In this scene Crozier marks out how uncomfortable he is in trying to bond with people when he cuts off Fitzjames story by testily asking if he would like to tell them another one he is fond of. Fitzjames is clearly angered and offput and the other officers are surprised at such a blunt display of bad manners. Crozier is respected, but definitely not liked.

We are also introduced to Cornelius Hickey. He acts and smiles differently to the others. He is also not particularly well liked, as on the burial party he is asked to carry out the final labour alone.

By the end of episode Crozier’s predictions that sailing directly west of King William Land, while the most direct route is the most dangerous. John Franklin is serene and calm, eating dinner with Fitzjames as his men frantically plant blasting charges to break apart the ice, and the ice creates a creaking noise as it freezes in around Erebus. When it stops and all goes quiet Franklin wakes up with a look of horror on his face. He scans the solid ice, gulps, then turns, smiles and puts on a brave face “your demeanour should be all cheer gentlemen. It’s going to be tight but that is what we signed up for. An adventure for Queen and Country. An adventure of a lifetime. That’s what you tell the men.” He then casts one look to Terror where even at a considerable distance he can sense Crozier’s disapproval.

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