Wednesday, April 04, 2018

The Terror: a tale of two ships and the monstrous Arctic

[Did this short review of the new TV series The Terror for India Today. Have watched three episodes so far, and it has got me reading a great deal about the doomed Franklin expedition. More on which here]


“Terror is signaling, Sir John,” someone says early in the new series The Terror. The words are innocuous in the given context (a ship’s captain is being alerted to a message from her companion ship) but they carry a portent – in much the same way that the title of the show’s second episode, “Gore”, could refer to a character’s name, but also signal what will happen to him.

Such wordplay is par for the course in a series that takes a real-life mystery – the 1845 disappearance of two Royal Navy ships, Erebus and Terror, in the Arctic – and infuses supernatural elements into it. So far, The Terror has only hinted at the latter (the first two episodes were available on Amazon Prime at the time of writing; the others will follow in weekly instalments). But it’s clear that this show, adapted from a Dan Simmons novel, will glide on thin ice as it balances creature-feature horror tropes with psychological tension and the restraint and authenticity required of a historical narrative.

What helps is the setting and the period – something that is evident from the many majestic shots of ice-crusted ships moving through an unfathomably large (and uncharted) Arctic desert. In this place, the line between “real” and “mystical” is very easily blurred, and even a rational mind can get spooked. This is conveyed very well through the grand bleakness of the visuals: men playing football on the ice after the two ships are stuck; a scene that cross-cuts between a postmortem on an unfortunate young sailor and a different sort of operation being conducted on a ship’s bowel. The cast includes those wonderful character actors Jared Harris (who was excellent as George VI in The Crown and as Lane Pryce in Mad Men) and Ciaran Hinds, as captains who try to be civil with each other but
can’t quite see eye to eye. And Marcus Fjellström’s effective, minatory score seems to evoke the Arctic wind groaning at these intruders, warning them to stay out of what they cannot understand.

“This place wants us dead,” one character says to another. It’s a dramatic, shiver-inducing line that could come from a straightforward horror story – but it is also plausible here, since these men are facing the cold implacability of nature, seemingly impervious to their plans and conceits.

Is she really so detached, though? From our vantage point in 2018, knowing about global warming and the far-reaching effects of Victorian-era industrialization and exploration, the story of these doomed ships carries another resonance. It’s almost as if nature, knowing what we will do to the planet, is taking a form of pre-revenge by toying with these men for sport. The big scary horror-movie monster stalking them could just be one of her minions.

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