In 1845, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror, under the Expedition command of Sir James Franklin, set off to find the Northwest Passage that connects the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean through Arctic waters. None of the 129 men on board ever return.
Dan Simmons novel imagines what happened to these men, of whose fate we know little. Over the years following the disappearance of the ships, many rescue missions were sent out (many because of the continued insistence of Franklin’s wife Lady Jane, and her continued devotion to the cause of her husband’s deliverance), and found artefacts of the expedition -a message left in a cairn, some writings of crew members, items they carried with them, bodies and bones - on and around King William Island. The clearest idea of what happened comes from interviews with local Netsilik, who report having spotted dying men. Historically, the fates of the Erebus and Terror is the biggest catastrophe in Polar exploration, and working off the sparse historic facts of their disappearance, Simmons writes a horror story of what they may have encountered before their deaths – not just the unimaginable suffering wrought by starvation and cold, the moment when the men turn against each other, but also a terrible monster – shaped vaguely like a polar bear, but too large and powerful to be just that - that stalks them across the ice.
As a text, both the novel and the serial adaptation in the first season of The Terror, are a stunning entry point for anyone interested in the topic of polar exploration. This is, of course, a fictional story – too little is truly known of the fate of the disappeared for anything else, and Simmons is a horror writer – but the story is at its most powerful when it connects back to the fragments of the known history and improvises on them. Sir James Franklin himself is not the centre of that story. The date of his death is recorded in the document found inside the cairn, and happens early on in the story, which leaves the remaining men under the command of Terror’s Captain Francis Crozier (Jared Harris), an Irishman who has always been an outcast within the hierarchy of the Royal Navy and the Discovery Service. Crozier, compared to the deeply religious Franklin and the optimistic and idealistic Commander James Fitzjames, Captain of the flagship Erebus, is not driven by the mission objective – once he realises that the mission itself is doomed, his sole preoccupation is the safe return of the men under his command, and prior to that, his realism in approaching the Northwest Passage, his repeated attempts to steer Franklin towards decisions that will preserve life, but leave the mission behind, are read as pessimistic and melancholic. Consider the mission itself, finding a passageway through the Arctic waters, a passage that even now that it is well-mapped has little utility to international trade routes because of its inherent risk (and is becoming more accessible now solely because of climate change). These are men who are deeply rooted in the British Empire, in a heroic ideal of going into the unknown spots on the map for glory more than any tangible greater good. When Erebus and Terror set out, little is known about these waters – King William Island is still believed to be a peninsula, and some still think that there may be a whole continent hidden beyond the pack ice. The ships have previously been used in Antarctic exploration under James Clark Ross, with Crozier commanding the Terror (if you look on a map, you’ll find landmarks named after Crozier), but outfitted with retrofitted railway steam engines for this journey, but this is years before technology advanced enough to provide powered sleds, nor do the ships carry sled dogs. The staggering fact of this attempt is when it is tried, and with what resources, as if will alone could sustain it. The journey through the Passage was only completed in the early 20th century by Roald Amundsen, who managed it with a much smaller ship and crew more easily supported with the limited food sources they found around them.
Inevitably, Terror and Erebus become trapped in the ice and decides to winter there – tragically, the ice does not break up the following summer as expected, necessitating the crew to spend another winter on board. Franklin dies the following summer – historically, under unknown circumstances, in the novel and show when the monster Tuunbaq drags him into a hole in the ice to his death. To add to the crew’s misery, the provided food rations of tinned cans (the Royal Navy going with the lowest bidder) become a hazard when one of the ship's surgeons, Harry Goodsir (an astonishing Paul Ready), discovers that they are improperly sealed and are leaking lead into the food, causing the crew to be slowly poisoned. Goodsir tests his scientific theory on Franklin’s surviving pet monkey, and grieves that sacrifice deeply, which is only one of the many moments where Goodsir’s humanity is shown. The television show relies more heavily on Goodsir’s discovery than the book does, painting a man who is profoundly humanistic in his scientific drive for discovery. Historically, it remains unclear if lead poisoning was a determining factor in the death of the men, but The Terror uses the idea effectively in both showing what it means to apply scientific discovery to sheer survival, and the fall-out from the officers keeping this a secret from the crew, deciding to use tight information control to maintain morale.
With Crozier being the main character here, a complex man who is driven by his idea of ensuring the survival of those he commands, Goodsir acts as an idealistic counterpart who never even considers the politics of leadership, who still sees the beauty of nature and science even on the verge of death, who finds joys in what is in front of his eyes even when it is literally killing him. In the novel, Crozier is a difficult character to love – we hear his thoughts, and his is very much a man of his time, perhaps more realistically than Jared Harris’ Crozier is in the show. It would have been harder to stomach Crozier’s racism and misogyny in the show, which instead only explores his heroic actions – without access to his thoughts and reasoning, it is more difficult to find fault. He understands early on that his men are doomed, that the burden of command weighs heavy in a mission that can no longer succeed beyond sheer survival. More than that, Crozier understands that once Franklin dies and the ships’ resources run out, his alcoholism is a threat to all of his men, and a ticking time bomb. In both stories, Crozier is deeply wounded when his repeated attempts to marry Franklin’s niece, whom he loves deeply, are denied because of his Irishness and the limits of his social standing. The Crozier of the books is more difficult to empathise with, as Sophia Cracroft is painted as manipulative (historically, she joined her aunt in repeated attempts to raise funds for more rescue parties, and never married) – the Crozier in the show, meanwhile, is most alive, most passionate, when shown in those moments where he pleads for Sophia’s hands, and only takes on this mission to the Arctic so he may become worthy of her. So much of this story is driven by honour and an idea of glory, with even Franklin himself, devout as he is, so eager to prove himself after the shame of failing as Governor of Van Diemen’s land, where he proved incapable of navigating the politics of the penal colony while his wife’s much more astute sense of power became part of why he was so unpopular.
Threats on the lives of his men keep adding up – the two winters in the ice take a heavy toll, subtly portrayed on the show when Doctor Stanley (Alistair Petrie), surgeon on the Erebus, casually amputates fingers and toes as if he were picking flowers. There is a greater argument here about how the Royal Navy and by extension, the British Empire itself, uses people as fuel for its ambitions, so much so that the lives that are lost become almost irrelevant. Goodsir is a stark contrast to this, but he is a mere anatomist, and begins the mission low on the pecking order of medical professionals on board – if anything, Stanley despises him for him humanism, and has a radically different approach to medicine, where the care for the crew becomes an almost mechanical task only relevant when it maintains the ability to work towards the mission goal. Once confronted with the failing mental health of crew members, Stanley reminds those seeking help that he is merely a doctor, concerned only with the mechanical working of the human body, while Goodsir always listens to those who come to him for help. It’s a subtle subplot in the show, about Goodsir eventually becoming the sole surviving medical professional but also conceptualising his role radically different from these seasoned Navy doctors, more holistically perhaps in his approach to actually save men beyond what the professional traditionally calls for.
As if the sheer horror of living in a state of constant coldness, of never being quite comfortable, of never wearing dry clothes, of having to wear so many layers only to stay alive on the ice, with the added and incomprehensible terror of a literal monster, weren’t enough, another antagonist emerges early on in the narrative. Caulker’s mate Cornelius Hickey (even though that is merely the name of the man he killed to become part of the mission) emerges as another threat, a man deeply resentful of Naval hierarchies, who somehow has the uncanny power of seeing through Crozier’s and the officers’ attempts to keep their men in the dark about the reality of the situation. Hickey is a perfect villain for this particular story (even though the fact that his queerness, more in the book than the show, becomes part of his villainy when he grooms his lover to become a willing hand in his crimes). He appears to have such a clear understanding of the hierarchies he despises so much, and a keen sense of fault lines within Crozier’s command. Hickey begins assembling his own mutinous crew, collecting information that he can later use against Crozier.
Crozier, meanwhile, understands what will have to happen next. He stops drinking, and is gently nursed back to health by his Steward Thomas Jopson – another profoundly humanistic character in this tale of human suffering. He has been drinking a bottle of whiskey a day and yet somehow makes it through the withdrawal, and it appears as if he survives solely because of Jopson’s belief in him. Jopson tells a grim story about his mother becoming addicted to Laudanum after an accident at a circus, a story he never finishes because, Crozier understands, it did not end well – but in the end, it is sheer determination on Jopson’s part to look after the man with whose health he is tasked with that sustains Crozier’s life. He emerges as a new men, somehow more energetic, somehow reborn. In the novel, strikingly, Crozier appears gifted with the ability to see the future, and in his withdrawal dreams sees all the rescue missions that will soon be sent out for them, all of them doomed to fail. He emerges right into a carnival that Commander James Fitzjames has planned for morale, after hearing a tale of near mutiny from Terror’s Ice Master and Crozier’s close friend Thomas Blanky in a previous Arctic expedition. The carnival, in both iterations of the story, ends in death – in the novel, the monster Tuunbaq rips through the men, in the show, Surgeon Stanley goes insane after realising that Goodsir’s investigation of the tin cans means sure death, and sets the celebratory tents, and then himself, on fire. In any case, Crozier and Fitzjames know what the next step is – with rations running out, and the ships unlikely to see or survive the breaking up of the pack ice, the remaining men will have to attempt to man-haul their way to civilisation.
More about Tuunbaq, before we continue. Early into the story, an exploratory party to King William Island encounters two Netsilik, and shoots one of them. The man dies back on the ships, even though Goodsir attempts to save his life (Doctor Stanley refuses to treat a Native). The woman, who has no tongue, is taken prisoner. In the TV show, Crozier and Blanky speak enough of the Native tongue to speak to her, and Goodsir, a true man of science, begins learning it, attempting to compile a dictionary. In the novel, nobody speaks Natsilingmiutut, and the woman they soon call Lady Silence remains the Other – too strange to understand, and always dangerously on the verge of being violated by someone on the ships. The men understand that there is some kind of connection between her and Tuunbaq – somehow, even though they are incapable of hunting for anything on the ice, Lady Silence is able to survive here. There are whole chapters in the novel dedicated to mapping out a mythology that comes down to the idea of balance – less so in the television show, where it is only clear that Lady Silence is a shaman of some kind, who is connected to Tuunbaq, but not able to control it. The general idea here is that this place the Terror and Erebus have come to is a very precarious balance – an ecosystem that can only supply nourishment for so many people, and is incapable of coping with the demands of, at first, 129 Englishmen. There are Natives who survive on the sparse resources after centuries of practice, who have a profound connection to this place and a deep understanding of it – while Crozier and his men are utterly ignorant, incapable of even catching a single seal, to survive out here. The Terror makes the argument that Tuunbaq is, in a way, an agent of restoring balance, of ensuring that there is an equivalence of hunters and hunted (in the novel, Tuunbaq is more complex than that yet – a horrible creation that needs to be appeased). There is a sense that these white men who have come so far to such a strange land should never be here, and are wreaking chaos on an environment that cannot support them, and Tuunbaq, in killing them, is only restoring the balance that existed before they came. Simmons’ goes as far as predicting a future in which the descendants of these white men will create a world where that tender balance will be destroyed violently and utterly, which, if we look forward to the grace that this story awards Captain Crozier with – a radical change, becoming someone attuned to this place he has come to, but being forced to leave whatever he brought behind to survive – is a stark and potent contrast. To spoil the ending, Simmons novel ends with the unlikely survival of Crozier, who is saved by Lady Silence but asked to become someone else in order to stay – a man no longer beholden to the Navy hierarchy that so determined his life, a man who no longer seeks to go back to his doomed men, who are beyond saving anyway. He makes a family there, and Tuunbaq survives, now spiritually bound to both him and Lady Silence. It is hard to see how all of that could have been conveyed in the television show, so it opts for a simpler version of events – Crozier is still saved by Lady Silence, healed with her understanding, kept warm with her more adapted knowledge of the environment they’re in, but then left behind with her people, because Tuunbaq dies after gorging itself on too much indigestible otherness, defeated by the destructive havoc of these men. Lady Silence, losing Tuunbaq, can no longer be part of her community, and is cast out, but Crozier survives with them, asks them to lie about his death to the rescue party, and is finally found in an almost unimaginable moment of quiet beauty, arrested in stillness over a seal breathing hole, with a child falling asleep next to him as he waits to strike with his harpoon.
If you consider the utter carnage that comes before both of these endings, it is almost impossibly graceful to allow Crozier to survive by becoming someone else. The radical contrast to this is what happens to Goodsir, the most good man on this mission, who is captured by Hickey once his mutiny succeeds and then tasked with cutting up his fellow men for food. One of Crozier’s greatest failings throughout this story is his insistence to remain within the confines of the Royal Navy. Once he realises that Hickey has become a monster, a man who has turned against his fellow men, who has ruined their one chance at survival when he caused the savage slaughter of other Netsilik who may have helped them to survive, he still insists on protocol and tries to hang him and his co-conspirators, as if any of these rules still applied so far from English soil. Philosophically, Crozier argues that even here, even with so many men dead and so many others suffering from the results of lead poisoning and scurvy, and starving to death, the manner of survival still matters. Hickey, in the meantime, appears to be such a keen student of British Imperialism – he despises hierarchy, but he has also taken the inherent idea of seeing men as nothing but meat for the machine to heart. Survival is everything to him, and any measure necessary to assure it is justified. Where Crozier, once the men begin to haul their boats across the gravel of King William Island, straps in to do his part, Hickey will sit on top while his charges pull him towards whatever future he sees. And maybe there is even a little part where Hickey’s arguments strike true – Crozier was aware of what the cans were doing to his men, and he was aware that the exploratory party he sent ahead to get help had failed, and maybe the men had a right to this information, so they could make their own decisions about what steps to take to ensure their survival. It is easy to see Hickey as a monster, someone who uses men solely for his own survival, but much harder to consider that maybe his argument that the hierarchies these crews brought with them no longer apply in a place that is so hostile and non-survivable.
Another tangent, to honour some of these dead. James Fitzjames, a man who early on despises Crozier because of his melancholy but comes to comprehend the deep occupation he has with the survival of his men – these two become friends, in the truest sense (this is the show, not the book, which does not spend much time on their relationship), and Fitzjames reveals to Crozier that his stories of past glory are retold again and again to distract from the fact that he was born out of an affair and is not even a “true Englishman”, a personal shame that seems incredibly remote as they both walk towards what can only be death. Fitzjames is already dying of scurvy, which is opening all of his old war wounds.
Thomas Blanky appears to be the man that understands Crozier the best – they have been friends for years. Blanky appears to keep up his good spirits until the end, and he faces off with Tuunbaq in the closest The Terror comes to an epic battle – losing his foot in the fight as he climbs the rigging. Blanky known when his end is near –another prosthesis broken on the long trek, and his stump infected – and decides to simply stay behind, so as not to become a burden. There is a great tale of personal sacrifice from the other pole that feels like it may have been the inspiration for Blanky – who dies in summer, not in the ice and snow. When Robert Falcon Scott raced for the South Pole against Amundsen in his Terra Nova Expedition, Lawrence Oates was one among the men who made their exhausted and defeated return (Amundsen beat them to the pole). Knowing he was dying and a burden on the three surviving men, Oates walked out of their tent into a blizzard. His last words are recorded as "I am just going outside and may be some time." Thomas Blanky simply sits down and asks his good friend Crozier for the crews’ forks, and some rope – he is making himself an indigestible meal for the beast that is hunting them, and before his death, he regards what lies before him, and realises that he is looking at the elusive goal of the Expedition – the Northwest Passage, right before him, marked on his personal map. His joy at the discovery is not diminished by the fact that it isn’t shared with anyone.
And then there is the love story between Peglar and Bridgens – more extensive in the books than it is in the show, where there are only hints and the rest is left to conclusions. In the novel, they have a deep connection to each other, romantic at times, Bridgens teaching Peglar (hinted to be dyslexic) how to read. In fact, Peglar’s notes on the expedition where found on what was later identified as Bridgens’ body, and these writings are some of the few that survived the mysterious disappearance. In the show, we see Bridgens give Peglar books – chosen with care to provide advice on what is ahead. Once Peglar dies of scurvy, Bridgens walks off, with no remaining reason to keep himself alive. It’s a quiet love story in a novel and television show filled with dread and horror.
So, we know how it ends, but in a way, The Terror isn’t really about that inevitable, historically predetermined end. Crozier survives against all odds, but only by leaving behind everything that he was – his men, his ship, his career. In the novels, he is a keen believer in Hobbes’ Leviathan, and its conclusion that life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. The men enjoy his reading from the book so much (as opposed to Franklin’s and Fitzjames’ reading from the bible) that they name some of the little boats they are carrying after that conclusion. It would be hard a conclusion to refute after witnessing the horrors of Hickey’s mutiny, and his willingness to murder others for meat – Goodsir dies refusing to partake in the meal, and earlier outlines grimly (again, this is the novel, not the show) the anatomical reality of slaughtering a person for meat. If it weren’t for those mentioned earlier – Peglar, Bridgens, Blanky, always Goodsir and Jopson – it would be hard to see how any of that hard, miserable journey towards death could be seen as anything but the grim realisation of Hobbes’ diagnosis of the human condition. And yet, somehow, Crozier survives, and somehow, the person he spends so long in the novel (and to a lesser extent in the show, where he can communicate with her early on), finally provides grace to his own existence, when she saves him after Hickley disposes of him. This could be a simple story of the crew of the Erebus and the Terror up against the incomprehensible, terrible unknown of uncharted territory, and yet it is constantly broken up by the fact that his isn’t truly unknown territory – it only remains new and terrible to these Englishmen who have come to a strange place, and yet is a home to the Netsilik, who are adapted perfectly to the conditions. What survives in the end is both Crozier once he casts off the things that were already imprisoning him when he still valued them – being a Royal Navy Officer and an Irishmen among those who resented him for it – and Goodsir’s endless curiosity about the boundless beauty of nature, which he hallucinates even as he lies dying, knowing he will become food for the different kind of human monster. It is quite difficult to describe the feeling that conclusion evokes, but the closest I’ve come is reading Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s account of the early scientific goals of Scott’s race to the South Pole, especially the complex task of retrieving Emperor Penguin eggs during the winter to prove a theory about their embryonic development (a task that appears impossible as described in The Worst Journey in the World, yet completed), simply to further scientific understanding. I never thought that what I would find in reading about Polar Exploration would be such a purified sense of human wonder beneath the sheer horror of what it takes to survive.
The Terror, Season 1 (2019), created by David Kajganich, starring Jared Harris, Tobias Menzies, Paul Ready, Adam Nagaitis, Ian Hart, Nive Nielsen.
The Terror (2007), written by Dan Simmons