People Eating Together entries discuss that age-old tradition of people coming together to tear each other apart — Cannibalism! So settle in, maybe grab some coffee or a snack(!), and let’s explore this last social taboo together – because you can’t practice cannibalism alone.
Sometime in about the year 2007, while bored at my job at a children’s textbook publisher, I fell down a Wikihole about cannibalism. In between reading about Sawney Beane and Jeffrey Dahmer, I ran across the Franklin Expedition, which is to Canadian history what the Donner Party is to American. The article was fascinating enough, so imagine my excitement bordering on hysteria when I reread the article in 2017 to find that AMC was making a TV show about it. I loved the show, and immediately listened to the novel on which it’s based. There are significant differences which I’ll go into in the spoilers section of the review, but for now let’s focus on reviewing the show.
(Note: The Terror is planned as a historical horror anthology. Season 1 deals with the lost Franklin expedition (with supernatural elements) and is based on Dan Simmons book of the same name, but season 2 will be about life in a Japanese interment camp in the US during the Korean war, and stars George Takei at the head of a predominantly Japanese-American cast. After the high bar set with season 1, I’m eagerly looking forward to season 2.)
In 1846 Sir John Franklin and 134 sailors set out from England in hopes of finding the Northwest Passage above Canada, a byway everyone was pretty sure existed connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Such a passage would allow the English to avoid sailing around Spanish-owned South America or everyone else-owned Africa/Asia, and give England the edge over other nations in the Empire-building business. The company sailed in two of the most scientifically advanced ships of their day, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, which had sails but also early steam engines. None of company were ever seen alive again, although signs of the expedition were discovered, as well as the ships themselves in 2014 and 2016. Human remains showed indications of cannibalism, as well as everything from scurvy, tuberculosis, lead poisoning, starvation, and exposure.
Although there’s only so much room in one’s life for shows where everyone dies, the cast alone enthralled me. Ciaran Hinds, of Rome (<3) and Game of Thrones fame, Tobias Menzies of same (he played Brutus and Edmure Tully and also will play Prince Phillip in Seasons 3 and 4 of The Crown) plays Captain James Fitzjames, and Jared Harris (King George VI of The Crown and Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows) plays Captain Frances Crozier. I can’t recommend this series enough to fans of history and horror. Since it’s implied from the start (and says so in the first episode) that everyone dies, I will assume the reader can guess that, but refrain from mentioning specific methods of death until the spoilers section.
The show opens in 1850 with two English sailors speaking with a Netsilik man in his language about Franklin and his men, showing him pictures of the three missing captains in hopes of finding them. The man points at Crozier and names him ‘Aglookah,’ and then we’re back to 1847, seeing the events unfold.
The downside to being in the Golden Age of Television is that there’s simply too much good stuff to go around and not enough hours in the day to watch it all. Season 1 of The Terror is basically a prestige historical horror show with some incredible acting performances put in by some of the most talented people working today in English TV and filmmaking. Complex character interactions (so much unstated tension! so much character building!) vie for amazing production values, and the latter is even more impressive when you find out all the icebound exteriors were shot on green screen.
The show is damned intelligent too, a benefit of solid source material (the exhaustively researched aforementioned historical horror novel) as well as some fantastic writing and storytelling. Franklin, Fitzjames, and Crozier are all veterans of nautical exploration, some more successful than others, but that background informs many of their decisions; for example, Franklin was removed as governor of Van Dieman’s Land (modern-day Tasmania) and that failure haunts him and causes him to ignore Crozier’s much more sound advice, as well as the fact that Crozier, an Irish Catholic and a drunk in the show’s beginning, has asked to marry Franklin’s ward twice and been turned away. And Crozier himself, having been rejected and facing a future alone and barely above penniless, has come along on the expedition with a subconscious death wish.
A common thread in media concerning necessity cannibalism (practiced in dire straits, as opposed to the Dahmers of the world) is that it simultaneously shows the best and worst of humanity, since the practice takes place in situations testing the limits of human endurance. The Terror is a perfect example of this, as Captains Franklin, Crozier, and Fitzjames attempt to appeal to the best in their men’s natures as they are tested again and again by the extreme cold, by the ships being trapped in ice, by the news that their food stores are rotting or even toxic due to lead soldering, and worst of all by the depredations of a local snow monster. While the show doesn’t shy from showing imperialist, racist attitudes among some officers and crew toward the Netsilik Lady Silence, it is heartening to see Crozier, an Irishman who learned the Inuit language on an earlier voyage, treat her with deference, respect, and the benefit of the doubt, as do a few other crew who are familiar with both the region and the concept of not being shitty to people who are not exactly like them.
I can’t recommend The Terror highly enough. Solid storytelling, deeply conceived characters with realistic interactions and reactions to their bizarre and difficult situation, and some fascinating bits of nautical history – for example, the diving suit scene in the first episode is full on terrifying and informative, and another shows how the crew literally saw through the ice with a giant saw to try and free the icebound ships.
Rum, Sodomy, and The Lash – Literally
Another point in the show’s favor is its representation of gay relationships during the Age of Sail. Homosexuality is addressed in three different ways:
- Mr. Hickey and Billy being caught in the dirty, creepy ship’s hold, which is fitting considering how toxic their relationship is
- How the Royal Navy deals with it – by either brutally flogging practitioners OR in Lieutenant Irving’s suggestion to Hickey that he basically ‘pray the gay away’ or entertain himself with singing and watercolors (SERIOUSLY) – even though Hickey is plain evil, Adam Nagaitis was hilarious in this scene as he reacts to Irving’s suggestions
- The implied relationship between Mr. Bridgens (John Lynch) and Henry, another sailor. This relationship healthy albeit only comprised of longing looks and hushed conversations about philosophy, and the polar opposite of that between Hickey and Billy’s toxic one of manipulation and skulduggery – Bridgens, an older man, has learned how the Navy treats gay behavior and so restricts his affectionate gestures to giving the Henry books, helpful advice, and eventually tender (and non-sexual) medical care. Never for a moment does Bridgens take advantage of the younger, vulnerable sailor. It is clear Henry reciprocates Mr. Bridgens’ feelings, as subtly revealed in Henry’s journal – he has drawn a tattoo from Mr. Bridgens’ arms. Mr. Bridgens death is one of the saddest in the show, and in a show where everyone dies, that’s saying something.
*****SPOILERS START HERE*****
Note: I didn’t take notes during my listen to Dan Simmons’ audio book so I’m just restricting this comparison to some memorable differences. This is not a comprehensive dive in the least.
Here’s a chart I made in Word comparing show depictions and book depictions.
One big difference between book and show is the very helpful exposition clearing up some matters (the Tuunbaq) and providing fascinating depth to others (how Lady Netsilik and her people live in such an unforgiving environment). Also, the Tuunbaq reminded me of the existence of Kenny, the inbred Siberian Tiger. It was still a VERY effective creature design, especially considering that it had to be fearsome when attacking and pitiful when dying.
I don’t remember the mythological explanation for HOW the Tuunbaq came to be, but I remember that Lady Silence, her father, and family are charged by the other Netsilik with the duty of managing the monster when it appears on the ice. She and her father, who have extrasensory abilities (not mentioned in the show), go and live in the inhospitable northern wastes, and are en route when they encounter Lieutenant Graham Gore’s (the beautiful Tom Weston-Jones, from Copper) team.
As far as how the Netsilik live, this blew my mind:
After Lady Silence saves Crozier and nurses him back to health, she builds an ice house for them to live in, and keeps a store of frozen fish on hand. When the store goes below a certain number, she replenishes it, always keeping it at a certain number. When they are ready to move on, she does the following:
- Takes one of the sleeping hides and wets it
- Lays half the fish down, nose to tail, in a line in the hide
- Rolls the hide up with fish inside and wets it again so it freezes solid into a long plank
- Does the same thing with the other fish and sleeping hide
- Uses the frozen fish-hides— AS THE RUNNERS FOR HER SLED
I almost wrecked my car when I heard that. That is goddamn BRILLIANT.
Additionally, when Crozier dons hides realizes how much better adapted they are for the climate – being breathable, they emit excess heat and moisture. The cottons, wools, and felts the English wore were actually doing them harm, as the fabrics absorb sweat and cause fluctuations in body temperature.
I hoped you enjoyed this review of a fascinating and well-written show that is not getting the buzz it deserves. Please check it out, and if you have thoughts, share them!
And to end on a happier note, here’s Thomas Jopson looking after Crozier during his disgusting detox. Jopson’s positively glowing with the satisfaction of a job well done!