AMC’s ten-part limited based on the Dan Simmons novel Terror, debuts this week. It’s based on a true story in much the same way that George Clooney’s The Perfect Storm is based on a true story, which is to say: No one survived, so no one really knows what happened, and Dan Simmons’ retelling (give or take a hallucination of an Eskimo death god in the form of a supernaturally large and invincible polar bear) could be the truth, or at least an approximation of it.
Simmons novel, The Terror, actually preceded the discovery of the two ships at the center of the series, the HMS Terror and Erebus, which were found in 2014 and 2016, over 150 years after they disappeared while trying to traverse the Northwest Passage in the Franklin expedition (in fact, the HMS Terror was perfectly preserved in ice upon its discovery). What we do know, as depicted in the first episode of The Terror, is that the two ships became icebound. Basically, the ocean froze up around them, and the ships sailed with the ice.
Future episodes will also reveal that the crew abandoned ship and attempted to walk back to the Canadian mainland, which is also true (although, later accounts suggests that at least some attempted to reboard the ship and sail home). The series will also recount theories about the crewmen — based on subsequent autopsies — that they were poisoned by botulism in the canned foods on the ship, that they suffered from scurvy, and that some resorted to cannibalism.
The Inuit told them of having seen men starving, their faces blackened possibly by scurvy. The survivors ate their comrades after boiling body parts in their boots, the Inuit said. The oral history seemed to be confirmed in the mid-1990s when scientists examined human remains from King William Island and found hack marks apparently left on skeletal remains by desperate butchers.
Beyond that, however, the specifics are largely unknown, although the series (and Simmons’ novel) spends a great deal of time (10 hours, in fact) imagining the brutal ways in which these crewmembers died. That’s basically what the show is all about: A series of over 100 deaths spread out over 10 episodes along with excellent performances from Ciarán Hinds, Jared Harris, and Tobias Menzies, and incredibly specific details about the ship and the conditions at the time. It is an excellent period piece, and even in the first episode, the series captures the reality of the experience, according to Ryan Harris, an underwater archaeologist at Parks Canada.
Franklin was heading into a frontier that science had not mastered. Compasses did not work properly because their magnetic readings were impaired by proximity to the North Pole. There were no weather reports. It was much colder than today, and there were years with no summer ice melt at all. Ships can quickly get trapped in cement-like ice.
And if you’re looking for a review, I’ll just say — based on the episodes I have seen so far — that The Terror is far more engaging than I thought it might be given that the outcome is not in doubt (all 129 people died). It took me a few stabs before the show could sustain my interest beyond the first twenty minutes, but after the first crewman mysteriously coughs up blood, I was hooked. Although the series can drag at times (10 hours is too long), it is an enthralling and suitably terrifying miniseries that is great for late-night viewing. That it airs on AMC — the home of The Walking Dead — is also apt given that The Terror is basically gruesome death porn. This series, however, can at least boast of its terrific performances and the tinge of history.