By John Ruberry

“It [the Thames River] had borne all the ships whose names are like jewels flashing in the night of time, from the Golden Hind returning with her round flanks full of treasure, to be visited by the Queen’s Highness and thus pass out of the gigantic tale, to the Erebus and Terror, bound on other conquests—and that never returned.”
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness.

Last Monday I completed watching AMC’s ten-episode masterful series, The Terror, a telling, with many needed embellishments to fill in the missing details, of John Franklin’s Lost Expedition of 1845-1848.

The voyage was a British Navy attempt to navigate an ice-free route through the Canadian Arctic, the Northwest Passage, an envisioned shortcut to China, that to this day, is a rarely navigable by large ships. The expedition was led by Sir John Franklin, who was also the captain of the Erebus. Francis Crozier captained the Terror. The ships were last seen between Greenland and Baffin Island in 1845. After wintering off of Beechey Island, where three crew members died, the ships became trapped in the following year, it’s believed they never sailed again. Franklin died in 1847, and the last communication from the expedition, a note left in a cairn on King William Island, reported that an astounding 24 men died before the ships were abandoned in 1848. The crew of the ship totaled 134 when it departed the Thames. Only a few bodies and some bones–some of which betray evidence of cannibalism–and a smattering artifacts were discovered after an exhaustive series of rescue missions. Over the following decades it was ascertained that the men may have been debilitated, both physically and mentally, by lead poisoning from shoddily soldered cans of food.

There were no survivors.

That’s the essence of what is known of the expedition.

The Terror series, based on a novel by Dan Simmons, imaginatively fills in the details of what might have happened to the crew.

Franklin (Ciarán Hinds) ignores the advice of Crozier (Jared Harris) and they get stuck, well you already know that part of the story. The ships are menaced by a mysterious creature, Tuunbaq, which appears to be a polar bear. An Eskimo woman (Nive Nielsen) becomes their only human connection to the Arctic, of which Crozier says, “This place wants us dead.”

True, very true.

About Tuunbaq: Is it real, or an elaborate exaggeration where Inuit legend melds with lead-poisoned induced dementia?

The most compelling character is a young petty officer, Cornelius Hickey (Adam Nagaitis), who in a role reminiscent of George Segal’s in the Japanese prisoner of war movie, King Rat, uses the catastrophe to recreate himself as a leader. As so often happens, when order collapses cunning operators such as Hickey move in. Something bad becomes something worse.

Of course they don’t realize it right away, but the crew of the Franklin Expedition are imprisoned just as the inmates in King Rat were.

Crozier finally decides to abandon the ships–and the crew embarks on an 800-mile journey by foot to a remote mainland Canadian outpost–pulling many of their belongings, including unneeded books, in lifeboats refashioned as sleds.

The situation becomes dreadful for them as the series gets even better.

The Terror was filmed in Hungary, superbly done CGI replicates the ice-bound ships and the rocky terrain of Beechey and King William islands. If you perform a Google image search of these forlorn islands, you’ll swear the series was filmed on location.

Paul Ready’s portrayal of surgeon Harry Goodsir, who remains kindly even while he gently declines the request of a dying man that he not perform an autopsy on him, is also praiseworthy.

I enjoyed the series, although I have to call out an overdone flogging scene that devolved into sadomasochistic torture.

Then again, like Conrad’s steamboat in his novella, the Terror and the Erebus sailed “into the heart of an immense darkness.”

AMC is still showing The Terror and it’s available where I live on Xfinity On Demand.

This show is not for the squeamish.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.