Staring into the void
In the first episode of David Kajganich’s The Terror, the British Discovery Service’s Franklin expedition attempts to dynamite its way through the Arctic ice pack and into the Pacific. For minutes on end the screen is alive with a frenzy of human activity. Holes are drilled, explosives set off, huge chunks of ice sawed by huffing teams of men. The crews of Erebus and Terror swarm over the ice like ants boiling from a kicked hill. Before they’re even done, as the camera pulls back from their toil, the rewards of their backbreaking efforts become obvious. How could thirty men, or even thirty thousand, do anything but fail against a foe as vast and as uncaring as the planet’s frozen crown? Its expanse yawns white and endless all around them.
Adapted from Dan Simmons’ horror novel of the same name—itself inspired by the real-life Franklin expedition’s disappearance—Kajganich’s show follows the crews of the titular Terror and its sister ship, Erebus, as they succumb to extraordinary pressures both internal and external over the course of their three-year stay on the ice pack. The barren Arctic waste acts as both a heightening backdrop for their struggles and a kind of acid in which their rigid culture slowly dissolves, allowing new things both tender and monstrous to emerge. It’s a depiction of the void as both generative and destructive, inescapable and liberating.
In bitterly tender moments like Captain Crozier’s (Jared Harris) euthanization of his friend and one-time rival James FitzJames (Tobias Menzies), The Terror locates the emotional power of submitting to loss. In the cannibalistic excesses of Cornelius Hickey’s (Adam Nagaitis) mutiny, it finds the pitiable uselessness of our attempts to master the void. More than anything, though, it’s the show’s technical prowess and thoughtful framing in depicting these spectacles of abjection and grief that makes them among the most moving in modern horror. Against the show’s bleak backdrop, moments of human despair and depravity resonate with singular power, amplified by the nothingness yawning all around them.
Form and Void
The Terror’s attention to space is meticulous. From its opening shot of Terror and Erebus steaming through icy waters to its concluding image—Crozier and a Netsilik child sitting still on the endless whiteness of the pack—it develops a language of motion and framing like nothing else on television. Its closeups, a ubiquitous feature of post-Netflix TV, are few and far between, and when they do come they’re more often alienating than intimate. Characters hunch over the lens, faces enormous and ashen, lips chapped, skin scabby. In a sequence depicting Hickey’s whipping, the camera remains on his face for what feels like hours as it contorts and squirms in pain, forcing us to watch what amounts to torture before finally pulling away to reveal the bloody horror of his buttocks. There is no more comfort in closeness than in the limitless sweep of the Pole itself.
The decision to only infrequently show Tuunbaq, the ravenous bear-like spirit unleashed on the expedition after they shoot and kill the shaman who commands it, accomplishes what Spielberg’s Jaws did with its occasional glimpses of the shark—the monster is conflated with its environment, rendering that environment more threatening. Where Jaws trades on our primal fear of water—our clumsiness while immersed in it, our need to breathe air, our inability to watch for threats in three dimensions—by sublimating that anxiety into the image of the shark, The Terror deals with a different kind of unease. Tuunbaq, who blends seamlessly into the sun-smeared whiteness of the ice pack, symbolizes our deep discomfort with nothingness. The creature’s first and most shocking rampage takes place entirely without our glimpsing it. It’s as though the Arctic itself is meting out vengeance on the men intent on plundering its secrets.
Here, too, the show pushes us into uncomfortable intimacy with its depiction of Captain Sir John Franklin’s (Ciaran Hinds) last moments wedged atop a brazier of hot coals in a privy shaft bored through the ice. The shot is claustrophobic in the extreme, full of Franklin’s labored breathing and weak, strangled moans. It’s one of the ugliest, most viscerally uncomfortable death scenes in television. We’re so close to the dying body that we can almost feel the whimpering heat of Franklin’s breath and smell the stench of his cooking flesh as the coals burn through his clothes. Again, the vastness of the show’s wide shots of the Arctic ice pack imbue this scene with additional power, ripping us out of the infinite and forcing us face to face with our own squirming, pitiful frailty.
Under the Skin
The Terror turns its focus on the unknown inward early in its run, In a jaw-dropping sequence it juxtaposes Mr. Collins’ descent into the Arctic Ocean with anatomist Harry Goodsir’s (Paul Ready) autopsy of a young crewman. The bottomless abyss and the slick red horrors of the human interior are purposefully conflated, a sign that the alien territory into which the expedition heads is as much within as without. As lead poisoning from improperly soldered canned foods erodes the crews’ sanity and scurvy causes their bodies to literally reopen along the lines of old wounds, flesh becomes a treacherous mystery.
Tuunbaq’s design reinforces the show’s treatment of the human body as foreign territory. While the creature in Simmons’ original novel had a serpentine neck and was otherwise bearlike, the Tuunbaq of Kajganich’s adaptation is uncomfortably human, its features a melding of ursine and simian with a recognizably human nose and eyebrows. Its paws, too, are more like hands than anything else, and in its last moments it is as pitiable in its own way as any of the show’s human characters. All this is in service to the show’s final act, a heartbreaking pair of episodes in which every character but Crozier dies of scurvy, intentional poisoning, exposure, or by violence. Every act of defiance, every betrayal and plot and love affair, it all bleeds away into the howling wind and skirling snow. The emptiness opens up and takes the desperate, momentary human world into its breast.
In Hickey’s foolhardy attempt to master Tuunbaq, and in the rash colonial ambitions of the expedition itself, we see the futility of human struggle against oblivion. This truth is visible in every shot of men pulling in harness on vast plains of broken ice, dwarfed by the alien landscape around them, in every flicker of distant lightning picking out the details of a world where nothing breathes or stirs. Only in submission—as in Crozier’s rejection of British civilization and decision to live a quiet, unremarkable life among the Netsilik—is there union between human confusion and the depthless emptiness of the Arctic. Not happiness, not power, not even understanding, but a cold and quiet breed of peace.