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The Terror, BBC Two review - nightmare in the Arctic wastes | reviews, news & interviews

The Terror, BBC Two review - nightmare in the Arctic wastes

The Terror, BBC Two review - nightmare in the Arctic wastes

Powerful cast in doomed search for the Northwest Passage

Ciaran Hinds as Sir John Franklin, Tobias Menzies as Commander James Fitzjames

Admittedly, Antarctic explorer Captain Scott was at the other end of the earth from the protagonists of The Terror (BBC Two), but they would surely have concurred with his anguished observation: “Great God! This is an awful place.” Based on Dan Simmons’s novel, The Terror is a fictionalised account of the 1845 attempt by Sir John Franklin to find the Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific via the Arctic Ocean.

This ended in disaster when his Royal Navy ships HMS Terror and HMS Erebus became stuck in pack ice, with the crews subsequently dying slowly of disease and starvation.

A cheery tale then, but the TV narrative (produced by Ridley Scott) is given an extra ghastly twist by the addition of a supernatural dimension. The explorers find themselves battling not only appalling climatic conditions but also a ferocious but barely-seen monster, evidently a kind of spirit-world force rooted in the mythology of the local Inuit peoples. Whatever it is, it goes by the title of “Tuunbaq”.

There could be considerable potential here for mere cheap-thrills silliness, but The Terror gets its teeth into you with its gritty and unpleasantly plausible depiction of shipboard life in the mid-19th century, and above all via its deployment of a superb cast. Franklin is played with exaggerated self-regard by Ciaran Hinds, radiating a blithe faith in his own abilities as well as an innate belief that his expedition has God on its side. He exhorts his men that “it’s an adventure for Queen and country – the adventure of a lifetime!” He’s sceptical of the warnings from Terror’s Captain Crozier (Jared Harris), who accurately predicts the perils of getting their ships wedged in the ice, and Franklin is supported by the dismissive and supercilious Commander Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies), skipper of the Erebus, who’s indignant at Crozier’s displays of pessimism.The Arctic wastes have largely been created using CGI, and sometimes the artificiality of the process intrudes awkwardly, but it still works well enough to convey a sense of the fearful isolation of the crew-members, especially with wide pull-out shots which depict the ships as tiny specks in a vast wilderness of ice and swirling snow. A set-piece like the descent of Henry Collins (Trystan Gravelle) into the freezing water, encased in a huge and primitive diving suit, to free the ship’s propeller from chunks of iceberg is a vivid reminder of the odds the expedition was battling against (no satnav, no internet, no search-and-rescue aircraft, no snowmobiles etc). A shot of a compass spinning wildly as the ships come closer to the North Pole is an effective summary of the hopelessness of their predicament.

There wasn’t much hope on offer from the prevailing state of medical science, either. The macabre death of Erebus’s Ship’s Boy David Young (Alfie Kingsnorth), after he starts vomiting blood, is followed by a post mortem carried out in grotesque crunching-and-squelching detail by Dr Goodsir (Paul Ready), but it reveals little about the cause of death. It’s enough to make you conclude that Lieutenant Gore, snatched away to oblivion by the marauding monster, was one of the lucky ones.

Another mystery is how The Terror can sustain itself across 10 episodes, since there isn’t really anywhere the expedition members can go, and one howling Arctic blizzard looks very much like another. It’s well worth dipping a toe in, though.

The explorers find themselves battling not only appalling climatic conditions but also a supernatural monster


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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