Wednesday, December 18, 2019

The Terror

The Terror
[2018 TV series created by David Kajganich, based on Dan Simmons's 2007 novel]

Friday, 28th June, 1850

A curious thing. We were in our small boat examining a piece of flotsam spotted by Abbot in the hope that it might have come from one of the ships. There was ice all around us, but being in deep water this neither obstructed nor threatened us in any way. The flotsam gave no indication of its origin, and as I inspected my pocket watch to note the time of our sighting for Pioneer's log, Abbot warned me against losing it overboard, pointing out to me that such was the depth of the water upon which we rowed that had I been careless enough to drop the watch it would have been telling yesterday's time before it struck the bottom.

Lt Sherard Osborn R. N.
Stray Leaves from an Arctic Journal, 1852

That's not a quote from either David Kajganich's TV series The Terror, or even from Dan Simmons' book of the same name. Instead, it stands as the epigraph for Robert Edric's earlier novel The Broken Lands, which also attempted, a couple of decades earlier, to recreate the horror of Sir John Franklin's famous 'lost expedition.' Franklin set out in 1845 in the two (appropriately-named) ships Erebus and Terror to find the North-West passage, and not one of the participants, officers or crew, was ever seen alive again.

Robert Edric: The Broken Lands (1992)

There's a kind of poetic trippiness about Edric's version which perhaps befits what seems, in retrospect, a somewhat statelier time (not that the 1990s felt like that to us then). Evocative vistas, carefully honed epiphanies, and a general emphasis on style above substance distinguished much of the fiction of that decade.

I do still love that idea of the pocket watch sinking rapidly into the icy water, down and down and down, far enough down to strike "yesterday's time before it struck the bottom," though. I suppose it's as good an image as any for the art of the historical novelist - painting a vision so detailed and psychologically acute that it convinces all who experience it that that's how it must have been.

Edwin Landseer: Man Proposes, God Disposes (1864)

Not that Edric was the first to attempt it, by any means. There's always been something about the Franklin expedition which has appealed to myth-makers and psychogeographers. Edwin Landseer, better known for 'The Monarch of the Glen' and The Stag at Bay,' was much criticised for his vision, above, of polar bears gnawing at the exposed ribs of frozen sailors, when he showed it at the 1864 Royal Academy exhibition.

Perhaps, indeed, that was the motivation behind Millais's even more famous painting 'The North-West Passage' - promoting a message of imperial derring-do and bulldog intrepidity more acceptable to the Victorian establishment:

John Everett Millais: The North-West Passage (1874)

It seems only fitting that the figure of the Old Salt in Millais's picture should have been modelled on Lord Byron's old friend Edward John Trelawny. Trelawny, author of the novel Adventures of a Younger Son (1831) as well as the almost equally fictional memoir Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron (1858), wrote a famous account of plucking the unburnt heart of Shelley from that famous bonfire on the beach after the latter was drowned at sea. Whether he really did risk the flames in that reckless manner is anyone's guess.

Louis Édouard Fournier: The Funeral of Shelley (1889)
[l-to-r: Trelawny, Leigh Hunt, and Byron; Mary Shelley, seen kneeling, was actually not allowed to attend]

All of which brings us back to The Terror. My own interest in the whole subject of the many, many expeditions in search of the North-West passage probably goes back as far as my childhood reading of the 'Classics Illustrated' comic below (which I'm glad to say I still own):

World Illustrated: Story of the Northwest Passage (No. 531)

A rather more sophisticated - though actually just as dramatic - account is given in Glyn Williams' more recent Voyages of Delusion (entitled, in America, Arctic Labyrinth: The Quest for the Northwest Passage):

So you can imagine that as soon as I saw those images of poor old Ciarán Hinds contemplating his end in the snow, it was only a matter of time before I watched the whole series. It might have been nice if it'd been possible to do so on some convenient streaming service, but never mind, I'm now the owner of a brand spanking new DVD of the whole thing.

The Terror (2018)

Is it a masterpiece? Too early to say, I suppose, but certainly the mise-en-scène looks brilliantly, hauntingly real - as befits any production under the supervision of Ridley Scott, or at any rate his production company Scott Free. The performances from all the various principals - Jared Harris as Captain Francis Crozier, Tobias Menzies as Commander James Fitzjames, Paul Ready as Dr. Harry Goodsir, and Ciarán Hinds as Franklin - are flawless. It also contains the slimiest, most reprehensible villain since Shakespeare dreamed up Iago as the ideal foil for his hero Othello.

I don't really want to say too much more about it, for fear of ruining the suspense for those of you who haven't yet watched it. Suspense and mystery are, after all, the lifeblood of stories such as these. Suffice it to say that all is not as it seems in these frozen wastes, and that David Kajganich's vision is probably closer to Edwin Landseer's (above) than to John Millais's.

If you'd like something more decorous and meditative, stick to The Broken Lands. This particular version of Franklin's story is as violent and bloody as anything I've ever seen on TV. It's more for fans of H. P. Lovecraft's lurid melodrama At the Mountains of Madness than for admirers (if there are any still left) of the 1948 film version of Scott of the Antarctic.

Jared Harris (1961- )

The presence, in the cast, of Jared Harris, has the effect - or so I would imagine, at least - of reminding us of his more recent star-making turn in the HBO miniseries Chernobyl. The pompous inanities and downright lies of such people as Sir John Franklin and his allies back in London seem not too far away from the rather more serious untruths promulgated in the latter series. In both cases, it would seem, if you want the craggy face of integrity, you go to Jared Harris (a long cry from his role as the most villainous villain of all in the TV Sci-fi series Fringe).

[2019 TV series created and written by Craig Mazin, directed by Johan Renck]

'Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid.'
- Craig Mazin, Chernobyl (2019).

I wrote this poem some time ago, as a response to the (so-called) 'Polar-Bear-gate' scandal. It now seems to me strangely appropriate to the themes and atmosphere of the magnificent Chernobyl and the gut-wrenching The Terror alike:

Peter Gleick: Stranded Polar Bear (2010)

Stranded Polar Bear

The ripples imply
a boat’s passed by

or something larger
like a whale

the islet’s small
and artificial

like the bear

enduring exile
Augustus sent

his family
to islands

small enough
to terrify

even the young
willing to die

until you realise
it’s a fake

that bear
was never there

even his shadow
clouds and drift ice

carefully placed
to make the point

that lying is okay
when the legend becomes fact

print the legend
said John Ford

by saying it
he showed

he didn’t mean it

Paul Nicklin: Polar Bears (2010)

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