Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Too Much TV: THE TERROR (2018)

Back in the 1980s I remember seeing lurid, grimly fascinating photographs of dead crewmembers of the Franklin expedition, exhumed from Arctic ice in frozen mummification. Sir John Franklin led one of the last attempts to find the chimerical "Northwest Passage" to the Pacific Ocean in 1845. He and all hands from his two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, died. The fate of the expedition and the horrifying retrieval of its dead inspired Dan Simmons to write a fantastical reimagining of the expedition. His 2007 novel in turn inspired David Kajganich's adaptation for AMC. Simmons's novel idea was to add to the crew's already overwhelming woes the plotting of a malcontent matinee and imposter calling himself Cornelius Hickey (Adam Nagaitas) and the degradation of a monster that is not quite a bear and not quite anything else. Nagaitas makes a nicely hateful villain while the tuunbaq, a kind of demon, provides the more overtly spectacular horrors as he targets the white intruders upon Inuit (or Netsilik) land with the uncertain if not reluctant guidance of a native woman the British call Lady Silence (Nivea Nielsen). The actual hero of the piece, after Franklin himself (Ciaran Hinds) is eliminated early, is his colleague, Captain Francis Crozier (Jared Harris). Crozier evolves into an indefatigably resilient character, overcoming his own alcoholism the hard way, along with other failings, as he takes responsibility for himself and the increasingly desperate men, many of them driven mad or simply debilitated by the expedition's ample supply of tainted canned goods. Harris heads a strong ensemble that passes the essential test of appearing and sounding plausibly like 19th century people; little feels anachronistic here. The overall production is exemplary, with some of the best CGI simulations of sky and landscape that I've seen on TV or film. It helps, of course, that we rarely get the sort of unnatural blue sky that always gives things away, but credit is still due to the virtual craftsmanship employed. The true story of the Franklin expedition is so horrific that it'd be hard to botch a fictional version, but Kajganich and his team of writers and directors deserve credit in turn for avoiding the traps (or tropes) that TV conventions set for creators. More successful at evoking period and mood than The Alienist, The Terror should serve as an example of how to do a modern miniseries right.

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