Cold Boy Summer

The deep allure of the icy world of AMC's The Terror.

Here we are, in Deep Quar. This year is a wash, a complete write-off, which means that nothing matters and I can do what I want. 

In addition to taking up new hobbies I don’t need, such as roller-skating and calligraphy, and coaching myself through more or less continual breakdowns about my personal future as well as society, my main activity has been watching AMC’s acclaimed yet underrated miniseries The Terror (Season 1, 2018) over and over. 

I think I’m on watch #5 now and it has managed, incredibly, to not only stay compelling but become even moreso. The ten episodes unfold like a fractal, presenting new details and surprises with each and every journey through them. 

As I immerse myself further, I’ve learned the shape of it, becoming as much a master of navigation as Mr. Blanky: which narrow lead will I follow this time, tracking it through the episodes until it widens into a glorious and complex character arc? 

The allure of this icy wasteland during our long hot plague summer is complex. It’s appealing, of course, on a purely aesthetic level, to douse yourself in visions of a freezing, empty landscape while you’re trapped in a crowded, sweltering city. 

Then of course there’s the fact that the tension between the characters and their hostile environment— which, in a sense, the people in charge brought upon themselves, through Bad Decisions— is the guiding drama of the show. Sound familiar? 

Sickness itself, physical debility, does actually play a large role in the storyline, but it’s not in the form of a virus qua virus— instead it is caused by A) a deficit of fresh meat and vegetables leading to scurvy, and B) a surplus of lead in their canned foods, causing slow poisoning. 

It’s the men arriving in their ships — great unnatural beasts of made of dead trees (you bring the forest with you, Lady Silence declaims) — that carry the role of contagion. They have come to the land to conquer it but are quickly stymied and held fast by the ice itself, which acts as the immune system of the surrounding geography. 

But their icebound quarantine cannot hold for long. If they don’t leave, they will die. Of course, if they do leave they’ll die as well— a tension many of us can currently relate to, if not at such dire a level. 

And then, as I’ve said repeatedly, as a jokey yet ultimately sincere qualification for my love of characters who objectively are agents of an imperialist agenda, They Do All Fucking Die, Though. Justice is eventually served; the characters become pointless martyrs to colonialist ambition, starved and scorbutic and consumed utterly by either the maws of the monster, their fellow men, or the land itself. 

Not for long, of course— historically speaking, nobody learns from their mistakes, and Europeans continue to ravage Nunavut for the next century— but within the context of the fictionalized narrative as presented, the viewer is witness to the visceral consequences of the expedition’s terminal hubris. 

And despite the love you have come to feel for each and every one of these weird-looking muttonchopped white men, thanks to the writers’ brilliant evocation of class, rank, sexuality, and morality (& the actors’ tour-de-force performances, natch) to clearly define and distinguish them, you’re like: yeah, sounds about right. That’s what they get!

It’s satisfying, in the oddest way. There are so many moments in the show that you wish with all your heart weren’t happening, yet understand why they must. It’s the best kind of tragedy— no grief is wasted, each death serves a clear purpose. 

And after it’s over, you have a choice, as to what comes next. You can start it all over again, hop from the desolation of episode 10 back to the beginning to witness them all alive and clean, with gold braid a-gleaming. Or you can jump on over to the good ship AO3, and pick your poison. 

Take the relationship between Harry Goodsir and Lady Silence, for example. In Dan Simmons’ original book, the mute Inuit teenager Lady Silence becomes a romantic object for the protagonist Francis Crozier by the end of the story, in an uncomfortable example of racial exoticization and tired heteronormativity. 

In the show, the writers chose to transform Lady Silence’s character into the charismatic, complicated Silna: an adult woman, not silent until past the midpoint of her arc, empowered and flawed and afraid and intelligent, and, most importantly, lacking a romance plotline. 

Her most intimate relationship in the show is with Goodsir, the kindhearted if naive naturalist & surgeon’s assistant. They share a deep and respectful connection which includes plenty of Intimate Looks and even some cuddling. 

If the show had decided to Go There with these two, I would certainly have not felt positive about it at all— it wouldn’t sit right, for the same general reasons I dislike the idea of the endgame relationship of the novel.  

Because of the restraint shown in canon, however, and the emphasis on the unsaid and the undone, the door was flung open to fannish interpretation. It’s a synecdoche of the show as a whole, with the breakdown of good old-fashioned Victorian repression functioning as a highly appealing invitation for works that peel it back even further than the storyline does.

The Terror’s devoted fanbase has thus attacked the canon from all angles: delving deep into relationships both described and implied; extending the story to either build upon its real ending or diverge from it; engaging in purely aesthetic and erotic explorations of characters merely for the joy of it. All entirely common and valid approaches. 

But I would not hesitate to say that the relationship Terror fans have to the source material is unique, at least compared to other fandoms I’ve been active in. 

There is no second season of The Terror (at least not one that continues the story of the first), yet the fans are in more privileged position than fans of other limited canons, in that the body of research used by show’s writers used to craft their story is readily available for fans to access as well. And boy, do they access it— not only filling their stories with period-accurate details, but obsessing over each journal entry and daguerrotype as if they were any typical gif set or screencap.

This accepted treatment of the historical record as a para-canonical extension of the show itself is a blessing: one can peer behind the scenes, right into the writer’s room, as one reads lines of Battersby’s Fitzjames biography or Crozier’s letters to James Clark Ross, and suddenly understands, with shocking immediacy, the massive, fully-thought-out structures that supported the limited amount of story that was able to actually be scripted and shown. Not to be cliche, but it really is like an iceberg!

And unlike popular historical-fiction properties such as Hamilton, in which the figures represented are highly renowned, long-lived and nationally lauded, the doomed men of the Franklin Expedition bear little such cultural weight that one must contend with in order to portray them. 

Their lives are relatively under-explored, and their historical endpoints are tantalizingly undefined. Though one possible version of their deaths is shown onscreen, the masterful groundwork laid by these ten episodes of television create a fertile bed for further exploration by enthusiasts. 

The historical inevitability of the source material and the relative sensitivity with which it was treated in the show are dual permission slips for creators: one can forge ahead freely with one’s plentiful “what-ifs,” knowing both the immutability of these men’s unfortunate reality, and the soundness of this particular contemporary depiction of it. 

A common theme circulated in analyses of fandom activity is that flawed canons invite transformative works as a means towards reclamation or confrontation, that some canons demand “fixing.”

But in my opinion The Terror’s fanworks are not necessarily “corrections,” in the same way many a typical Marvel or Game Of Thrones fix-it might be. They are not proof-of-concept arguments that things ought to have gone differently, or that mistakes were made in the portrayal or plotting of certain elements. 

Instead they more often act as celebrations of the hard work the writers of the show put into each episode, and, more vitally, as brand new installments in the long tail of general Frankliniana — an established tradition of narrative treatments of this strange, sad saga that began with Charles Dickens himself, includes both the Terror book and show, and continues now with each new story written and uploaded. 

In conclusion: Please watch The Terror S1 starring Jared Harris and Tobias Menzies, available on Hulu in the US and Prime in Europe. It’s very good. I didn’t even talk about Jared Harris or Tobias Menzies in this otherwise it would’ve been like 4,000 words and I’m tired now. Thanks! 

(Silna is the big spoon, you love to see it.)