Ridley Scott may be one of the biggest names in science fiction/fantasy but despite its rave reviews his latest TV drama The Terror is in my view a dumbed-down insult to history.

Furthermore, it will disappoint many Northlanders that this dubious retelling of Lord Franklin's doomed Arctic expedition in 1845 raids and trivialises events closely associated with this region.

After all, in 1841 — years ahead of going missing in the Arctic — the two ships involved visited Whangārei Harbour, an event depicted in a painting by James Wilson Carmichael.

The television series mashes up a true story (the worst disaster to hit the Royal Navy in its long history of polar exploration) with Ridley Scott's penchant for B-grade horror.


And the real Franklin expedition's fruitless search for a Northwest Passage still matters to some of us; it has fascinated thousands ever since HMS Terror and HMS Erebus were reported lost with all 129 crew aboard them nearly 170 years ago. But now, with the wrecks of the two ships and some of the graves of their crew located, plus Inuit accounts from the time, we've got a pretty good idea of what happened.

A scene from The Terror, Amazon Prime Video's new series that has a strange twist.
A scene from The Terror, Amazon Prime Video's new series that has a strange twist.

The explorers seem to have perished primarily due to having an incompetent commander, who got them stuck in the ice in the first place, followed by starvation, exposure to the cold, lead-poisoning (from the crude tinned food of the day) and, probably at the last — skullduggery as cannibalism set in.

Ridley's series portrays a somewhat different turn of events (SPOILER ALERT!).

In The Terror, somebody on the expedition shoots dead an Inuit shaman, mistaking him for a polar bear. But unfortunately the old wizard's pet monster/demonic pal — which is called a "Tuunbaaq" — quickly takes exception, and sets about killing some of the crew.

Trouble is, this monster was invented by American writer Dan Simmons who wrote the novel on which the series is based, and while it draws from the mythology of the Inuit goddess Sedna, it is entirely the creation of white authors.

And to me, combining one of the world's great maritime mysteries ever with Ridley Scott's obsession for bug-eyed monsters seems a travesty. Its inclusion in this story is as vulgar as remaking The 10 Commandments with Marvel franchise characters incorporated. (Instead of Moses parting the Red Sea to deliver the Israelites, the Hulk turns up to beat up Pharaoh's Army ... err, only joking Ridley, please don't film it.)

Ridley Scott, left, is on thin ice with his latest offering.
Ridley Scott, left, is on thin ice with his latest offering.

The crew of Terror and Erebus deserve more respect in my view. They were a bit like astronauts of their day, possibly the most technologically advanced ships in the British Navy at the time. These "bomb ships" were built tougher than usual, to withstand the recoil of giant mortars.

They had iron-clad timbers to withstand the ice and bristled with latest technology, like steam propulsion (as well as sails) plus steam-heating for Arctic conditions. Looking a little deeper, I think the primary reason for their loss was that the man originally chosen to lead the expedition, Sir John Ross, was unavailable.


This opened the way for Franklin, who — despite having affectionate folk songs written in his memory — actually had a track record of leading a previous expedition which also ended in starvation.

Ross, by contrast, successfully got himself and his men to and from the Arctic several times, the last time in a fruitless attempt to locate the missing Franklin.

More to the point for Kiwis, he'd successfully sailed Terror and Erebus to Australia and New Zealand in 1841, and gone on to discover much of Antarctica — including the Ross Sea and the Ross Ice shelf.

I've personally had the privilege of sailing three times as far as New Zealand's sub-Antarctic Islands. During these voyages, on-board lectures pointed out that our modern steel ice breaker was sailing in the wake of wooden Erebus and Terror, commanded by "a man of iron", Sir John Ross.

Ross is still regarded by many of us as the greatest polar explorer of them all.
Ridley Scott could have been cut some slack if he'd merely used artistic licence to tell a story; obviously some of the very best science fiction/fantasy amounts to highly accentuated reality.

■ The voyages of Captain Cook were the source material for Roddenberry's wonderful Star Trek series (Captain James Kirk standing in for Captain James Cook).


■ Star Wars creator George Lucas based his Jedi on militant orders of the medieval Catholic Church, such as the Knights of St John of Malta, who fought the "evil" Ottoman Empire.

■ And Tolkien's great battles and underground adventures were informed by his real life service in France during World War I.

But a story inspired by true events is one thing; one which distorts basic facts while keeping intact details such as names, places and dates is quite a different matter, it merely amounts to fake history.

The result is to short-change a generation possessing scant knowledge of the remarkable true events surrounding the real loss of Terror and Erebus.

So to me, notwithstanding its high production values, the television series The Terror rests on thin ice.

And I can only hope that, like Franklin and his poor comrades, it too will disappear without trace.


Paul Charman is an NZME feature writer.