The Week Ahead: Terribly binge-worthy

A well-received series about the failed 1845 Franklin Expedition tells us as much about the present as the past.

By Kevin McGwin - March 26, 2018
A scene from “The Terror,” starring Tobias Menzies (left) and Ciaran Hinds (right). (Aidan Monaghan/AMC)

This week, AMC, an American cable channel best known for its award-winning series “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” airs the first episode of its well-received series “The Terror,” a faithful, 10-episode adaptation of the 2007 Dan Simmons novel of the same name (itself is a less-faithful re-telling of the fate of the Franklin expedition, a doomed 1845 British voyage sent out to explore the last uncharted section of the Northwest Passages).

Simmons can be forgiven for not getting all of the historical details right; between the publishing of his book and the production of the series, much was learned about the expedition and the demise of its crew. The ships themselves were found in 2014.

In reality and in fiction, the expedition’s two ships, Terror and Erebus, become locked in ice. But where Simmons introduces terror in the form of a mystical semi-intelligent beast that stalks the crew, their real-world bane was probably one they brought with them: historians suggest that the crew, and their ships, were ill-prepared for an Arctic voyage, much less being frozen in ice two winters running. Lead poisoning, probably from poorly sealed food tins or their water-purification system, may also have contributed to their demise.

Likewise, if the crew was butchered, it was by human hands; archaeological evidence suggests the last desperate individuals resorted to cannibalism during an overland flight that no one survived.

Still, like good science fiction, period dramas tell us as much about our own era as the one they are trying to portray. “Mad Men,” for example, in its depiction of early 1960s America, evokes both nostalgia and repulsion.

Such productions can fail in one of two ways. Either they glorify a problematic past by, in the case of the Franklin expedition, glossing over the incompetence and hubris that doomed it, or they congratulate the present, something Mark Greif, a critic, described when talking about “Mad Men’s” tendency to suggest that people today know better when it comes to things like smoking, sexism and other modern social issues.

“The Terror” errs on the side of a modern view by avoiding making tragic heroes out of the Franklin Expedition’s crew. European voyages of “discovery” belong more to the past than the present. To today’s viewer, Royal Navy ships in the Arctic appear as misplaced as the groping that takes place in “Mad Men.”

And though sailing the Northwest Passages remains a voyage taken seriously by shipowners and coast guards alike, diminishing sea ice (last week it was reported that 2018 had the second-least amount of winter sea ice ever recorded) makes the voyage a much less harrowing experience. Indeed, the amount of traffic has tripled in the past 25 years, according to a recent tally. Pleasure voyages, which rose 20-fold, saw the largest increase.

Soon, those seeking to follow in the wake of Terror and Erebus will have more than just bingeing “The Terror” to put them in the right mood. In 2016, the Canadian government proposed spending C$17 million ($13 million) on Franklin expedition research and preservation, as well as a visitor center in Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, close to where the two ships were found.

When and where
March 26; AMC (check local listings)

For more information
The Terror

Further reading
Nunavut’s Franklin artifacts make long-awaited debut in Canada
The art of imitating the Arctic
Poking at the bear


Seward’s Day
US states have a habit of giving their residents time off on days that can be used to reinforce local identity. Utah, for example, celebrates Pioneer Day, to commemorate the settling of Salt Lake City, its capital, by Mormons on July 24, 1847. Massachusetts has a day off for Patriots’ Day on the third Monday of April, to celebrate the start of the American Revolution in 1775.

Alaskans have two such holidays, both related to the same historical sequence of events: Seward’s Day, held in honor of the signing of the Alaska Purchase treaty on March 30, 1867, and Alaska Day, celebrating the formal transfer of the then-territory from Russia on October 18 of that year.

For most Americans, Seward, who was secretary of state at the time of the purchase, is known solely for giving rise to the term “Seward’s folly”, a reference to the perception that the land held no economic value.

Even if that had been the case, the $7 million price the US paid was comparable to other chunks of the North American continent Washington was buying from European powers of the day in order to minimize their influence in the Americas. Paying the equivalent of $115 million in today’s prices to expand the area under American control was a bargain.

Given the state’s later economic contributions, the purchase was a stroke of genius: the value of the planned sale of oil licenses in a corner of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge alone is expected to generate $2 billion, for example.

Like most deals at the time, the Alaska purchase ignored indigenous groups, though the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act tried to rectify this by giving native Alaskans $1 billion ($6 billion in current prices) and the rights to 44 million acres (180,000 square km, an area the size of present-day Missouri) of state land, meaning that, in effect, the US paid for the same thing twice, and gave far more for it the second time around.

Being a producer of oil and perhaps natural gas gives Alaska a key role in Donald Trump’s goal of “energy dominance.” The state, however, also serves as America a toe-hold in the Arctic at a time when the region is growing in importance commercially and politically. Perhaps it is time for to Washington consider celebrating Seward’s Day as well.

When and where
March 26; Alaska

For more information
Alaska Treaty of Cession 150th Anniversary

Further reading
150 years after sale of Alaska, some Russians have second thoughts


Also this week

Canadian Senate Special Committee on the Arctic, committee meeting
The Canadian Senate’s special committee on the Arctic holds its sixth scheduled meeting. The meeting will be streamed live.

When and where
March 27, 6:30 pm; Ottawa

For more information
Special committee on the Arctic

Further reading
Canada’s Inuit seek a larger voice in the future of the Northwest Passage

The Week Ahead is a preview of some of the events related to the region that will be in the news in the coming week. If you have a topic you think ought to be profiled in a coming week, please email [email protected].