|Jared Harris as Captain Francis Crozier|
As they say, it's a long story. But the basics are simple: the Northwest Passage, originally envisioned as the "sea route to the Orient," was by the mid-nineteenth century a more abstract prize: numerous expeditions had been launched and failed, enough for Arctic veteran Sir John Ross to declare to a Parliamentary Committee that, even if found, the Passage would be "utterly useless" for commercial ships. Still, for a maritime nation, the lack of having managed it was a perceptible failing, one which Franklin's expedition was widely expected to resolve. Under the command of Franklin -- who had mapped much of the mid-section of the Passage already -- with two ice-strengthened ships, the "Erebus" and "Terror," fresh from a successful Antarctic voyage, the expedition seemed destined to succeed. Until it disappeared with scarcely a trace, defeating every effort to find more than a skeleton or a scrap of paper for decades, even as disturbing accounts, collected from the native Inuit people, told of starvation, cannibalism, and exhausted men who "fell down as they walked."
Like the novel by Dan Simmons on which it's based, the show builds a tissue of horrific fiction around this armature of historical fact. For those of us who already find the factual story endlessly fascinating, a certain additional suspension of disbelief will be required. We'll have to let go of our idealized version, for instance, of Franklin, and let Hinds's masterful performance of Sir John as an ambitious commander who throws caution to the winds, take its place; our Fitzjames will, as Menzies portrays him, be less whimsical than the lively young fellow evident in his letters home; our Crozier, above all, will be darker: feeling that his sense of the perils of the ice is not being taken seriously, he turns to drink and grim warnings: "Our situation is more dire than you may understand." Jared Harris's performance is the highlight of the series for me; no other actor I know so perfectly combines -- and balances -- darkness and light. All these new characters, though drawn differently from the way we've seen them before, serve this show's narrative as faithfully as the original officers served their nation's Navy.
I won't be giving any spoilers here -- though the curious can read the episode-by-episode recap and commentary I wrote for Canadian Geographic on their website -- but I will say that, despite the fact that its horror is of a different and more fantastical kind, the show captures the bleak realism of Franklin's ill-fortune with remarkable clarity. Part of this is thanks to an excellent production crew and visual effects team, who worked magic with the look and feel of the ice, as well as having the expert advice of ship-modeler extraordinaire Matthew Betts which has made the structure and shape of both ships remarkably accurate, far more so than your usual "Master and Commander" fare. And these three actors, along with a brilliant supporting cast, well portray the essential human drama at the core of it all -- it's not "man vs. ice" but "man vs. man vs. himself vs. ice" -- a far more psychologically vexed formula, even before we meet the horror that awaits.