The [Real] Terror

England is like some stricken beast too stupid to know it is dead. Ingloriously foundering in its own waste products, the backlash and bad karma of empire. (William Burroughs)

AMC’s 2018 series The Terror begins in 1845; the middle of the decade in which Great Britain (rEmeMbeER whEN iT wAs GrEaT?!) establishes itself as global hegemon, world policeman, and seaman maximus. You’ll be as unsurprised as I was to learn that it’s the very same decade the nation “officially” adopted a policy of global free trade – when we really started going after the money. In fact, that’s precisely the purpose of the ill-fated expedition on which the series – 10 episodes, 8.5 hours long, and yet still incredulously referred to by our transatlantic cousins, the newly-woke-global-hegemon, as a “mini-series” – centres: a quest to discover the Northwest Passage, an ambition drenched in all the paper-thin finery of Rule Britannia Enlightenment knowledge-hunting that is, in reality, nothing more than a mad dash for the new trade superhighway to China. An obvious but important signpost: capitalism and imperialism are, and always have been, two sides of the same bloodstained coin.

The expedition begins all pomp and glory: officers draped in finery consuming three course meals with wine and whisky, the lower ranks munching their way through lead-poisoned cans of veal cutlets and tomato sauce – the result of a slapdash, chumocracy-style contract that breeds shoddy craftsmanship and proves fatal for “the masses”– nothing changes. But soon things go all tits up: HMS Terror and HMS Erebus may be the most technologically advanced warships of their day – newly updated with a steam-powered single-screw propeller capable of catapulting them along at up to 4.5km/h (!!) – but sadly for all the healthy white seamen, there’s a hard winter coming, and pack ice doesn’t give a shit how neatly your beard is trimmed or how cutting-edge your sloop is; despite good advice from Captain Crosier (skipper of the Erebus but second in command to Sir John Franklin, leader of the eponymous Terror and the expedition writ large) the ships push on, and soon become lodged in the ice, never to be freed.

After some half-arsed efforts to dig their way out, the difficulty of the situation becomes clear, and search parties are sent out from the boats to search for leads. During the outing, one of the parties manages to “accidentally” kill a native Inuit man. After failing to properly bury him (they force the poor sod down a fishing hole in the ice), soon ensues a plot device that comes to dominate many of the following episodes: a monstrous Inuit spirit called the Tuunbaq is unleashed upon the entire crew (more fool them; I’ve warned against the dangers of botched-burials in previous posts on The Tuunbaq – which can only be described as a polar bear with Klippel-Feil syndrome and pumped full of steroids, rendered in slightly budget CGI – pursues the men relentlessly, tearing them to shreds as it goes. To be frank, as satisfying as it is to see the prim and proper sailorboys torn to ribbons by their orientalised hosts, it’s ultimately a cheap thrill. What’s much more interesting is not what happens when the British empire comes up against Inuit mythology (which, it’s worth adding, the author of the original novel and co-writer of the series, Dan Simmons, rewrites and brutalises in order to create the silly creature – an unintended but telling act of aesthetic colonialism in of itself), but when the British Empire comes up against nothing at all.

All societies are built on Symbolic Orders; all Symbolic Orders are built on language. In so-called Great Empires, this is only compounded. Their expansion, exploitation, and hegemony rely upon rigid hierarchies, the ruthless control of desiring flows, and the foreclosing on socio-political alternatives. You need only look to the ridiculous names and ranks that are thrown around in the navy, or in any Repressive State Apparatus of your choosing – submission to the other, interpellation through language, and subjectification through naming are necessary and essential in the formation of, and entry to, society. Similarly, they don’t call it a grandnarrative for nothing: the meta-justifications for empire are the end-result (or end-purpose) of the name game; create enough words and soon you’ll have a sentence, then a paragraph, then a book, and then enough made-up phrases that you can funnel the desire of every man, woman, and child towards one hideous end – the ruthless expansion of your “collective” world view over all others. Under capitalist realism, remember that this is the profit-motive’s most powerful weapon.

One of The Terror’s greatest strengths is its cinematography; the Arctic feels as expansive, barren, and punishing as I can only imagine it really is. As such, the two little boats filled to the brim with God-Save-the-Queen hoo-rah find themselves in an exceptionally chilly version of the desert of the Real. The Real – all which lies beyond the bounds of the Symbolic, that which the Symbolic is designed to endlessly colonise, control, and supress – is a void, it is an absence, and that is precisely what these ships find themselves subsumed by. Where their route was once a part of a much larger narrative, given meaning through word only, once progress halts they realise that they lie beyond the Empire’s bounds, its words, and subsequently all the hope and meaning it provides; where their geographical coordinates are lost, their phantasmatic coordinates soon follow. In this sense, rather than imagining Tuunbaq as a quasi-spiritual whitewashed polar bear of subaltern vengeance, it makes a great deal more sense to understand it as an embodiment of the raging, screaming, deathdrive of the Real, bursting through their ruptured Symbolic order; the Id let loose as the ego – both individual, but also collective, national, imperial – loses its hold. This is perhaps why, in a particularly (small ‘s’) symbolic moment, the mutinous Sergeant Hickey cuts out his tongue, and as such any ability to consensually partake in the imperial-Symbolic, and feeds it (as well as himself) to the ever-raging Tuunbaq.

Which brings me to my next point via Lacan via Bhaktin via Moudileno: Another of The Terror’s greatest assets is its unflinching approach to the body; this is not gore for the sake of gore, “horror” for the sake of horror, but the grotesque body firing on all cylinders. From amputations to cannibalism, sodomising trysts to scalping and demi-decapitation, The Terror is littered with bodily functions and bodies at point of rupture. Bhaktin defines the grotesque body as a “body in the act of becoming, it is never finished, never completed”, focusing on “those parts of the grotesque body in which it outgrows its own self, transgressing its own body”. Therefore, though we can just take the blood and guts at face value, as the (small r) real representation of this Lord of the Flies on ice, we can happily take it one step further: bodies at the point of breakage, of transgressing their perceived limits, are reflective of hierarchies, discourses, and grandnarratives doing exactly the same thing. The language of the Symbolic defines the parameters of the singular body just as much as it does the collective will; when the bounds of those bodies are ruptured and collapsed it is because the relationship between those bodies and the hegemonic discourses that once defined them has been disturbed. The Terror reflects collapse of the Imperial narrative at a wonderfully visceral level.

And all of this leads us neatly to the series’ conclusion. The Tuunbaq is defeated by an aptly but unsubtly named Surgeon Goodsir who – knowing his own murder is imminent – douses himself in vinegary poison and slashes his wrists in another beautifully corporeal moment of Christ-like martyrdom; Hickey’s crew eat Goodsir, Tuunbaq eats Hickey’s crew, and you can guess the rest. This – along with the lead poisoning, starvation, and over three years of Arctic exposure in impossibly thin and well-kept coats – leaves all the men but Captain Crozier dead. Alive and well but for a missing hand (lost to the Tuunbaq) the Captain is rescued by an Inuit woman called Silna and taken to her tribe. After a few months of much needed R&R here, the British search party (finally) comes knocking, looking for the lost ships and their crew. “What do you want me to do?” asks the leader of the Inuit tribe; the scene cuts to the leader pointing at a photograph of Crozier brought by the search party and telling them that he is “dead and gone”. Unbeknownst to the Brits, Crozier stands outside that very tent, wrapped in his own set of tailor-made Inuit furs. The point here is this: Crozier’s body may – more or less – be in one piece, but he has chosen to sacrifice every dripping of the Imperial-Symbolic he possibly could. Not just his clothes and his rank, but (most importantly) his language too, having become fluent in the Inuit dialect; though the body lives on, the man that was Captain Crozier, the man that the British Empire had subjectivised as “Captain Crozier”, is both dead and gone.

The final shot is fitting: ex-Crozier walks away from the tent, and the scene cuts to him crouched by a hole in the ice, presumably hunting for seal, surrounded by an endless expanse of ice that bleeds seamlessly in the always-white Arctic sky and ghostly summer sun; subsumed not just by the desert of the Real, but its unbearable silence too. Imperialism – just like capitalism – relies on endless expansion, on endless ground to colonise and commodify. For this very reason, Empire’s greatest enemy is not the revenge-set subaltern it oppresses, but its own self-defeating logic: nothing can expand forever, one day there will be nothing left to colonise, and one day the hegemon will have to confront all that lies beyond its bounds – the empty, silent, raging void – and what then?  

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