INTERVIEW: Tobias Menzies on new “psychological thriller” TV drama The Terror
In 1845, Captain Sir John Franklin led a voyage of exploration of the Northwest Passage of the Canadian Arctic. The two crews of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror never came back.
Based on Dan Simmons’ bestselling supernatural novel, The Terror is a new television series set to enthral and surprise audiences. What happened to Franklin’s lost expedition?
We sat down with series star Tobias Menzies, who plays the expedition’s third in command – James Fitzjames, for a chat about what to expect in the new series.
Did you know anything about Franklin’s lost expeditions or the character before you started?
I didn’t, no. I hadn’t heard about this piece of history before. Strangely, I don’t think it is very well known in the UK given that it was a British Naval expedition. One of the really interesting things about this project has been digging into this whole story and that’s very exciting to bring this story to a wider audience.
Not a lot is known about what actually happened. There are a few points of historical reference so we know that Franklin died. We have some idea where they were at certain points. There were the three bodies that were found on the island. Those are all honoured in the work. But to a large extent, the conversations and what was going on in those ships over those years is an act of fiction.
To what extent would you say this was a historical period drama compared to a supernatural story?
What I like about this show is that they’ve really kept the creature back, it’s a psychological thriller rather than being straight-up horror with lots of gore. I think it’s unsettling and unnerving and builds up through pressure rather than shocks. It’s definitely not Walking Dead.
Did you research the character?
I dread about him. There’s a fair amount written about him – he was relatively well known. A bit of a star of the navy. One of the interesting things about working on a real person is that you have all of that wealth on information on one person. I guess then you’re having to knit together what you found out in that regard versus what the show is needing from that character.
It sounds like he had an interesting family life.
That is absolutely woven into the heart of who he is, that he was illegitimate. He isn’t everything that he appears to be at the beginning of the story. It’s the main arc of his character. I think more generally the show is a group of men from high Victorian society coming with arrogance and a sense of superiority and all that is gradually stripped away from them. Fitzjames is no different in that regard. At the heart of this, he is not all that he seems – he is partly a construct, he has this secret that he has carried with him. In that regard, he is closer to Crozier who is his main adversary towards the beginning of the story – they actually come to understand they are more similar than different.The proposition of the piece is who do these people become when you take away all those trappings of civilisation and class and that were very rife in Victorian society.
How would you have fared if you had been stuck in the Arctic as these men were?
Very poorly. I think the physical deprivation that they had to encounter would be very hard for a modern person to imagine, in an age of anaesthetic and paracetamol and air conditioning. There’s an amazing little scene when a doctor is cutting off some toes because frostbite was quite common, I mean… it makes you kind of go… ugh. That was standard.
Where do you think the conflict with Crozier comes from?
It’s a societal thing. In Victorian society at that time, it was very important where you were from and to be Irish held you back. It was without any guilt an Englishman believed him to be superior to an Irishman. That is also partly articulated in the show in that you see this group of Victorian men arrive in the Arctic and encounter this different culture when they arrive, this Inuit culture, and they believe themselves to be superior in every way. Ultimately, that contributes to their downfall. That blindness, that lack of open-mindedness.
I think it’s a fantastic meditation on colonialism at its worst. It also pushes into environmentalism. The place where the story takes place – those ice caps are now disappearing. You could argue that one of the reasons why they’re disappearing is because of men like that that went and started to conquer those places in the world. I think that’s all there.