The Terror: How the Show Made Some Tin Cans and Paranoia the Deadliest Forces in the Arctic

Interview by Steve Greene for IndieWire, 30th April 2018

As the on-screen expedition slowly disintegrates, a closer look at the deadly food source plunging everything into chaos.

Like many other details surrounding the latter parts of the real-life expedition that formed the basis for “The Terror,” there’s a tiny bit of haziness around the color of the cans that provided much of the crew’s food. Those Goldner’s cans, innocent-seeming at first, have now become one of the most menacing forces in a series that’s already seen attacks of all different kinds.

“We knew they were some shade of red, because of the cans that were found on King William Island, but those are so distressed at this point, you could really make a bold choice about what shade you wanted to go with,” executive producer and co-showrunner David Kajganich told IndieWire. “We tried a bunch and figured out that that was the one that sort of draws the eye in a way that subtextually feels ominous without overdoing it.”

“Even the labels are based on high resolution pictures from the National Maritime Museum. We reconstructed the acting wording one-for-one, so these are as accurate as they can be,” series historical advisor Matthew Betts said.

But as meticulous as this show is about the period-specific details, there’s equal attention paid to the emotional and psychological effects that those cans might have brought with them. As theorized in the series, the process of securing this food for the journey may have caused a chain reaction that’s truly starting to metastasize as circumstances get more drastic. The cans themselves may look as much like the originals as possible, but it’s the 1845 production of these Goldner’s cans that’s become just as important to the story as any giant creature waiting just beyond the horizon.

“They were asked to provide all these provisions for the journey quite late, so they were rushing to get the provisions made. Some of the cans weren’t completely sealed, so air got inside and the food rotted. Some were oversealed and the lead dripped inside and gave lead poisoning to the food,” production designer Jonathan McKinstry said.

Over the course of the series, that conjecture becomes less and less of a hypothesis and more of a reality for the various men aboard both the Terror and the Erebus. The decision to make that a significant part of “The Terror” was one that the team did not take lightly.

“The subplot about the lead in the cans is definitely a choice we had to make because there is quite a disagreement among Franklin scholars as to how impactful that lead poisoning was to the disaster,” Kajganich said. “There are certain Franklin scholars that believe that it had little to nothing to do with what went wrong in the expedition. And there are other scholars who believe it was quite consequential.”

It’s the kind of season-long snowball that the series set in motion from the very first episode, whether or not viewers realized.

“In the pilot, you have this one shot where Franklin digs a little wet pellet out of his mouth as he’s eating. We were able to seed in very subtly and use those moments to build it up,” executive producer and co-showrunner Soo Hugh said. “It was really fun for David and I not to have to have one scene do all the heavy lifting. We were asked early on in the season whether or not audiences would get that storyline, whether we needed to hit it harder. We were very confident the audiences out there, they may not get it on the first shot, they may not get on the second, but by the time we get to Episodes 4 and 5, we trusted the audience.”

One of the biggest hints that things are starting to turn for these men comes in Episode 7, “Horrible for Supper.” Morfin (one of the first men to exhibit visible signs of lead poisoning) dies after being shot before he can cause any significant havoc of his own. Morfin’s veering into paranoia is an example of a singular challenge for the story of “The Terror.” Not only do the actors and writers have to chart that devolution, but having it happen for everyone at different times is its own emotional puzzle. Playing Goodsir, someone who’s now watched characters killed in accidents, gunfire, and now the lurking threat of the cans, Paul Ready had a specific challenge for how to play that creeping sense of uncertainty.

“With all these characters, there’s the protocol and the hierarchy on the ship. And also, what it was to show emotion in the Victorian era is very different to now,” Ready said. “I think a lot of it goes on inside. You’ve got to be able to somehow show that but without stepping outside the propriety of the time. So that’s difficult, but as it goes on, I think all bets are off in a way.”

Before the chaos of last week’s Carnivale, the Arctic claimed another victim: the expedition’s monkey companion Jacko. Goodsir’s experimentation, which first helps tip off the crew that something is wrong with their food supply, leads to a surprisingly affecting scene as the men set up a new base camp. Whether as a means for atonement or a motivating factor to survival, among the keepsakes that Goodsir takes from the ship is Jacko’s remains.

A character like Goodsir — in many ways, the show’s moral compass — being forced into a situation where poisoning another creature is a survival tactic is just one of the many ripples that come from that central can malfunction. That Goodsir carries Jacko with him as the crew leaves the ship is also a reminder that even though they’ve left the Terror, there’s another terror lurking in the very food they eat.

“If he’s carting a dead monkey around, he still thinks he’s going to survive,” Ready said. “To my modern eye, even though Goodsir is experimenting on Jacko for the good of the other men on the ship, I still find a darkness in that, that he would just watch he’s basically watching as he kills the monkey. He was like slowly poisoning it. That was necessary perhaps, but that was something I found a little bit dark about Goodsir and I think that was useful.”

As the various members of this expedition balance paranoia, fear, and reason, “The Terror” has used that uneasiness to introduce an extra genre layer to this story. With the deterioration of the cans and the growing attempt to find the source of this unrest among the crew, it introduces a kind of detective subplot amongst this tale of survival.

“It was exciting in the writer’s room when we realized there might have been actually enough information in the hands of the people thinking about what was causing this illness that we’re saying is lead poisoning. Dr. McDonald might have read those Thackrah studies of gout in plumbers and he might have been able to, in conjunction with Goodsir’s observations, actually put together the solution to that problem,” Kajganich said. “That’s always exciting when you realize that you can have characters in a ‘horror movie’ who actually have quite a lot of agency and quite a lot of common sense and practical information to help themselves.”

In some ways, the expediency that went into making these cans before the expedition created a situation where a number of these men were doomed before they even set sail. For as much (deserved) credit as series like “Black Mirror” and “Westworld” get for engaging with the specific dangers of our growing dependence on technology, the Goldners storyline in “The Terror” addresses a lot of same concerns through a mid-19th century lens.

“From our point of view, telling the most robust version of the story in terms of how the anxieties of the men played out, an over-reliance on the technology of any day is already often a horror story. So we wanted to try to tap into the technological anxieties those men might have gone through as one facet of the horror of our show,” Kajganich said.

This interview was originally published by IndieWire. It has been reposted here for posterity.