The Terror: is it a true story, what happened to HMS Erebus – and the real events behind Ridley Scott's series

The series tells the story of a devastating British naval expedition to the Northwest Passage in 1845

Thursday, 4th March 2021, 4:07 pm
Ciarán Hinds and Jared Harris star as Captain Franklin and his right-hand man Captain Crozier in the BBC series (Picture: BBC Two)

BBC Two’s new thriller series The Terror debuted on Wednesday 3 March and fans are already hooked - but what is it really about?

The 10-part series, starring Ciarán Hinds (Game of Thrones) as Captain John Franklin and Jared Harris (Chernobyl, Mad Men) as Captain Francis Crozier, tells the compelling story of a British Naval expedition and the disastrous events which unfolded.

Many viewers have been left wondering if the story is based on true events, and what really happened? This is what you need to know.

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What is ‘The Terror’ about?

The series, originally created by director Ridley Scott For US channel AMC, is based on Dan Simmons’ novel of the same name.

The Arctic thriller tells the story of two British Royal Navy ships which voyage into unchartered territory in a bid to find the NorthWest Passage.

The passage was a suspected channel which many European’s adventured out to sea to find, believed to link the Atlantic and Pacific and would allow for a quicker route to Asia.

At the time, pack ice which stood in ships’ ways proved to be just as treacherous as the wild seas of the Southern Ocean.

In the series, Captain Franklin and Crozier lead the expedition of over 100 men out into the ocean, but their attempts are brought to a chilling end when they come up against supernatural forces which prove catastrophic for all onboard.

As they endure sub-zero conditions, dwindling resources, and no hope of being saved, the crews of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror come under a new threat - of other worldly nature.

Is it based on a true story?

While supernatural ice creatures may seem outwith the realms of belief, the series is actually based on true events.

In reality, 129 men disappeared when their boats, HMS Erebus and Terror, failed to return to Britain after departing on a search for the passage.

The search for the passage had already spanned over 400 years when Britain’s two finest warships set off in 1845.

Captain Franklin was an older captain and his reputation had been tarnished when, in 1819, he attempted to chart the north coast of Canada on foot.

Eleven of his 20 men died and at least one was murdered, the survivors were left to eat their own shoes and cannibalism was also reported on their return.

Admiral Franklin was not the Navy’s first choice of captain to lead the expedition, but he was the first who agreed to go. He was then assigned young Irishman Crozier as high right-hand man, who would lead a second ship.

They set off from Greenhithe, Kent in May 1845 with over three years worth of supplies and took a short stop in the Orkney Islands before being spotted by British ships at Baffin Bay in July.

What happened to the ships and their men?

After the sighting at Baffin Bay, the ships were never seen again. To begin with, no news was not concerning and no rescue missions were deployed.

However, when they had not reported back by 1946, Franklin’s wife became extremely concerned and petitioned parliament to take action.

The Government advertised a reward of £20,000 (nearly £2 million today) to anyone who would bring the crew back, or £10,000 for any information leading to their location.

Franklin was promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral, despite never returning. The ships’ suspected whereabouts became daily news, with Franklin acquiring heroic status.

Were the men ever found?

In November 1847, fellow Captain James Clark Ross was approved by the Navy to launch the first rescue mission and his team set off in 1848.

Franklin’s wife Lady Jane also financed search efforts in the 1850s, with 15 ships sent on missions.

In 1850, the first signs of fatality were discovered on Beechey Island as three graves and headstones were found near an old fire pit site, along with sledges and 600 large empty food cans.

By 1854 the searches were growing sparse and there was little sign of the shipwrecked men, when the media published a leaked report by a Scottish surgeon called John Rae.

Rae had explored northern Canada, mainly on foot, for a decade. He learnt how to build igloos and befriended a Inuk translator called William Ouligback, which enabled him to converse with fruit traders near Naujaat.

It was through this that he became aware of one of the traders having found a silver plate, engraved with the words "Sir John Franklin, KCH". Rae purchased the plate along with a handful of other relics from the Erebus and learned where they had been found.

Three years earlier, another Inuit group had traded with around 40 Europeans men who had arrived on small boats and sleds, following the abandonment of their ice-locked boat.

When the Inuit trader returned to the men some months later, he found more than 30 corpses – some buried, others scattered across the ice.

In his leaked report, Rae wrote: “From the mutilated state of many of the corpses and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last resource – cannibalism – as a means of prolonging existence.”

Rae was granted the £10,000 reward but his career was tarnished for his revelations, the country did not want to believe such a tragedy had occurred.

Lady Franklin tried to quash the claims, even instructing the help of Charles Dickens who at the time was the editor of a fortnightly journal, Household Words.

Dickens attempted to denounce Rae’s account in a lengthy essay, however the refuted claims were upheld by the admiralty and no further rescue missions were instructed.

Some 135 years later, the corpse of John Torrington was exhumed on Beechey Island in 1981 and modern forensic analysis found signs consistent with cannibalism on the bones.

Where can I watch ‘The Terror’?

The Terror is available to watch on BBC Two, every Wednesday at 9pm.

You can also watch all 10 episodes on BBC iPlayer.