Based on Dan Simmons novel, AMC’s The Terror follows a fictionalized account of Captain Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition to the Arctic in 1845–1848. The group attempt to discover the Northwest Passage but are faced with treacherous conditions, disease, impending starvation, dwindling hope and fear of the unknown, and quite possibly something beyond our comprehension lurking in the ice and snow.
Several episodes into AMC’s adaptation viewers were teased with whispers and quick glimpses of something lurking in the distance, picking off crewman. The Arctic terror known as the Tuunbaq was revealed about half-way through the series first season (Episode 5, titled “First Shot a Winner, Lads”). But just what is this ancient spiritual beast with the general shape of a gaunt, powerful polar bear, but with human-like hands and eyes?
Note: If you have not seen any of The Terror, and are planning to, consider everything from here on out to be SPOILERS —
As difficult a task as it was to adapt Dan Simmons’ 2007 novel into a 10-hour miniseries, the way in which the creature would be unveiled proved to be particularly tasking on the makers. Simmons novel follows a non-linear narrative structure, beginning at a point approximately midway through the overall plot. The narrative switches among multiple viewpoint characters and uses both third and first-person narrative through journal logs and ship reports. The appearance of the Tuunbaq as seen in “First Shot A Winner, Lads” had to be distilled down to its basic necessities.
Towards the end of the episode, the crew come under attack by the Tuunbaq and are unable to escape to safety. Blanky, the likable Ice Master played by The Last Kingdom‘s Ian Hart, runs and climbs the rigging with Tuunbaq in pursuit, as the men scramble to get a cannon in place. The snow makes it impossible for the men below to see him or Tuunbaq as they scramble to aim their cannon. Blanky lights a lantern and tosses it at the creature, setting it ablaze and visible for the men below to fire. Though the Tuunbaq isn’t killed the sequence is a tense, chaotic and heart-pounding.
Bringing the Tuunbaq to Life
“Shooting that episode meant it was like a bit of a shell game, logistically, in terms of where everyone was on any given day,” executive producer David Kajganich told IndieWire. “You’ve got Blanky up in the top of the rigging, you’ve got Lieutenant Hobson and some of the able seamen out on the ice. You’ve got Crozier and his group trying to figure out how to get above deck. Eventually, they all end up working around the same plan.” Kajganich goes on to say that “We spent our sort of storytelling attention on trying to figure out how you could have people so far from one another in such horrible weather. They can’t easily communicate with one another, but they all know what is the thing that needs to be done. Organizing the sequence that way I think gave us all the energy that’s in Dan’s book.”
The whole sequence is then elevated by composer Marcus Fjellström’s dissonant and disorienting score, which makes you feel like you’re falling into Hell. It really adds that special something to the monster’s big introduction.
For the AMC show, concept designer Neville Page created the look of the Tuunbaq. Page is the same person who designed creatures for Cloverfield, Avatar, and the Star Trek movies and TV series. The visual effects team then took his sketches and created a fully realized, three-dimensional and somehow sympathetic beast. “We wanted to make sure he looks human,” VFX supervisor Frank Petzold told IGN during a press event. “Throughout the story, not only the crew is suffering and starving to death and freezing to death, but there’s sort of a little parallel evolution,” Petzold explains. “The creature’s not only attacking the crew, but the crew is attacking the creature too. There’s a deterioration in his health that we wanted to visually show. Towards the end, you almost feel compassion for him.”
Over the span of its 10 episodes, The Terror included over 2,000 visual effects shots, and for this specific sequence, they had to map out every specific detail to ensure that every part of the team could stay within what they needed. “Other scenes we were more flexible. But this was like a school bus and a person on a little stick, so it was quite tricky,” Petzold said. “We actually did a preview, basically a crude animatic of the whole sequence, just to figure out timing. Also, what looks scary when trying out different camera angles.”
The Legend of the Tuunbaq
An indestructible killing machine that takes the form of a massive, monstrous polar bear with a slightly longer neck, the Tuunbaq is a creature derived from Inuit mythology. Simmons version of the creature in his novel is closely tied to the legend of Sedna. The Tuunbaq isn’t a genuine part of Netsilik Inuit mythology, but “as long as it’s representative of a hybrid of things that actually are in wider Inuit mythology, we felt comfortable enough using it,” Kajganich says. Whether or not the miniseries will adapt the novel’s explanation is still up in the air but as it stands now the first five episodes haven’t delineated much from the novel’s narrative (apart from structurally).
This would mean that the Tuunbaq could still be the demon created a millennia ago by the goddess Sedna to kill her fellow spirits. The reason for the Tuunbaq’s anger is because it was banished to the Arctic wastes where it now inhabits and begins to prey on the Esquimaux until their most powerful shamans discovered a way to communicate with it. They sacrifice their tongues to the beast and promise to stay out of its domain. Lady Silence is later revealed to be one of these shamans (as was her father, seen as the start of the series).
The first season of AMC’s The Terror is available on their subscription service. Make sure to check it out before the show’s second season, due out sometime in 2019.