Frankenstein: “We Will Need New Material” – AD 2014 (Part Two)

Frank II

The concluding look at how the legacy of Frankenstein is faring 196 years on from his creation…And his creation’s creation.  Read the first part for tales of Angelic I Frankensteins, Missing Munsters and Intriguing Igors… Part Two is dedicated to Penny Dreadful, and full of spoilers

AS THE FIRST PART OF AD 2014 ESTABLISHED, THERE’S NO SHORTAGE OF CREATORS WILLING TO TAKE ON MARY SHELLEY’S GOTHIC CREATION AND WARP HIM TO THEIR OWN AGENDA.  

That’s nothing new, and the current cultural canvas stretching from demon bashing comic books to misfiring Munsters, proves that it’s still a powerful metaphor ripe for appropriation.  And this isn’t an exhaustive list, barely touching on the Frankenstein who’s been testing DC Comics since the late 1940s up to the current Young Frankenstein toying with the Teen Titans.  Then there’s the continual references propping up Doctor Who, doctorish twists on the thriving zombie genre …

As a statement of intent however, the strongest contender must be the darkly ambitious Showtime series Penny Dreadful. Immaculately cast, inspirationally created, veins pumping with horror, at the mid-point of the series UK broadcast it’s clear that this is the Frankenstein to beat…

Penny Dreadful (2014 – )

“Who is the child, Frankenstein? Thee or me?” – Caliban

For a chance to expand the myth and give a little more screen time to the eponymous doctors, where better to look than the brave new world of television. Into the breach stepped the fascinating Penny Dreadful with a gloomy, rancid and often brilliant blend of 19th century literary and gothic icons. In the first episodes, it was striking how this new iteration of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen had crept up on prime time. By the end of the second it’s clear that it’s attempting  something different to Alan Moore’s sublime opus.  It doesn’t take much more than a consumptive Billy Piper spitting blood mid-coitus over Dorian Gray of Eve Green’s foul mouth bending Simon Russell-Beale’s frazzled tache to make the truth of the Penny Dreadful moniker clear.

There’s lots at play in this series; necessary when it turns its full focus to mystery and the dark underground of 19th century London.  With origins and explanations destined to appear later, surely, it’s the key enjoyment is watching significant talent take on these characters and win.  Masterminded by the brilliant John Logan and Sam Mendes, fresh from their revitalization of British 20th century icon James Bond, the input of consultants of the pedigree of Dr Matthew Sweet and ambitious casting makes for something special.

Amid a mix, or clash and blur of creations, familiar storylines vie for attention.  What must be  Dracula provides the main motivation while arguably Frankenstein makes for the most engrossing plotline.  In the first episode, there’s a point that divides those prime storylines neatly.

Point of No Return

It’s the meeting of the as yet un-named Frankenstein with Timothy Dalton’s obsessed Sir Malcolm Murray, African explorer, Alan Quatermain comparator and nemesis of Dracula.  They meet in what may as well be the Diogenes Club, the gentleman’s sanctuary and necessary catalyst.  The two great explorers, one of land and human experience, the other of science and human endeavour, meet and pique each other’s interest – although it’s Murray who takes the lead in summoning the younger Doctor to his cause.  We learn his insights on to his rag tag band of acolytes later (“not for the weak or the kind”), but after that meeting the great explorer returns to ramp up the vampire storyline while Frankenstein returns to his hidden laboratory, previously only seen as a secret door.

As is befitting, the end of episode one is brilliantly played down. The accidental awakening as Frankenstein’s return to a plain but classical laboratory sees him first strip away the clothing of society and – perhaps buoyed by an income boost or drunk on his passionate quest –tinkers to trigger an electric surge.  He’s walked past a finely realised copper bench, a prone form giving the director ample scope for misdirection.  There’s no hint of lightening in London, here electricity is man wrought.  That’s a crucial theme in this meshing of gothic icons, even the Alan Quatermain styled Sir Malcolm Murray; how their world is being encroached by the fast-developing world of Victorian rationalism and mechanics.

Quiet and tender, the meeting of this father and son is far more successful than the traditional one.  It forms the episode climax as Frankenstein teaches his creation his name.  Some reviews decried that, suggesting that it played down to a sophisticated audience.  In the climax however, I thought it neat.  This is an intensely intimate moment, one where the audience is clearly eavesdropping.  It’s awkward and chilling I thought… With these two, it’s not so much acquiescing to the common denominator, but an imprinting of a name that would become the focus for total vengeance.

This creature, allowed to name himself after the Shakespearean Proteus, is the product of Frankenstein’s devout romanticism and thirst to rationalise it with his science and deep felt experience of death, against that same industrial expansion.  Although it takes a while to explore that fully…

Out on the Town

“Death is not serene” – Frankenstein

Episode Two plays a little fast and loose with the fun of this new, scared but joyous father and his curious son.  When naming him, there’s the wry dismissal of the theological connotations of ‘Adam’ and then the vibrant scenes of the monster discovering the world, intercut with Frankenstein’s involvement in the Murray plot.  That provides a chance for Ives and Frankenstein to bond over Wordsworth, leaving the psychic to inform the main players correctly; this doctor has secrets.

And after a day of magical discovery, father and son return to their house of secrets and Penny Dreadful plays one of its mean tricks, expertly dishing and manipulating literary roots to spin and twist chronologically earlier plot points.  After exploring the unnatural creation going well, through emotion, aspiration, recollection…  Frankenstein’s world is literally torn apart.

“Your first born has returned father” – Caliban

The creature’s appearance is so good, the next episode near steals it with Fenton and his master…

However, that Episode Three is so far the highlight of the series for revealing an authentic Frankenstein and the first born son he abandoned.  It’s a surprise that shouldn’t be.  That savage twist should have been obvious, but this creature is more the tortured, long-haired creation of the book than vicious killer.  The roots of these characters immense hatred of each other is well laid, yet through few words on the Doctor’s part and many from his creation.  This episode starts with the brutal lessons of life and death that the young Frankenstein was forced to learn.  We see him walking through daffodils and quoting not only Wordsworth, but the poet’s Intimations on Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.  A neat if not subtle reference to the character’s literary origins, this retelling promises so much more alongside broad slabs of fidelity.

Alongside the weak doctor, this ‘normal’ sized creature is not horrifically violent, though it can evidently spring to action with resolve when required.  It’s a fine line to the ham fisted mechanic of I Frankenstein. No matter if the creature is as abnormally tall as Shelley’s, was awakened with enough volts to power its indestructibility… The real fuel for the creature must come from those first few minutes of imprinted rejection.  This creature is as articulate and learned as his source.  The recap of his birth, in “terrified agony” is gripping and faithful, and the script plays with it well, even name-checking in opposition PB Shelley’s  Lyrical Adonais.

Hippocracy

“Do not test me Frankenstein. You do not know horror until I have shown it to you” – Caliban

Still, it’s the two that are rooted in turbulence.  “Death is not serene” observes the Doctor early on while his creation promises that he would have pursued him through the “blackest tempest of the darkest night”.

We also see the origins of the Doctor of course and how death set him on an inevitable route.  The creature narrates what we’ve seen so far, the Doctor who favoured Wordsworth and the Romantics’ view of the world who creates something that is “modernity personified” in the age of the industrial.  It’s no wonder that Frankenstein fundamentally cannot stand his creation, and is incapable of making any effort to make up for his abandonment.  It shouldn’t fit quite so well with the other son we’ve seen, not quite, but it does.  That’s perhaps due to the quality of the creature’s argument.  Tellingly, Frankenstein doesn’t speak for minutes as his firstborn addresses him.  When told by his son that they are the Janus mask, “inseparable” his first words, “how could you do that?’  The response that it is a mercy for the tragic Proteus – “you put me through nothing but pain”.

As the creature continues its insightful psychoanalysis, it sums up what may as well be Penny Dreadful’s main remit.  Following the father who could only be “surgeon and the butcher”, he comes to London.  Rightfully not the creature’s birth place, but the perfect hub for these stories.  A rather pretentious ‘Hellmouth’.

That reference to the Janus mask is a neat plant.  The ever reliable Alun Armstrong soon appears as Brand in the creature’s story, dragging him to his natural home: the theatre, the Grand Guignol no less.  Big puppet indeed, this may not bring universal acceptance but does bring him a name, again Shakespearean: Caliban.  It’s a neat trick, blending the creature into the shadows as the Phantom of the Opera of the hunchback in the real-life and enduring legacy of a theatre infamous for naturalistic horror shows. It’s unlikely such a literally concerned show will bring in a variant of wolf men beyond that stage, and perhaps that’s another reason for it.  The Grand Guignol stage allows the freedom to include fictional cameos, while behind the scenes the creature pulls the strings (literally, the grand guignol that’s not the buffoon, but the marionnettiste) and front of house, Penny Dreadful’s other players gather to watch events unfold.

There’s time for a quick bit of literary fun of course.  “It’s all Ibsen nowadays” laments Brand at one point, crew sniggering behind the camera I’m sure.  But the show’s main tool is this self-aware creature.  He knocks on the real fourth wall as he draws the comparison between these actors and the undying – creatures of perpetual resurrection.  And there on a stage we first see before it hosts the old ‘Penny Dreadful’ Sweeney Todd, the pale skin and red eyes make him appear more like a traditional vampire than ever.  He lacks the taught translucent, taught skin and adds sutures to Shelley’s creation, but some hair growth later and some things are inevitable.  When he tells his father “I’ll show you what I want’ ‘a collective sigh rises: what could that be..?

Frank II cu

The Monster’s Shadow

“If you seek to threaten me, threaten me with life” – Caliban

With Frankenstein in the pre-eminence, the other plot lines can only pale. It’s made clear that Mina is indeed the Mina, attached to one Jonathan Harker and falling under the spell of this other creature, never named.    Again it’s twisted, with a doomed Fenton a little more horrid than the fly obsessive in Stoker’s original and the marvellous setting of the London Zoo showing how Twilight could have done far better.

While these rattle on, the Frankenstein story settles into the classic amateur Faustian pact, playing out on the streets while the vampires occupy the night, interiors and underground.  “What do you want from me demon?’ asks Frankenstein of his firstborn, his cool arrogance brought more steel by the arrival.  He still feels fairly justified or perhaps is finding good reason to reach for it.

The streets of London were also the backdrop where his younger ‘brother’ found discovery.  While that relationship was about teaching and learning, here it’s one of constant misunderstanding.  It’s amusing when Frankenstein admits he does not love his son, but not for the creature; of course, it’s the love of one like him he craves.

Frankenstein is as much about loss as love of course, it’s a relationship built on the negation that intertwine the two until death is the only option. That’s negation of parenting, knowledge, hope.   The creature is brutalized by that loss, Frankenstein strengthened.

Love, Love, Love…

“Do not temporize demon, be at it” – Caliban

Love as is only right, is at the heart of much of Penny Dreadful, and never as simple as that of a father for his missing daughter or another father lacking it for his unwanted son…

We see Frankenstein enlisted into a super-gang of course, and that necessarily weights the other end of the relationship spectrum.   By the middle of the series, Murray’s similarities become more relevant as the search for the source of the Nile adds mystery on mystery and Frankenstein is cast as his son.  A neat balance to Frankenstein’s own son just returning.  Although, who on Earth would trust Murray…

Gray is the last major figure to give up his secrets… But seems a neat foil as an immortal and cat amongst other mortals.  Each character has their own implication on Frankenstein’s.  By episode Four, and the intensity of the creature’s quest for a bride, the short, shocking creation talks of mortals and touches on some of the more delicate pangs of 19th century politics.  “Future belongs to the strong, the immortal races” he says, “To me and my kind”.  In an echo, Gray later extols Wagner as he seduces Chandler with Tristan & Isolde‘s ‘Love Death’.

It’s Josh Hartnett’s Chandler who seems the real oddity.   Particularly with the neat addition of haematologist Abraham Van Helsing working alongside Frankenstein in the fourth episode.  Surely Quincey Morris is Chandler’s template, and one with a pre-built destiny to finish off Dracula.  That he isn’t Morris can only promise something else, that deep secret he’s running from.

And at the centre. Elsewhere, it’s clear that Vanessa Ives, with her mysterious arachnophobia is the key or indeed as Dorian Gray put it “The most mysterious thing in London”.  Her spin on Frankenstein? As her master first observed, Vanessa Ives has to name something to make it live before he seduces her with Keats….. And it’s surely no coincidence that the example we see twice is Shakespeare’s Ariel.   The stunning Ives-centric episode establishes that the tremor of something lay in the Murray family well before Penny Dreadful picks up the reigns, and also that this team is very, very finite.

With the Dracula storyline advanced, Penny Dreadful leaves Frankenstein as the main vehicle to bring the theme of love to the gothic horror.  And perhaps the horror of gothic love.

2014 AD

Despite losing and stalling adaptations on each side of the Atlantic, it’s clear that The Modern Prometheus is in fine form.  Quality and quantity will always vary, but that’s something the good Doctor himself is only too aware of.  Madman, explorer and scientist.  As DNA and medicine reality continues to keep Frankenstein relevant, the various facets of Frankenstein have no reason to be too stitched back together any time soon.  3,000 volts or not, immortality is assured.

To paraphrase a victim of Hammer’s Baron “I fancy that we are the spider and you are the fly, Frankenstein”.

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