What Penny Dreadful wants to do is recombine the well-known and beloved narratives of 19th-century Gothic fiction with the realities of Victorian London in 1891 — the time of the Great Exhibition, during the rise of spiritualism and Evolutionist Theory, the time when society was scared to death by ideas of social mobility, religious upheaval, and the astonishing advancement of science. Inspired by Mary Shelley and her tale of Victor Frankenstein and his Creature, authors of the Victorian Age created stories centred around the supernatural, the smudged boundaries between life, death, and what divides the two. Things are out of place in Gothic fiction — things where they shouldn’t be, people where they shouldn’t be, horrors where they shouldn’t be. The word of the night is: transgression.
What Penny Dreadful does in this season premiere is, perhaps, somewhat muddled in its intentions and accomplishments, but it’s definitely promising. The appeal to get to know these people is that each of these characters is out of place, and there’s something inside each of them that they keep well hidden, but that will make them monstrous in the public eye.
Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), arguably and demonstrably the central character of this penny dreadful, is a woman of considerable mystery, knowledge, fighting spirit, and, it seems, more than human. More than that, the turning of the cross during her fervent prayer suggest that she wasn’t kidding when she told Ethan that there’s something inside all of us — demons, darkness, desolation. From a feminist viewpoint, it will be interesting to see how the narrative portrays Vanessa’s monstrosity. Will it be founded in her sexuality, her fight against conventions tying her to a limited life, or the supernatural? And will either of these be her downfall, in the end, or will they give her power over what society expects of her? Will she be saved, or will she save herself — does she even need saving? Was Mina Murray’s disappearance and apparent vampire transformation really connected to anything Vanessa has done in the past? And if so, should there be blame assigned? Their are many, many ways of framing monstrous femininity in Gothic fiction, and so many ways this could go — there’s Bram Stoker and then there’s Angela Carter, if you know what I mean. Monstrous, but in whose eyes? Victorian London’s, or ours? Miss Ives is our way into this story, even whilst presenting us with secrets and unsolved questions, and I’ll gladly follow her and Eva Green’s marvellous portrayal of further into the dark underbelly of London below. The introduction of Dorian Gray will undoubtedly reveal more of what this show and its writers mean to do with sexuality and romance.
Gothic fiction, similar to Science Fiction, is at its best highly political and, just like SciFi, it can bridge the gaps between worlds, eras, and people. Of course, being set in the Victorian age, that’s what the major anxieties of the text are going to be about, on the surface. On the face of it, the anxiety caused by Frankenstein — one that is possibly universal — is that of dead things sharing the same space as the living. Frankenstein took dead bodies and brought them back to life, he crossed, quite literally, the line between life and death. In Gothic fiction, as I mentioned earlier, things are out of their proper place. Dead bodies belong in graves, not out on the streets of London, not where people can see them and have to deal with them. Gothic fiction is about the inversion of expectations, expectations that we need to be met in order to be comfortable, to be safe. Gothic fiction constantly undermines our sense of identity and safety, simply because it presents us with that which we are not (dead), that which we do not want to be (dead), that which we do not know how to deal with (death). It presents us with the Other where we do not want it, and forces us to interact with it; with the very thing, object, state, or person that scares us and that we need to distinguish ourselves from in order to know what it means to be human, to define our own identity and personhood. This, in itself, is an age-old fear that still persists today — in prejudice, in social taboos.
There’s something else that’s contemporary about this, simply because we, in the 21st century, are still watching and reading penny dreadfuls for some of the same reasons people in 1891 did: we love the scares, we love the carefully constructed anxiety, the stories of vampires and creatures prowling in the night. We all have something in us — the Imp, Poe called it. We all have the potential to give in to our deepest dark desires. As an audience, we may recognise ourselves in Vanessa’s struggle against convention and the expectations of her femininity. We may identify with Ethan running from something and yet being unable to escape, and I’m sure many among Sunday’s viewers share, to some extent, Victor’s fascination with what gives human bodies life, even though they may not be body snatchers reassembling people from scratch and then bringing them to life with electricity. Mary Shelley (anonymously) published the first edition of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus in 1818. Long before the first experiments with early defibrillators were conducted (on dogs) in 1899, and before electrification — electricity itself — would become a thing in English households. Mary Shelley herself does not actually further describe the method Frankenstein uses to bring the Creature to life. But in many, many narratives electricity is substituted as the way and reason — and it makes sense. Electricity and the changes it would bring were a major source of anxiety for Victorians. People were distrustful of light they couldn’t light with a match (the same way people were probably once upon a time distrustful of gaslight…), but it was more than that. Electricity and its properties promised great things for the future — and we, today, probably harbour similar doubts as to the future of technology and its relationship with humans. Machines and technology taking on a life of its own and, eventually, overtaking us is a theme that runs especially through SciFi, and that anxiety has its origins in this same fear that was portrayed in Gothic fiction.
But not only is Frankenstein a harbinger of new life and piercing the veil between life and death, he’s also intimately aware of class distinctions. He can’t get out of the penguin suit fast enough, he dreads stepping into the fancy world of the Explorers Club, apex of the British Empire and the colonial spirit. The “leader” of this merry band of misfits, Sir Malcolm Murray (played by Timothy Dalton), compares his obsession with finding his daughter, Mina, and chasing the supernatural during the night streets of London with hunting big game in the Belgian Kongo, bringing with it all the post-colonial associations of decadence, imperialism, and exploitation that are our cultural baggage when thinking of those days and what those people did all through the 19th and 20th century.
Sir Malcolm is obsessed with searching for his daughter, who, if the ghostly apparition is to be believed, may have transformed into a vampire (who are nebulous creatures with fangs and exosceletons, standing in for the literary vampire, Dracula — whose presence, perhaps, would be a little too over-bearing and too fraught with certain narrative requirements for this particular tale-weaving experiment). Ethan (Josh Hartnett) is an American who’s running from something that won’t be named and is supposed to give his character depth — I suppose we’ll find out what that is soon enough, just before audiences decide he’s too blandly manly for their tastes. Apart from Vanessa and Frankenstein, we don’t learn that much about their companions Sir Malcolm and Ethan. And it’s tough, pulling that off with an ensemble in a 60-minute pilot episode, anyway, where you’re trying to get exposition, introduction, and mystery all under one hat. And we haven’t even met everyone yet, either. We’re still short one Dorian Gray, a Billie Piper, and a Rory Kinnear.
What Penny Dreadful wants in terms of cinematography and visual aesthetic is, perhaps, a little muddled. It’s certainly not a very pretty version of London we’re seeing. At the same time, not everything is heightened reality, either, it seems to flicker between the surreal — see Simon Russell Beale as the extravagant Egyptologist, who seems to have something of Toby Jones in The Hunger Games about him — the hyperreal convulsive beauty and gore of mutilated bodies floating in their own blood, and the lavish, but relatively earthy grind and dirt of Victorian London, a city drowning in coal dust and rain. What I loved was that the unexpected scares didn’t disappear in the midst of all the gore: Mina’s apparition hidden in the tracking shots following Sir Malcolm putter about in his room was a proper BOO! moment; as was the reveal that Frankenstein’s Creature wasn’t where we’d last seen it after he tinkered with the generator. It makes the audience painfully aware of the frame of what they’re seeing, of the way scenes are framed, of the camera withholding things, being capable of not giving us the entire picture. I’d imagine that that’s what the narration will do, too, withhold information and these characters’ secrets until the last possible moment — or until it’s the right time to scare us with them.
So, that I love. But was the quick romp after the low-grade Wild West show really necessary? Was that an attempt to shock audiences? Titillate them? Make it clear just how much of a wild boy Ethan is — or is just pretending to be? It seems like a small thing to pick on, but sexuality and Gothic fiction have a significant connection because so much of Victorian anxiety was centred around what went on underneath pants and corset, so I guess I’m just not sure what to make of that. Maybe it’s just not important — but then why show it? And why use that as shorthand for what kind of guy Ethan is? A dude having meaningless sex with any skirt he meets. How exciting. In Victorian London, in bright daylight. How stupid.
In any case, I’ll be watching next Sunday. Will you? Tell me why in the comments below!