Geek Highs & Lows of 2014: Penny Dreadful

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Penny Dreadful is the Victorian period horror series that weaves classic horror fiction characters together in one grand tale. Dorian Gray, Mina Harker, Abraham Van Helsing, Victor Frankenstein and his monster, and Dracula all in one show.

Victorian. Horror. This series had me at those two words. For me, horror has always been more atmospheric in a Gothic historical setting. From the hybrid Victorian/Edwardian Hammer horror settings to the creepy historicals of 70s and 80s Doctor Who episodes. Something about pervasive darkness and fallible candles and gaslights as your defence against it, that help was not a phone call away but a telegram away, and the world straddled religion/superstition and science and in the imagination there was room for something else between. A setting that’s been a big inspiration for my own writing (Shameless plug for ‘The Darkwood Mysteries’).

I was unsure what to expect from this show. It certainly wasn’t what we got. Episodes were slow and ponderous, and stayed close to the characters, so close that at times it seemed there was little driving the episodes and the story arc they were a part of. Yet each character was a piece in the puzzle themselves.

Malcolm Murray is an adventurer, who had put his explorations of the dark continent before that of his personal life–to the detriment of his family, and his daughter Mina Harker had been abducted by Dracula. Vanessa Ives is her childhood friend, with a darkside of clairvoyancy and a troubled past. Ethan Chandler an American on the run from his own country, whose skills as a sideshow marksman lead to him being employed by Murray in the hunt for Dracula. Victor Frankenstein is a scientist bent on creating life, yet his obsession has caused him to lose his perspective on the value and qualities of life itself. Dorian Gray a rich playboy living the life of a hedonistic aesthete, who falls in love with Ives which threatens to release a monster among them.

The actual plot balances a hunt for Dracula, the attempted rescue and redemption of Mina, and the mystery surrounding the vampire pursuit of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and the demons it describes–which have a personal connection to a particular character.. And something is tearing people apart on the streets.

The vampires looked good. The pure bloods were slimy grey-alien looking, while their progeny were acrobatic white-haired hags, and there were close encounters that reinforced them as a frightening threat. The show didn’t hold back on the horror, and it looked suitably nasty when it was gory, not to mention shocking at times (Frankenstein’s monster’s first kill!), while the supernatural was served in an unsettling seance, possession and exorcism, all effective in building atmosphere and menace. Victorian London looked great, and it felt expansive, not the same streets revisited or obviously redressed time and again.

It would be easy to imagine this as a novel rather than a TV show, in the way it was structured to be more a series of interconnecting character studies than a progressive narrative. Thankfully the characters were all intriguing in their own right, had a darkness, a fallibility, about them. The show also takes some surprising turns, from the shocking arrival of Frankenstein’s first creation, to the subtle discomfort created by Ives’ levitation, to whose bed Chandler ends up in, to the pasts and secrets most of the characters harbour, and the abrupt despatching of some characters.

Something has to be said about the sexuality of the show too. Dorian exudes sex. He represents sex without consequence. A hedonism. Yet he still seems vulnerable, and a little dangerous. It’s a heady blend, and I’m glad they made his sexuality fluid. It only adds to his seductive qualities. All the things Dorian Gray should be (I love the book if you hadn’t guessed). They have a lot to play with in that character–and his dark side which could well be a big part of season 2.

I was disappointed that Van Helsing had such a small role. I love the character–and David Warner–so it was a double rainbow moment. Both sadly wasted. I know we have plenty of strong characters in the show already, but it would have been good to have him as a knowledgeable regular as someone who could further the plot and be a unifying force against Dracula. Cutting down some of the groping around in the dark unknown, but I guess that would be too conventional for this show, and could become Murray’s or Ives’ role.

The only negative I’ll suggest is that with the occasional episode committed to telling just one character’s story, the development of the series’ plot stalled, which for me made the series a little uneven and disjointed. Not a bad thing, but it did take something from the pace of the pursuit of Dracula, and the finale of the hunt for Dracula and Mina was not as exhilarating as it could have been. It seemed to have an abrupt end. Hopefully in season 2 (I’m surprised and pleased such an unusual show achieved this) there will be more of a focus on the plot than the characters–and Dracula as the big bad.

Good stuff. Looking forward to the next. What did you think of the show?

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