I decided to pair the monster movie watch with some monster television, starting with the relatively recently departed, and much mourned in my household, Penny Dreadful. The show got three seasons on Showtime, and included in its ensemble Timothy Dalton, Josh Hartnett, Billie Piper, Reeve Carney Harry Treadaway, Rory Kinnear, and (for two seasons) Danny Sapani. If there could be said to be a single star of the show, however, it would have to be the incomparable Eva Green as Vanessa Ives.
The show’s pilot episode, “Night Work,” introduces us to a Victorian England populated with some familiar archetypes. We have the retired explorer and his manservant in the form of Dalton’s Sir Malcolm Murray and Sapani’s Sembene. We have the brash American gunslinger in Hartnett’s Ethan Chandler. We have the prostitute with the heart of gold in Piper’s Brona Croft. We have our straight-up characters from literature in Carney’s Dorian Gray and Treadaway’s Victor Frankenstein. And we have our psychic connected to the uncanny in Green’s Ives.
In terms of the classic monster stories, this first episode starts us off with the same two that really kicked off Universal’s monster movies, Dracula and Frankenstein.
Penny Dreadful brings an alternative take on how Dracula’s story turned out. Sir Malcolm and Vanessa begin the series with a clear bond, rooted in their shared love of Mina (a.ka. Mina Harker nee Murray in Stoker’s Dracula and Mina Seward in Universal’s). In this version, however, Mina appears to have succumbed to Dracula, with Sir Malcolm and Vanessa now trying to find her.
This is an intriguing approach that lets the show use new characters to explore its Dracula storyline while maintaining obvious roots in the original tale. Rather than be shackled to the familiar beats of Jonathan Harker, Dr. Seward, Renfield, Van Helsing, etc., the show carves out fresh space for itself and, by establishing a fate for Mina decidedly different from the novel’s, leaves us uncertain as to how this story might play out.
At the outset, the primary updates to Frankenstein are placing Dr. Frankenstein in Victorian Britain and making him apparently English. These changes are largely matters of convenience for the story. As discussed in the Dracula post, the actual novels for Frankenstein and Dracula were separated by nearly eighty years. Moving Frankenstein’s story up to Victorian times allows him to be a contemporary of our other characters, and making him English facilitates his connection to the other characters.
That contemporaneousness allows Dr. Frankenstein to be roped into the Dracula plot when Sir Malcolm and Vanessa ask him to examine the body of a vampire they’ve killed. His enthusiasm puts him on their radar for further recruitment.
As will be seen in future episodes, there are some additional deviations from the original story, but those are for a future post….
The show opens with an attack in the night that leaves a mother and her daughter gruesomely dead. While the newspapers speculate about a return of Jack the Ripper, we’ve seen that the culprit was something of a more supernatural bent.
If the show can be said to give us a viewpoint character for this episode, that character would be Ethan Chandler. A performer in a cowboy-themed traveling show, Ethan is revealed to have a harder edge than that of a simple showman with a pistol. He is recruited by Vanessa to help her and Sir Malcolm as they investigate a lead, culminating in a fight in a vampire nest and leaving Ethan with the very reasonable question, “Who the fuck are you people?” Nevertheless, there’s something about the adventure – or perhaps just Vanessa – that keeps Ethan around. And so it is with us, the audience. We, like Ethan, are trying to figure out what exactly Sir Malcolm and Vanessa are up to, and while the better part of judgement might recommend fleeing, there’s something magnetic about Vanessa in particular to keep us coming back.
Preparing for the Road Ahead
This post was mostly character description and brief plot summary. There’s much more to be said about so many aspects of this show, from production design to recurring themes to some truly great performances. For now, though, best to leave with a sense of promise for what is to come, as the show itself does.