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Steampunk-ish Saturday: Frankenstein Chronicles

It seemed like forever, but Arlys and I finally got through both seasons of the Frankenstein Chronicles on Netflix. Re-imagining the Frankenstein mythos in 1820’s Britain sounded like a wonderful idea. The series also featured historical characters such as Ada Lovelace, William Blake, Sir Robert Peel, and Mary Shelley herself. This fictionalization of history plus a life-sized clockwork doll in Season 2 give it a steampunkish flavor. Sadly, the pacing was glacial and many of the series’ most promising elements were never realized.

This series was produced for Britain’s ITV in 2015 by Rainmark Films and directed by Benjamin Ross. It stars Sean Bean of Game of Thrones fame as police inspector John Marlott. While investigating opium smuggling on the Thames, he comes across a child’s corpse, which appears to have been stitched together from multiple victims. This leads him into a world of intrigue, grave-robbing, and murder, as well as a controversy which pits reformist Parliamentarians against medical researchers. It’s all very complicated. We sympathized with Marlott because we were confused as well.

Chronicles does have its good points. Its theme music by Harry Escott and Roger Goula features a hammered dulcimer (I think) and is quite interesting. The cinematography is superb and it really captures the feel of the Regency Era. The series shows the sharp contrast between the aristocracy with their fine homes and elegant dress and the grinding poverty of the lower classes. Marlott is almost as poor as the hapless slum dwellers. His clothes seem formal by our standards but the suit is threadbare because that’s all he has.

I had several problems with the story, the biggest one being, why would the experimenters piece bodies together? In Shelley’s novel, Dr. Frankenstein robbed graves and took the largest and freshest body parts to ease his task. In Chronicles, the experimenters use children who are murdered on demand so there are no issues with decay. Reviving an intact corpse would enough of a challenge, wouldn’t it? And why do they do it? We never get a satisfactory answer.

Secondly, the series really wastes the character of Mary Shelley (played by Anna Maxwell Martin.) There’s some interesting discussion of the public reaction to Frankenstein, which was adapted to the stage and later banned as blasphemous. But she doesn’t do much in Chronicles besides having a few conversations and then fleeing the country.

Third, though I have no problems with colorblind casting in many situations, Afro-British actor Richie Campbell seems implausible as Constable Nightingale. Would Britons really have accepted a black cop in those times? There were a few freedmen in Britain, but the Empire only abolished slavery in 1833. Admittedly, the Bobbies’ founder Robert Peel was liberal for his times. In any case, I think Nightingale would have encountered a lot more racism than he did.

Finally, John Marlott’s character is tragically one-dimensional. He suffers from horrible guilt because he transmitted his syphilis to his wife and child, both of whom died from it. He sees visions of them in the afterlife, supposedly due to the symptoms of the disease and the mercury he ingests to treat it. The hallucinations are so frequent they become tedious. Later, he starts seeing murder victims and those who succumbed to plague. At first, we believe he’s going mad but we eventually find out that the ghosts are real. Thus the series changes its assumptions halfway through.

According to the Wikipedia article, Frankenstein Chronicles opened to acclaim from critics. It also got 7.4 out of 10 on IMDB – not fantastic but not horrible, either. Frankly, I don’t understand what they see in it. I became weary of the show halfway through the first season and finished it mainly out of a sense of obligation to the genre of historical fantasy. I can’t recommend it, except to very patient viewers with lots of time on their hands. In deference to the authentic-looking sets and costuming, I give it 2.5 out of 5 stars.


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