This review contains spoilers.
1.1 A World Without God
Frankenstein’s monster has never been quick on his feet, so, fittingly missing Halloween by a week, The Frankenstein Chronicles slowly shuffles its way onto ITV Encore. With parts harvested from history, fiction, and film, this Frankie follows in the footsteps of Sky’s Penny Dreadful and ITV’s recent Jekyll And Hyde – so far, so ‘TV Execs are still mid-ransack over at the Waterstones’* Gothic fiction aisles’ – but what has this show got in abundance that those others were lacking?
*Other retailers are available.
First plus of the series: viewers used to Bean characters getting killed off have nothing to fear this time – some crazy bio-scientist can always just piece him back together during the next thunderstorm with leftovers from whatever’s lying around at ITV. Bits and pieces left over from The Bill. Todd Carty, someone like that.
Bringing his intense brand of perma-frowning working-class regular Joe-ness to 19th century river cop John Marlott, Bean’s got lots to frown about with this guy. In 1827 London, a corpse looking suspiciously like Helena Bonham-Carter in minute 86 of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has washed up on the bank of the Thames, and Marlott is tasked with figuring out who’s been taking their cross-stitching hobby too far.
Surrounded by the bad haircuts and political rhetoric of the upper-classes of the time, Marlott is bossed about on the corpse conundrum case by Sir Robert Peel (Tom Ward), and lectured on the moral implications of the looming Anatomy Act by Lady Jemima Hervey (Vanessa Kirby) and Sir Bentley Warburton (Elliott Cowan). It’s as though the sliced/spliced body and the Anatomy Act thing might turn out to be related somehow…
Almost kiboshing the whole investigation from the start is all the cutting edge crime-solving technology Marlott doesn’t have access to as part of the day job, none of it having been invented yet. Yes, CSI: Miami this aint. The Frankenstein Chronicles’ version of a tech montage sequence consists of Sean Bean tensely watching how a dead pig floats down the Thames, really, really slowly.
Helping Marlott with the case: a top-hatted side-kick called Mr Nightingale (Richie Campbell), and some clues just vague enough to seem deep and meaningful, courtesy of William Blake. The Little Girl Lost, Prometheus Bound, that Red Dragon stuff that was used in the Hannibal Lecter film – Blake’s oeuvre has a lot to be mined, symbolism-wise. Plus, at least some of it was probably on the GCSE syllabus for most viewers. The referencess are populist enough to imbue the action with easy creeps, but just high-brow enough to make you feel clever for picking them up.
That stitching together of high and lowbrow; the upper and lower classes; the fictional and historical is what makes this show’s approach to the Frankenstein canon so ambigious so far. Will it be a cop show, with a smattering of ‘Resurrectionist’ scares? Will it turn into full-on gothic horror, with the investigation just an entry point? Will it be a history lesson on the laws and class differences at play in the early 19th century? Whatever this chimera settles into, its offbeat elements are what are working best for it so far.
Floating pig aside, not enough shows can claim a hero with the key characteristics: ‘former soldier – dead wife and kids – nice hat – has syphilis’.