The Frankenstein Chronicles: Series 1, Episode 3 – “All the Lost Children”

At the mid-point of the series, the gothic horror and Nordic Noir influences are gaining traction, but the pace of the story might not be able to catch up.

As we reach the mid-point in the 6-part series, The Frankenstein Chronicles continues to move at a measured pace. After last week’s lecture hall experiments and William Blake’s (Steven Berkoff) promises of “the beast with a face of a man”, there’s little talk of galvanism or mystical forces this time around. If the show were to decelerate anymore, it may be in need of a little defibrillation itself; but again, this week there’s a pleasure to be had in an atmospheric unfolding of events around one central story line, which has been largely absent from all of the sugar-loaded “horror” shows that have been on television this past year or so.

The Frankenstein Chronicles’ deliberate revealing of details, when used to examine conflicting “anti-rational” psychological/emotional/physical desires with the “rational” legal/religious/moral laws of society — all thrown on the alter of modernity and progress — is very much in the gothic tradition. What might next be about to lumber around the corner could be a reflection of the individual’s own impulses, but it would still be as deadly as some ancient evil or freshly minted psychopath.

The show wallows in the aftermath of desire; the constant flashbacks to John Marlott’s (Sean Bean) family, alternating between baptism and funeral — whilst Marlott has the same defeated look of shame throughout — are testament to that. When the mercury-addled Inspector looks into the mirror and sees a face ravaged by tertiary stage syphilis (a guilty symptom of physical pleasure, or his “carelessness” as he puts it), the monstrous hallucination also reflects his psychological deterioration. It might not help that prior to these events taking place, Mary Shelley (Anna Maxwell Martin) ramps up the guilt trip by pointedly stating the text-book observation that instead of people flocking to “creatives” like her when things go awry, they should be “looking in the mirror and seeing what is strange and uncanny within themselves”.

Mary Shelly is also given a little more breathing room this week. No longer a great wall of implacability — more of a speed-bump of sternness –Shelley reveals a substantial amount more than she did when chastising Marlott last time we met her. Yet, Shelley does still stick the knife in a few times just to keep things frosty between them, thereby allowing Lady Harvey (Vanessa Kirby) to appear more charitable by comparison, although I’m not falling for her doe-eyed, Saint Harvey of London routine just yet.

The origins of Shelley’s “creature” from her novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus haunt her as much as Marlott’s past transgressions. Shelley explains that the creature “came to me in a nightmare”, and for a show that dwells on the outward manifestations of buried desires, ominously adds: “We can’t control our nightmares can we?” Also like Marlott, Shelley’s waking terror is her family; she ably deflects notions that she’s somehow responsible for the current crimes that are taking place, because, as with Marlott, she opposes tyranny and oppression (although he might not use such loaded terms); however, when talk turns to her family, her words are startlingly self-implicating: “I killed [my mother….] She died at my birth”, and “what would you not do to defeat death [….] in order to be reunited with those we love?” Furthermore, Marlott may feel self-loathing at the loss of his family, but Shelley’s own father-in-law is still around to help her, claiming that her book has brought the family “into disrepute”. Clearly, this man has no idea what his son did in the Lord Byron club prior to his death, especially given that Boz (Ryan Sampson) is on hand to inform Marlott that the Shelley’s were “one of Byron’s crowd”, with Byron being “the Vampire Lord; poet; seducer; traitor”.

Shelley’s narrative ends with her son being told that her book “has caused great misery in the world” and that she “must make sure it doesn’t cause anymore”. This hint at secret background knowledge implies that her novel is a greater part of the current events than she admitted to Marlott. It also indicates that she’s about to join the fray, and that next week should see more of her story uncovered.

This week however, the focus is also on Flora (Eloise Smyth), the young girl that Marlott has taken in to help him find Alice (Jessie Ross). For all that Flora most keenly represents Alice and the other children that are missing, it becomes immediately obvious that she has also had her equal share of Georgian misery.

An opportunity to buy a new dress, representing her shift of social status away from bedraggled gang member to upright citizen of London, changes tone immediately to become a horrifying revelation about child prostitution and date rape, resulting in an unwanted pregnancy. A plot point, fleetingly worked into this tale, is that the man who attacked her was the same “gentleman” who had given her The Little Girl Found poem as a gift. Will this turn out to be one of several high-ranking figures that we’ve seen so far, such as Sir Bentley Warburton (Elliot Cowan) or Sir William Chester (Samuel West)?

One of the other moments that was quite jarring, was when Nightingale (Richie Campbell) offered to take Flora in and pretend that the child was his. Just to clarify: Flora’s child, not Flora the child. Granted, the age of consent in 1827 was 12 (with the law having been enacted in 1275, a time when turnips were probably given equal rights), but it was still interesting to consider how what may appear to be a perfectly noble act in the 1800s might seem monstrous in it’s own way through the prism of modern society. Thankfully, Marlott was on hand with an entirely dismissive scowl and a fatherlier idea of how to proceed.

Another Flora scene that is quickly worked past is her attempt to rearrange Blake’s art works from last week into order. Marlott probably should have done this by now — and I’m amazed he hasn’t given how much time he’s spent reading Frankenstein, even with Shelley’s disembodied voice-over hurrying him through the juicy bits — but as Flora points out, if they can be arranged correctly, then like Tarot cards they might allow the fortune-teller to look into the future. Given that she is then taken away to a hospital that’s been converted from a crumbling old abbey to undergo experimental procedures (with Flora’s room located in, of all places, the “spare room in the tower”), there should be all manner of bells, gothic or otherwise, sounding off.

Lord Harvey (Ed Stoppard), the doctor in charge of the hospice, helps assuage Flora’s suspicions when she finds a great stone seal in the floor with the inscription “Cave Baestiam”, meaning “Beware the Beast”, by explaining that the old monks used to maintain a bestiary on the grounds. Broadly speaking for the horror genre, this would be like rocking up to the island of Doctor Moreau and not turning back if you saw a sign that said “Don’t feed the animals. They will bite” with the footnote: “Oh, and the Doctor also does mad experiments on people, so you might want to watch out for that”. Harvey also informs Marlott, “I don’t believe one can discover the secrets of life by cutting up the dead or by artificially animating them with electricity”, so maybe he may be more like Moreau: The Homeopathic Frankenstein, or Blake’s “beast with a face” than he would have us realize.

It may be an understatement to say that Lord Harvey’s withholding some truths. Ironically and in deflection, Harvey also explains, within an erupted outburst to Marlott, that the reason he wasn’t allowed to speak in Parliament was because he “would have exposed them [as] liars, hypocrites, monsters”. This might sound like the posturing of a marginalized Lord, but Sir William Chester’s also increasingly looking like a man to watch out for his scientific shenanigans.

At the end of the last episode, Chester withdrew his own book, An Investigation into the Galvanic Response of Dead Tissue, from a library. This week, Chester is thumbing through the scientific text and finds bloody finger marks on some of the pages, which makes me wonder about what kind of liberal policies on book returning the library has, as well as who was the last person to borrow the book. Going back to last week’s episode, you can see that when the librarian is filling out the withdraw form, there is only one other name: Johann Dippel.

The historical figure, Johann Conrad Dippel (1673-1734) predates The Frankenstein Chronicles by some 100 years or so; but where this gets interesting is that he was born at the real Castle Frankenstein, practiced alchemy and anatomy, was imprisoned for heresy, and claimed to have discovered the secret to eternal life. Unsurprisingly, Dippel — or the handed-down myth of Dippel — is considered by many to have been an inspiration to Mary Shelley when she wrote Frankenstein. This would be little more than Georgian pub quiz trivia, were it not for him withdrawing books a century later, whilst Chester broodingly flounces around Marlott’s home, claiming to know absolutely nothing about galvanism.

The action element to the episode is kindly provided by Pritty (Charlie Creed-Miles), the professional resurrectionist (read: grave-robber), and part-time dabbler in other nefarious activities. He gets soundly beaten by Nightingale (Richie Campbell) whilst trying to withdraw all of his money from the bank — which is a miracle of sorts given how useless Nightingale has been in the series, having once again lost a person of interest earlier in the episode — and he once again agrees to help the Bow Street men catch the killer (or lead them to someone who can help, or lead them into the putrid tunnels that wend and weave to godless places that Marlott will find out about in the next episode).

At the outset of this review, I pointed out how glacial the series’ pace is; however, 3 episodes in, not only is it obvious that this is a part of the gothic horror remit for the show, but it might also be drawing influences from elsewhere. Clearly, The Frankenstein Chronicles is related to the police procedural genre, and comparisons to shows such as Ripper Street are evident. However, I would go further and specifically consider Nordic Noir. Marlott has been compared to Inspector Morse (John Thaw) — especially in the scenes where the detectives sit in a Georgian coffee house — but what about Inspector Norse? The careworn detective, the pared-down language, the contrast between the insiders and outsiders, and even the icy breath that each huddled character takes in the permanently murky environment fits the M.O. of Nordic Noir. Furthermore, the series is produced by Patrick Irwin, who was also involved in the adaptation of this year’s sublime Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (which explains the fantastical element within The Frankenstein Chronicles) and The Fall (2013-2014), a British thriller that has Nordic Noir written all over it.

Moving into the second half of the series, let’s see if the exploits of Marlott and Nightingale can catch-up and match these formidable forefathers, or if it will implode with unfulfilled potential, not unlike Frankenstein’s own creation eventually did.

RATING 6 / 10