The Frankenstein Chronicles: Series 1, Episode 1 – “A World Without God”

The Frankenstein Chronicles is not a lumbering monster, but a finely crafted, dark Georgian mystery.

Through recent comic books (Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E.), stage adaptations (The National Theatre’s Frankenstein), films (I Frankenstein and Victor Frankenstein), vlogs (Frankenstein MD), television serials (Penny Dreadful), and thousands of other media products, stretching back to 1818 with the publication of Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, the specter of Dr Frankenstein and his often abhorred monster have always embedded themselves within cultures. This is perhaps due to both the fantastic possibilities afforded by the advancement of collective human achievement, and the absolutely spectacular catastrophes that can result in overstepping the given boundaries of the age.

So what does the mystery crime drama, The Frankenstein Chronicles add to this perpetually recycled mélange of disfigured and reconstituted ghost stories? Well, it’s grim. Very grim. At times, the show feels like it was filmed in the end-days of the dinosaurs, when ash clouds blocked out the sun. You get the feeling that there are no shiny surfaces because absolutely nobody wants to see their own reflection, with old-fashioned clothes (even for the period) that might have been up-cycled from dish cloths, and faces so etched in dirt and by the hard lives they’ve led, you might begin to see potatoes growing out of their furrowed fields of worry lines.

Set in England, 1827, this variation of the Frankenstein myth currently doesn’t care for middle-class doctors with family names or scientific pursuits made in the name of some god-defying greater good. If the original Frankenstein took body parts from a charnel house and buggered off to the Alps, then the domain of The Frankenstein Chronicles is one huge repository for the living dead of London; as the hospital porter reminds us: “a dead body ain’t property by law”. It speaks volumes that the lighter strand of the narrative involves familial death, syphilis, and mercury-induced screaming nightmares.

This also isn’t a high Victorian gothic romp in which existential issues are addressed through veils of lace, crushed velvet, and solipsistic ennui. It’s at the opposite end of the century to comparable shows such as Ripper Street and Penny Dreadful, and the language is distinctly less Dickensian. This is Georgian squalor at it’s best: peasouper fog and body snatchers, and tiny cramped houses and streets lined with hay and shit. The buildings are visibly decaying as though the city itself is a great bloated, rotten corpse full of noxious gasses and ripe for autopsy or expulsion. The atmosphere is so palpable you can almost taste it, although I don’t think you would really want to because, you know, syphilis — although a full chamber pot is thrown in someone else’s face if you want the same experience by proxy.

There is also quite a bit of CGI, but thankfully it’s all kept in the background to add context to the point of focus: the people. In The Frankenstein Chronicles, apart from the viewer and the detective, nobody notices when children go missing and nobody really cares. Some children mean to cause harm to others, some are burnt by Fagin-type figures, and some sell their bodies, but they all fear losing their souls to the “monster” that “comes at night. Takes the children.”

This is the premise of the first episode, in which Inspector John Marlott (Sean Bean) is burdened by Sir Robert Peel (Tom Ward) to join the Bow Street Runners and solve the mystery of a dead girl washed ashore, except that she doesn’t appear to be entirely dead and she may actually be “recombined” from approximately 7 or 8 sources. (A Lego set might have fewer pieces.)

Countless iterations of Frankenstein’s story tend to focus on a supernatural mountainous mass of flesh; in this opening account, we see the fairy-tale rendered more realistically. There is no assembled monster-creature, but a monstrous dis-assemblage of young children’s limbs, clinically presented on the morgue table. The monster in this myth, it is insinuated, is clearly the culprit capable of carrying out such a crime.

Sean Bean, appointed gruff representative of the North of England to the rest of the world, is so perfect in his role as Inspector Marlott that I would not be surprised if the show was created around him, or projected out of some past-life experience, Assassin’s Creed-style. At one point, Marlott actually recollects that prior to being an Inspector, he was in the 95th rifles — and earlier on we see his green tunic — just as the fictional character Richard Sharpe was in the 95th when Bean played him in the Sharpe television series that made his career. Someone might have even whistled the theme tune, but I would need to go back and check, as I was too delirious at the possibility of it being true.

Bean’s Marlott is weighed down and hollowed out by the circumstances of his life — he knows “what it is to grieve” over deceased family members — but he also possesses a nuanced emotional backbone, which is occasionally brought to the fore in the odd magic trick, an emotional recollection, or a desperate chase after a missing child in the midst of a world in which men are haphazardly consumed by peat-bogs, Lords and Ladies condescend to him, and pigs are used in lieu of floating child corpses for investigative purposes.

In the slow-moving opening episode, several elements come to together to suggest ambition and sophistication beyond a standard police-procedural with mild horror elements and the odd jump-scare. When Marlott chases after a girl he believes to be a missing daughter in a rose-red dress, I felt like I was watching a Georgian Don’t Look Now; and I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to find the same creepy ending as the similarities did not appear coincidental. Also, foreshadowing his appearance in next week’s episode (alongside Mary Shelley! Whoop, whoop!), Marlott stumbles across his first real lead: William Blake’s poem “The Little Girl Lost”. With it, he begins to unravel secretive word games reminiscent of The Da Vinci Code (ALYC=LYCA). There are also references to the Anatomy Act and potential sabotage, and a Jack-the-Ripper-esque cover-up attempt by the political and social elite to shift suspicion from the possibility of the killer being a skilled surgeon onto “the work of a barber or butcher”. There is also the hidden history of Nightingale (Richie Campbell), the black officer with a foundling past, which has been described as a piece of “colour-blind casting” by Ben Dowell of The Radio Times, but I believe may be a little more purposeful than that.

When it comes to genre conventions I have one universal rule: if a child dies then all bets are off; anything can happen. Given that The Frankenstein Chronicles use wholesale child dissection as its opening premise, then I’m looking forward to seeing where else the dark tale might lead us. Except for Sean Bean dying, which doesn’t seem likely, does it?

RATING 7 / 10