The Frankenstein Chronicles: Series 1, Episode 2 – “Seeing Things”

This week, fairy tales, myths, horror, and reality collide. William Blake doesn't make it to the end; but will you?

The connection between nursery rhymes/fairy tales and horror stories are deeply profound and significant: they tend to share sinister origins and connotations, mixing dreamy perceptions of childish innocence and exploration with symbolism, metaphor, and the dark brutality of the world as it actually was, or could be. As we move into the second episode of a 6-part series, The Frankenstein Chronicles increasingly explores the compounded collisions and collusions between the connective tissue that traditionally separates fantasy and (fictional) reality.

Last week, The Frankenstein Chronicles initiated its own variation on the Frankenstein tale, with Inspector John Marlott (Sean Bean) being commissioned by Robert Peel (Tom Ward) to track down an elusive, murderous boogeyman (or woman); except the beasts that Marlott came across in his travails, with their filthy, degraded pits of iniquity, were all human residents of London — some of them well regarded in the community. In this instance, the “recombined” monster was actually a pitiable amalgamation of disappeared children that nobody cared to acknowledge existed, let alone remember.

Spasmodically twitching and slowly pulsating like a creation that is beginning to stir from whatever slumberous depths it’s been summoned from, this week, whilst offering another slow episode, the series’s shows deliberate momentum: introducing characters, bringing in clues, and incorporating the narrative elements that will all clearly play a greater role as the secrets and subversions of Georgian England are systematically autopsied, dissected, and laid bare by Marlott.

One of the things that I have deeply enjoyed so far in The Frankenstein Chronicles is the historical cameos interwoven into the fictional narrative. In this episode, for every body snatcher, dead child, nonchalant prostitute, or crusty faceless laborer, we have poet and printmaker William Blake (Steven Berkoff); author of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus Mary Shelley (Anna Maxwell Martin); and news reporter “Boz” (Ryan Sampson) — which happens to be the early pen name of one Charles Dickens. Interestingly, whilst some reviewers have pointed out that the Blake references may be a little heavy-handed, these same reviewers never noticed Mr. Dickens getting an absolute, verbal beatdown from Marlott — not that he didn’t deserve it. The Goodfellas-style appendage threat that Marlott delivers to Boz may be the most bona-fide “What the Dickens?” moment since Doctor Who showed him fighting back zombie alien hoards.

Clearly then, there are depths to The Frankenstein Chronicles, and murky ones at that, but what they amount to is not yet clear. For example, whilst Peel quotes Edmund Spenser’s Prothalamion (“Sweet Thames run softly”) whilst purposefully power-staring out of the window, the viewer may be just as unsure of his hidden purposes as is Marlott. Exchanging shaky ground for quicksand, Berkoff’s fantastically wild-eyed and bed-ridden William Blake is brilliantly introduced through a chanting “private gathering”; where, surrounded by acolytes and offering babbling references to Lyca, his “lost child” who “first came to me in a dream”, the scene climaxes in shattered tea-ware and a top-drawer, “lead-pipe in the library” level clue: “To find her you need to know the truth of the beast. The beast with a face of a man.”

Yes, there’s a certainty that in this more-realistic iteration of the myth, that Blake might be offering premium, mad-man grade metaphors, but his cautionary and fervent tone rattles around Marlott’s thought processes, tumbling out at moments when other characters around him have no clue what he’s talking about. Perhaps disillusioned with his own life (which is repeatedly borne out through the constant hallucinations of his dead wife and child à la Gladiator, with a foreboding vision of a solar eclipse to seal the deal), Marlott’s giving himself over to Blake’s fantastical way of thinking, and it will be interesting to see if he oversteps in his expectations of what is possible due to some innately zealous compulsion to make sense of his own worldview, or whether the show is prepping Marlott for the terrific imagery to come.

Mary Shelley is also present at the communal worship of Blake, and perhaps more than a little fed up with grieving at the loss of creative romantics (according to the IMDB, her husband, Percy Shelly [Walter McCabe] is set to join the show despite having died five years before the narrative of The Frankenstein Chronicles), she’s brusque in a way that matches stereotypical caricatures of no-nonsense governesses. (Imagine if Mary Poppins dressed entirely in purple, but rather than singing about the joys of tidying rooms or taking medicine, tasered you in the crotch with nary a wrinkle of a smile, and you might be half way there.) In Mary’s defense, she is an emotional counterpart to Marlott, so whilst I’m not expecting a buddy-cop comedy to develop, they may become instrumental in assisting each other to emotionally thaw out and move on.

Before Shelley’s obvious contribution to the plot, she delivers to Marlott Blake’s latest work, which he “did not live to see published”. Blake’s (fictional) The Book of Prometheus contains a series of images depicting pained-looking figures, with accompanying text; the first letter of each is made bold, which may be a clue like LYCA was, or the suggestion may be less convoluted as three of the four panels can be plainly read and understood within the context of the show: Adam, Christ, and Monster. Prometheus not only gave mankind the power of fire stolen from Mount Olympus, to then be punished for what can generally be considered to be an okay thing to do, but he was a muse of sorts to both Mary Shelley and her husband, who also wrote Prometheus Unbound.

Whilst Shelley is within The Frankenstein Chronicles, it’s equally important to note that not only is her key 1818 novel, Frankenstein, existent within the world, but Marlott spiesand requests a copy for himself to start reading. Hopefully, he’ll have finished it by next week (if the disembodied voice-overs don’t distract him too much).

In the meantime, however, Marlott has the Henry Bowyer case to tickle his brain buds and move him in the same direction. Starting with your standard nighttime, body snatcher entrapment case, with angry mobs thrown in as an added extra (replete with pitchfork and torch accoutrements just to work against the grain of classic Frankenstein imagery and demonstrate again that mankind and not imaginary evils are the real monsters), Henry’s story takes Marlott to a medical lecture theater at St Bartholomew’s, where he witnesses “bioelectricity” tests (pioneered by Luigi Galvani – the fellow who 50 years before the series is set, was making dead frogs dance), including the arm of a human cadaver being made to bend through external electrical stimuli alone. I’m no expert, but these scientific tests seem fairly rudimentary compared to what it might take to reanimate a corpse, so there’s clearly more going on here.

Whilst the Law requires facts, means, motives, and all of the other sundry articles that can both prove and end a case, the breakthroughs in The Frankenstein Chronicles don’t come from, say, Nightingale (Richie Campbell) failing in his job to tail a blackmailed grave-robber. At the moment, there’s also the storyline of the Anatomy Act beginning to gain more traction, with soapbox speeches, petitions, pleas from damsels in distress, and an influx of sheep; but, as Marlott points out, there’s no evidence tying these parallel events with the grotesqueries of the first episode. Of course, they will be related, just as Marlott somehow informally adopts a young girl in the space of one scene and the episode ends with the book An Investigation Into the Galvanic Response of Dead Tissue being checked out of a library by a man whose smug expression makes him a dead-cert for the Official Pantomime Villain Calendar of 1827.

Returning to the connection between horror and various forms of folktales, the episode is bracketed by an emphasis on “not dreaming [but] seeing things”, to quote Marlott. The opening scenes show Alice (Jessie Ross) ignorant of her imminent fate, in a red dress with wicker basket in hand. Just like Red Riding Hood, Alice is portrayed to be innocent, but unlike the animals and woodlands of Riding Hood — which in Blake’s The Little Girl Found reverses the fear of nature and presents a lion and his “deserts wild” as the safer alternative for Lyca — Alice has been abducted by the lawless denizens of the city.

Alice is blithely singing “Oranges and Lemons” before she disappears, and also near the end of the episode, when Marlott has been reading Frankenstein and starts having rather helpful visions. This poses the issue of whether Alice’s flashbacks were imagined by Marlott, questioning the veracity of the unfolding events; however, the song also has at least two elements that assist Marlott in free-associating between fantasy and his reality. Marlott heard “the bells” from the song when medical students were called to the latest lecture on the “peripheral nervous system”; and the last lines of the rhyme are traditionally: “And here comes a chopper to chop off your head”. Galvanism, plus disembodiment, percolated through a late-night session of reading Frankenstein rewards Marlott with the final part of his vision: seeing Alice’s hands sewn across his wrists and onto her arms.

Whether any of this has actually happened to Alice remains to be seen, but for my money, it’s good to get on board with Marlott’s disturbed thinking now and tether yourself to him, just in case he’s right and the story is about to get darker and more disturbing. Oranges and lemons…

RATING 6 / 10