I’ve been waiting, impatiently, for Showtime’s Penny Dreadful to air. The title itself was enough to pique my interest. I’m a literary nerd, and my specialty is children’s literature. Though I mostly work with contemporary American literature now, I studied Victorian and Edwardian fiction for years, and I have a real soft spot for Gothic literature. I’m also a big sucker for monsters, and print culture fascinates me.
Penny dreadfuls encompass a lot of these things–they were 19th century publications that were serialized over a period of weeks/months, generally gory and sensational (think Sweeney Todd, who first appeared in a penny dreadful), and they were inexpensive. The publications reflected the growing literacy of the populace and new technologies that made book production and dissemination cheaper and easier.
And penny dreadfuls inspired some of the most recognizable fictional characters; they were especially influential to the Gothic genre, inspiring characters such as Stoker’s Dracula and Shelley’s Frankenstein. So when I learned that Penny Dreadful would be a period drama–and that the setting would be Victorian London–*and* that I’d get Dorian Gray, Dracula, and Frankenstein, I was superbly happy. My nerd-heart did a happy dance.
I’m even happier after having watched the first episode. (Warning: spoilers after the break)
Sir Malcom Murray (Timothy Dalton) has lost his daughter. She’s been taken by a vampire, and he, along with medium Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and American Wild West performer and sharpshooter Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), must try to find and rescue his daughter, Mina. The group journeys to the lair of a vampire, believing they have found the place that Mina has been taken. But they don’t find Mina. What they do find is a bloody nest of prey and predators–there’s blood everywhere, bodies of women and children are strewn throughout the next, and the group finds a vampire hidden among the bodies. This isn’t a sparkly vampire, nor is it a vampire who could walk around and pose as normal or beautiful in any way. This is a creature of the night, a scary creature.
Somehow, Vanessa manages to stall this creature just by looking into its eyes (and that makes me wonder what the hell she is, aside from a medium), giving Murray time to stake the creature. The group then scoops up the corpse and take the creature to a young unnamed doctor, who performs an autopsy. This autopsy unequivocally confirms the subject’s inhumanity. The vampire’s outer layer of skin is cut away to reveal a shell etched with Egyptian hieroglyphics (is this a mummy?) that we later find out are from the Book of the Dead.
Still try to decide if he’s all in, Ethan visits Murray and Ives, and Ives talks with him. She mostly speaks in riddles—something about the demi-monde, a world in the shadows “between what we know and what we fear” and about curses and beliefs. But of course Ethan is all in, and he was before he even visited the home. He’s too far in to leave now. Later, Mina appears to her father, as a vampire, but we cannot tell whether this is real or a dream. And Vanessa goes into another trance (her second or third in this episode), but this time the cross on her wall, in front of which she kneels to pray, inverts itself and there are lots of spiders (!!!) seeping out of the wall. Creeeeepy.
And the young doctor who performed the autopsy of the creature meets with Murray, too, in Murray’s attempt to conscript a fourth member of the troop. When he asks why me, Murray’s answer makes perfect sense—the young doctor wasn’t afraid to pull back the creature’s skin. Our young doctor returns home to mull things over, goes into his very fortified basement, and begins tinkering–with a corpse that is hooked up to a number of electrodes and wires. Finally, in what has to be the best 10 minutes of TV I’ve seen in years, we see the corpse come to life. The moments between Victor Frankenstein and his creation are perfectly understated and breathtaking. I was transfixed.
And I’m ready to be transfixed by episode 2. We get Dorian Gray in episode 2.