Spoilers will follow, you have been warned.
Welcome Showtime’s Penny Dreadful to the Series Issues lineup. We’re starting a bit late, as both the first episode Night Work and the follow up Sèance have already started. Please take your seats. I hope you don’t mind spiders – I mean, spoilers. Actually, be wary of both…
I must admit that this series first enticed me with the entire victorian setting, but the real seduction is its star. Eva Green is just one of the characters of this horror series, the enigmatic fortune teller Vanessa Ives. Her intensity is so palpable that by the time you watch her possession on Sèance you will be convinced she’s supernatural without special effects. Timothy Dalton plays Sir Malcolm Murray, an explorer searching for his daughter Mina. The fact that Mina Murray happens to be a character from a certain novel by Bram Stoker should not be overlooked.
What you should overlook is that despite the obvious similarities to A League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, this is a much different animal and a more animalistic and well built storyline. (Note: I still re-watch that movie expecting it to magically turn out better).
But I’m starting out of sequence, something not unfamiliar to me. We are first introduced to the charismatic but eerie Vanessa Ives as she recruits trick marksman Ethan Chandler, an american circus performer played by Josh Harnett. He’s hesitant but intrigued as he follows Sir Malcolm Murray and Vanessa into an opium house that leads to a labyrinth of vampires. These are the old school, flesh consuming variety as we soon find out in huge gory detail. No luck finding Mina, but hey at least they’ve got one of the big vampire bosses.
With a clue and a body to follow, the trio soon depart for an underground morgue. They soon happen upon a young doctor of great talent and even greater ego, played by Harry Treadaway. He’s adamant he’s doing greater research until Sir Murray opens the bag and the brilliant surgeon can’t help but take a look.
Ethan seems to have had enough of the supernatural. He takes his earnings and leaves, although he continues to be intrigued by Vanessa. She and Sir Murray are soon looking for an egyptologist. They find one in the eccentric Ferdinand Lyle, who won’t tell them a thing until they’ve attended his party – except the fact that the symbols belong to the Egyptian Book of the Dead.
All this, and the legend of Jack the Ripper still fresh in London’s minds? Sold.
The first episode concludes with the young doctor revealing a secret room where he has a dead body hooked up to a machine. A few sparks and an power failure due to a voltage jump and the body is no longer there when the lights come on. The doctor finds his subject walking and breathing. It should not be a surprise at this point to learn the doctor’s name is Victor Frankenstein.
The second episode, Sèance, starts once more with a murder. Ethan Chandler seems to be character with no direction and even less of an inclination to find one until he meets irish free spirit Brona Croft, played by Billie Piper. It will be her who will introduce us to Dorian Grey played by Reeve Carney. She indulges his desire for erotic photography that turns gory the moment that Brona reveals she has tuberculosis, something that disturbingly doesn’t bother Dorian in the least.
Sembene is a mysterious character. Played by Danny Sapani, so far he might appear just as a servant in Sir Murray’s employment but besides the ritual scarring there’s a certain authority in the character that betrays a deeper involvement. He traverses the slums to hand over a tuxedo to Victor.
Vanessa Ives and Sir Malcolm Murray attend the party of Ferdinand Lyle, who has invited a notable medium named Madame Kali for the proverbial sèance. Vanessa, who has just introduced herself to Dorian, gets added to the table of participants.
But the spirit that has been summoned will soon prefer to inhabit Vanessa Ives instead. The scene of her possession is amazingly horrifying as she ferociously and grotesquely takes center stage, aiming hate and vile at Malcolm. His son? His daughter? A demon playing tricks on him? We’re left only with questions. Vanessa runs out and literally grabs a man off the street and makes love to him. Meanwhile, Lyle finally tells Sir Murray what he knows. The hieroglyphics depict a doomsday scenario, the coming of the Beast. He urges Malcolm to forget all he’s seen and not tell a soul, specially Miss Ives because she’s been hunted by the devil itself.
As a counterbalance to the gruesome spectacle, we find a surprisingly tender Victor teaching his revived friend about life. The first thing he does is let the creature choose his own name from the works of Shakespeare: Proteus. Proteus has a childlike wonder about him. He’s scared but somehow overcomes his fear of the world and delights in the simple pleasures. Then slowly recalls his past life as a whaler and possibly a wife. The unlikely pair are met by Ethan and Brona walking by the pier.
Unfortunately, the joy of discovery is short lived. As Victor and Proteus come back, and Proteus is taught the meaning of friendship he’s suddenly startled. Hands appear within his chest and he’s literally ripped apart. Victor gazes at the remains and at the figure that has emerged. It’s his first creature, his original monster. He has returned to him.
Highs: Where to start? Vanessa Ives seems like a character custom made for Eva Green. She’s also got powers of perception that rival those of Sherlock Holmes. Harry Treadaway is playing an idealistic, brilliant, egomaniac version of Victor Frankenstein with the soul of a poet. Sir Malcolm Murray may draw comparisons to Alan Quartermain as he’s a famous explorer, but Timothy Dalton steers clear of any similarities to Sean Connery’s character. The scenes and locations fit the whole dark mood of the show, to the point that you can involuntary shiver when someone on screen does.
Lows: I’m not sold on Josh Holloway’s Ethan Chandler. He does start to gain back a little more life when he runs into Brona Croft. Reeve Carney’s Dorian Grey looks a little too vampire-ish, here’s hoping he’s still his own legend and not someone else’s.
That will do for now.