The Frankenstein Chronicles was a huge hit in Britain, designed as a re-imagining of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein. Echoing the gristly killings of Jack the Ripper, this one goes further. A river police officer, John Marlott, (played by Sean Bean; also an associate producer on the original series), pursues the mystery of corpses floating ashore, made up of body parts from missing children. He digs in to find out what is behind these macabre killings. This is in the time of grave robbing as big business to sell to the medical schools.
Marlott soon tracks down one such supplier of bodies, finding one Billy Oates (Robbie Gee), a pimp and not above hurrying the grave part along, although he claims he only delivers live children to a certain doctor—and grave-robbed dead bodies to others. A vagrant boy leads Marlot on a hunt to find a “monster” known to snatch children from the streets. Was that Billy? Home secretary Robert Peel (Tom Ward) is trying to organize a police force; he orders Marlot to investigate with the help of Constable Nightingale (Richie Campbell). Flora, who had escaped from Billy’s camp (she would have been prostituted or sold to the doctor), seeks protection with Marlot. (Robert Peel is the man credited with organizing the police system in England; hence “Bobbies” are called such after him.)
The investigation progresses, although bogged down by politics of manipulating the body business. The Anatomy Act is a plan that poor people should be the bodies for the medical schools and this would end the body snatching! If made into law, only licensed experts could practice medicine, and the deceased corpses of the poor would be donated to surgeons for practice and education. The politicians, police, doctors, and thugs are all conniving to get their way. Robert Peel thinks the murders are being done to discredit his attempt to pass the Anatomy Act. A journalist, Boz (Ryan Sampson), publishes his newspaper article, “The Frankenstein Murders,” which causes a public outcry on the eve of voting on the Anatomy Act. The poor people of course don’t want their deceased cut up in the medical schools, but it’s a strong chance they will be dug up and cut up anyhow!
Amazingly, these murders are twisted in with the fiction of the day, Mary Shelley’s book Frankenstein. The doctors talk about transmitting electricity –transmigration– and bringing life back to dead tissue. Indeed the character of Mary is part of this story as Marlot goes to visit her to find out how she got her information to have written this strange tale. It turns out that Mary, with her wild poet husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and his friends, had believed they could bring a dead person back to life. The group drew straws and the loser was killed, but they failed to revive him. They all have the secret of murder and disposing of the body. Mary’s information helps Marlot find the doctors and monied people who can support this bizarre and illegal “research.”
Somehow we have William Blake in the story; he is a printmaker and artist (one and the same as the idiosyncratic William Blake, often considered mad by his contemporaries). Blake on his deathbed talks with Marlot and gives him twelve paintings, which Flora keeps rearranging, trying to find meaning. We have thoughts of the beast and various bizarre realities. I personally loved this boldness of incorporating these historical figures into the story and examining all these themes of death and rebirth, science and religion, and the moral questions involved in everything. I refer back to my previous review of “Mary Shelley”—think about the decadence of those poets Shelley and Byron, the drugs involved, the wild romantic notions of how things worked. Remember how young Mary runs off with Shelley based on some teenage angst and celeb worship, and how she finds out the ugly truth in life when he lets her baby die; of how her novel then is published under her husband’s name (why did she marry him?!) These are wild times, plagued by plagues and ignorance—and yet lofty romantic notions relate to little in real life. I admire this series for its spooky atmosphere, the complicated tangle of the mystery itself, its historical background, its miasmic scenery. I suspect some of the science used by the demented doctor wasn’t invented yet, but many things are not quite real anyhow.
At the end of the first season—what the British saw—we have Marlot finding Alice, a missing girl who has been protected from Dr. Daniel Hervey (Ed Stoppard) by his servant Lloris, who wanted to save just one of these doomed children, who were Hervey’s initial experiments. Marlot saves Flora but gets trapped by the evil doctor himself. He is framed for the murder of Flora and is quickly hung after a kangaroo court! At this point in the series in the outside world, A & E picks it up for US consumption, but never airs it. Yet this encourages ITV Encore to renew for another season—and/or because Netflix gets involved to put out one of its “originals.” Which is to say, the British series that they put money into. A new team of writers is employed. They are: Michael Robert Johnson, Paul Tomalin, Noel Farragher, Colin Carberry and Glenn Patterson, with Alex Gabassi directing.
Season two is where the paranormal fans will find it more interesting. Or things will go completely to hell, depending on your point of view. We find Marlot alive, his being the first adult dead person revived by the evil doctor. They brought him back from death after he had been hanged. Clearly he was framed by Hervey in order to get rid of him since he was getting too close to the truth. But at this point, Marlot has crossed over and can see dead people! All kinds of hallucinations float around poor Marlot’s efforts to escape Hervey’s prison, to stay alive in his new alias life as Martins, and to still pursue his investigation. We have ghostly things happening as Marlot moves in and out of time, the material and imagined planes, and still he is on the heels of the evil doctor. Hervey is now connected with Frederick Dipple (Laurence Fox), the son of Hervey’s doctor mentor who had started the whole pursuit of raising of the dead. Frederick Dipple is a rich man who claims he has lived forever by drinking a secret concoction. Yet he is making mechanical people who mimic life—why? He conspired to turn Esther Rose (Maeve Dermody) into his “Bride of Frankenstein” because he is lonely. This is like the vampire thing and instead of drinking blood, Esther would drink the secret formula or have some such pumped into her veins. Shades of Dracula here.
To me, I couldn’t sort this out; we have an ice house full of saved hearts—and body parts? We have the secret formula to make a dead person immortal. We have revived dead bodies galvanized back to life. In season two, I couldn’t keep anything straight. We still have Marlot solving the murders, but there are all these schemes going on about reviving or making life. If I watched it all again, I might get it. I must admit, at first I was absolutely riveted. I had to watch two episodes a night, I was so involved in this world. Later in season two, I couldn’t keep my mind on what was going on. I suspect that too many people were writing season two and everyone wanted to throw in his or her pet theory. I still applaud these people for creating such a bold world, taking on such deep themes about life and death. The atmosphere of this world is spooky and disturbing. Even if transforming life schemes don’t exactly make sense, this series is compelling and richly rewarding. Especially season one, and hey, by then you are hooked and will have to see it through to the end. Check it out.