Friday, July 18, 2014

Penny Dreadful – season 1 – review


Director: Various

First aired: 2014

Contains spoilers

When I reviewed season 1 (and only) of Dracula I had seen episode 1 of this series but was moved to say, in comparison to the older series, “the dark, griminess of Penny Dreadful’s London was a million time more effective”. I stick by that, indeed the series had a huge amount going for it – though it might have been better in some ways.

Chandler, Murray and Ives
In many respect this Monster Mash series was reminiscent of the league of Extraordinary Gentlemen though the steampunkiness of the Alan Moore series was gone. We did, however, get representation from vampires and Dr Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway, The Disappeared). We got characters from the Dracula novel, though they were moved and changed around, and we got Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney). We also got an American gunslinger, Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett, 30 Days of Night), a consumptive whore, Brona Croft (Billie Piper, Secret Diary of a Call Girl), and a fortune teller who was sensitive to possession, Vanessa Ives (Eva Green, Dark Shadows).

Master Vampire
Now I mentioned Dracula characters and we start off with a new character tied into that mythos in the form of explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton). He is the father of Mina Harker nee Murray (Olivia Llewellyn) and she has been taken by vampires. We never actually meet her husband but the first episode sees Vanessa Ives hiring Ethan Chandler on Sir Malcolm’s behalf as they need a man good with guns. It sees them go beneath an opium den as they believe there to be a vampire nest there. We meet three types of vampire. There are the first they meet, servants of the master, who are male and look mostly human (and I never noticed them displaying fangs). There are what I might term as brides, females with their hair shockingly white and with fangs and then there is the main vampire, a bestial, clawed creature with red eyes and rows of sharpened teeth. They overcome these first vampires but Mina is not there and they realise that there is another master.

tattoo
They take the killed master vampire to the resurrectionists – looking for a surgeon who can autopsy it - and meet Victor Frankenstein. He tells them that the skin is more like an exoskeleton. When he peels it back there appears to be tattooing on the exposed body, which depicts scenes from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, this leads to an Egyptian Mythology sub-plot that is left dangling at the end of the series. Later they clean off the exoskeleton with flesh eating beetles, but as it is flesh below that is tattoo’d this didn’t make too much sense to me as one would have expected the beetles to eat down to the bone. Actually as things roll on we realise that the so called masters are themselves more an elite level of minion – there is a master vampire whom we do not see in the season (but whom I assume would be Dracula himself).

David Warner as Van Helsing
The other Dracula character we meet is Van Helsing (David Warner, The Hunger: Nunc Dimittis, From Beyond the Grave, Waxwork, Nightwing, Cast a Deadly Spell, Spider-Man & I Was a Teenage Vampire). In this Van Helsing is a haematologist consulting with Frankenstein and is well aware of vampires (his wife was taken by one). He introduces Frankenstein to the penny dreadful Varney the Vampire, suggesting the Rymer accidentally got much of the detail right. I'm not too sure about that statement as Varney was the first complex vampire character but the little we see of these vampires indicates brutal and animalistic killers. Talking of Varney and placing the penny dreadful in a series of the same name, the series does throw in little conceits like that - for instance Frankenstein mentions the poetry of Shelley.

Harry Treadaway as Frankenstein
Frankenstein, of course, has issues with his own creation – Caliban (Rory Kinnear). Dorian Gray’s presence was slightly incongruous and I felt the character could have been used a little better (he is somewhat of an iconoclast but underused and we never get to see the damned portrait). Murray’s servant Sembene (Danny Sapani) was too mysterious and demanded further scrutiny and background. The series had moments of genius – an episode dedicated to the background of Vanessa Ives was disturbingly excellent in places – but other parts seemed a little too convenient, especially the coincidental interactions and acquaintances of these people from different social strata. In trying to build mysteries, perhaps some things were under-explored or (in one case) almost forgotten until the very end of the series and just touched upon. Perhaps they simply had thrown too much into the pot?

a vampire bride
A sense of time sometimes got lost. One episode concerning a possession failed to offer any idea of how much time had passed but then we discover that Gray had time to do a trip over to continental Europe while things were going on. The acting was generally very good – though Billie Piper’s Irish accent did slip occasionally – but the main star, to me, was the City of London (or Dublin, as that was where this was filmed!) because the palpable oppressive atmosphere was a constant through the show. I did enjoy Penny Dreadful, it just felt a little unpolished in places (around what they were doing with certain threads) and might have been even better than it was. However it deserves a strong 7 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

5 comments:

Scott Harper said...

I couldn't understand the vampire mythology in this series. There are acrobatic human servants with a Renfield-type lust for blood (Fenton being one). Then there are the white-haired female brides that apparently can be killed just like any human and are totally dependent upon the master vampires for their existence (i.e. kill the master the brides die). As for the apparently bullet-proof master vamps, I couldn't tell plot-wise whether the nosferatu creature killed by sir Malcolm in the first episode was the same creature appearing sporadically throughout the rest of the season. The same actor (Robert Nairne) played the creature in every appearance, yet it seemed Malcolm and crew considered the master killed in the last episode to be a different creature from the one with hieroglyphics on its skin. The only other explanation I could offer was that Malcolm missed the creature's heart when he skewered it in the first episode. Finally there was Mina, who had red eyes and fangs and could communicate verbally but didn't have white hair and was not bullet-proof. Apparently there is another master vampire (Dracula?) lurking somewhere in the shadows of season 2. Very confusing.

Scott Harper said...

I couldn't understand the vampire mythology in this series. There are acrobatic human servants with a Renfield-type lust for blood (Fenton being one). Then there are the white-haired female brides that apparently can be killed just like any human and are totally dependent upon the master vampires for their existence (i.e. kill the master the brides die). As for the apparently bullet-proof master vamps, I couldn't tell plot-wise whether the nosferatu creature killed by sir Malcolm in the first episode was the same creature appearing sporadically throughout the rest of the season. The same actor (Robert Nairne) played the creature in every appearance, yet it seemed Malcolm and crew considered the master killed in the last episode to be a different creature from the one with hieroglyphics on its skin. The only other explanation I could offer was that Malcolm missed the creature's heart when he skewered it in the first episode. Finally there was Mina, who had red eyes and fangs and could communicate verbally but didn't have white hair and was not bullet-proof. Apparently there is another master vampire (Dracula?) lurking somewhere in the shadows of season 2. Very confusing.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi Scott. I agree it didn't explain it explicitly, leaving much to conjecture, but the only man who seemed expert was killed during the season, of course.

The "master" vampire seemed a higher order of minion to me - though you are correct when you say that the brides seemed dependent on him and died when he did.

The series makes it clear that he is a second such creature, so different to the original one, whom they strip of the exoskeleton in order to read the hieroglyphics.

Mina seemed to be a level higher than him in the vampire hierarchy and servant to the unseen Master, whom I am taking as being Dracula

Margaret Schalliol said...

I am catching up on my vampires this month a little and finally had a chance to see this. I don't think enough can't quite be said about how beautifully put together this show is in its design and filming. The sets, costumes, and atmosphere are all absolutely beautiful and oppressive, especially for television. Also, the actors in this were fantastic of course, particularly Eva Green who gave an absolutely riveting performance throughout the series so far. I understand some of your issues with the show, but somehow I feel like we are just scratching the tip of the iceberg with this series. I suspect that a lot of the things that you felt were underused and that were never fully developed are going to be built upon throughout the rest of the series. The big bad of the series has not even really been presented yet (Dracula), and even the Bride's story has been slow to develop. My suspicion is they are wanting to stretch these stories over many seasons and that hopefully by the end we will have a fully realized, elaborate, and complete story. Regardless I will keep watching this one for sure. It is nice to see a vampire TV series that is actually a genuine horror story again, and presents the tribulations of the characters as a genuine struggle against evil. Glad to see it.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

I genuinely hope you are right - but despite my slight negativity I did enjoy this and am looking forward to season 2