A new TV series called The Frankenstein Chronicles randomly popped up in the featured section atop Netflix yesterday. What could this show possibly be about? Is this the I, Tonya of Frankenstein stories where we get to revisit the classic tale but from alternating points of view, the Monster’s versus Dr. Frankenstein’s versus possibly even Igor’s? Is it some kind of travelogue chronicling the Monster’s mental anguish while traveling the world? Better yet, does he get to open every episode like a CW superhero but instead of launching into some pithy “My name is Oliver Queen….” explainer he simply mutters “Fire bad” with differing intonations like his own personal “I am Groot”? Inquiring/sarcastic minds want to know.
The Frankenstein Chronicles is none of those things. This has nothing to do with the popular Universal version of the Monster. In fact, neither the Monster nor Dr. Frankenstein even pops up. But Mary Shelley does. In what plays as an engagingly clever historical murder mystery, The Frankenstein Chronicles imagines a copycat killer mimicking the plot of Frankenstein in the immediate years after its initial publication.
The Premise: In 1822, i.e., four years after the publication of Frankenstein, the mutilated corpse of a young girl shows up on the shores of London. Correction: make that mutilated corpses, plural. What initially appears to be a single girl is actually the stitched together remains of eight different children. Inspector John Marlott (Sean Bean), the river police officer with the grave misfortune of being the one to stumble upon this disturbing scene, is removed from his wide-ranging duties by the Home Secretary and assigned the sole case of finding the person responsible.
Marlott is told to keep everything hush-hush for the Home Secretary believes what they have uncovered is an effort by some disgruntled soul to put an end to the Anatomy Act, a key piece of legislation aiming to modernize medicine by ending the illegal trade of corpses and codifying the practice of dissecting donated bodies. Those opposed to the Act do so on religious and class-based grounds, believing the new advances in medical science to be an affront to God and the specifics of the Act a way for the rich to prey on the poor even after the death. So, no pressure, Marlott, but the entirety of medical progress might rest on your shoulders.
It’s not a job Marlott particular wants or asks for. Indeed, seeing the girl on the shore touches a bit of an emotional open wound and causes him to relive memories of the dead wife and child he’d rather forget. But, unable to say no he does as he’s told and sets about the investigation with the help of a black police officer (Richie Campbell) deemed expendable by his superiors. Soon, they are both following their few leads straight into London’s underworld, a place full of vagrant children, threatening Fagin-like figures, and seemingly relentless misery, but what they find surprisingly puts them on a head-on collision course with some of the literary and medical minds of the era.
How Mary Shelley Factors Into The Story: Though he’s initially oblivious to it, Marlott quickly discovers the similarities between his case and the plot of a recent book which had already been turned into a controversial play. He’s uncertain if the book’s author, Mary Shelley is personally involved or if she might be able to direct him to possible suspects or if she’s a completely innocent author whose work has been bastardized by a radical, but he has to know and she’s none too pleased to hear his questions.
Played by Anna Maxwell Martin, Shelley’s presence in the story and the show’s reflection on those early years when her work wasn’t as widely known or respected is a large part of why this is called The Frankenstein Chronicles. However, the specifics of the book soon gives way to the specifics of the personal tragedies (poor Mary had lost so many people at such a young age) and societal movement which inspired its writing. Get ready for a rather illuminating crash course in the history of Galvanism and cameos from people like Lord Byron.
Where Did This Show Come From?: Similar to Netflix’s January sensation The End of the F***ing World, The Frankenstein Chronicles is actually a British show which has already aired across the pond. The first season premiered on ITV in 2015, and the second season just finished its run on that same network two months ago. Both seasons, comprising six episodes each, are now on Netflix, flying under the Netflix Original banner. A&E had, at one point, purchased the rights to the show, but then the network largely abandoned original programming and never aired a single episode of Frankenstein Chronicles. Their loss is Netflix’s gain. As of this writing, I just finished the first season.
Is It Horror? Thriller? Drama?: Actually, kind of all three. The premise necessitates plenty of horrific imagery, the investigation leads to several thrilling brushes with death, and the drama comes from Marlott’s ongoing emotional and physical anguish (I’ll just say mercury treatment had its side effects). On top of that, they even sneak in a little bit of class commentary via the controversy over the elites preying on the poor for medical research purposes. Whether the story will ever tip over into supernatural territory inevitably hangs over everything, largely because when you put Frankenstein in the title it creates a certain set of expectations (or at least it did for me). But, really, repeated shots of severed limbs and a syphilis sufferer’s disfigured face combined with the show’s inescapable air of dread provides all the horror you need.
Is It Worth Watching?: Absolutely. What begins as a grisly, but simple procedure-based crime drama dovetails nicely into fascinating reflections on both the woman behind the birth of a horror icon and a key transitional moment in modern medicine. There are dark turns and thrilling sequences along the way and a gripping central performance from Bean as the beleaguered investigator suffering an emotional crisis while simply trying to get to the bottom of an increasingly complex case.
Recommended If You Like: Ripper Street, The Alienist, The Knick, Penny Dreadful, From Hell, and, most obviously, Frankenstein, particularly the original novel and the Royal National Theater’s 2011 adaptation directed by Danny Boyle and starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller.
What about you? Have you watched any of The Frankenstein Chronicles yet? Or was the title too clunky to pique your interest? Or are you simply stunned I made it all this way through the review without ever once making a tired “Sean Bean always dies in his movies” joke? Well…damn. I guess I kind of just made that joke. Look what you made me do! Leave a comment and I’ll forgive you.