Dracula Vs Penny Dreadful…

…The evolution of story telling or just plain laziness?

Be warned there will be spoilers for both shows below:

A couple of months ago I saw the first season of Dracula starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers after a friend recommended it.

The story had promise despite being yet another rehash of the book. Dracula was painted as a modern day (late 19th century) mogul (with a dual identity) who is trying to take over the world by way of this new-fangled magic called electricity. The story has all the usual characters of course: Mina, Jonathan, Lucy and even Renfield who takes the more lovable guise of the indispensable butler/legal genius as opposed to the mad, fly eating, straight jacket wearing asylum resident. There is even the ubiquitous secret association which has infiltrated the highest levels of society and part of its duties is to collude with vampire hunters and occultists in order to find the Father of all Vampyres (who they suspect is in London) and put an end to him. Passion, revenge and pseudo-science trail the plot and the show has all the hocus pocus goobly-goock we all love so much, including the relics, the incantations and magic mixed with just a pinch of steampunk to bring it all together and help it set in the fridge.

Though enjoyable enough to make me sit through the entire first series comfortably, after it ended I felt no inclination to watch the rest. For me this a bad sign, as any good series is immediately addictive and must be watched serially until all available episodes are exhausted. In fact, I didn’t even know whether there was a second season until I researched it for this post. Only then did I uncover that it was in fact cancelled by NBC (not much surprise there) though it might be coming back for a second season on Netflix later this year. Needless to say I will not rushing to my nearest couch.

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At the end of the day the plot was so “true” to the book in its fundamental principles that I didn’t see the point of continuing even if it did have a second season. In all it felt flat and dare I say unimaginative despite the Gothic tinge and vampiric essence which pull very much at my entertainment heartstrings.

The gap that Dracula left was more than filled by Penny Dreadful. Upon discovering this show on my streaming service I set about watching the first episode without much research. As with books, I sometimes dive into something head first and decide to continue if I am sufficiently drawn. Needless to say I was chuffed to bits to discover yet another Vampire focused programme, though not excited by the prospect that more Stoker lore was being put into play.

My WTF-o-meter rang off the hook however when we were introduced to Viktor Frankenstein and even Dorian Gray, yes that Dorian Gray, of aging picture and despicable character fame, though we’ve yet to see any of those character traits. Currently he is only a little “immoral” (by Victorian standards always) and thoroughly cute and cuddly.

At first the show appears perfectly light and entertaining, though like Dracula, which had more reason to do this, I did wonder at the need to rehash popular characters from classical literature in reinterpretation after reinterpretation. I wondered about that Monday morning Network pitch meeting where the creator and the writers got together to discuss the reasoning behind this moth eaten tapestry of classical literature.

Does it have to do with our modern day need to get through everything quickly? We know for example that Frankenstein created his nameless monster and that said monster came back to ruin everything he held dear, but are we told this so that we can perhaps expect it in the future or so that the show’s creators didn’t have to go to the trouble of creating characters for which they would have to write backstories? If not, does it mean that they’ll use the character as a frame and change the story as we know it? If not, then what’s the point of making the show? If yes, then the authors are turning in their graves. I know I’m contradicting myself, but I am a purist about certain things.

Speaking of backgrounds, there is none more varied than that of Vanessa Ives who has gone from child/teen seductress to lunatic asylum resident to Vassal of Lucifer to trainee witch only to end up as the Devil’s intended once again. I mean she’s already fucked the dude so what’s the big deal? Her background story couldn’t be more turbulent and confused if they tried, and sadly it does not give her any gravitas whatsoever. It’s like they don’t really know who or what she is and are adding or subtracting supernatural elements as the series progresses.

What about Dorian Gray? We know him as the essence of decadence and corruption so it should come as no surprise that he fucks everyone on the show, staying true to the popular culture perception of his character. Why though have him seduce Ethan Chandler, who up to that point was the voice of sobriety and sensibility and have it come to nothing? Perhaps it will be revealed later on but as it stands it seems simply as character contrivance without purpose.

And if the “plagiarising” of classical literature wasn’t enough, they’ve gone and made Frankenstein create the elusive bride to the beast, or John Clare as he prefers currently, only to fall for her himself. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Pygmalion (who was Cypriot might I add) who fell in love with the ivory statue of a woman he had carved. I won’t even go into the misogynistic undertones of grooming the whore into a lady after you have wiped the hard drive clean. I thought we were past the whole “My Fair Lady” vibe. That said, I reserve some judgement, the end is yet to come.

As the series is still ongoing and will presumably continue to do so for some years, I don’t know how to conclude but I am left with several questions. Have we become so flippant as a culture that we cannot be bothered to delve into the classics by ourselves and expect a tv show to chew and half digest them for us, or are we simply too lazy to immerse ourselves into new and original characters? The success of GOT would suggest otherwise (Historical similarities with real figures not withstanding).

I would love nothing more than to see some true original Steampunk story telling (Victorian setting or no) without having to stoop to appropriating the fictional characters of the past however well it is done. Perhaps it was an attempt to expand further on these beloved characters who do in fact have incredible potential for further exploitation. The original books were great, which is certainly why they became classics, but it feels a bit hubristic to revive them like this. I’m half expecting Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to show up in future seasons. If they do you heard it here first.

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Having said all this, where Penny Dreadful wins over Dracula is in the philosophy. Victorian poetry, about which I admittedly know very little, permeates throughout the show and existential issues are always central, no doubt due to its supernatural theme. Death and rebirth are highly prevalent, as is faith, predestination and freedom of choice vs animal instinct. I’m also quite taken with the fact that Ethan Chandler frequently discusses the injustices perpetrated against the Native Americans, an issue rarely discussed on any programme be that fiction or factual as in the case of Finding your Roots for example.

Social issues such as feminism and homosexuality are also shamelessly put to the fore and not just in the style of Tru Blood where the gay sex is done purely as a lure with little social commentary. The sex scene between Dorian and Angelique was both sexy and loving and the ball he held in her honour speaks very much about modern day issues of equality and acceptance in a society, particularly in America, where in many places, the ethos has not evolved much since the days of the Victorians. For that Penny Dreadful deserves some applause.

On a closing note, I await to see if race will be highlighted beyond the token black guy servant…

Your thoughts, as always, are very welcome.

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