Penny Dreadful: Season 1 by John Logan SFF television reviewsPenny Dreadful: Season 1 by John Logan

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsIf you had told me the premise of Penny Dreadful before I’d seen it, I would have probably rolled my eyes. A collection of famous characters from 19th century Gothic horror novels thrown together into an original plot? Yeah that worked SO well for Hollywood’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Van Helsing. (Not).

So the fact that Penny Dreadful manages to be compelling, thought-provoking, and genuinely interested in engaging the themes of the books that inspired it is a miracle in itself. One of its particular strengths is in throwing the viewer into a strange situation without much context as to what’s going on or why. As each episode unfolds we get more clues as to who these characters are and what they’re trying to achieve, but the show is content to take its time in divulging answers, and is exceptionally good at the “show, don’t tell” rule. If you want to understand what’s happening, you have to pay close attention.

Penny Dreadful focuses mainly on the odd dynamic that exists between the mysterious Vanessa Ives and her guardian Sir Malcolm Murray. It’s kinda-sorta-mostly a paternal vibe (in a very dark and dysfunctional way) but at the same time you can feel more-than-a-little hint of sexual chemistry between them. For the first few episodes at least, you’ll be watching their interactions carefully, trying to figure out what their history together might be.

It soon becomes clear that the pair is looking for someone, and in this search they employ the services of American gunslinger Ethan Chandler and dedicated surgeon Victor Frankenstein. As the show goes on, other familiar names and faces pop up: Dorian Gray, Abraham van Helsing, Mina Murray, and of course, Frankenstein’s Monster (here called Caliban).

As well as this, the show seems determined to throw in every single Gothic trope that was ever known to the genre. Séances, opium dens, vampires, Jack the Ripper, consumption, resurrectionists, heavy mist, candlelight, demonic possession, spiritualism, big game hunters, darkest Africa, madhouses, Egyptology, exorcisms — you name it, it’s here. Needless to say, if you’re a fan of Gothic Horror, then this show is the Holy Grail.

pd1.3Vanessa Ives is a role that’s finally worthy of Eva Green’s beauty, intensity and fearlessness as an actress. Her body contortions, facial expressions, measured tones, magnificent side-eying — she’s absolutely riveting, and I swear, she DOESN’T BLINK. Whenever she’s in conversation with somebody, Green never closes her eyes.

Timothy Dalton is a shoo-in for Sir Malcolm Murray, a paragon of Victorian masculinity; whilst Henry Treadwell is Victor Frankenstein, whose youth helps exemplify the contrast that exists between the passionate, thoughtful poet and the cold and ruthless doctor. Rory Kinnear as Frankenstein’s Creature manages to emote through makeup that makes him the most accurate rendering of Shelley’s descriptions I’ve ever seen. No green skin or neck bolts here!

Billie Piper puts on a good show as Brona Croft, a young woman dying of consumption who struggles to live out her remaining days with as much dignity as possible — even in the face of her sordid surroundings. And who would have thought Josh Harnett had this in him? As American gunslinger Ethan Croft, he’s portrayed as deeply sensitive and gentle despite his brash exterior. Watch him closely though — it’s clear he has a secret, and when the show is finally ready to reveal what it is, you might well be cheering in your seat.

Only Reeve Carney’s Dorian Gray feels a little extraneous, his background left unexplained and his storyline unconnected to the central narrative. Likewise, Danny Sapani’s Sembene, Malcolm’s trusted right-hand man, is embarrassingly underused. Ah well, there’s always next season.

The show also boasts an incredibly talented supporting cast: David Warner, Alun Armstrong, Helen McCrory and Anna Chancellor pop up for small but memorable roles.

Penny Dreadful is definitely not for everyone. It’s dark and disturbing and gory — and quite terrifying at times! It also assumes some familiarity with the source material (pretty much everything to do with Dorian Gray will be incomprehensible to anyone unaware of his story) for plenty of the twists and subversions depend on knowing what, exactly, is being subverted.

It’s amazing how much gets packed into eight episodes, and how well the writers pull off the fusion of literary characters into a single narrative. Every second of Penny Dreadful counts, even as the luxurious pacing allows the actors to actually work at conveying information, emotions and relationships through their eyes and body language.

I’ve already watched the first season three times already — and it holds up beautifully with each re-watch, yielding more clues and insight into the storyline every time. The music and sound is also wonderful, filled with whispers and echoes and meaningful little cues, and the costumes, set dressing and make-up are stunning.

I really can’t rave enough about it. If you love Gothic Horror, then Penny Dreadful is tailor-made for you.

Watch/purchase at Amazon.


  • Rebecca Fisher

    REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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