Most of us think of the future when we think of a setting for science fiction, but as any fan of steampunk knows, the past can be a ripe era for fictional worlds built upon a scientific or, sometimes, pseudo-scientific foundation. No historical period seems more ripe for alternative history science fiction than Victorian England, with Sherlock Holmes solving crimes in his deerstalker cap, Jack The Ripper assaulting painted ladies and the Royal Society approving intrepid explorers heading into the deepest jungles of Africa.
A hundred years before The Bomb and decades prior to the first World War, this period had horrors all its own too, notably the stark inequality between the social classes. It was a very tough time and place to be poor, as Dickens illustrated in his popular novels. Occultism was a fascination of the moment too, because surely all the tragedies and horrors could be explained by curses and influences “from the other side.” Add to the mix philosophers wrestling with profound questions of spirituality too, including the identity of God and the meaning of death. It’s no wonder that unprincipled medical experimentation arose too, at least in the popular cultural story.
It’s a potent mix: Victorian London, the occult, medical experimentation and the horrors of urban life in the 1800s. Heat up in a cauldron, add in a sprinkling of American Old West mythos and you’ve got ‘Penny Dreadful,’ a terrific gothic series on Showtime that’s poised to start its second season on Sunday, May 3.
Named after popular serial weeklies focused on horrific crimes and the occult that were all the rage in the late 1800’s, ‘Penny Dreadful’ revolves around Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), a gentleman of means who lost his daughter to mysterious, evil forces while exploring darkest Africa, Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), a beautiful woman who has one foot in the world of the occult and is hell-bent on helping find Sir Malcolm’s daughter, and Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), a flamboyant American sharpshooter who has been hired to help protect Vanessa and Sir Malcolm as they delve deep into the strange world beneath London’s glossy exterior.
In addition to The Creature, there are horrors galore, both creations of man — notably a surprisingly sympathetic Proteus (Alex Price), Victor’s latest creation — and those of the malevolence that hovers over Sir Malcolm and Miss Ives in an alarming fashion. Vampires, witches, demons, it’s all in the show, and often terrifying on screen, much thanks to special effects makeup artist Nick Dudman (whose film credits include much of the ‘Harry Potter’ series).
Befitting a gothic horror series, the show frequently takes us into dank basements and dark alleyways populated by the refuse of society, destitute men in opium dens, prostitutes hoping to turn a farthing and be able to eat the next day, and pasty thugs who would just as soon kill you and sell your body to the no-questions-asked mad scientist across the city. Fortunately, that’s compensated by the development of the characters and their relationships and gradually unfolding back stories. Of note are the relationships between Vanessa and Dorian and between Ethan and Brona Croft (Billie Piper), a prostitute dying of tuberculosis.
I’m a fan of classic horror films where the mood, the tension are what becomes frightening, not the jump-scares, gory special effects and torture-porn of the modern genre. ‘Penny Dreadful’ is a wonderful throwback to what’s best about a good scare, a reminder of the darkness and optimism of Victorian England and an exploration of the soul of man, of what it means to be good and moral, and the challenge that poses in an urban world.
I could share more about ‘Penny Dreadful’ and why I really like the show, but Season Two is poised to start and episode one of the new season is free to view online below.
‘Penny Dreadful’ airs Sunday nights on Showtime at 10pm ET beginning May 3.