SPOILERS BELOW - WARNING!
From the very first episode, I was nervous of the writers' abilities to pull this off. The characters were somewhat thin, hidden mainly behind the veil of mystery I mentioned earlier, but there was a glimmer of hope, since I thought the vampires on that first episode had a bit of originality to them. Thus, I decided to give the show a go and ignore the fact it seemed to be a rewrite of Dracula.
I was actually quite excited about a show being inspired by the Gothic noire of Victorian Penny Dreadfuls, I hoped they'd do something original with an old genre. Instead, I think they've taken the very worst aspects of those penny novels and turned them into a TV show.
Firstly, I would liked to have seen an original character, just one, not a set derived entirely from those Victorian novels I mentioned earlier. But, no, we had Alan Quartermain (he's not called Alan, but it's Alan), jaded, world-weary adventurer who has made many mistakes in his life, mainly with his own family. Then there was Mina Harker, and I don't mean the character they called Mina in the show. I mean Vanessa Ives, whose best friend, we'll call her Lucy, even though the show called her Mina, has been taken by the mysterious 'master', who, for convenience's sake, we'll call, Dracula. Dracula, is using Lucy to get to Mina, whom he want to make his bride - original, I think not.
Okay, so one rehash of a novel to hold the other original plots together perhaps.
Then there's Victor Frankenstein, plagued by his mistake in making his first monster, only to make his second monster. I will admit, that was the only time this show surprised me at all, when 'big brother' came along and ripped apart little brother' right in front of 'daddy'. After that, though, no surprises, murderous monster has daddy issues over his abandonment and wants a bride. In step, The Bride of Frankenstein('s Monster - if we want to be accurate and not use the film title), also known as Brona Croft, the prostitute with the heart of gold - who had 'I'm dying, I'm going to be a cadaver for Victor Frankenstein' tattooed across her forehead from the second episode.
To carry on listing characters: we then have Dorian Grey, who, they couldn't think up a new name for, and seems to have the sole purpose of shagging his way through the rest of the cast, men and women - he only has Victor and 'Alan' left to go, oh and Sembene, the mysterious native servant of 'Alan' (there's was a passing mention of saving lives and debts in the mix to explain why he's trailing 'Alan' around England, what a surprise). And finally, we have Tom Sawyer - oh wait, that's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the movie, not the comics) - Ethan, gun-slinger (with a heart of gold - he gets on well with Brona) who has a troubled past. guess what, he's a werewolf, or maybe when they give his monster a name, they'll call him a Wendigo, since he's American, just to be original.
So that's our cast, King Solomon's Mines, Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, Bride of Frankenstein, Dorian Grey all thrown into one show, each with a tiny bit of plot, the show relying on the fact that we can all recognise these old stories in order to have nay back story at all. In fact, Penny Dreadful does remind a bit of fanfic, where writers do assume their readers will be fans of the book/show they're writing about, so back story isn't a problem. And, like BAD fanfic (DISCLAIMER - there is good fanfic, I like fanfic) - the story lurched from one
...a bunch of people, mainly men I think, sitting round a table discussing what would be good to go in the show. Let's be gritty, let's be violent and overtly sexual (translation - lots of boobs, girls on guys, girls on girls, girl on demon even, and yeah, yeah, we'll allow a kiss between two men - now, I'm all for kissing between guys, I write m/m erotica, so I was disappointed that when it came to the lasses, we had full nudity, long drawn out sex scenes, but with the boys, just one kiss, purlease! that's not edgy). Oh yeah, and vampires, they were a staple of the genre, we should do vampires (translation - Dracula, let's rehash Dracula, but shift the characters a bit). And we gotta have Frankenstein, he was cool (translation - bit of existential mutterings about the line between life and death and a homicidal monster with daddy issues). And werewolves, they're hot right now, aren't they (translation - yeah, werewolves are hot right now). Oh, wasn't there that story from around the same time about the guy with no morals and a painting (translation - Dorian Grey). And demonic possession, that's always good for the shock factor (translation - that's so good, let's use it twice).
Actually, demonic possession wasn't the only thing they used more than once in the show. We had a fight scene with vampires on a boat, lots of women in white wigs running around snarling and wailing and one male (obviously, because the controllers of hives in nature are always male, right) lead vampire, plus let's stick
I did have a problem with the portrayal of women in this show actually, all 2 of them. Brona was, as I said, Prostitute with heart of gold there to be shagged/loved by Dorian and than Ethan and then die to become Bride of Frankenstien's Monster. Vanessa was supposed to be the strong woman, but actually, she too was defined by who she shagged, quite literally: first her best friend's fiancé on the eve of Mina's wedding (that one was subtle); then a demon, or is it Dracula/The Master, I don't think the writers were sure, who releases her psychic abilities; then Dorian Grey, who kicks them off all over again (and we have a second session of possession, in which the demon proceeds to give away all the male character's secrets, except the tricky one of Ethan's about being a wolf, because, oops, they hadn't done the reveal on that one yet).
So, if I thought this show was so awful, why did I keep watching? Well, despite it being quite derivative, I kept hoping that the writer's would do something interesting with all these not very well connected plots in the last episode of the series. I hoped they'd surprise me, wow me with their originality at the end. They didn't. In fact they didn't even finish the plots of the stories they'd nicked.
We're halfway through Dracula, the bit where they had to kill Lucy to free her from Dracula's curse and we get overtones that he's after Mina. Mina, sorry, Vanessa, is now looking for redemption on her black hear, I have a feeling next time we see her, she might be in a wimple. We're at the end of Frankenstein (but then we were at the beginning of the story too, so that plot moved at epic speed) and the beginning of Bride of Frankenstein, finally. the Wolfman plot is also snail's pace, we've just been shown Ethan wolf out. And to be honest, Dorian never really had his own plot, so we're just where we were before with him. Oh, and I think there's a hint of a seekrit society in the background too.
All in all, I'm annoyed at how disappointing this show was. I would still love to see a good Victorian Gothic original show that doesn't rely on its viewers knowing the old classic horrors to make it work. Do something original, mix steampunk with horror, throw in vampires and werewolves by all means, but don't hang them so directly off the old pegs.