‘Through the desire of all parties concerned, to keep the affair from the public, at least for the present, or until we had farther opportunities for investigation — through our endeavors to effect this — a garbled or exaggerated account made its way into society, and became the source of many unpleasant misrepresentations; and, very naturally, of a great deal of disbelief. It is now rendered necessary that I give the facts — as far as I comprehend them myself. They are, succinctly, these:
My attention, for the last three years, had been repeatedly drawn to the subject of Mesmerism; and, about nine months ago, it occurred to me, quite suddenly, that in the series of experiments made hitherto, there had been a very remarkable and most unaccountable omission: no person had as yet been mesmerized in articulo mortis. It remained to be seen, first, whether, in such condition, there existed in the patient any susceptibility to the magnetic influence; secondly, whether, if any existed, it was impaired or increased by the condition; thirdly, to what extent, or for how long a period, the encroachments of Death might be arrested by the process. ‘ E. A. Poe, The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar (1945)
Thus is the opening of one incredible tale of science, a dying man, mesmerism and disbelief. But this story is but one of many tales of modern Prometheus and Pygmalions, of doctors and scientists who experimented with the limitations of death in the first half of the 19th century. This is the history on which The Frankenstein Chronicles (2015-) movie series builds upon- one of facts, and disbelief. Staring Sean Bean, Tom Ward, Maeve Dermody, and Laurence Fox, among other talented names, this is a TV series which is definitely a must watch for all interested in the history of anatomy, body research and display, as well as science & ethical explorations.
So far, there have been two series, comprising 6 episodes each. The plot follows Inspector John Marlott (played by Sean Bean) who stumbles upon a composite dead body on the Thames shores. The investigation into what is will be just one among many murders, will lead him through dark alleyways and noblemen mansions, to anatomy theaters, and newspapers headquarters, from the Bethlem Hospital to street circus performances. If the first season is focused on paupers’ murders, the second sees priests as the chosen victims. Someone is killing/dismembering/experimenting on bodies for a sinister motive. And this is just the beginning of numerous plot twists.
The wonderful eerie atmosphere is sustained through a bluish semi-dark undertone which envelops everything, through children’s nursery rhymes (‘Here comes a candle to light you to bed,/And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!/ Chip chop chip chop the last man is dead’, from Oranges and Lemons), or Biblical references. The dead are as much a present as the living, but their role is that of constant reminders for the living- they are quiet, but still around victims, who have fallen prey to other people’s sins.
The eternal gates’ terrific porter lifted the northern bar:Thel enter’d in & saw the secrets of the land unknown.She saw the couches of the dead, & where the fibrous rootsOf every heart on earth infixes deep its restless twists:A land of sorrows & of tears where never smile was seen.
A film critic called this series as ‘wandering a long way from its roots as a re-imagining of Mary Shelley’s novel. Someone needs to stitch some body parts together or put a bolt through a lumbering green monster’s neck soon, or this series could be accused of false advertising.’ He is right just in one respect: if you come into the series expecting a James Whale meets Boris Karloff representation, then you will certainly be disappointed. But that is because the movie is much more then a Mary Shelley screening.
The brilliant point of view of this movie lies in its microhistorical approach: it all starts with a sewn body on a beach, but we then become travelers through London, 200 years ago; we do not only meet Mary Shelley, but also William Blake, obsessed with his Prometheus quest, we greet Ada Lovelace and an automaton, we get to see Charles Byrne performing, glimpse the Anatomy Act riots, follow body-snatchers, and also see a reference to the innovative way in which the cholera outbreak from 1854 was contained through map-making by Dr Snow. We are also being shown the effects of syphilis and subsequent mercury poisoning, lunatic asylums, and the squalid life conditions. If we pay attention we will even recognise Charles Dickens under the pseudonym of one of the characters. There are also many literary and religious references throughout, of which the myth of the ‘Wandering Jew‘ -also explored by Mary S. in her ‘The Mortal Immortal‘ story- makes an interesting plot-twist at some point.
The movie breathes life into a past which is fully embedded in the works of Blake, Byron, Poe, or M. Shelley. Stories of men who seek transformation on Earth, in a world in which they deny God- but only to become trapped in a limbo. However, besides these historical references which weave nicely into a crime-thriller, the themes also speak to a contemporary audience: cryogenics, stem cells transplants, prolonging life or creating AI ‘contraptions’- all of these find their 200 years old counterparts.
For those interested, the movie would also make a good watch alongside reading a couple of recent books which tackle many points shown:
Raising the Dead. The Men Who Created Frankenstein by Andy Dougan, 2008.
The Ghost Map. A Street, an Epidemic and the Hidden Power of Urban Networks by Steven Johnson, 2008.
and a couple of books dedicated to the initial Frankenstein story
Frankenstein. Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds, by Mary Shelley, Edited by David H. Guston, Ed Finn and Jason Scott Robert, 2017.
Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by Kathryn Harkup, 2018.