The Frankenstein Chronicles started off in fine fashion last week, presenting a grim pre-Victorian world where the Middles Ages were starting to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into something resembling the modern age. The trouble was that the 1820s were still filled with people who took their morality from spiritual and religious leanings, and the almost constant fear of death (of which there was much) precipitated an obsession with the supernatural, the occult and the existence of beasts and monsters. This fear and this sense of these two worlds colliding, was heightened when a young teenage girl was found on the banks of the Thames, her body seemingly stitched together from other, unknown body parts. John Marlott, seconded by home secretary Sir Robert Peel, was on the case and was convinced something awful was afoot.
In the hunt for Alice – a missing girl feared to be this thing’s next victim – Marlott found a William Blake poem – Lyca – at the house of a prostitution ring, headed by a gold-toothed leader called Billy. So it was only natural that Marlott sought him out, convinced that his poem contained information about the missing girl. When he entered Blake’s house he found a strange ritual in progress. A near-death and bed-bound Blake (Steven Berkoff) was surrounded by acolytes, chanting something as if to rid him of his illness. Despite being made to feel unwelcome, Blake beckoned Marlott to his bedside and, as the policeman recited his tale, Blake nodded in acknowledgement and told Marlott that he too had lost a child once, and that the Lyca was all about all missing children. Portentously (and in typically hammy Steven Berkoff fashion) he told Marlott that he would have to ‘know the truth of the beast… the beeeeeast, with the face of a man’.
Marlott left the room none the wiser, but he had met a woman who was particularly unwelcome in Blake’s room who, later in the episode, brought him news of the famous expiry and a copy of The Book Of Prometheus, which Blake wanted Marlott to have. She left him his card. Her name was Mary Shelley (played here by the superb Anna Maxwell Martin).
Away from all this intrigue, Marlott and Nightingale were convinced that the bodysnatchers – those legal graverobbers who exhumed bodies and sold them for cash – had something to do with the body they had found. Find out if there was anything irregular about their supply chain and then they would find the perpetrator of these awful crimes. Or so they thought. They caught a gang red-handed, digging up the body of a young boy (told this was grisly), and under questioning the leader, Mr Pretty, told Marlott that someone had been murdering to provide fresh body to the surgeons. he also said this: “A dead body ain’t property. Taking one ain’t theft.”
And therein lay the moral dimension of this series, the concepts of death and the afterlife being discussed and explore through different character at the either ends of the economic and intellectual spectrum, all wrapped up in a murder mystery.
This discussion was furthered when Lady Jemima Hartley (Vanessa Kirby) – along with her brother a fervent opposer of the Sir Robert Peel’s Anatomy Act – came to Marlott’s place to issue him with a warning – that the passing of act could lead to a wider moral and spiritual vacuum, which would deny ordinary people their holy body to be intact and therefore be disqualified on judgement day. “If we deny Christ the poor Mr Marlott,” she asked, “don’t we deny him for ourselves? And that’s what’s at stake here – not merely the future of medicine, but prospect of a world without God.”
She told him the act would also outlaw benign, philanthropic practises, such as her brother’s, who runs a place – a children’s charitable hospital – in East London.
Marlott then went to visit Sir Williams Chester, the chief physician, and instead found his unwelcoming cousin, Garnet Chester in residence instead. After shooing Marlott away, he conducted a demonstration in front of a select audience on the cadaver of a young boy, pumping electricity into his arm, and ‘re-animating’ it. This practise was influenced by the work of Italian physician Luigi Galvani, a pioneer in bioelectromagnetics.
All fascinating stuff, but the case was stalling and Marlott – and Sir Robert Peel knew it. With pressure from Peel for progress – the Chesters were emerging as suspects because of their interest in ‘galvanic’ practises – Marlott retired to his digs, where he received a visitor. It was Flora, who he met at the gang’s hideout at the end of episode one, and she came to him scared, cold and hungry. In conversation in a pub, where Marlott and Flora’s breath could be seen in the cold air (that’s one of the features I love about this series so far) she promised to help him find Alice.
Earlier in the episode a mercury-fuelled dream saw Marlott, his syphilis raging, tell his deceased wife that he longed to be with her again. And then it hit me: with everyone afraid of death and debating death and trying to escape it, he was the only one who didn’t fear it.
For our episode one review, go here