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Series / The Frankenstein Chronicles

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The Frankenstein Chronicles is a television series made by Rainmark Films for ITV starring Sean Bean. Series 1 aired in 2015, Series 2 hit in 2018.

It is 1827. John Marlott, an officer of the river patrol, finds a gruesome patchwork corpse on the muddy banks of the Thames. After having it examined by a top surgeon, the case crosses the desk of Sir Robert Peel, the Home Secretary. He's convinced that the collection of parts (the characters refuse to even call it "a corpse") is a work of sabotage cobbled together by some political opponents of the Anatomy Act, a law Peel is trying to pass which would allow surgical students to legally practice on cadavers. The surgeon believes it's the deranged work of some butcher or barber. Marlott's willing to follow these leads, but he's shaken by the fact that when he reached down to touch the corpse, it reached back...

The story, originally billed as Frankenstein as a detective series quickly sets sail for far, far stranger waters.

I'd say it's stitched together from at least 7 or 8 tropes...

  • Actor Allusion: Marlott is a former member of the 95th Rifles and fought at Waterloo, both traits he shares with actor Sean Bean's well-known character Sharpe
  • Agent Peacock: "Boz" the journalist, dressing like he ran at top speed through a paint factory before crashing through the display at a silk shop.
  • All Issues Are Political Issues:
    • This sets the first series in motion. After Marlott finds what appears to be a corpse surgically stitched together from parts of a half dozen cadavers, the Home Secretary explains that it's most likely part of a political plot to discredit the Anatomy Act by painting surgeons as heretical madmen.
    • To a lesser extent, in series 2 Ada Lovelace and Frederick Dippel take time to discuss with Esther Rose the social and political impact that greater automation will have in the future. Dippel starts with a materialist, economic concern that Esther, a seamstress, may find her occupation either extinct or so changed she'll have no place in it. Ada follows by pointing out the leveling effect that automation will have on the field of gender. Dippel concludes with a more Transhumanist stance, asserting that technology will eventually allow man to overcome God.
  • Alone with the Psycho: Flora finds herself admitted to hospital where her rapist works. She is in a coma and unaware, and anyone who might protect her is off chasing clues. The only witness is the audience as he sends away the nurse, and sequesters himself alone in the private room with her....
  • Artistic License – Physics: At one point, a lifeless patient is sought to be revived by a crude defibrilator made of two wireless electrodes connected to a larger electric device by a lightning arc to both electrodes. With current strong enough to maintain a lightning arc of several meters, and neither electrode connected to ground, the current would run to ground via the person holding them, who would not just be dead, but also crispy.
  • Artificial Human: In series 2, Frederick Dippel is trying to create an artificial woman.
  • Back for the Dead: Lady Jemima Hervey in series 2, who dies offscreen between seasons but appears as a ghost to Marlott. It's not immediately obvious she's actually dead, however, as at this point in the story she could plausibly be Faking the Dead or merely be a hallucination.
  • Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: Mary Shelley actually took part in experiments that prefigured the events of her novel.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Just when you think Flora's rapist is going to victimize her again, John bursts into the room, denounces her attacker, and sweeps out with the ill damsel in his arms.
  • Body Horror
  • Celebrity Paradox: An odd example. The first episode very much implies the series is a re-imagining of the novel as a detective story, with Marlott on the hunt for Dr. Frankenstein in 1820s London. However, the remainder of the series reveals that it's not, this is a world where Frankenstein was released and was a smash hit, as it was in our world. Once word begins to spread, it's quickly assumed the creation is the result of a copycat trying to re-create the experiment of the novel. Thus, the paradox becomes the fact that none of the characters in the first episode seem to notice the resemblance of the event to a famous novel released only a few years earlier, a fact that actually comes up later:
    "Boz": You never heard of it? They had a play. The whole world went. Twice.
  • Chekhov's Gag: When Lord Daniel Hervey prescribes a medicine for Marlott's syphilis that's "derived from bread mold", it seems like he's a hundred years ahead of his time. It turns out he's actually far, far further ahead of his time. It's stem cells.
  • Child by Rape: Fiona's pregnancy is the result of her being drugged and later raped by an aristocrat. It turns out this was Garnet Chester.
  • Corrupt Church: One part of the Anglican Church is portrayed as corrupt. The Dean of Westminster orders the murders of priests who oppose his plan to sell church land which would result in the poor who live there being thrown out. He then has the murderer himself killed to tie up loose ends.
  • Death of a Child: Right out of the gate, the patchwork corpse is made up of about 8 children between the ages of 8 and 12. Later, we learn Marlott's infant daughter died of natal syphilis, and further down the road see plenty of fetuses in jars.
  • Defective Detective: John Marlott's traumatized by his service in the Peninsula and the loss of his wife and daughter, as well as suffering from both syphilis and mercury poisoning for much of the first season.
  • Have You Told Anyone Else?: Not as a prelude to murder, but to preserve the incredibly sensitive political situation going on and prevent a panic. Not that it lasts.
  • The Hero Dies: Of course, it's Sean Bean. Marlott is hung at the end of the first season. He gets better.
  • Historical Domain Character:
  • Historical In-Joke:
    • A Chekhov's Gag variant in the "bread mold" treatment that Lord Daniel Hervey gives Marlott. A viewer familiar with medical history will notice that penicillin is a type of bread mold that can cure syphilis, a fact not officially discovered until the 1920s. Hervey's status as a figure outside the medical establishment suggests it may be a mistaken case of Snake Oil Salesman. Furthermore, Marlott's visions and delusions seem to get worse from this point, and someone familiar with medical history might also notice that ergot is a type of bread mold that can really mess you up. What exactly is in the bread mold is quite a surprise: fetal stem cells.
    • The involvement of Johann Dippel in a Frankenstein story, referencing his possible role in inspiring the novel in the first place.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Sir Robert Peel is portrayed as blackmailing an opponent into withdrawing his motion against the Anatomy Act so it can be passed, and being pretty ruthless in general for his reforms. Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley participate in an experiment to resurrect the dead, after one of their friends volunteers. However he has to be smothered by Percy and Chester, while the apparatus cannot revive him. Chester then makes it appear to be a suicide. This inspires Mary's novel.
  • Hollywood Atheist: Lord Daniel Hervey is a surprisingly straight and dark example. He has murdered multiple people, on top of kidnapping children to experiment on hoping that he'll achieve immortality this way. Likewise, Frederick Dippel, his accomplice in all this, says there is no God and that once one realizes it then "anything is possible", implying a lack of any moral restraints.
  • Immortality Hurts: Marlott repeatedly suffers from lethal wounds and eventually recovers, and seems to be in misery the whole time.
  • Immortality Inducer: The Elixer of Life is used to resurrect the dead.
  • Insistent Terminology: The thing that Marlott pulls out of the river is not a corpse. A corpse is a single dead body. The thing in the river is eight.
  • Magical Defibrillator: We see the experiment (with Mary Shelley taking part) that inspired the original novel, and it's basically Flatliners: Regency England Edition. The subject takes a dose of some kind of poison, is monitored until signs of life cease, and then is to be shocked back to life with a hand-powered dynamo. The experiment is a failure.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane
    • The first season takes this route with the "Frankenstein Murders". The corpse grabs at Marlott, but that could just be a reflex action. The children fear "a monster", but that could just be an evil human. Marlott has visions and nightmares, but he's suffering from a degenerative neurological disorder and poisoning himself with at least one chemical that causes further brain damage. He's also receiving an experimental treatment involving mysterious chemicals given to him by a supposed Snake Oil Salesman. We see actual experiments with resurrection, but it's clear that it's a primitive form of defibrillation. Eventually, the mystery is resolved: it's magic, or at least Sufficiently Advanced Technology. The dead are being resurrected using fetal stem cells, and they suffer the symptoms commonly associated with extended loss of oxygen to the brain.
  • Mirror Scare: Three times in the first series, Marlott sees himself as a monster in a mirror. Only the first two times are a nightmare, the third time is for real.
  • Miscarriage of Justice: John is wrongly convicted of Flora's murder at the end of the first season and sentenced to death. His lawyer doesn't help much, trying to have the charge dismissed on humane grounds rather than trying the insanity defense despite John suffering from neurosyphilis, making his guilt questionable even if he had done it. He's hanged, but it doesn't stick for long.
  • Mythology Gag:
  • Psychic Powers: William Blake is portrayed as having clairvoyance apparently-he could see "the beast" as he's called him committing the murders. Interestingly, there is some belief that the real Blake did have this. His painting The Ghost of a Flea, shown in the series and its opening credits, Blake claimed came in a vision he had. Blake also claimed to see ghosts regularly.
  • Pull the Thread: Marlott realizes that no theory of the crime that actually fits with established evidence explains how the corpse actually ended up in the river. Once he eliminates the improbable, what remains, however impossible, must be true: it crawled there itself.
  • Red Herring
    • Billy Oates and the Bishops are obviously merely distractions from the real criminals, though their role as a link in the chain leading to the true perpetrators is crucial.
    • Sir William Chester is innocent of the crime in series 1, despite all the evidence and tropes that pile up against him.
    • Sir Daniel Hervey is not Slipping a Mickey to Marlott, and he's not just ahead of his time with the "bread mold cure".
    • On a meta level, the plot structure is very misleading. This is not a Whodunnit?. This is Gothic Horror.
  • Resurrective Immortality: This appears to be the effect of the Elixer of Life, judging by the punishment Marlott takes after being brought back.
  • Science Marches On: Acknowledged In-Universe. Though the original novel does not feature lightning or electricity as part of the experiment, the series plays with audience expectations regarding it. An early form of the experiment is shown, an event that inspires Mary Shelley to write the novel, and the intended outcome was a primitive form of Magical Defibrillator which would have seemed miraculous at the time but is now considered basic medical practice. Eventually, a Mad Scientist reveals the secret to actually resurrecting dead tissue: fetal stem cells, which by modern sci-fi standards seems much more plausible.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Once it becomes clear someone's copying her infamous novel, Mary Shelley flees England. Well, not just because someone's copying her novel, she's also a potential loose end.
  • Shout-Out: In Episode One, John Marlott claims he used to be in the 95th Rifles and Over the Hills and Far Away is whistled in the background at another point in the episode.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome
    • The experiment that inspired Mary Shelley to write the original novel is a failure, as they attempt to shock a victim with no cardiac rhythm.
    • A surprising example when Boz discusses the case with Marlott: this whole story seems to be very similar to an incredibly popular book from a few years ago. All concerns of political sabotage then take a backseat as the public becomes obsessed with "The Frankenstein Murders".
    • When Marlott dies and is resurrected a short time later, the effects on his mind seem consistent with the real-world effects of traumatic brain injury. He's non-verbal and in a fugue state for three years before eventually recovering, and is never the same afterward.
  • That Man Is Dead: Literally. After his death and resurrection as a creature, John Marlott repeatedly claims to no longer be the man he once was, and takes on a different name.
  • That Old-Time Prescription: A very creative subversion. The audience may easily identify the "bread-mold cure" as a primitive version of penicillin (it's so well known it's one of the examples mentioned in the trope description), but they'd be dead wrong. It's actually a primitive and grotesque version of stem-cell therapy.
  • The Nothing After Death: According to Frederick Dippel, there's nothing beyond an endless shoreline.
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: John Marlott has a rough time. He's suffering from clear symptoms of PTSD, visible signs of late secondary stage syphilis, treating his syphilis with mercury pills, and later tries a concoction supposedly containing "bread mold", all of which can cause hallucinations or delusions. Unfortunately, he's also following a case that, at best, features a deranged and ingenious killer and at worst may actually involve supernatural or paranormal events.
  • Title Drop: The phrase "a world without God", the first episode's title, is repeated throughout the series as a fear several characters have of the implications assuming the dead can be resurrected by human beings (i.e. apparently they feel it would disprove God's existence, as the villains think).
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?: Frederik Dippel's motivation in series 2. He's immortal and needs a companion that won't age and die before his eyes. To this end he first tries to build an artificial human, then later to make Rose immortal like him.
  • Windmill Crusader: The case presented against the Anatomy Act is not based on something humanist regarding "decency", nor on something material regarding compensating the families of those who will be "donated to science", but on a more esoteric basis: those who are dissected by surgeons for the purposes of education cannot be resurrected when Judgement Day comes. The Anatomy Act is seen as creating "a heaven only for the rich", which ties it to Jemima's fears of "a world without God". Granted, by the standards of the In-Universe time, that’s not an unconvincing argument.
  • A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing: Lord Daniel Hervey initially comes off as a kindly physician concerned that the Anatomy Act may outlaw his practice (which is charitable for the poor) and implied to share his sister's religious objections as well. However, it turns out that he is a multiple murderer who experiments on raising the dead with kidnapped children. Oh, and he's also an atheist.
  • Worst Aid: Marlott suffers from syphilis, and gets the treatment common to his era: mercury.
  • Young Future Famous People: Sir Robert Peel, "Boz", and Ada Lovelace have yet to reach the heights of their careers.