FRANK-AND-TIME: TRUTHS OF SCIENCE IN FRANKENSTEIN AND PENNY DREADFUL
Mary Shelley wrote her novel Frankenstein in a period of scientific advancement, which included “new anatomical theories” and controversial ideas about “the possible existence of an electrical ‘life-force’” (Holmes 491). Shelley responded to these scientific debates by writing a novel that focuses on the consequences of meddling with nature through the creation of artificial life. By writing about the dangers of such scientific experimentation, Shelley implies sentiments of fear concerning scientific advances, reflecting contemporary anxieties that were held by society. There was a “general impulse to protect the impact of science on society” in the nineteenth century that can be illustrated by the emergence of groups such as the Luddites, who protested against any technological advancement (Kitcher 167). Like the nineteenth century, the twenty-first century is an era of scientific progression, which evokes fears that are similar to those suggested in Shelley’s novel. Critic Allen Graham argues that the power of Frankenstein is that it can still play a part in “examining our present relation to science and the futures that science might bring” (117). Indeed, comparing a scene  from a recent adaptation of Frankenstein in the television series Penny Dreadful to a passage  from Shelley’s novel shows that the tale of Frankenstein can still be used in interpreting the way in which science influences humanity. This can be illustrated by the fact that Penny Dreadful portrays the creature as more humanlike than Shelley’s original monster and establishes a more explicit power balance between Victor and his creature, reflecting the reality of technological advances in the twenty-first century.
First of all, by depicting the creature as more human-looking than Shelley’s original monster, Penny Dreadful blurs the boundaries between the human and the artificial to a larger extent than Shelley does in her novel. This indicates that the Frankenstein adaptation in Penny Dreadful mirrors the twenty-first century possibility of humanlike robots, thus showing that the way in which Shelley examines the repercussions of science in Frankenstein is still significant today. In chapter 2 of the second volume of Frankenstein, Victor encounters his monster on Glacier Montanvert. As the creature approaches, Victor notices that “his stature . . . seemed to exceed that of man” and that “its unearthly ugliness rendered it almost too horrible for human eyes” (Shelley 76). Based on these observations, it can be assumed that Shelley’s version of the creature has an unnatural appearance. It is worth noting that Victor differentiates between the personal pronouns “it” and “him” when he refers to the creature, unable to decide which one is more fitting, thus indicating that the creature in the novel is not discernibly human or monstrous. In Penny Dreadful, the creature is more distinctly human, as can be seen in the scene from the episode “Resurrection”. Although the creature is physically stronger than the average human, as shown when he lifts Victor from the ground, he is only slightly taller than his creator and is not as hideous as Victor’s description in Shelley’s novel suggests. The fact that the creature is wearing decent clothing stimulates the idea that the creature is as much human as Victor. Moreover, both Victor and the creature are covered in the blood of Victor’s second creation , which makes them look equally monstrous. By presenting both characters as human and monster simultaneously, the scene questions their nature. The idea that it is no longer clear which one of them is the real monster is further manifested in the scene when the creature smears his bloody hand across Victor’s face. The blood, then, becomes symbolic for the creature’s villainy and by touching Victor’s face with his bloodstained hand, the creature symbolically transmits his crimes to his creator. The victims whom the creature has “so diabolically murdered” (Shelley 77) have now become Victor’s victims too, making him responsible for the actions of his creature. Lars Schmeink has tackled the question of scientific responsibility, arguing that scientific experimentation resembles parenthood in that it “comes with unpredictable challenges and unexpected consequences for the creator” (366). Assuming that Victor is the parent in the parent-child relationship, Penny Dreadful challenges this idea when the creature asks: “Who is the child, Frankenstein? Thee or me?”  This question further blurs the lines between the creator and the creation, which corresponds to the modern scientific context of Penny Dreadful, where “the making of humanlike robots is increasingly becoming an engineering reality,” (Bar-Cohen et al. v). Even though such modern technological advances were unimagined in the period when Shelley wrote Frankenstein, the story is as effective in the twenty-first century as it was in the nineteenth century, demonstrating that Shelley’s story deals with scientific progression in a way that is still appropriate to the current time.
Furthermore, the scene from Penny Dreadful displays a power balance between Victor and his creature in which the creature dominates, while in the passage from the original novel, the power dynamic remains ambiguous, demonstrating that Shelley’s story allows for the adaptation to comply with its own scientific culture. In the novel, when Victor encounters his creature, he immediately elevates himself above him by saying: “do you dare approach me?” and calling him a “vile insect” (Shelley 77). Despite Victor’s rage and condescension, the creator remains calm and demands Victor to “listen” to him and to not “disdain” him (Shelley 78). When Victor points out that he “followed” the creature, it is suggested that the creature dominates Victor (Shelley 79). Yet, Victor’s subsequent realization of “the duties of a creator towards his creature” reveals he has motives for his obedience, which invalidates the previously established power balance between Victor and his creature (Shelley 79). Although Shelley plays with power dynamics in this passage, she does not provide a conclusion as to which of the characters overpowers the other. Penny Dreadful, on the other hand, seems to answer this question more explicitly. By having the creature invade Victor’s personal space, his laboratory, Victor is put in a more vulnerable position compared to his encounter with the creature on the glacier in Shelley’s novel. Additionally, shocked by the unexpected slaughter of his second creation, Victor kneels beside it, putting himself in a physically lower position than the creature. Only when the creature demands to “stand and face him”  does Victor stand up again. This time, there is no apparent motive behind Victor’s obedience. Even if he had motives, he would not able to convey them successfully, as fear, in the form of his creature, overpowers him. The power dynamic in this scene implies fear of the idea that humanity might be overthrown by its own scientific innovations, which is a modern anxiety that influences the retelling of Frankenstein in Penny Dreadful. Arguably, the character of Victor in the scene from Penny Dreadful is closer to his demise as a result of his own scientific experimentation than in the character in the novel, in the same way that that the society of the twenty-first century is closer to being overcome by artificial creations than the society of the nineteenth century. It can therefore be said that Shelley’s Frankenstein, by questioning the consequences of emerging technologies, will remain relevant until the boundaries between the natural and the artificial have vanished completely.
Comparing the passage from Shelley’s Frankenstein to the scene from Penny Dreadful thus reveals that the original novel as well as the adaptation both correspond to the scientific context in which the they were created. The reproduction of the story in Penny Dreadful is influenced by twenty-first century technological advances, which is revealed by the humanlike appearance of the creature in the scene as well as the way in which the creature seems to overpower its creator. In the same way that Shelley’s novel reflects nineteenth century anxieties about scientific progression, Penny Dreadful echoes fears of a modern, twenty-first century reality in which robotic designs become increasingly humanlike in terms of appearance and intelligence. Even though the technological advances of the twenty-first century were unthinkable in Shelley’s time, the fears of the consequences and responsibilities that come with scientific developments are timeless, which is why Frankenstein can still contribute to the debate on the impact of science on humanity today and beyond.