On the surface, the first season of Penny Dreadful, by Showtime, is about a group of monster hunters trying to save Mina – the girl from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I think it’s a TV show that most will either love or hate. The critics seem to like it overall, but I know some viewers who have had trouble adapting to how it tells its story. This is understandable. I wasn’t sure if I was going to like it or leave it during the first few episodes. Then I figured out what Penny Dreadful was really about and how much I was missing. Even some of its fans have missed the real point. (Keep reading to find out what that is.)
The most obvious comparison to make with Penny Dreadful is surely League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which did some things well and some things badly. (The ending of League was pure stupid on buttered toast.) Both feature characters and settings from Victorian England. But Penny Dreadful is not a ripoff of League. Or if it is, then it does whatever League was striving for and does it far better.
When I first started to watch the show, I thought it didn’t know where it was going. Now, I realize the show wasn’t the problem. I was. That’s because I didn’t understand the show’s central conflict. You could say that I was paying attention to the wrong things and waiting for the story arc to turn on the wrong axis.
Here’s the secret toPenny Dreadful: It isn’t about killing vampires or rescuing Mina. These are just the things that get the characters working together on screen. Instead, Penny Dreadful is about the monsters within us all. This isn’t unusual by itself, but the show truly revolves around this theme and focuses on it almost exclusively. The battle against external monsters all but slips into the background. If you pay too much attention to this outer conflict, you’ll miss the good stuff and be underwhelmed. There’s only so much I can say without spoiling it for you, but a closer look at the major characters will give you some things to think about when watching the show.
I watched the new Doctor WhoChristmas Special 2013, called The Time of the Doctor, the day after it first aired. For my money, Doctor Who has always been one of the more uneven TV shows out there (please don’t burn down my house) and the Christmas Specials even more so. Alas, some of them have been truly awful, while others have been truly great. I realize that part of this is because Doctor Who is first and foremost a kid’s show. But I’m not a kid. I have, at times, wished for a more adult version of Doctor Who. And no, Torchwood isn’t it, so don’t even go there.
I read Ender’s Game, a novel written by Orson Scott Card, some years ago. It’s the only thing written by Card that I really liked. So giving Ender’s Game the movie a thumbs up … or the bird … depends, in part, on whether it respects the best aspects of the original story. Exploiting Ender’s brilliance to save the human race from an armada of evil bugs is pretty much the center of the story’s structure. But what about the personal stuff, like Ender fighting his way through Battle School against older kids who literally wanted to kill him? Or the day-to-day chess matches between Ender, the other boys, and Graff? These were big parts of the story that are ripe for the cutting room floor. There’s also the risk that it could be twisted into a shitty action flick or something starring Van Damme as the Formic Queen.
Expert opinion is, at the end of the day, still opinion. But why would you not want to know what experts have to say? When you make a dental appointment, do you want your dentist to be an expert or not? If you build a house, do you want a professional architect or your next-door neighbor to draw up the plans? One might be tempted to say that in the case of the historical Jesus it is different since, after all, we are just talking about history; experts have no more access to the past than anyone else. That, however, is simply not true. It may be the case that some of my students receive the bulk of their knowledge of the Middle Ages from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but is that really the best place to turn? So too millions of people have acquired their “knowledge” about early Christianity—about Jesus, Mary Magdalene, the emperor Constantine, the Council of Nicaea—from Dan Brown, author of the aforementioned The Da Vinci Code. But at the end of the day, is that such a wise choice?
NOTE: This is how I feel about apologists and creationists and those who take their word above that of real experts. Why would you ignore the word of experts unless you simply don't want to have your views challenged?