the monster mash (in defense of nbc's dracula and itv's jekyll & hyde).
My younger self found The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen absolutely enchanting. As I’ve become older, I’ve also become more aware of its failures, especially in terms of its relationship with its source material, but it still holds that same cherished place in my heart. The reason behind it is the same reason that I love the Hellboy and Indiana Jones movies and others of their ilk; LXG tapped into the camp and fantastical with a distinct panache and without any reservations. The idea of so many of my favorite characters collected in a single movie, not to mention the larger-than-life villains and enchanted objects that they’d deal with, was the kind of story that I’d dream of, but never imagined that I’d see onscreen.
In that sense, those canons have (or, had) spiritual successors in NBC’s Dracula and ITV’s Jekyll & Hyde. Both took classic source materials and put a new twist upon them, injecting them with new monsters and new twists that were a reason to keep watching as well as to revisit the original texts. Both also, however, took some time to hit their respective strides, and were, as a result, prematurely cancelled.
Dracula was at its best when addressing the progress of the vampire in modern media. Popular culture has seen a revival of monsters, and vampires in particular have grown far beyond their original myth. Dracula - under the alias of Alexander Grayson - deals not just with the conundrum of posing as a human while never being able to be seen in the light of day (though one of the most spectacular sequences in the show comes after he is called to a meeting in mid-morning), but with social strictures as well. The villains are aristocrats instead of vampire hunters or other monsters, and Dracula is no longer the mysterious count in the castle upon a hill, but a social climber. Similarly, there’s not a single character in the “updated” series who has not claimed a little more agency despite the mores of the time period, whether in their strict role in the story or in their relationships with the other characters.
Jekyll & Hyde was an update of a different kind, dealing not with the original characters themselves but with their progeny. The story serves as a springboard, and sees monsters of other origins - Hindu ghosts as well as twists on Greek mythology - thrown into the fray. At its best, the show was the perfect monster movie, boasting some truly grotesque creatures as well as sharp allusions to other works and every imaginable 1930s adventure trope, not to mention a cast that only became stronger as the show progressed. (Of note: Christian McKay and Ruby Bentall as Jekyll’s grandson's decidedly non-supernatural accomplices, of whom I would have gladly watched a spin-off.) It also turned the idea of two souls in one body into a contemplation of nature versus nurture, with two Jekyll/Hydes instead of one serving as parallel narratives in a show rife with mirrored stories.
That isn’t to say that the shows are blameless. Both suffered from uneven storytelling and, at times, uneven acting, but had a self-awareness (especially when it came to bringing old stories into a new age) and a willingness to have fun that is rare in current popular media. Though it’s impossible to say whether or not a second season on the air would have solved those problems, it’s still a pity that they’ll never have the chance to try. In rewatching the series, there’s a clear potential (clearest in the cliffhangers that both series ended on, the fates of the characters uncertain at best after just enough episodes to care for their well-being) in both that only makes it more of a pity that they're gone.
As such, Penny Dreadful is the best (only?) example of the monster-mixing genre currently on the air, though it errs more on the side of horror and grand guignol than the fantastic that made Dracula and Jekyll & Hyde - not to mention LXG and Hellboy - remarkable. After all, who can forget the sight of the Captain Nemo's submarine first breaking the water, or Hellboy’s mechanical Golden Army coming to life, or Dracula’s first walk in the sun? Monsters appeal to us not just because they tap into our fears but because there’s something beautiful in the grotesque.
Now, Dracula is a few years gone and Jekyll & Hyde only just freshly buried (no undead joke intended), but there’s some hope left in the upcoming LXG TV series. Knock on wood it won’t get the axe as quickly as these other monsters.