Dark: a complex tale of time travel

Like many fans of science fiction, I enjoy tales of time travel. I read HG Wells’ The Time Machine at an early age and have sought out entries in this venerable sci-fi sub-genre ever since. Over the course of my reading lifetime, concepts from theoretical physics have seeped out of quantum mechanics, cosmology, and particle physics into the popular culture and heavily influenced sci-fi in general and time-travel tales in particular, inspiring novels, screenplays, and TV series that are increasingly complex, sometimes to the point of cryptic inscrutability. Wormholes, temporal paradox, parallel timelines in parallel universes that branch off and or into our own here and now. It would be reasonable to say that sci-fi has been the main vehicle for bringing these esoteric concepts into mainstream culture.

A really good time travel story often requires more than one reading or viewing just to be understood and to figure out whether or not its time loops, parallel and intersecting timelines, and paradoxes ultimately add up to a coherent whole without “holes” in the story. It’s a challenge for the creator and maybe even greater challenge for the audience. Meanwhile, like any story, a time travel yarn must hook the audience with compelling characters, dramatic conflicts, interesting settings and situations. When it all works, it’s sublimely fantastic storytelling.

Dark, a German TV series that ran three seasons on Netflix, is tagged (on IMDb) as a “crime, drama, mystery” and it delivers on all three genres. It begins with children disappearing and the discovery of other children’s bodies, establishes a set of complex compelling characters in manifold (and confusing) relationships, and sets up a mystery of who took the children, where and whe, and why. Personally, I would tag its genre blend as “mystery, drama, sci-fi.” Like any entertaining mystery, clues abound and intrigue deepens.

The overarching ambience and emotional tone of the series is best described by its title—it’s dark, with lots of guilt over sins of the past that ripples across generations. Underlying everything is a very complex science-fiction premise that explores the paradoxes of time travel. As if its large cast wasn’t complex enough, we see many characters at two or three stages of their lives, played by other actors in scenes from past and present storylines. Sometimes they cross timelines. One of the missing children from the present travels back in time whence he grows up to father a teenage protagonist (who had been a contemportary) in the present timeline) is dismayed to discover that his girlfriend is his father’s niece, a genetic first cousin. You really can’t tell the players without a program and it’s not surprising to find a Wikipedia article on Dark that attempts to sort it all out, going so far as to lay out detailed family trees of the main characters, including some strange loops. It’s still something of a mystery to me and I’m enjoying it. It requires some effort and, in a way, adds an interactive element to the experience.

I watched this first season in 2017 and found it very absorbing and very confusing. When subsequent seasons were released, I decided to watch it a second time before starting the second season. That helped me sort things out and I still wouldn’t be able to write a coherent season synopsis that was more than a ridiculously complicated logline. In part, that’s a function of my viewing habits—I like to watch several series in parallel and don’t watch that often. As a result, it took me six months to watch every episode a second time. Some shows cry out for binge watching and I think Dark would make more sense more readily, if watched over a week or a couple of weekends.

I intend to watch the second and third season and have high hopes that coherent comprehension will emerge. If not, I may have to watch the full series again. Dark may not be easy viewing but it’s highly entertaining (despite its gloomy style) and well worth a second (or even third) viewing to grok its fullness.  

Penny Dreadful

Penny Dreadful is fantastic serial story telling at its best.

Kbatz: Penny Dreadful Season 1 | HorrorAddicts.net

Long before cable and network TV, before affordable paperback books, comic books, and pulp fiction, when Victoria Regina reigned over a worldwide British empire, kids (and adults) found escapist entertainment in the pages of the “penny dreadful.”  The first word—penny—referred to the cover price. Educated and cultured folks used the second word—dreadful—to describe and demean their content—fantastic stories—popular tales of action and adventure, humor and horror. The two most popular genres were American Westerns and tales of the supernatural, largely from European folklore—ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and undead Egyptian mummies.

Penny Dreadful (TV Series 2014–2016) - IMDb

The late lamented TV series PENNY DREADFUL (2014-2016) encompasses both genres—horrific fantasy and guns-ablaze Western adventure in one sweeping wonderful three-season story. It’s true to its 19th-century roots, its spin on old genres is wonderfully fresh and original, its storylines are familiar but different, its characters and settings bizarre and exotic. The art design and music perfectly complement everything else. Kudos first of all to series creator John Logan.

It’s billed as “drama fantasy horror,” and delivers on all three genres. For drama, it presents an unforgettable protagonist (see more below) on her dramatic journey from selfish orphan through progressive loss and heartbreak to tragic destiny as “Queen of Darkness.” I loved her and wept for her— and tears shed are one of my criteria for effective drama. It provides enough fright, shock, and revulsion to earn its horror tag, but not so much as to overwhelm the dramatic  (and romantic) fantasy at its heart.

Penny Dreadful (2014) [S01E01] - Night Work | Josh Hartnett as Ethan  Chandler, Harry Treadaway as Dr.… | Penny dreadful, Penny dreadful tv  series, Best new tv shows

Like all good drama, Penny Dreadful is character-driven—and it’s cast of characters touch virtually every horror fantasy of the era, including:

  • Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein and his Creature
  • An American Werewolf in London (couldn’t resist using that expression)
  • Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, portrait and all
  • Robert Louis Stevenson’s Doctor Jekyll (but not alas Mr. Hyde),
  • Several characters from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, including the Prince of Darkness himself
  • An assortment of witches (one benign and others diabolical), demons, vampires, and memorable prostitutes (it wouldn’t be true to the dark side of Victorian London without prostitutes).

Their stories (artfully spun in new ways) are interwoven into the series-through-line in unexpected and intriguing ways.

Speaking of prostitutes, and just to give a sense of how these varied tales intersect—one of the downtrodden streetwalkers is Lily—the doomed (by TB) love of our American Werewolf hero. After Lily’s death, Doctor Frankenstein resurrects her as the intended bride of his Creature, only to fall for her himself, and whom she spurns in favor of the dazzlingly decadent Dorian Gray, whom she nearly destroys. Got all that? That’s only one part of just one subplot! If it sounds soap-opera ish, fear not, it isn’t.

Penny Dreadful" Fresh Hell (TV Episode 2015) - IMDb

The dramatic heart of PENNY DREADFUL, the main character—to whom all other major characters and in whom all subplots connect—is Vanessa Ives, unforgettably portrayed by Eva Green. Vanessa is a psychically gifted woman drawn to the dark side despite her essentially spiritual nature. Beset by guilt for betraying a friend of her youth, she suffers greatly—from demonic possession, madness, what passes for psychiatric care in Victorian England, physical and psychic assault by demons and witches, and seduction by a charming cultured Dracula—on the path to her fate. Good writing and great acting transform what could have been a jumbled melodrama into something elevated.

Vanessa has a cadre of loyal friends and supporters:

  • The American sharpshooter, Ethan (our werewolf, played poignantly by Josh Hartnett) whom she recruits from a touring wild west show, who comes to love her and ultimately saves her soul
  • Sir Malcolm Murray (Timoth Dalton) who takes her into his heart and household after his daughter disappears
  • Sembene (Danny Sapani), a formidable warrior, Sir Malcolm’s loyal friend and servant
  • Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway)
  • Frankenstein’s Creature, aka John Clare (heartbreakingly portrayed by Rory Kinnear)
  • Dr Seward/Joan Clayton (both played by Patty Lupone), two mentors, witch and psychiatrist, who aid Vanessa at critical junctures on her journey

It would take detailed notation and organization while studying all episodes to do justice to all the characters and interwoven storylines. I’ve only watched the full series twice and was too rapt to make notes. It’s worthy of a book—idea noted.

My strong recommendation is to watch this series, the best horror fantasy I have ever seen on any screen, large or small.