We can approach webseries Frankenstein M.D. from two directions.
The first is to consider it as the latest literary adaptation from Pemberley Digital, which has made its name developing webseries based on the work of Jane Austen. Frankenstein M.D. sees them extending this model beyond the Pride and Prejudice author, moving beyond Emmy-winning The Lizzie Bennet Diaries—which we covered in 100 Episodes in February—and followup Emma Approved with a take on Mary Shelley’s formative piece of science fiction, which transforms Victor into Victoria and reimagines her as a medical student on a quest for knowledge that will take her…well, we all know where it takes her.
The second is to consider it as the latest effort from PBS to engage with audiences consuming content in a digital space. A production of PBS Digital Studios, Frankenstein M.D. is their first foray into fictional programming in addition to the collection of non-fiction web content that has made PBS into a significant YouTube presence in recent years, and marks an effort to engage with science in fictional ways: Whereas previous Pemberley Digital series have been framed as video diaries, Frankenstein M.D. is constructed as a science series, with the added benefit of an ongoing narrative to expand audience engagement.
The mashup of these two points of view is the most exciting part of Frankenstein M.D., which offers both a meaningful expansion of the Pemberley Digital model and an intriguing new path for PBS as a public broadcaster (or public webcaster, in this case). However, it’s also the part of the series that takes the most time to negotiate in the series’ first three episodes, as the writers and the audience alike adjust to the distinct goals of the science fiction vlog webseries. The result is a three-episode prologue that consciously strives—at times to a fault—to introduce characters, establish stakes, and lay out the thematic groundwork for the episodes ahead, all while building the experiment-an-episode formula that will add up to a—spoiler alert—monster by series’ end.
Although all three episodes have been released at once, they are still distinct entities, designed to serve different portions of the larger task of connecting audiences to these characters and this story. In the case of opening episode “Introducing Victoria,” though, the story is mostly absent. It’s simply a young (almost) doctor Victoria Frankenstein (Anna Lore) channeling her energy into sharing her love of science with the Internet, instructing her editor on the placement of her chyron and marginalizing her co-host Iggy (Steve Zaragoza). In addition to giving us insight into their characters—Victoria as confident bordering on arrogant, Iggy as affable but concerned—and their position as medical students nearing graduation, it also creates an event that alters that dynamic. Whatever their relationship was before Victoria convinced Iggy to participate in an experiment that would result—through his own meddling, mind you—in his being dead for a brief period, it’s changed afterwards.
If this had been the only episode released today, a pattern Pemberley Digital has used with its previous webseries, the series would have likely been off to a poorer start. It’s an effective episode, but it’s a tease at best, shorter than the other two episodes and lacking any clear explanation for where the show is headed beyond this. Iggy is the series’ most broadly comic character, and the way the episode treats his dance with death could seem flippant were it not for the episode that follows directly after. But we get a sense for how cool Victoria is under pressure, and witness an event that becomes instant backstory for the audience to draw on as they see Victoria pushing forward despite nearly killing her colleague and co-host.
The second episode, “The Truth About Fake Blood,” is arguably the most important of the three, although it’s also the most burdened by exposition. The interruption of Victoria’s experiment on the science of synthetic blood becomes the most overt thematic statement yet: she is someone who doesn’t believe in “impossible,” who is going to strive to overcome the scientific “realities” placed in front of her by her superiors. This character trait obviously foreshadows her descent into the “impossible” in the near future, although why she would continue doing this—and be allowed to do this by her advisor Dr. Waldman (Kevin Rock)—is something the episode goes deeper to justify.
One of the storytelling strategies the vlog format—or in this case the science vlog format—continues to struggle with is exposition. It’s necessary to establishing these characters and their relationships, but there’s really no way to avoid violating the “show, don’t tell” rule when you’re bound to a format like this one. The writers attempt to get around this by having Dr. Waldman arrive to warn Victoria about the medical board’s concerns regarding her incident with Iggy, but even without the direct address component the scene struggles to avoid feeling like a checklist. The information we learn is useful, with Victoria’s contentious dynamic with Dr. Krempe of the Bioethics Committee establishing the role her gender plays in her determination to succeed, while her complicated relationship with her mother—who was herself a medical student, and either left medicine, passed away, or both— provides further motivation. Yet as much as the resituating of Frankenstein within the context of issues of gender in STEM fields is one of the most interesting parts of the series, the way we learn these details makes it seem like an info dump. Lore and Waldman have a nice rapport, but something about the conversation still feels staged when it’s framed through direct address.
For this reason, the third episode, “Anaesthetics vs. Paralytics,” is the most fully formed: the characters are established, the back story is in place, and we get to extend our understanding of how Victoria’s motivations affect her relationships with those around her. We meet two new characters—Eli and Rory, childhood friends of Victoria’s—but the nature of their relationship with each other and with Victoria emerges naturally over the course of the episode. They start as willing volunteers, helping out a friend, but then get slowly but surely freaked out by her plans: it’s playful when she nonchalantly points out their sleeping together, playfully creepy when Eli inquires how long Rory will be prone, and then legitimately concerning as the episode ends with Rory suffering a panic attack in her paralyzed state.
It returns to an issue Iggy raised in the first episode, which is the fine line between friend and test subject, and how Victoria’s personal relationships are shaped by her research ambitions. Who are these people to Victoria? As her discussion with Eli notes, this is a part of her personality going back to her childhood, but adulthood is different, and these are notably “old friends from my hometown” and not necessarily people she’s intensely close with now. The episode does a nice job demonstrating the challenge of life/work balance without making the point too cleanly, while also foreshadowing how the perils of struggling with a work/life balance become more apparent when you’re about to create a monster.
As someone who is more familiar with Frankenstein as a pop cultural entity than as an actual novel, Frankenstein M.D. works as it should. The more overt references—Iggy’s “Yes, master!” in the first episode, for example—connect in meaningful ways, while other more subtle references encourage me to turn to the novel or at least spend some time on Google exploring the adaptation’s intentions. And while these episodes are launching all at once, they were preceded by a smattering of Twitter and Tumblr updates, and coincide with the launch of Victoria’s blog, creating the transmedia world that will descend into chaos over the course of the series’ run.
This makes it particularly difficult to “review” a webseries like this one: we’ve seen three of 24 episodes, which is actually a fairly substantial portion of the primary narrative, but we’ve seen a much smaller percentage of the multi-platform content that will—if past Pemberley Digital projects are any indication—be a major component in the series’ storytelling. To this point, Frankenstein M.D. features a set of characters and performances that successfully balance comedy and foreboding while updating the themes of Frankenstein to embrace issues of gender in STEM fields. At this early stage, the science and the storytelling are working in tandem nicely, similar to how episodic procedurals use cases-of-the-week to reinforce theme and build character. But the real challenge in adapting Frankenstein is still to come, and whether these structures are adaptable enough to handle that is still to be seen—there’s enough here to indicate they’re up to the challenge, but execution is everything when it comes to resurrecting 19th century literature through a fictional science vlog (or so one presumes).
- In part because of Pemberley Digital’s focus on Austen novels, I found myself reading romantic pairings into a story that may not end up with any: between Victoria referring to Iggy as “conveniently available” and the pinky swear with Eli, I’ll be curious to see how they do or do not position Victoria romantically over the course of the series.
- The line about only being able to have three people onscreen at a time is a fun dig at the strict limits on the number of characters to appear onscreen in these vlog setups. If memory serves, they’ve never crossed three, despite opportunities (including yesterday’s episode of Emma Approved).
- Dr. Waldman is the first mentor/parent figure to actually appear in a Pemberley Digital project, with both Mr. Bennet and Mr. Woodhouse remaining offscreen. I’ll be interested to see how often the project uses him, given this.
- If you’re interested in hearing more about the development of the series, I spoke with executive producer Bernie Su, Lore and PBS Digital Studios senior director Matthew Graham earlier this summer—you can read that interview here.
- It seems unlikely that we’ll be doing any ongoing coverage of the series (we really don’t have a clear way of covering web content), but if there’s enough interest we may be able to check back in with the series as it reaches its conclusion in late October.