Dracula Series 1
Starring: Claes Bang, Dolly Wells, Lydia West, and Mark Gatiss
Written by: Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss
Episode 1 Directed by: Jonny Campbell
Episode 2 Directed by: Damon Thomas
Episode 3 Directed by: Paul McGuigan
You would think a modern Dracula would have a chance of being pretty good. Hell, maybe even pretty great! With all the sexual politics and pointed commentary toward class warfare of the original novel, you would THINK a modern adaptation of Dracula could tap into how that stuff is all the more prescient today. It could maybe find a way to re-contextualize the players in the cast for modern audiences. It would give them relatable avatars that one could root for when facing down the ultimate darkness that is Dracula (maybe even played up further as a sort of ultimate sexual predator, a true monster for our times).
But instead, Steve Moffat and Mark Gatiss seem to want to tell you how clever and cheeky they are by taking all the base materials of Bram Stoker’s novel and exploding them across three nonsensical, groan-inducing installments. Here, Moffat and Gatiss decided to try to deliver the “ultimate” version of Dracula. One that positions the creature as the center of their Gothic universe, much like Moffat did with the Doctor; all-powerful, and oh, so “clever,” grandstanding and speechifying through the droll and frankly quite boring performance of Claes Bang (he who absolutely stole the show in The Square previously). Though kinetically directed by three great journeyman genre directors and blessed with lavishly expensive production value by the BBC and Netflix, Dracula is a true fiasco. What follows is an account of how and why it’s a fiasco. I do this for the benefit of all.
So, pretty quickly, we are told this isn’t your “grandfather’s” Dracula adaptation. Opening on a ghoulishly make-up’ed Jonathan Harker in the care of a convent, Moffat and Gatiss start conventionally but quickly begin mucking about. Harker has been called to Castle Dracula to facilitate a land sale in London. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. But in all seriousness, all this stuff is pretty great and heavily inspired by the ’90s film as well as the Cushing/Lee Hammer adaptations. But as Harker’s time at the castle lengthens, supported by scenes of his recollections at the convent, things start to get more and more complicated and, frankly, pretty fucking silly.
Using his now trademark “dream-logic,” Moffat (I’m going to say Moffat here a lot. Mainly because I genuinely don’t know how much Gatiss contributed to the series) starts to tease out Dracula’s new methods and monsterisms. You see, he’s a monster with a “purpose.” Throughout this opening episode, Moffat and company reveal the “real” reasons he consumes blood (he uses it to gain knowledge as well as sustenance). Dracula also reveals the “real” reasons he is afraid of crosses (he has consumed so much “devout” blood that he’s absorbed their faith. Even THAT is reversed by the time the third episode ends). All in service of propping up Bang’s Dracula as this dark messiah that knows all and controls all and is hell-bent on propagating himself through the “perfect bride.”
It isn’t all bad, though. In this opening installment, we are also introduced to Dolly Wells’s Sister Agatha Van Helsing, the implacable force of good in this series. Thanks to Wells’s droll performance, she often upstages handily Bangs’s preening, self-serious Dracula, providing him a great foil for all the verbal sparring and monologuing they do around one another. She isn’t immune to Moffat’s tone-deaf plotting, however. She is the center of the show’s boneheaded throughline about cancer, in which the disease which millions of people have been affected by and are living through right this second is reduced to a lineage killing malady. A “blight” on an otherwise “holy” bloodline. The only thing that can disgust the hedonistic Dracula. Trust me. It’s even dumber than it sounds.
Dumb is kind of where I keep landing on Dracula. Every time it has a good idea, it mucks it up with six even dumber ideas. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the last two episodes. Episode 2 finds the whole action mainly focused on the doomed voyage of The Demeter with a whole new group of character actors making up the crew and passengers. Sounds cool, right? Too bad Stevie wants to make it even COOLER. He fouls up the chances for horror for more of his “Dracula is God” schtick.
He does so by revealing that every passenger is there by Dracula’s design and not just some poor schmucks taken simply because they were there. Oh, also the “flashbacks” between Dracula and Agatha wherein it seems he’s telling her the story of the ship? Not actually flashbacks! But instead, blood induced psychosis filtered through her mind because Dracula has been feeding on her ON THE SHIP! IN REAL TIME! Whatta twist, huh?! It’s exhausting.
It gets even more so in the final episode, because Dracula is now in the modern-day … because of course he fucking is. I guess here is where the pair remembered they still had a bunch of characters from the novel to ruin. Here we are introduced to the Jonathan Harker Foundation, an outfit dedicated to the study of Dracula, where characters like Lucy (played with a real dark charm by Years and Years’ Lydia West) and Doctor Seward are in their orbit. Throughout this whole episode, we are “treated” to finally more or less a Dracula adaptation, but just the Lucy plot. The show starts to display more of its awe-inspiring makeup effects here, but it isn’t enough to save this whole show from being a clattering mess.
I was really excited about this Dracula, to be honest. I thought especially after Gatiss’s tremendous audio adaptation for Big Finish (which is spawning some interesting-sounding follow-ups this year), this one had the chance of being a pretty awesome modern take. But what I got was the second coming of Jekyll. A true fiasco, one that seemed only to guzzle money and strives to be the new Hammer Dracula, but never realizing the style and charm behind it. Watch if you dare, but don’t expect anything more than a mess.