But One Word: Dracula (2020)

Warning! The following review includes spoilers; if you’re yet to watch the Dracula (2020) miniseries, I would recommend saving this post and coming back to it once you have.
Now, on with the show…

[Reading note:
Dracula refers to the character,
Dracula to the novel, and
Dracula (2020) to the TV series in question.]

“๐•ด ๐–†๐–’ ๐•ฏ๐–—๐–†๐–ˆ๐–š๐–‘๐–†, ๐–†๐–“๐–‰ ๐•ด ๐–‡๐–Ž๐–‰ ๐–ž๐–”๐–š ๐–œ๐–Š๐–‘๐–ˆ๐–”๐–’๐–Š.”

Count Dracula is the archetypal vampire, so recognisable that he needs no introduction. This, however, was the beginning of many problems that I had with the waveringly wonderful BBC adaptation of Bram Stocker’s 1897 classic gothic novel.

The series is split into 3 episodes: 3 distinct chapters of Dracula’s story which contribute to the progression of the main narrative arc. Each episode has a different director and it shows… The result is disjointed and jarring. I cannot help but think that an anthology series, like Black Mirror or The Twilight Zone, may have worked better.

The first episode is dark, gloomy, and gothic. Jonathan Harker, one of the novel’s narrators, recalls his interaction with Dracula and sets the story in motion. Scenes in the castle are visually impressive and set the tone well, but presupposition of the viewers’ familiarity with Dracula doesn’t. We need time to meet this new incarnation of the Count.

Without a satisfying introduction to the titular character, the pace feels off and the story is harder to engage with… so much so, that it took two sittings for me to complete the first episode.

Claes Bang eventually excels as the new Dracula, at once alluring and unsettling… it’s just that he could have done so immediately had the director properly laid the foundations for him.

Dracula (2020) | ยฉ BBC/Netflix

The second half of episode 1 explodes in exciting new directions and does redeem itself – Dracula solidifies himself as a character to be feared, and the writers prove that they are taking Stoker’s story to pieces with respect, creativity, and a clear, unique vision.

Van Helsing is an instant hit with me. Unlike some artistically detrimental virtue signalling from the BBC in recent years, the female Van Helsing (exceptionally played by Dolly Wells) is a well-thought-out character alteration. Her strength and stoicism is even more admirable in contrast to Harker and Mina, who are reduced to the feeble, flimsy bit players that the novel’s Sister Agatha was.

“[N]uns are more or less dressed in a superhero outfit for fighting vampires, arenโ€™t they?
“Theyโ€™re wearing a sodding cross! Why didnโ€™t Bram think of that one?โ€

– Steven Moffat, Dracula (2020) co-creator

“๐•ฟ๐–๐–Š๐–—๐–Š ๐–œ๐–†๐–˜ ๐–”๐–“๐–Š ๐–Œ๐–—๐–Š๐–†๐–™ ๐–™๐–”๐–’๐–‡ ๐–’๐–”๐–—๐–Š ๐–‘๐–”๐–—๐–‰๐–‘๐–ž ๐–™๐–๐–†๐–“ ๐–†๐–‘๐–‘ ๐–™๐–๐–Š ๐–—๐–Š๐–˜๐–™; ๐–๐–š๐–Œ๐–Š ๐–Ž๐–™ ๐–œ๐–†๐–˜, ๐–†๐–“๐–‰ ๐–“๐–”๐–‡๐–‘๐–ž ๐–•๐–—๐–”๐–•๐–”๐–—๐–™๐–Ž๐–”๐–“๐–Š๐–‰. ๐•บ๐–“ ๐–Ž๐–™ ๐–œ๐–†๐–˜ ๐–‡๐–š๐–™ ๐–”๐–“๐–Š ๐–œ๐–”๐–—๐–‰, ๐•ฏ๐•ฝ๐•ฌ๐•ฎ๐–€๐•ท๐•ฌ.”

The second episode “needs paprika…”

I’ve neither read nor watched a single Agatha Christie story, but I know without a doubt that episode 2 is a terrible take on one. Murder on the Orient Express (1934) to be specific. It is silly, with flat jokes that make your eyes roll, and a hammy murder mystery plot line. Most of all though, it’s almost entirely unnecessary to the development of the main arc.

So much time is wasted on clichรฉ characters and recycled jokes; I’d rather have had character development and scene setting in the first episode… whilst still allowing Dracula a 123 year kip on the seabed!

The best thing about this episode is its title: ‘Blood Vessel’. If you know me, even a little, you’ll know that that’s just the sort of heavy word play that I delight in. If you know me a little better, you’ll know that I hate waste; it pains me that this punny title was bestowed upon a sinking ship. Again, this episode took two sittings to get through…

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Though sometimes Van Helsing’s discoveries feel unfounded, or like excessive exposition, and Dracula’s silly, snarling close-ups make me want to push the cinematographer overboard, they are the reason I come back for the finale. Despite it all, Bang and Wells capture the essence of their characters’ new incarnations with perfection.

“๐•ฟ๐–๐–Š ๐–‡๐–‘๐–”๐–”๐–‰ ๐–Ž๐–˜ ๐–™๐–๐–Š ๐–‘๐–Ž๐–‹๐–Š!”

If it wasn’t yet clear, this is a reimagining. Any viewers in doubt will have this clarified in the final moments of episode 2.

Dracula erupts onto the shores of Whitby. The iconic ruinous Abbey delights; I do not yet know that this will be the last glimpse of Dracula as I know it. Episode 3 begins; the sun is up. We are in the present day. Lucy Westenra is there. Van Helsing is there, in a way new and entirely unique to this adaptation.

Once again the tone of this episode differs from the others. At last, however, the male comedy works (let there be no doubt that Van Helsing has been a successful, and sassy, comic from the start). Dracula is in the house, trying to understand it and bringing the walls down… literally.

Although Dracula (2020) co-writer, Mark Gatiss, saves some of the best jokes for himself, his reimagining of Renfield entirely excludes any of the fascinating behaviours and insights offered by the novel’s original character. It isn’t any surprise though – this episode, in fact this entire series, exists in a realm that deviates wildly from the source material, whilst demanding that its viewers and characters have a great knowledge of it.

I don’t mind Renfield reimagined, I don’t mind the obnoxious incarnation of Lucy. I actually enjoy this wildcard episode most of all. I just can’t understand how everyone is so familiar with Dracula in a world where Dracula doesn’t exist. Does his reputation precede him thanks to the work of a 19th century nun? How does ‘Nun Helsing’, or Van Helsing 1.0, even know that he’s a vampire to begin with? Are we supposed to believe that Dracula is not the only vampire, despite his tragic attempts to procreate to – like Frankenstein’s monster – make kin for himself in episode 1? Or does she descend from a long line of dark academics? Did I miss something? Please help me in the comments below!

Dracula (2020) | ยฉ BBC/Netflix

In contrast to all the knowledge on the species that Van Helsing 3.0 has (that’s Zoe Van Helsing, with Sister Agatha Van Helsing now sort of coursing through her veins and occasionally falling out of her mouth), Dracula himself is surprisingly self-unaware for a man who has been in his own company since the 15th century. Dracula is a classic because it achieves so much – it excites, and frightens, but it also says a great deal about contemporary society and human nature. It holds up a mirror. The greatest success of this adaptation, for all its flaws, is that it holds one up too: it enables Dracula to see his own reflection for the first time.

The sometimes infuriating cinematography finally flourishes against a modern backdrop. When Dracula tastes the blood of Van Helsing 2.0 the sins of the second episode are washed away… The last scene is a visceral delight; Dracula’s demise and rise and general self-discovery around the long table with the long window and the long curtains brought me to the edge of the seat that I could barely stay awake in during earlier scenes. Dracula, writhing on the floor, screams of the power of stories. He realises that he has become consumed by the fiction. And in the end, so do I.

The show’s writers, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, are clearly talented and deeply familiar with (and respectful of) the source material, but what they fail to capture is the very essence of Dracula. The novel’s blood does not run freely through this show; other than familiar faces, little more than groan-worthy punchlines carry through from episode to episode. Until the end. If you’re willing to risk metaphorical seasickness, in my opinion, it is worth it. In the end.

What did you think? Let’s chat in the comments below, or on Instagram!


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