REVIEW: BBC’s “Dracula” (2020)

draculaI was one of the few people who remained a fan of Moffat throughout his tenure on Doctor Who. His episodes certainly weren’t perfect, and often ranged dramatically in quality, but I was mostly on board with what he was doing with the storyline – even if his grasp on writing the companions’ character arcs was always weak. I also really enjoyed the first two seasons of Sherlock – even two of those first six episodes weren’t particularly good. While Moffat’s run on Doctor Who was mostly consistent, his and Gatiss’ work on Sherlock took a noticeable dip in quality during the third and fourth seasons, completely blowing any goodwill they’d accumulated from the fanbase by the end of the fourth season’s finale. And it’s this trend of inconsistent quality that brings us to Dracula. There is something appealing about the writers who revived Sherlock Holmes for a new generation tackling another literary legend like Dracula. In that sense, I was very excited to see what they’d do, hoping it would skew closer to the first two seasons of Sherlock in terms of quality. Unfortunately, it skewed heavily toward the last two seasons of Sherlock, giving us a mess of a show that tries to be more clever than it is and eschews telling any kind of coherent story in favor of distracting plot twists that don’t work half as well as Moffat and Gatiss think they do. (Spoilers for all three episodes of Dracula.)

Dracula (written by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat)
For over 120 years, Bram Stoker’s classic novel, Dracula, has inspired generations of filmmakers. Now the creators of Sherlock give the legend fresh blood! It’s 1897 and St Mary’s Convent in Budapest plays host to a desiccated husk of a human being, Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan), an English lawyer with a strange and unsettling story to tell. Listening in is the kind and inquisitive Sister Agatha (Dolly Wells), a nun with an unusual interest in the creatures of the night.

Invited to Transylvania to meet the reclusive Count Dracula (Claes Bang), Harker finds himself trapped in an ancient, terrifying castle, a maze of mouldering corridors and vaults: a prison without locks. It soon becomes clear that he and his client are the only things living in the echoing halls of the moulding pile, and that the Count himself isn’t living at all. In fact, Dracula is a 400-year-old vampire who has grown weary of his own exhausted country and has set his sights on the new world. As the shadows lengthen and Harker’s account unfolds, it becomes clear that the remorseless vampire may have unfinished business with his erstwhile guest.

There are a few major problems with Dracula, perhaps the biggest being that Moffat and Gatiss have written it as though they were writing Sherlock. While I can’t really speak as to how faithful or unfaithful Dracula is as it’s been ages since I read the book, it certainly doesn’t feel very faithful as it takes numerous twists and turns that feel like something Gatiss and Moffat would have cooked up for Sherlock, a show more built for such dramatic twists and turns that feel slightly out of left field than something like Dracula is. In fact, as you watch the third episode and see what Gatiss and Moffat clearly intended to do with this series, these Sherlock comparisons become all the more relevant as it’s clear that Dracula is trying so hard to be like Sherlock. But I guess that’s on-brand for Moffat as he did something very similar with his Jekyll adaptation – though that was billed as more of a sequel than a true adaptation.

Structurally, Dracula is a bit of a mess. Each episode is basically three different stories, nearly all of which start in medias res and feature some kind of frustrating twist that tries to “clarify” what’s actually going on, with nearly entirely different casts and what feels like little connection between the pieces. For example, the first episode features Jonathan Harker telling Sister Agatha, a nun at the convent he’s taken refuge at, all about his time at Count Dracula’s castle, only for the big reveal to be that Dracula is still after him and has shown up at the convent where he and Sister Agatha (last name Van Helsing) are. The show does something similar with the second episode, as Dracula talks with Sister Agatha about his time on a ship headed toward England, only for it to be revealed that the two of them are still on the ship. Both of these approaches make for some entertaining episodes, but neither of them really coalesce into a bigger picture. The first episode drips with some excellent gothic horror, filled with the kind of visuals you always hope to see in a Dracula adaptation, while the second episode feels like a really fun murder mystery on a boat, complete with a sizeable ensemble of people you can’t wait to see die or stand against the villain. But in both cases, the show’s need to be cleverer than the audience undermines the fun of these premises.

Which leads us to the twist that ends the second episode. While I don’t want to fully reveal it, let’s just say it’s clearly a twist that Moffat and Gatiss certainly thought was clever but in reality, it feels more annoying and gimmicky than actually in service of the story being told. And that’s really unfortunate because this twist does allow episode three to be the most exciting of the bunch for its first half-hour. By taking Dracula out of his normal environment, the whole show is shot with an injection of energy, making the third and final episode the one that comes closest to reaching the energy of the first couple of seasons of Sherlock. But even then, the episode quickly loses momentum around the halfway mark and never quite regains it as it stumbles its way toward some kind of conclusion for this three-episode story.

It feels as if Moffat and Gatiss had a vague idea of the themes they wanted to explore with the series, but they never actually let themselves explore those themes in any depth and instead decided to try and tell some twisty-turny story that distracts from the deeper questions the show seems to be asking. Instead of getting any truly satisfying answer as to what Dracula really fears – which seems to be what the show is interested in exploring – we get a final episode that’s too distracted with other stuff to focus on the Van Helsing/Dracula matchup, leading Van Helsing to deliver this big reveal in the most anticlimactic monologue possible. Had they managed to stick the landing, they perhaps could have justified some of the more frustrating elements of their plotting, but as the final episode completely fizzles out into nothingness, it becomes clear that the two writers didn’t have a concrete vision for Dracula and decided to just mold it off of Sherlock – but failed to remember what made that idea work. Perhaps they should have taken their idea for the third episode and made that their idea for the entire series. Maybe then they’d have come up with something more cohesive. After all, it worked for those early seasons of Sherlock.

The best part of Dracula is easily the performances of its actors. Every production of Dracula lives and dies based on how good the actor playing Dracula is. Luckily, Claes Bang is excellent as the titular vampire, bringing a perfect balance of seduction and terror to the role. He’s a master chess player who always seems one step ahead of his opponents, even in the moments when he’s clearly not. Moreso than many other Draculas I’ve seen, Bang brings this animalistic quality to his Dracula. This Dracula is addicted to blood, not just seeking it out for sustenance. It’s such a good balance and a good performance that even when the scripts aren’t amazing, Bang draws you into the story and keeps you invested. The same is true for Dolly Wells as Sister Agatha Van Helsing. Wells delivers a performance as captivating as Bang’s Dracula, frequently giving him a run for the money as to who’s really in charge in any given scene. One of the most enjoyable elements of any Dracula adaptation is the rivalry between Dracula and Van Helsing and that’s an element this show pulls off very well. Each episode has its own group of actors, all of whom perfectly serve their respective stories. The second episode probably has the biggest guest cast, but all of the guest stars deliver really fun performances. On an interesting note, Sacha Dhawan, the actor playing the Master in the new season of Doctor Who, appears in the second episode and gets to have quite a lot of fun. All in all, Dracula has a very solid cast and it’s their performances that carry this show.

The other major element of the show that works really well is its visuals. Each episode is helmed by a different director: Johnny Campbell tackles the first, Damon Thomas helms the second, and Paul McGuigan takes charge of the final episode. Each episode has its own distinct visual style, helped by the fact that each episode is set in a wholly different location than the previous. As I mentioned previously, the first episode is primarily set in Dracula’s castle and in Sister Agatha’s convent. Campbell uses both locations excellently, really building up the tension and the creepiness factor into something worthy of calling itself Dracula. Thomas does something similar with the second episode’s boat setting, really playing up the claustrophobia of being trapped on a boat with someone who’s picking off the other passengers and crewmembers one by one. Even the third episode, helmed by Paul McGuigan, is a visual feast. He’s easily given the hardest of the three episodes to tackle since it’s the one most removed from Dracula‘s gothic roots, but he’s still able to deliver something that’s visually tense – even if the script lets it down. Additionally, all of the episodes are further boosted by some excellent CGI and creature design; some of these undead characters are truly horrifying and it’s always fun seeing something this steeped in horror on TV. The visuals (and the acting) are the best parts of the show and they’re worth praising.

All in all, I wouldn’t say Dracula is a bad show, but it’s certainly not as good as it could or should be, and that’s largely down to the way Gatiss and Moffat constructed the scripts and the structure of the season. While ostensibly a three-part serial, it often feels more like three standalone episodes of a show, like Sherlock. I’d argue this approach wasn’t the right one for this series because, while the individual episodes were all fairly entertaining, they frequently felt disjointed as they focused more on delivering seemingly clever twists and turns than on telling a coherent story about Count Dracula and Van Helsing. The show is largely saved by its immensely talented cast and some excellent directing from its three directors, but the scripts really do the whole thing a disservice. It’s enjoyable enough,  but I wouldn’t call it the event it seems to think it is. It certainly lacks the spark and ingenuity of those early seasons of Sherlock – a goal which Moffat and Gatiss seemed to be striving to reach. It’s a shame because this could have been great. But instead, it’s just fine.

3 out of 5 wands.

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