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Starring Claes Bang as the eponymous Count Dracula, the BBC’s mini-series, Dracula (2020), had an interesting premise as a modern-day adaptation. Written by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss of Sherlock fame and inspired by the novel of the same name, Dracula (2020) started by doing new and exciting things with the source material, playing around with the myriad of vampiric tropes built up over the decades. However, by the end of this three-part mini-series, I was left feeling drained, and not in a good way.
Claes Bang was a high point for the series, his macabre interpretation of Dracula left little wanting. He could elicit fear from his delivery of lines and felt like a supernatural force to be reckoned with, playing heavily into the horror tropes littered throughout the episodes. His callous disregard of life and joy in the mortal suffering truly embodied the evil nature of the Count. No adaptation of Dracula would be complete without a Van Helsing, and Dolly Wells provided just that. Her portrayal of the character is one of the many subversions the series takes, trading in a professorship for a nunnery, Agatha Van Helsing is an ‘educated woman in a crucifix’, and the perfect opposition to Bang’s Dracula.
The first episode, The Rules of the Beast, does a fang-tastic job of setting up what appears to be an engaging and subversive retelling of classic Victorian horror. Keeping the gothic aesthetic, grim characters and gory remains of Dracula’s victims, Dracula (2020) starts out strong. The horror is done well, with shock value coming from both dialogue and actions, with one scene showcasing the Count throwing a nun’s decapitated head as though it was a bridal bouquet.
The episode delves into metaphor as well, vampirism is reminiscent of HIV. Although, it could have been handled more tactfully, as it seems to be used for shock value only, undermining its own discourse. This is apparent as the final line spoken during the cold open is ‘I’m asking Mr Harker, if you had sexual intercourse with Count Dracula.’. Considering the line of questioning beforehand, this is a subversion for subversion’s sake. Whilst it wasn’t perfect, the first episode was more of a hit than miss, the characters were interesting, and the horror was plentiful. Although a cliff-hanger ending was definitely an issue.
Half of the second episode, titled Blood Vessel, follows the back-and-forth between Dracula and Agatha as he explains his plan for England. The other is a murder-mystery, where the audience and the ship’s crew both try to understand interlinked mysteries. The episode works well until the climax, as both halves of the story converge, with the audience being one-step ahead of the characters. After that however, it trades in it’s interesting character development for a tired attempt at subversion; you think the characters are safe when they’re not, and vice versa. This feeling of pointlessness extends to other surprises in the episode, with the audience having no way to have figured them out beforehand, a hallmark of lazy detective stories. Nothing of value is added in the second half and the last scene is so incredibly off-putting, that the series should not be watched past that point.
Be Warned: Spoilers Below
The third episode, The Dark Compass, is where things go off the rails. It is the opinion of this reviewer that it should not be watched and that the sinking of the Demeter is the final thing a viewer sees.
Moffat and Gatiss, in their infinite wisdom, decide to bring Dracula into the present-day, and the show suffers greatly for it. No longer held to the standard of Stoker’s writing, which the pair merely augmented or subverted to this point, they run rampant with character names that hold no relation to their novel counterparts. This wouldn’t be too much of an issue if the tone of the series didn’t also dramatically change. Losing all tension, suspense and most horror aspects, The Dark Compass opts to turn Dracula from a bloodthirsty monster into Tinder-using charmer.
Genetic memory is the piece of pseudoscience that Moffat incorporates into this adaptation to legitimise it. This is done much in the same way as mind palaces are in Sherlock and is so far removed from reality it’s funny. Zoe is the Helsing of modernity, and funnily enough, looks just like Agatha. Thanks to the power of genetic memory, when Zoe imbibes Dracula’s blood, she suddenly has Agatha speaking to her, since he’d drank from her and they share DNA. It’s unnecessary, confusing, and a product of the writing duo being unable to leave a story without bringing it forwards in time.
It is this episode that delves into why Dracula has weaknesses that other vampires in the series don’t show: self-actualisation. Because he believes he’s weak to these things, he avoids them and reacts as if he were. If it sounds absurd, it’s because it is. When done right, self-actualisation is a way of delving into the psychology of a character; unfortunately, this was discovered by Zoe/Agatha too late in the episode for anything other than a shoe-horned, frankly insulting, redemptive arc, where Dracula, realising that he’s scared of death, commits suicide via cancerous blood.
If Moffat and Gatiss had stuck to the 1897 time period they established, and simply used Stoker’s novel as a springboard, Dracula (2020) would have been a significantly stronger outing. As it stands however, they scrapped characters and plot points that would’ve worked very well for a unnecessary trip to the present day, relying on their own substandard writing too much in the process. Gatiss also makes an obligatory cameo as the time lost Renfield, who has little in common with the original character.
I believe the series had merit, although it was bogged down by the writers believing themselves to be cleverer than they were, culminating in a narrative blunder that shouldn’t have happened. If you do decide to watch the series, do yourself a favour and stop watching at 1:24:28 of episode 2.