RELEASED: January 1st 2020 – January 3rd 2020
DISTRIBUTED BY: BBC
SHOWRUNNER: Mark Gatiss & Steven Moffat
WRITTEN BY: Mark Gatiss & Steven Moffat
DIRECTED BY: Johnny Campbell, Damon Thomas & Paul McGuigan
MUSIC BY: David Arnold & Michael Price
STARRING: Claes Bang, Dolly Wells, John Heffernan, Morfydd Clark, Joanna Scanlan, Jonathan Aris, Sacha Dhawan, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Clive Russell, Catherine Schell, Patrick Walshe McBride, Youssef Kerkour, Samuel Blenkin, Alec Utgoff, Lydia West, Matthew Beard & Mark Gatiss
From the creators of Sherlock comes a new show based around the story of infamous vampire Count Dracula, that manages to stuff both the best and the worst of Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat’s writing tendencies into three feature-length episodes.
The series starts off especially strong. Rules of the Beast is a fairly faithful retelling of Jonathan Harker’s trip to visit Count Dracula, brimming with glorious Gothic horror touches and matched by the acting of John Heffernan, who really help sell the period drama aspect of the proceedings. The episode, as well as its follow-up, are framed with conversations taking place at a different time, which really help move the show along, keep you from getting lost in the long run-time, and help draw you in.
Claes Bang also really shines here. He’s a perfect Dracula. Charming, yet riddled with darkness. The perfect lead man for the show. He is also joined by Dolly Parton, who plays his foil; a nun hoping to learn Dracula’s secrets. Despite both of them quickly having their dialogue becoming unhinged from the 1800s setting and becoming more and more contemporary, they quickly catch your eye as two intriguing protagonists. They are the heart of the story, and their interplay makes for entertaining viewing.
The horror aspects of the show, particularly in the first episode, are also very well done. As the most Gothic of the three, it really leans into the unseen aspect of the horrors contained in Dracula’s castle. While later in the episode, it builds to a rather gore-laden finale, the first hour or so celebrates the mystery and sexuality of Dracula’s story and his encounters with Harker. It all just works.
The second episode dials this back somewhat. Still entertaining, still horror. But less Gothic. This episode sees Dracula aboard a ship bound for England and plays as a murder mystery told from the perspective of the murderer. Once again, Claes Bang shines, as the episode delves into just how cunning Dracula is, and Bang plays it perfectly. He shares excellent chemistry with all put in front of him, from Sacha Dhawan to Catherine Schell, and all the co-stars in between, all of whom also give great performances.
Though the tone is slightly different, this is still very well done horror by Gatiss and Moffat. It focuses on character, like most good stories, and you can feel, even if it isn’t quite as strong as the splendid first episode, it is still highly entertaining and well written in its own right.
And then episode three happens. The episode where Gatiss and Moffat, for want of a better term, ‘Game of Thrones it’.
The final episode takes place in an entirely different setting, with pretty much entirely new characters. While there is enjoyment to be had here, there’s an overwhelming feeling that it just doesn’t fit.
Yes, you could argue that if you follow the throughline of the story, it does lead to an end that makes sense. But in terms of entertainment value, thematic storytelling or anything else that is important when it comes to making television or film, it just comes to a rather unsatisfactory end.
The best way to describe it, perhaps, is that episode three feels like the finale of a completely different show several seasons in that you’ve just stumbled into after watching episode two of Dracula, and you have no context. Yes, Dracula is still there, but he’s not written with as much love or played with as much vigour (I don’t blame Bang for this, I think his performance is hampered by the fact that the show takes such a hard left turn that he probably got whiplash).
It’s filled with inconsequential characters who are there purely to move the story along, who are now central to the plot, but we have no reason to care about them. Yet, they are now central to the plot, not as fleshed-out characters, but as goofy stereotypes and awkward social commentaries in human form.
The further into the episode you get, the more things start to unravel. The glory that was present in the first episode has long since faded away, and the show has transitioned into something else entirely.
No longer is it a well-crafted Gothic horror. Now, it’s a D-list Doctor Who episode, where things are introduced for no reason, have no explanation or payoff, and an ending is rushed towards, steaming through a plot that can only have been an afterthought.
I feel like when this series was planned, they had the first two episodes thought up, as well as the last ten minutes of the third. Almost everything from the first hour or so of episode three was just a mad panic to wrap things up. Poorly.
The most annoying thing about this is that the set-up in episode three could have been a second season in its own right. But the possibilities have been squandered, and although we still have that impressive first episode, the series as a whole feels somewhat lacklustre when you know where it’s all going.
If you haven’t watched this season yet, I would suggest just watching the first episode, treating it as a new Dracula movie, and then ending it there. Episode two is also worth watching, but it’s ending ties into episode three, and the temptation that comes with seeing that will likely leave you disappointed.
All-in-all, I give Dracula: