Dracula Review: The Rules of the Beast

by thethreepennyguignol

Typical Stephen Moffat.

After watching the first episode of the BBC’s new adaptation of Dracula (which was, in all fairness, co-written by Moffat’s noted co-conspirator Mark Gatiss), that’s all that I could think.

But, you know, what does a typical Stephen Moffat episode of television look like? After reviewing the vast majority of his run on Doctor Who, as well as a big chunk of his Sherlock seasons, I feel like I’m pretty well-sourced to make a statement on this question. And that statement is – uh, I don’t know, really.

Okay, that’s not true. Because there are things that are consistent in the stories that Moffat creates. The first, and perhaps most notable, is That Leading Man. Here, it’s Dracula (Claes Bang): his dialogue is pointedly arch, for the audience and not the characters around him, knowing and meta-commentative. His presence is inhuman and distant, but still constantly wise-cracking. This Dracula exists on the same sliding scale that Matt Smith’s Doctor, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes, and Andrew Ryan’s Moriarty all exist; he might be at the baby-eating end, but he’s still remarkably familiar for anyone who’s followed Moffat’s career even half-assedly. Like so many of these characters, Claes Bang is really what turns Dracula into a watchable character – his charismatic, homo-sensual performance (yes, I’m actually using that phrase) feels vital at the centre of this story, a refreshing switch-up from the decidedly wet Johnathan Harker (John Heffernan).

And, of course, reworking classic stories is another trademark of Moffat’s work. One of his earliest forays into British TV was 2007’s Jekyll, an adaptation of the classic Robert Louis Stevenson novel – it’s also a huge, screaming mess barely held-together by a great performance by James Nesbitt, and frequently flies wildly out of Moffat’s control. A modernized version of Sherlock would be his most culturally-impactful effort (along, once again, with co-writer Gatiss), which, much like Jekyll, would go screeching off the rails in an unforgivably bad final season.

So, you know, when I heard about Dracula, I was more than a little skeptical. That said, the changes made to this version are, for the most part, pretty passable: we have a Nun Helsing (Dolly Helsing) so far, as well as Johnathan Harker’s actual/not actual death at the hands of Dracula. I’m relieved that they’re not trying for a modernization, not least because the classic setting allows for some just sumptuous set designs, but mainly because it skips out on the awkward, stuttering re-contextualization of the story that plagued so much of Sherlock and Jekyll.

Another major change, and perhaps the one that interests me the most, is the shifting of the Brides of Dracula. Here, Dracula kills one of them off, and plans to replace her with Johnathan, who he explicitly refers to as his bride a number of times through the episode. Now, Dracula is a story whose original and many adaptations after the fact has been steeped in queer subtext (and sometimes sur-text), whether its through the Brides, Dracula’s relationship with the men in the story, or other Blatantly Gay Shit – and, to be honest, the work of Moffat and Gatiss in terms of queer representation has hardly been something I’ve been in impressed with. I’m interested to see how this plays out over the course of the series, and just how many times I’m going to have to watch Claes Bang suck on a phallic object for my viewing edification.

So, yes, in a lot of ways, typical Moffat (and Gatiss). It’s witty, it’s self-aware, it’s overlong – it’s more focused on beautifully-crafted dialogue and zingy one-liners than it feels to be on story at this stage, which, for a show with only three episodes, isn’t great. But, while it bears some of the more predictable hallmarks of Moffat’s work, it also has a few which actually look as though they could unfold into something intriguing – as well as some changes that feel like an enhancement to the original text as opposed to an aggressive crap on its coffee table. But, lest we forget – these projects never start badly. That’s how they get you. So I’m going to sit back and see how this unfolds. And I do hope you’ll be here to join me.

I’ll be reviewing the next two episodes over the following two days, so please do check in for those. If you enjoyed this article and want to see more stuff like it, please consider supporting me on Patreon – you can also pick up a copy of my debut novel, Rape Jokes, right here, and check out my other current recapping projects here!

(header image via Radio Times)