After ending their mostly celebrated run on SHERLOCK with one of the most tone-deaf misfires in years, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have taken on yet another iconic literary creation to put their stamp on. The results are a mixed bag.
Everything from the original Bram Stoker novel is recreated beautifully, with minor additions and deviations only serving to enhance the often light story. But emboldened by their success on SHERLOCK, Gatiss and Moffat aren’t interested in just adaptation, so DRACULA comes alive for the new decade with all the extra smug baggage you’ve come to expect from the British writing duo. As an example, one early scene has a character openly make snide references to how light Stoker’s story was regarding Harker’s escape, but when it comes to adapting the same part now, Gatiss and Moffat both shrug their shoulders and brush off any attempt to make the answer a compelling one. All that matters is that they can pretend like it was an improvement.
Split into three episodes, DRACULA is both a re-telling, a sequel, and a completely new take on Bram Stoker’s classic novel. The first episode is almost entirely from the first part of the book, only Gatiss and Moffat have utilized their tried and tested storytelling trope of it being told in an interrogation room for maximum unreliable narrator effect. Jonathan Harker wakes in a nunnery an unspecified time after his escape from Dracula’s castle. Sister Agatha — a snarky woman of the world with a crisis of faith — is conducting the interview. Assisting her is a quiet sidekick assigned to keep an eye on both her and Harker. Morbidly falling apart, Harker looks like a living dead, and seems wholly uninterested in the physical world around him. All that matters is warning people of Count Dracula, and the horrors that he is planning to unleash.
The series tries to have it both ways by adhering strictly to Stoker’s formula while at the same time emphasizing what was already in the text. Dracula, one of the most sexual monsters of horror cinema and literature, is bisexual! He is cursed by his eternal life! The act of sucking blood is metaphorical! Women are stronger and more capable than the patriarchal society around them will allow! Even a late stage revelation, which won’t come as a surprise to anyone with the slightest knowledge of pop-culture, feels like tired fan service for a crowd that really doesn’t desire it. Also, because of the weight these easter eggs hold, due their century long tradition, any attachment to classic figures only serves to remove agency from newly created ones.
None of these things is new or revelatory, yet Moffat and Gattis treat them like they’ve stumbled upon something unheard of at every turn. The series flirts with sexual ambiguity, allowing for the wonderful Claes Bang (as Dracula) to ham up the screen with raw machismo. A number of times Dracula calls Harker his “bride” in what feels drafted to appeal to the same Twitter crowd that went nuts over Sherlock and Watson; yet it has the same toothless lack of commitment as SHERLOCK did. It’s there so that Gatiss and Moffat can say that they tried. Any more would require decisiveness, and if there’s one thing that SHERLOCK taught us is that such is not their strength.
The cast is uniformly good. The aforementioned Claes Bang is delightful as Dracula, chewing up scenery like there is no tomorrow. Dolly Wells is brilliant in a part that is way too much a mouthpiece for Moffat and Gatiss to explain just how the world works for women (in the way only two upper-class, middle-aged white men can). John Heffernan grounds the story nicely as the long-suffering Jonathan Harker, who again doesn’t get much to do in the story except be kicked around by everyone.
They are all let down by erratic writing and plotting, which are both too engrossed in looking to be clever than serving a greater story. Characters will slip in quippy, modern day jabs at one another whether or not the scene calls for it, and there’s a constant sense that both writers feel like they’re above the material they’re adapting. As if they need to put it down just to be safe. Some character changes work for the better and hint at the potential of a much larger mythology and narrative that goes completely explored. As with SHERLOCK, there are reveals and twists which hinge entirely on the fact that the story hasn’t revealed a vital piece of information to the viewer, yet acts superior over how nobody seemed to catch on until they were told.
It is a show that is once again saved by the cast and crew from just sitting in a room singing to itself.