Written by Mark Gatiss & Steven Moffat
Directed by Damon Thomas
Original Air Date: 2nd January 2020
Dracula’s journey to London via the ship the Demeter has frequently been a footnote in Dracula productions; the horrors that happen there are hinted at or teased briefly, with many interpretations just itching to get the character to London and rack up the body count on the streets of London and inflict bloodshed on its cast of characters.
With three ninety minute episodes to play with, Moffat and Gatiss actually get to spend a lot more time at sea and follow the Count’s path to London, but they also get to have a lot of fun with the format for the second episode. It might seem like a strange decision to set an entire episode of its three part run in the one location, but Gatiss and Moffat clearly cannot resist putting their interpretation of Bram Stoker’s character through another type of story entirely.
With a large supporting cast and all of it pretty much taking place in one location, not to mention airing on a prime time BBC 1 time slot during the Christmas/New Year period, the episode plays out like a demented murder mystery adapted from a famous crime novelist with a high body count and a unique lead character.
Dracula is, of course, the one responsible and yet he positions himself amongst the rest of the cast as if he is some wonderful detective trying to solve the case, all the while he racks up the body count with devilish, seductive glee. There’s an almost anti-Sherlock feel to proceedings that makes it even more entertaining given the authors involved here.
The first episode reveals itself to be no mere fluke and continues to double down on an energetic Claes Bang performance. What’s even more brilliant is that it doesn’t shy away from the dynamic that it hinted at in the latter stages of the first episode and makes the centre of everything the Dracula/Van Helsing dynamic.
So many film versions of the tale are centred around the vampire and his arch-nemesis, with the Hammer films having made it a continuing battle whenever they made a new film and brought back Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing to their roles. The gender reversal of making Van Helsing a woman will once again prove polarizing to the purists no doubt, but it gives an interesting and different edge to proceedings than just watching two white men fight each other with stakes and crosses.
With Mina Murray’s role in the story seemingly coming to a conclusion at the end of the first instalment, it gives the story a whole new drive with which to devote itself. In making Dracula someone travelling to London purely for his own enjoyment and relish for fresh blood to feed on, Moffat and Gatiss have opted to make the Dracula/Van Helsing dynamic the one with which to drive the story as opposed to the Count’s desire for Mina.
Moffat and Gatiss have consistently proven themselves to be great writers of dialogue, and while so much of their writing across Doctor Who and Sherlock are heavy on words, they have always been wonderful at crafting superbly structured scenes which just rely on their brilliant chosen casts dispensing the dialogue with brilliance and this is no exception.
Stoker even crafted Dracula as a play when writing the novel and there is a sense of theatricality to a lot of this. It plays like a demented bottle episode with a lush set with which the characters cannot escape, and even with a large ocean around them the episode has a claustrophobic feel thanks to the production design and how the Demeter set is filmed.
Using a framing device of Dracula and Agatha playing chess as they discuss the events on the boat, and with one of the cabins containing a mysterious ill passenger, the eventual reveal that the framing device is not what it seems and that Agatha is the sick passenger are not major surprises but it still works well. It allows the last act of the episode to build up to another brilliant subversion of not only the Dracula story, but to play fast and loose with the type of storytelling tropes that are part and parcel of the style of prestige mystery television that the BBC and ITV usually dole out into their schedules during the Christmas periods, usually taking their cue from Agatha Christie novels.
It’s an intense ninety minutes that isn’t afraid to look away from the carnage, and even the child passenger on the ship isn’t above being killed during the duration of the episode. The story isn’t afraid to up the intensity, but it never loses sight of its semblance of fun, and by the last stretch of the episode, it’s clear that the Dracula/Agatha dynamic is the one carrying the story and will do so into the final episode.
Then there’s the final scene.
Confession time, as I write this I have seen the final episode of the series and I’ll save my opinions on that until I write that review, but the cliffhanger that ends the episode is, admittedly, a brilliant ‘what the hell’ moment that leaves you eagerly anticipating the third and final episode. Given what audiences expected from this and its writers’ work on Sherlock, and that it opted to take the period setting approach, it comes as a surprise that for the final stretch of the series, the audiences and Dracula are actually going be taken to the present day. It’s a brilliant tease for what happens next, with a helicopter spotlight coming literally out of nowhere.
As to whether the show can make it work is another matter entirely.
Dracula is available to stream on BBC iPlayer in the U.K and on Netflix in both the U.K and the U.S.