It’s not until a full hour of this new adaptation of “Dracula” has passed that you start to get a sense of just how different it’s going to be. Up until that point, it seems perfectly sanguine to be a handsomely, if derivatively, staged period piece as English solicitor Jonathan Harker pitches up at Castle Dracula to finalise a property deal and ends up becoming an unwilling guest of the enigmatic Count.
We open with a framing device of two nuns taking Harker’s confession of sorts, but this is a Moffat/ Gatiss script so you just know there’ll be a twist or two at least and that slightly self-indulgent cleverness will rule the day and so it does, as the two narrative threads of confession and confessional suddenly converge and one of the nuns is revealed to be a Van Helsing – Sister Agatha Van Helsing to be precise as the episode takes a leisurely approach to exploring the story, with the action staying firmly in Transylvania for part one.
Unbelievably, the pair manage to repeat this twin narrative gimmick again in episode two, arguably the adaptation’s strongest chapter, covering the doom-laden voyage of the Demeter and it’s here the deviations from the text start to increase, each change, embellishment or reimaging enriching the classic story and drenching it in a very contemporary yet curiously period-authentic blood-soaked sexuality, turning the voyage into a tense and savage pseudo-Agatha Christie murder mystery voyage. The fusion of the parallel narratives is brilliantly realised and results in one of the greatest and most perplexing cliff-hangers in recent TV history.
The third episode, in contrast to the first two, feels ever so slightly rushed as the pace increases with Dracula finally on English soil but it still has surprises in store and plenty of shocking moments before delivering a genuinely surprising but entirely satisfying finale.
Of course, one can never assume Dracula is out for the count, but it feels very much like Moffat and Gatiss were setting out to tell a complete story here rather than launch an ongoing companion franchise to “Sherlock” and in many ways, this new interpretation of the novel and legend of “Dracula” is a gloriously gory and sexually charged celebration of the many guises of the Count across decades of cinema and TV adaptations. It embraces and acknowledges the influences of past iconic adaptations, with particularly strong nods to Christopher Lee’s Dracula (both in the styling of the Count himself and the fact the adaptation was filmed at Hammer’s famous Bray Studios) and Francis Ford Coppola’s operatic interpretation too. Even the location chosen for Castle Dracula owes something to the cinematic history of the character, being the same place as F W Murnau filmed the seminal “Nosferatu“. The gleeful peppering of references isn’t restricted to the storied history of Vlad Dracula, with everything from Sherlock Holmes through “Inside No. 9” and even, bafflingly, Crowded House being given a nod here and there.
Claes Bang is a phenomenal new Dracula, setting a standard as blisteringly high as a sun-drenched vampire on acid for any who cares to follow in his fang-steps, although it has to be said his early, elderly Count Dracula owes a little more to Tommy Wiseau than Gary Oldman’s coiffured codger. Once he’s suitably rejuvenated, though, he exudes the kind of predatory sexual menace and bitingly playful wit that has come to define the character and he manages to achieve a timelessness to his interpretation that wouldn’t feel out of place in any adaptation from the monochrome mausoleums haunted by Bela Lugosi to the slayer-stalked streets of Sunnydale.
Speaking of Slayers, there’s more than a nod to Joss Whedon’s masterwork in the character of Agatha Van Helsing, played brilliantly by Dolly Wells. In this Van Helsing, there’s an intoxicating mix of enemy, rival, paramour and companion for Dracula – a complex and multi-textured relationship which drives and consumes both the vampire and the vampire hunter alike and pushes the story in strange new directions.
Awash with thematic resonance from the novel and more contemporary sources, this is intelligent, impudent and supremely confident television from two accomplished storytellers who perfectly complement each other’s styles. This isn’t the best adaptation of the novel – it’s nowhere near faithful enough for that – but it’s a bold and brilliant reinvention of the original text which explores interesting new angles on the mythology of the characters and delivers fascinating new takes on age-old characters. 2019 may have seen the BBC deliver a pair of disappointing literary adaptations but 2020 sees the venerable broadcaster stage a stunning comeback.