When Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss get together, they often make the best television you’ll ever see.
I’ve followed the pair of creatives, first through “Doctor Who”, then through “Sherlock,” so I’m properly tempered to Moffat, his partnership with Gatiss, and what you can reasonably expect from them. Moffat in particular is great at writing likeable characters and putting them in heart wrenching situations, playing with your emotions as he kills his darlings in often the best ways possible.
It leads to emotional television that pleases you in ways you wouldn’t suspect, with equal parts euphoria and frustration. One day, he’ll give Emmy-worthy episodes like “Vincent and the Doctor”, the next he’ll kill every likeable character in your TV show, leaving you with nothing.
So when I heard he made a “Dracula” series for Netflix (and BBC One), I was properly excited.
Moffat left “Doctor Who” in 2017, the same year “Sherlock” wrapped up — presumably for good, given series leads Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman’s promotions to blockbuster film stars — and since then, he’s been largely absent from TV, while he toiled away on “Dracula.” And it shows.
Much like “Sherlock”, “Dracula”‘s first season might seem extremely short, comprised of three nearly hour and a half-long episodes. It’s branded as a miniseries, but there really is nothing mini about it. It’s all a matter of perception really, especially when you consider that “Dracula”‘s combined run time of its first season (over four hours), is very close to “The Mandalorian,” which brands itself as a full season of television, cutting its narrative into 8 half hour episodes.
“Dracula” opts to tell three movie-length stories in detail, rather than tell simpler, shorter ones, which, like “Sherlock”, allows its showrunners to explore twists and turns they normally would not have time for if restricted by the typical half hour or hour-long episode formats. And the production values are great in this show, albeit it does look like it was granted a smaller budget than the final season of “Sherlock,” though to be fair, “Dracula” has to do more visually.
You’ll find gorgeous rotten practical zombie costumes in this show and expansive castle and boat sets period appropriate for the 1800s, when the series begins — though the show never quite feels completely like a film, like many “Sherlock” episodes do.
Without getting into too much spoilers — I’m going to be upfront and admit that this show is worth not spoiling — the show’s writing, pacing, cinematography and especially acting work. The show centers around notorious vampire Count Dracula (Claes Bang) moving from Transylvania to England, so he can prey upon “civilized society.” The show establishes early on that Dracula has the ability to absorb the knowledge, memories and certain skills of those he feeds on, and as such, he arranges for an Englishman to be sent to him named Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan) to prepare him for his eventual reign of terror in Britain.
Harker proves resilient, and sets into motion events that lead to the series’ main conflict between Dracula and a vampire expert/nun, Sister Agatha Van Helsing (Dolly Wells), who is the other great joy in the show, as her odd chemistry with Dracula is what makes the show work. Sure, there are other minor characters, like Harker’s wife, Mina (Morfydd Clark) who advance the plot in important ways, and there is no shortage of side characters, especially in episodes 2 and 3, but at the core of “Dracula” is a conflict between an untamed beast in the ancient vampire, who seeks only personal gain and the pleasure of tasting the blood of the world’s best; and a scientist in Agatha, who wants to understand Dracula, in order to use him for good or to end his terror forever.
Bang stands to be a fine addition to Moffat’s collection of, young(ish) television male leads, drawing instant similarities to Matt Smith from “Doctor Who” and Benedict Cumberbatch from “Sherlock,” with his charm, with one key difference: he’s evil, and he loves it. This series will draw many thinkpieces over Bang’s protrayal of toxic masculinity, portraying a relatable Dracula whose banter and bewilderment at humanity’s quirks is adorable and funny, while also being a bloodthirsty, manipulative monster, and it stands to reason that Bang’s portrayal of Dracula will be idolized by some for all the wrong reasons, like many other famous villains and antiheroes in film.
Such discussions produce interesting insights into pop culture and what we value in it, but have little relevance to the quality of the series. Judging Bang’s performance by its own merits, Bang portrays a down-to-earth Dracula reasonable enough to engage you in a civil argument, but not above praying on your weaknesses in order to get a quick bite to eat. At no moment does the audience assume Dracula is good or has the moral high ground. Like Ted Bundy, he is a killer who lures his victims in with his charms.
Because of the energy and personality Bang brings to the role, you almost forget that you’re watching yet another take on a character that has already been done to death. Add this to unique direction and interesting stories concocted by Moffat and Gatiss, and like “Sherlock”, despite the fact that “Dracula” is one of the most recognizable and cliche cinematic characters of all time, you feel like you’re watching an original show.
Bang is matched by Wells, who, despite having that famous Van Helsing last name we all know is associated with monster hunting (and a really bad Hugh Jackman film), seems to garner the most attention of any main character through her charisma alone, and the intrigue behind her character. Moffat and Gatiss do a great job of making you actively like her character and prompt you to want to know more about her, details of which are slowly drip fed to you. Inferior showrunners would have made the Van Helsing character the obvious good guy from episode one, who is magically good at everything and who thwarts Dracula, all while having a wooden personality. Agatha Van Helsing thoroughly earns our attention, and she has nothing handed to her. She combats Dracula’s toxic charms with her own genuine quirks, holding the beast’s intrigue so that she can pick him apart.
Narratively, this show will twist your arm and make you do backflips, and you will be fine with it. There is a particular twist in episode 3 that might prompt you to turn the show off, as any other showrunner would most certainly careen the show off a cliff after employing the particular narrative choices Moffat and Gatiss chose, and you will be ok with it, as it leads to interesting storylines that would not have been possible otherwise. Steven Moffat is the only writer I know capable of making a creative choice that is indisputably dumb and show-breaking, and twist and maneuver it in a way that it actually makes for a better show.
At no moment is “Dracula” deeply uncomfortable or scary to the point where it’s hard to watch, but it will have you at the edge of your seat, and it does a great job of creating suspense and fear, though I do admit the horror aspect of this show could be better.
Overall, “Dracula” is a solid show, though if you’re not familiar with Moffat of Gatiss’s work, you might be thrown a bit off.
“Dracula” gets an 8/10