In a convent in Hungary, a troubled Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan) tells Sister Agatha (Dolly Wells) of his encounters with the dreaded Count Dracula (Claes Bang), whose plans endanger all around him. This is the set-up in the first episode of Dracula – an adaptation of Bram Stoker‘s classic Gothic novel from Sherlock creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. Both struck gold when they adapted Sherlock for a new generation and had great success working forover ten years on the relaunched Doctor Who, so anticipation is high for their take on the blood-curdling Count. As far as first impressions go though, The Rules of the Beast is quite variable.
I think that Moffat and Gatiss would have had an easier time with this adaptation if they didn’t rely so much on plot twists, lines of dialogue and moments taken from their earlier work. Shocking revelations like Harker realising that he is in fact dead, and only breathing out of habit, is ripped straight from Moffat’s Doctor Who episode Hell Bent. The concept of a character telling a story and then realising that they are in fact recounting their death is also the same as his Doctor Who: Asylum of the Daleks, The Time of the Doctor, and I’m pretty certain of a couple more.
On the subject of recycling, it’s worth talking about one of the big twists out of the gate – Sister Agatha is revealed to be Agatha Van Helsing. Thus, her quirky, know-it-all, super-genius, witty comment, slightly flirty personality – that bears a striking resemblance to Irene Adler and Mary Watson from Sherlock, as well as River Song, Amy Pond, Clara, Tasha and Missy from Doctor Who – can in fact be attributed to her being a reworked version of the character Van Helsing from the novel Dracula, in a twist that (for me) falls completely flat. It only works if you’re familiar with the story of Dracula, and even then Agatha being a Van Helsing doesn’t add anything to this adaptation, in much the same way that Doctor Who‘s Missy is the Master for the sake of a twist (until Moffat eventually decided to write her better in her third series), or to compare with other works, how Cumberbatch’s villain in Star Trek Into Darkness being Khan doesn’t make any difference to the respective stories beyond fan recognition. These characters are named after memorable characters but if they don’t act like them, and if their secret identities bare no influence on the plot, what’s the point?
This is by no means a criticism of Dolly Wells‘ performance as Sister Agatha, as she struggles to make Moffat’s now-clichéd dialogue work, but this character simply doesn’t remotely resemble Van Helsing from Stoker’s novel, which makes the whole twist completely redundant. Much like with Missy, why can’t Agatha just be an original creation from Moffat and Gatiss? Why tie her to Van Helsing if it doesn’t actually influence the story in any way?
There’s also the presentation of Mina Murray (Morfydd Clark), who comes across as a now-clichéd Moffat femme-fatale but at least resembles a character from the novel, although ironically not Mina. This more flirtatious, confident and sexual Mina much more resembles how Stoker presented Mina’s friend Lucy Westenra (who I’m sure will turn up later on in this adaptation), which just makes this change in personality more bizarre. I’d happily forgive swapping Mina for Lucy as Jonathan’s fiancé if this was the character they wanted to pair with him, but otherwise, why write Mina like Lucy? It seems so odd to me. Regardless, even when Mina starts appearing in the story proper, she proceeds to do absolutely nothing, bar moaning about not wanting to kill Jonathan. This is all well and good, but she doesn’t appear in the next episode, and isn’t given any kind of resolution here, which to me begs the question as to why the writers didn’t just kill her off with the rest of the convent?
Now, you probably think that I hated this first episode of Dracula, but I do actually have a number of positive things to say. Claes Bang is a terrific Count Dracula, balancing charm, menace and a witty sense of humour that I haven’t seen in the titular vampire in other adaptations before. This isn’t the mopey Count Dracula seen in Francis Ford Coppola‘s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, or even the other mopey heroic character from Dracula Untold but a more camp, lively portrayal, perhaps resembling Bela Lugosi‘s iconic turn in the classic 1931 film. But Bang makes it his own and he’s a joy to watch on-screen, especially with his gradual transformation from the frail old man to the enigmatic younger form. Dracula’s Benjamin Button-esque transformation appears quite suddenly in the novel, but here Moffat and Gatiss make it a gradual transformation across the episode, which was just spellbinding to watch. Bang’s whole performance evolves over the ninety minutes, from his accent to his gait. He’s just bloody brilliant in the role.
Oh, and this is certainly a bloody adaptation of Dracula, with the Count tearing himself out of the body of a wolf in one scene and out of Jonathan Harker in the episode’s closing moments. There’s a great sense of atmosphere throughout as well, bolstered by the terrific design work on Castle Dracula, some creepy lighting and surprisingly colourful cinematography. The whole episode looks terrific, and adds to the suspenseful score from Sherlock alumni David Arnold and Michael Price. The horror elements are on full show, and the production values are top-notch. It’s gory, violent and unsettling in all the right places, and it’s great to watch a proper horror on BBC One. The episode may have its faults but the horror elements are by no means one of them.
The Rules of the Beast is, overall, a rather mixed start for Dracula. It’s filled with annoying tropes if you’re familiar with Moffat and Gatiss’ other work but it is an exquisitely-made production and Bang as Dracula is an undisputed highlight. Sure, some of the themes aren’t handled with much subtlety and it didn’t really need to be stretched to ninety minutes, plus Mina and Sister Agatha are rather botched reworkings of the characters they’re supposed to be, but there really is a lot to love here, let alone like. The evil vampire baby also gave me Braindead vibes, although whether that’s an intentional reference to the Peter Jackson film or not, I have no idea. It’s frustrating to watch an adaptation that adds so many intriguing new elements but also adds some bizarre and unnecessary ones (such as Count Dracula fearing sunlight, which he doesn’t in the novel), but on top of that perfectly adapts certain elements perfectly for the small screen. Whatever good things I have to say about Dracula, I have just as many bad. Hopefully the series will pick up in the next episode.