I must admit that I went into The Dark Compass with fairly low expectations. Dracula seemed like it was about to repeat the same trick used in Sherlock‘s 2016 special The Abominable Bride (which I wasn’t exactly a fan of), and conclude the three-part series with a resounding thud. Everything I enjoyed about the previous episode – Blood Vessel – is pretty much absent in this dreadful, feature-length finale that, despite promise, falls completely flat.
Initially, The Dark Compass seems to be toying with elements of the Dracula story to tell a more interesting and original story. In the wake of the events at Castle Dracula and the convent, Mina Murray escapes and sets up the Jonathan Harker Foundation to investigate Count Dracula, should he ever return, and also do medical stuff…I guess. It isn’t really explained convincingly. Van Helsing’s tangential descendant captures Dracula, locks him up and intends to investigate him with the help of one Dr. Seward. Dracula escapes, thanks to help of his new lawyer Renfield (the current employee of his solicitors from 1896) and steals Seward’s phone, allowing him to meet Lucy Westenra, seduce her and transform her into a vampire.
This is actually a really good premise, even if capturing Dracula only to let him out ten minutes later feels like a plot diversion more than anything. There’s something quite funny about Mark Gatiss playing Renfield as a solicitor and his small moments sprinkled throughout the episode tease a potentially fun incarnation of Dracula’s servant (he even eats a fly!). Sure, Van Helsing’s descendant (once again played by Dolly Wells) feels more like a character from Moffat’s Doctor Who or Sherlock episodes (she’s got a real Kate Stewart vibe) as opposed to actually being much like Van Helsing from the Dracula novel, but this didn’t ruin Blood Vessel, so why should it ruin this episode?
No, instead the episode rushes through a whole second season’s worth a story to get to a climax in which Lucy Westenra (Lydia West), as a horrifically burned un-dead, decides that immortality isn’t quite what its cracked up to be. At least, not when the selfies don’t look as good. Moffat reuses the “don’t cremate me!” twist from Doctor Who episode Dark Water and takes it one step further, making it even more morbid and unsettling. This could be seen as a positive in an adult-oriented horror series, but I do feel that it crosses the line between horrifying in a good old scary sense and horrifyingly morbid in a “hey, maybe this was a step too far” sense. I felt it was very out-of-place in Who and it feels even more morbid in Dracula.
There’s a vague theme about Lucy’s vanity, but her feelings on the subject don’t feel either particularly strong or consistent to make it work as an actual narrative thread. The make-up work on Lucy’s charred body is superb and incredibly uncomfortable to watch, but the scene itself is just a drag. Initially, Lucy’s transformation is horrifying but when the story actually kicks in, it falls flat. There’s nothing there. Lucy isn’t a particularly likeable character, she’s not been a main character in this series and even when she does die, no-one seems to really care all that much. Seward seems a bit upset, but his character feels so boring and one-dimensional that I didn’t really care either.
Oh, and of course Sister Agatha is sort-of possessing her descendant to try and tie-up loose ends and conclude the series with Dracula drinking Van Helsing’s blood to die in the most contrived and ham-fisted way imaginable. As I stared at the screen in exasperation, the only positive thoughts I had were: well, at least its nicely shot and at least they won’t be able to make anymore after this train-wreck of an ending. Poor Claes Bang has to put up with dialogue more suited to Sherlock Holmes or The Doctor, selling some of the bizarre scenes early-on in the episode but even he can’t save what is, frankly, a dire piece of television and a bit of an insult.
The Dark Compass was everything I feared this Dracula finale would be and far, far worse. It’s beautifully shot and the production values continue to be top-notch but the story is all over-the-place, rushed and somehow tedious to watch. The characters are either recycled from other shows or paper thin and no matter how many references to Quincey or the Bloofer Lady the writers throw out there, it doesn’t hide the fact that this is a dreadful finale. Gatiss and Moffat can write great television but when they churn out utter rubbish like this, you do start to wonder if even their best work is actually any good. I’d still argue yes but this isn’t one that’ll back that theory up.