DRACULA: a sinewy, self-aware deconstruction of power, control and consent

The funny thing is that this all happened because of a joke. As Mark Gatiss recalls, at a Sherlock premiere, he commented to the commissioner of BBC drama that Benedict Cumberbatch’s attire made him look a little like Dracula and was asked if it was something he and writing partner Steven Moffat wanted to do. The answer, eventually, inevitably, was yes.

In a sense, Dracula feels like the project this duo have spent their entire partnership building towards. A partnership born during Moffat’s tenure running Doctor Who, in which, as he had done for previous showrunner Russell T. Davies, Gatiss would contribute scripts to each season; a partnership which then gained huge success adapting another iconic character in Victorian literature, Sherlock Holmes, for the BBC. Even before this, both were headed in the same direction. Moffat penned Jekyll back in 2007, updating the Robert Louis Stevenson 19th century classic for the modern day, while Gatiss developed The League of Gentlemen which drew on a significant knowledge of Hammer horror and occult, British portmanteau cinema.

As a result, this version of Dracula—based on the 1897 novel by Bram Stoker which has been adapted countless times in cinema and on TV over the last century—would not be a clear, simplistic adaptation. That’s just not how Moffat & Gatiss operate. They are both too cine-literature, too aware of narrative tropes, too ensconced in the lore of classic horror fiction. To take on Dracula, a text that almost everyone even with a passing knowledge of drama roughly knows the story of, would be to invert, subvert and reclassify. As they did with Holmes & Watson in Sherlock, so they would do with the Transylvanian Count played by Nordic actor Claes Bang here. That approach was inevitable, as anyone with a passing awareness of their work would be anticipating.

Their Dracula, as a result, is both exactly what you expect from them, and at times not at all what you expect from this story. It is a Dracula born of the 21st century. The take of an immortal symbol of toxic masculinity seeking to control and dominate not just female, but human sexuality, human life and human death.

A healthy dose of scepticism as well as expectation greeted this version of Dracula, given the writers involved.

While cinema still remains an actor and directors medium, television—even in an age where the two mediums have cross-pollinated thanks to streaming services and adaptive quality thresholds—is that of the writer. Damon Lindelof was the power behind Watchmen. Think of Game of Thrones and Benioff & Weiss come to mind. Moffat’s former charge, Doctor Who, is very much a Chris Chibnall beast. As fans and critics are torn asunder when a Christopher Nolan-directed film hovers into view (as Tenet does this year), the same can be said of Moffat & Gatiss as writers. For everyone who loves Sherlock’s inventive wit and subversion, you’ll find another who considers it smug & knowing. Some people think Moffat’s run on Doctor Who is the show at its best (*raises hand*), others consider him a hack who ruined the show.

A project like Dracula, taking on such an iconic literary and particularly cinematic character, would be a challenge for anybody, but audiences have now become hardwired for a Moffat/Gatiss approach to deliberately wrong-foot you. Moffat’s Doctor Who was characterised by long-form narrative mythology and twists & turns that made you look one way while going another. Sherlock is built on these kind of narrative card tricks (even if the foundation of that is thanks to Conan Doyle), with perhaps the most egregious being 2016’s special episode The Abominable Bride, which presents itself as a gimmicky version of Cumberbatch & Martin Freeman’s characters in the traditional Victorian setting before suddenly revealing it to be part of the bigger, broader modern day narrative. It was so audacious, Moffat & Gatiss borrow a similar device for Dracula in the end. It starts conventionally and steadily decrypts, unpicks and analyses itself.

Ostensibly, the core story is all there. London lawyer Jonathan Harker arrives in the first episode, The Rules of the Beast, at Dracula’s Transylvanian castle to complete the Count’s purchase of Carfax Abbey and steadily becomes corrupted by the vampiric evil in Dracula’s Romanian abode. With the space of three feature-length episodes, Moffat & Gatiss immediately have the brevity to focus in on the castle to a greater degree than many of the historical adaptations. They build the opener around the castle. They build episode two, Blood Vessel, around the voyage of the Demeter in similar fashion. They allow themselves the space to use these settings, key to Stoker’s tale, to get under the skin of their Dracula and present, essentially, three different horror tales. The Rules of the Beast owes the greatest debt to Nosferatu’s German Expressionism (to the extent it was filmed at the same location as F.W. Murnau’s 1922 classic). Blood Vessel turns into a gory Agatha Christie whodunnit. And finally The Dark Compass is a psychological modern horror with shades of conspiracy.

In essence, this version of Dracula is a classic cinematic trilogy rolled into one mini-series. By placing the character into three distinctly different stories within alternate sub-genres, it allows the series to have a stylistic breadth which holds the audience’s interest, even if that could easily lead to accusations that the show is erratic and perhaps *too* format breaking. Even aside from Moffat & Gatiss being the writers, why wouldn’t you attempt to cast this Dracula in a new light these days? The story has been done to a turn through all kinds of iterations so it makes sense to not just focus in on specific parts of Stoker’s story, but also re-cast the Count in a modern-day context. Moffat & Gatiss successfully achieve that even before The Dark Compass brings him forward to the year 2020 through some deep sleep narrative trickery. Even in the Victorian-era setting, Bang’s vampire is a contemporary animal.

Many audience members and critics struggle with particularly Moffat’s propensity for flippant self-reflection in his characters and stories. Almost every project he has worked on has come from a place of taking apart a traditional character or narrative, examining the contents, and stitching them back together. Coupling, his BBC2 sitcom, was a meta-Friends; a genre-literate look at sex and relationships from an analytical perspective. Jekyll sought to tear down the expected conventions of adapting 19th century literature. Doctor Who, which Moffat wrote format-breaking episodes for during Davies’ era, was completely taken apart and decrypted by Moffat between 2010-2017, to the point he even stopped to ask the question: “Doctor… who?”. Sherlock has as many detractors as fans precisely because it sardonically bucks convention, expecting audiences to have already guessed twists or seen plot developments coming, to the point he actively works to keep Holmes one step ahead of all of us while adapting classic, well-known and loved stories.

Now, don’t get me wrong, Moffat’s approach does not always work. He never quite figured out what to do with Peter Capaldi’s Doctor after the meta-introspection of Matt Smith’s Doctor. There have been episodes of Sherlock which went a little too far and were in danger of getting lost up their own behind. Nevertheless, his Dracula was always going to be about trying to figure out who this character is, what he means to modern audiences, and precisely where you place him in a modern context. Gatiss’ understands the historical precedents for the character in film/TV (indeed check out his supplemental BBC2 documentary, In Search of Dracula, which does exactly that) and together their Dracula combines all of the classic, traditional iconography of the screen Dracula with that same glib, self-aware, self-referential tone they bring to Sherlock. They know you know the story. You just don’t quite know *theirs*.

Hence why The Rules of the Beast contains a central framing device in which Jonathan Harker (played with consummate terror by John Heffernan) is interrogated in a Hungarian sanatorium by Dolly Wells’ (brilliant, throughout) sister Agatha Van Helsing, who is looking to understand the precepts and constructs of the vampire she is hunting. This is perhaps Dracula’s most overt change from Stoker’s work – not just a female Van Helsing, but a character once removed from the dangerous sexuality of the Count and entirely compromised by it, a woman fascinated by the underpinning psychology of the creature. Historically, Van Helsing—whether Peter Cushing or Anthony Hopkins—has always been there to figure out and convey to the characters, and the audience, how the vampire works, what the rules are, and crucially how they trap and kill him, but never before has Van Helsing fundamentally wanted to *know* and understand Dracula. It gives this series a psychological lodestone on which all the episodes balance.

Crucially, Moffat & Gatiss’ Dracula does not follow the same path as the original Count, who sought in many versions to reach London so he could find Mina Murray, Jonathan’s betrothed, who was the reincarnation of the woman he loved in his original 15th century era (this is most romantically apparent in Francis Ford Coppola’s sweeping and florid 1992 version, which has for a long time been my favourite). Bang’s Dracula is much more mercurial, opportunistic and playful, akin to a dangerous trickster. He takes a cold delight in the suffering and horror around him, enjoying the confusion and fear of his victims. He adapts quickly and seeks the advantage. He may be coming to London, as in Stoker’s story, but it is less about a determined reason and certainly not lost love. Mina’s importance to this entire series is threadbare. All Dracula really seeks is greater power, greater control, and a greater mastery of life and death, and the metropolis of London is where he knows he can get it.

If anything, the idea of lost love, of a romantic underpinning to the evil, is ported into the mythological backstory of Dracula’s castle, with the architect having constructed the maze-like labyrinth for his beloved, who supposedly died there. It is far less key to Dracula’s story, especially given as he is positioned intentionally by Moffat & Gatiss as the principal character in a tale where, historically, he is often sidelined as the shadowy monster haunting the story. Van Helsing (in both her spunky Agatha and maudlin modern Zoe incarnations) is crucial to unpacking the deeper aspects of the character, but Jonathan is despatched by the end of the first episode, and key London players such as Jack Seward or Quincey Morris are dialled back to mere support. This is Dracula’s story, first and foremost, and with an actor as powerfully charismatic as Bang in the role, this makes sense. He brings an arrogant, flip sexuality to the part and an enigmatic eeriness not seen since, perhaps, Louis Jourdan’s version Count Dracula in 1977.

The reason perhaps to explore Dracula now, as we enter the 2020’s, becomes best apparent in The Dark Compass. After The Rules of the Beast establishes the character and the dark, Gothic terror he can imbue, and Blood Vessel sees him operate as the unreliable narrator of his own story in recounting events on the Demeter voyage to a captured Agatha, the third and final episode presents Dracula as a dangerous, modern sexual predator in a vacuous, facile modern cityscape. The immoral decay and self-obsession is crystallised in the character of Lucy Westenra (Lydia West), a beautiful millennial for the Instagram-era, her entire life framed through the prism of her own ego and awareness of her own attractiveness. The quiet, bookish Seward loves her, while the swaggering American Quincey enjoys Lucy’s sexuality, but Dracula sees her as the ultimate encapsulation of what he spends the whole series looking for: willing consent.

Dracula’s brides, of course, have always been a key part of the story. The character is driven by sexuality, his bloodlust a dark metaphor for control, and in many other versions Mina has been presented as his ultimate bride, the woman he believes will truly give herself to him, unlike everyone else he has had to actively subjugate and control. The Rules of the Beast suggests that our modern Dracula, appropriately, is bisexual (or bi-homicidal as Moffat amusingly quipped), even considering Jonathan a sexual object he can control. One of the best scenes of the series is a naked Dracula, having just grotesquely emerged from the guts of a wolf, swaggering around dangerously outside a convent filled with sexually repressed nuns brandishing phallic stakes, willing one of them to break, invite him in, and allow themselves to be conquered. Agatha is the stalwart bulwark against his sexual and psychological abuse, and remains so across over a century.

The Dark Compass suggests Dracula finds the right period in the early 21st century. Lucy willingly gives her blood to him, consents to his abuse, corrupted under the spell of Dracula’s powerful, manipulative sexuality and the promise of eternal life and beauty. This is consistent with how she is positioned as the less moral friend of Mina in the story originally, but Lucy encapsulates the moral decay of our age which invites Dracula in. Such a confluence might ostensibly seem jarring but it works well as Dracula adapts to texting, emails, Skype, twists his lawyer Renfield (played snivellingly by Gatiss) into an enabler of his abuse, and sets the count up as a powerful, wealthy playboy who, were it not for the blood-fuelled union between Agatha & Zoe, could have spent this century feeding, corrupting and being invited in by a population who will do anything, be anyone, to be beautiful.

As a result, while this version of Dracula may well play with your expectations, and twist around events and characters to fit a modern approach, it remains thematically consistent with many of the ideas inherent in Stoker’s original story. It is also frequently a sinewy, unnerving piece of horror – The Rules of the Beast particularly (for my money the standout episode), engaging as it does in vampiric babies, gory deaths, body horror and jagged, sped up moments of creeping terror. It remains elegant, and at a quirky remove, while at the same time reminding us that Dracula is a true villain, and in control of the narrative he wishes to convey. Moffat has described him as “the hero of evil” in this tale and, to an extent, he gets what he wants by the end of The Dark Compass, just not in the way he would have imagined. The tropes and mythical constructs are ripped away to reveal, instead, more of a profound truth. That rights, and consent, work both ways.

Detractors of Steven Moffat & Mark Gatiss’ work will find little in Dracula to convince them otherwise, but everyone else will discover a brawny, darkly comic and vicious deconstruction of power, control and consent with one of literature, and horror’s, most enduring and timeless icons.

Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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