Lady Summerisle (strange_complex) wrote,
Lady Summerisle
strange_complex

Initial thoughts on Dracula episode 1

I've been back working today, so couldn't do this earlier, but wanted to scribble down some initial thoughts on the first episode of the BBC's new Dracula while I can. This is the only time I'll be able to see it without the hindsight of the episodes which follow, after all. I'll put it all behind a cut, because I know it won't be available to viewers outside the UK for another couple of days.

In essence, I really liked it. It's a fresh take on the novel with a structure and logic of its own, but at the same time capturing the essence of the original story and many of its other adaptations (especially Hammer's, but many more). It has set up a strong central antagonism between Dracula and Sister Agatha, culminating (for the time being) in the compelling confrontation between them at the gates of the convent, but surely to remain the heart of the narrative still to come - which must mean she will pursue him to England. It would be hard not to fall for her pragmatic forthrightness about matters such as her lack of faith or human and vampire bodies and the obvious intelligence and work ethic which have allowed her to work out so much about vampirism before the story even begins. But we have carefully been shown her Achilles heel in this first episode, too. She is rather too ready to take risks in order to satisfy her craving to understand what makes vampires tick, as shown when we learnt after she had already ordered the convent gates to be unlocked that she wasn't actually certain Dracula couldn't enter without an invitation. Her hunger for knowledge helps to makes her the perfect antagonist for Dracula, who has also clearly been experimenting with and learning about the properties of vampirism over the centuries too, but I predict that it will come at the cost of someone's life before the end of the series. (Dracula's actual entry into the convent in this episode, by contrast, was the result of a gap in her knowledge if anything, since she clearly didn't realise that vampires can't take their own lives, and thus that Jonathan must still be alive. Well, undead.)

Up against her, Claes Bang's Dracula is exactly as sexy and evil as I could already see he was from the trailers, so it's big ticks all round there. He also has a well-developed sense of his own identity and goals, what with his careful curation of his own diet so that he can absorb all the characteristics of his favoured victims, his plans to move to England where he believes he will benefit from the blood available there, and his work towards 'reproducing'. The general gist of an imperialistic plan to dominate humanity, hinted at in Stoker's novel and already made fully explicit in the early Swedish / Icelandic pirated adaptations, seems to be in place. Good, because Dracula should have big plans if he is going to live up to the Prince of Darkness, Lord of Vampires reputation, and it's a bit disappointing how often in practice he seems happy with a bit of blood in an attractively-shaped victim or maybe a bit of petty revenge (with the notable and honourable exception of Hammer's Satanic Rites).

As for those quips I was worried about, the one from the trailer turned out to be perfectly effective in context. It boiled down to the same sort of demoniacal mockery that Stoker endows him with when he makes a big show of being entirely willing to let Harker leave just as soon as he likes, but also orders huge snarling wolves to surround the castle door. Specifically, it came after Dracula had finally broken into the convent and decapitated the Mother Superior in front of the other nuns, as part of how he told them that they could choose between being torn apart by him or by his lupine acolytes. "I'm undead," he gloats as they cower, trembling. "I'm not unreasonable." This wasn't the only quip, and I could have done without a few of the others, but there weren't as many as I had feared. They were also partially justified as a form of character development, in that they got more frequent as he gradually drained Jonathan's blood and clearly began to enjoy the youth and vitality with which it endowed him - just as he also began to indulge in practices such as drinking Jonathan's blood from a fancy wine-glass right in front of him, which it would have been hard to envisage his initial aged self doing.

That process obviously allowed him to absorb Jonathan's knowledge of English and his accent as well, but one thing which has been puzzling me is why there seemed to be a dose of cockney in it as time went on, even though Jonathan had an entirely RP accent. In such a carefully designed production, it would seem surprising if that was just inconsistent acting / direction, so I'm inclined towards guessing that it is supposed to be a sign that he has been nibbling on a cockney-accented character in parallel with draining Jonathan - but I didn't notice any other cockney-accented character in it. Anyway, it's something to watch which might hint at plot developments as the story develops - e.g. if he starts speaking in a Dutch accent, we'll know he's been chowing down on Sister Agatha. While we're at it, we can also watch out for the 'one thing' which Agatha thinks lies behind Dracula's various different (and rather nonsensical) weaknesses, and particularly why he fears the cross without having any respect for Christian morality in itself, if we want to. Those have certainly been clearly set up as crumbs for us to follow. But I'm not going to get too excited about them, because I've watched stories written by Steven Moffat before, and his pay-offs for set-ups like that almost always disappoint.

Instead, I will focus on enjoying those core characters bouncing off each other and of course the visual aesthetic, which was absolutely superb throughout. The castle (both exteriors and interiors), the lighting, the costumes, the prosthetics on both Dracula and Jonathan, the CGI special effects... well, most of them. Just as I've mentally excised some of Dracula's more annoying quips to preserve my perfect head-version of this episode, I've done the same with the ludicrous vampire baby and the overly-literal scene of Dracula transforming from wolf to human form, both of which did too much to break the suspension of disbelief. Again, as with the quips, I understand that the wolf transformation had some plot relevance. It later turned out to have been done so that we had fully taken on board the idea that he had the power to inhabit the skin of another being by taking on its internal size and shape, meaning that we could understand what had happened when he took on the form of Jonathan in order to trick his way into getting Mina to invite him across Sister Agatha's barrier of holy wafers. If we hadn't already known he could do that, we would have been too distracted by the method to grasp the devilry of the deception at the same time. BUT! That could still have been preserved if he'd basically just burst out of the wolf skin in a single move, too quickly for us to really see the details, rather than wasting so much money and screen-time on unconvincing CGI. Anyway... as I say, I've excised it from my mind. I barely remember it happening.

I'll definitely want to watch this episode again, in particular so that I can revisit some of what it covered with the benefit of hindsight. I'm not sure it would make a vast amount of difference to view it in the knowledge from the beginning that Jonathan is already undead when the story begins. His obvious aversion to sunlight made it obvious that he was already pretty far gone well before that was made explicit. But I would like to be able to watch the nun who later turned out to be Mina more closely in that knowledge - e.g. her body language as he tells his story, and especially whatever it was that she actually said at one point during the long cross-examination, and which I already can't remember. Indeed, I'm pretty sure I'm going to want to watch the whole thing repeatedly in order to be able to soak up every drop of the dialogue and the visual details. There's plenty I just haven't had a chance to go into here, like the multiple shout-outs to earlier Dracula adaptations (and other genre stories), and probably haven't even picked up at all through viewing yet. But for now, tonight's episode approaches, and this will do. Time to turn down the lights and get comfy!


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Tags: auntie beeb, cult tv, dracula, hammer films, reviews, vampires
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