As always, I’ve given the series a 3-episode chance to hook me before I write the review. If you’ve read my previous reviews, you’ll know, that number is usually enough to measure the quality of the series.
If you’ve read my other Dracula reviews, for the Adventure games, you know by now how strict I am with Dracula, how much the character and Stoker’s novel mean to me. Think of your favourite character, or the first novel you read and loved, and that’s how I feel about Dracula.
When I heard about this series, starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers and produced by the same people behind Downton Abbey, I felt optimistic, something unusual in me when it comes to Dracula adaptations, because I know JRM is a fantastic actor and would do wonderfully as Dracula; and being someone who watches Downton every week (though the latest series is rather weak), I knew the level of quality they strived for and delivered.
Having said all of this, there are two ways to see this Dracula series: As an adaptation of the Novel; or as an independent story, a reboot of sorts, featuring the same characters in an altered setting. If you look at it from the first point of view…the series is utter unforgivable shite for what it does to all characters. If you see it from the 2nd point of view…then it has a lot of promise and potential, even if I find some decision grating.
The series, like the novel it disembowels with a soup ladle, takes place in the 1890s. Dracula was revived a few years previous to the start of the series by the first plot twist, Van Helsing, who brings the old vampire back to life from his mummified state (the rejuvenation being a pretty cool special effect) by killing his guide/assistant and feeding the vampire his blood. Van Helsing intends to use Dracula in his war against their common enemy, the Order of the Dragon, who burned Van Helsing’s family alive, and did the same to Dracula’s wife.
Dracula spends the next few years with Van Helsing building up a fake identity, that of Alexander Grayson, an American recently arrived in London with a wonderful piece of technology he plans to produce: free and wireless geomagnetic power (electricity). It’s all part of his plan to topple the Order, crumbling their economic power base, which depends on Oil. It’s a bit of a complicated plan, but thankfully, it’s not his only one.
Helping him out is his manservant Renfield, who’s changed considerably, more so than any other character; no longer a rambling lunatic in a straitjacket eating flies and very submissive to Dracula, he’s a burly black man, very well spoken, with a normal appetite (I assume, he’s never been shown eating) and who has no qualms about telling his master the hard truths.
On the mortal side of things, and excluding the Order, we have some familiar characters: Jonathan Harker, a journalist instead of a Solicitor; Mina Murray, his fiancée and Medical Student under Professor Van Helsing; and of course the beautiful and sexy Lucy Westenra, portrayed by the awesome Katie McGrath, who you’ll probably remember as Morgana on Merlin.
On the Order, we have the leader Lord Browning, who reminds me of the original Zod from Superman 2, and Lady Jayne Wetherby, the femme fatale and Browning’s right hand woman. The rest however, are completely forgettable, and a good thing too since they drop like flies.
Let’s go over the good stuff first.
Visually, it’s a beautiful series, in every way, from the very few special effects, the Victorian aesthetics, the recurring overland shots of Victorian London, and the costumes, to the use of color and shadows and darkness. It all fits what you expect from Victorian England, and it’s rare to see a series with such a great effort put into making things look right. The night shots are my favourite, some of them almost inviting Jack the Ripper to stalk the streets, only this time it’s not him but Dracula, though according to the series’ mythos, Jack was a Vampire and the Order of the Dragon disguised his killings and “created” the Jack the Ripper serial killer.
The ballroom “light bulb” scene in episode one is especially breathtaking.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers might have been put on this world to portray Dracula. He gets it, the strength, the power, the air of mystery and sensuality the character is all about. Granted, the American accent isn’t perfect, but it’s passable and at best is a minor detail compared to his powerful acting.
While it’s thrown the original work out the window or into the fire, the series plot is actually interesting enough, with Dracula & Van Helsing’s plan being a multilayered one. The politico-economic approach to their vendetta is very interesting and it gives ample opportunity for Dracula to use his manipulative skills, in boardrooms and bedrooms. I’m also intrigued by the change in making the Order of the Dragon the main “villain”, since historically, the name Dracula means Son of the Dragon, that being Vlad II “The Dragon”, named so for his membership in the Order of the Dragon.
I like the approach on Dracula as a main character. He’s not good, he isn’t an anti-hero, he is most definitely a villain, but he does have some redeeming qualities and his opponents are worse by all stretches of the imagination.
The episode/story pace is very good, and you will never be bored during an episode. From its fantastic Title sequence, with its puppetry imagery, finishing with Dracula holding all the strings, to the ending credits, the series grabs you and keeps you in its grasp.
For the most part, characters are very good, even if their characterizations don’t match their novel counterparts even a bit; and the acting is very solid and in a rare occurrence, all characters have wonderful chemistry with each other. Renfield is a very strong supporting character, which is good considering he has to be, being Dracula’s voice when the other is otherwise indisposed because of his sunlight aversion. His scenes with Dracula are some of the best in the series, providing comic relief to break the tension. Same with Van Helsing, it’s a joy to see how tense their relationship is, and how Abraham, the mortal, is more patient than the immortal Dracula. While I wasn’t convinced by the anachronistic Med-student Mina at first, she’s grown on me, as I’ve realized she’s part of the overall theme of tearing down conventions and moving towards the future, a distinct social parallel to Dracula’s struggle to tear down the Order, an ancient organization, and build a future, perhaps a better one, without its influence and tyranny. Katie McGrath, is a wonderful Lucy, she gets the character perfectly. Let’s just see how long she lasts…
The little touches are fantastic, such as the old-school operating theatre and the review board for medical exams. The social awkwardness between Jonathan and Mina, of two people in love but still bound by norms. When they do break through the awkwardness and display their affection, they raise eyebrows and get shocked looks, very appropriate for the era.
Now to the bad bits…
I seriously hate some of their decisions, mostly on Dracula. I understand this Dracula was turned by the Order against his will (a decision I don’t get by the way), but at one point, when Renfield says he can just take Mina a turn her, he replies with “turning her into one such as me would be an abomination”, which has the dank, musty, horrible smell of angst-filled vampire, something that doesn’t match Dracula nor the series overall characterization.
The series went the Coppola way, making Mina the reincarnation of Dracula’s wife, a tired and frankly uninteresting storyline and serving just as an excuse for a love triangle. So far, they’ve avoided it, with Dracula even helping Mina & Jonathan get back together after the latter said something astoundingly stupid in episode 2, but there are enough seeds there to dread the triangle blooming.
Dracula is underpowered not only compared to the Novel but also to a lot of current vampire media, and this is a Vampire who, in the novel, can walk in sunlight, call storms, turn into swarms of animals and a lot of other badass powers. Here, he’s strong and fast and can’t stay in the sunlight, depending on Van Helsing to make him an, as of now, untested sunlight-resistance serum.
The Order of the Dragon is composed entirely by Morons. I can’t believe they didn’t go for Dracula/Grayson as their main Vampire candidate the moment the first member died, I mean, it’s obvious, but let me run you through it: Member insults Grayson, the newly arrived American in town, and that same night the Member is killed (for being a Member, if you get my obvious meaning) by a newly arrived Vampire. C’mon, even Hugh Jackman’s terrible Van Helsing would’ve made the connection.
Then there’s the femme fatale, who’s sleeping with Dracula all the while “hunting the Vampire”…I sincerely hope they uncover his “secret” soon, otherwise it’ll become less believable by the episode. More than that, I hope it turns out that she knows he’s a vampire but is trying to find out his endgame.
I don’t see much of a point to Jonathan Harker’s characterization as 1) Journalist and 2) Social Climber. The 1st one went out the window during episode 2, when he became Dracula’s attaché, providing Dracula with information on members of the Order and making “friends” with the rest. The second’s only purpose was to give him a reason, the desire to provide for Mina when they marry, for accepting Dracula’s offer…also on episode 2. You could’ve made him a Solicitor as he is in the novel and it would’ve been the same thing.
Overall, the series is pretty strong, and the intriguing plot is enough to keep me going on it, hoping the payoff will be fantastic. It has plenty of flaws, mostly on Dracula and his enemies, but it has more pros than cons so far.
The Mental Attic Score: Worth Watching. My opinion might change in the future, and if it does, you’ll see it on my 1st season review, but so far, the series is very good, with a fantastic cast of characters with amazing chemistry between them, and nailing the period drama details perfectly.