Dracula episode 1 review: The Blood Is The Life

Review Laura Akers 29 Oct 2013 - 07:15

Jonathan Rhys Meyers was born to play Dracula, if only the rest of the show could keep up with him. Here's Laura's review of episode one...

This review contains spoilers.

1.1 The Blood is the Life

When Jonathan Rhys Meyers signed on to do The Tudors, I had my doubts. With a couple of degrees in Renaissance studies, I’m tough to please when it comes to narratives set in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. And how on earth did a skinny and somewhat effeminate guy who seems to have stopped aging at 25 and who falls short of 5’10 expect to pull off playing twenty years at the end of the life of a he-man known to tower above the rest of his court while sporting a waistline almost three quarters his own height? It wasn’t just improbable. It was outright laughable.

And yet, by the end of the first episode, and ignoring the exaggerated age difference always depicted between Catherine of Aragon and Henry, I was sold. Sure, the lavish costumes, expert actors, frequent bed-mauling, and gorgeous sets helped. But in the end, the entire project rested squarely on Meyers’s shoulders. And what he knew he couldn’t deliver on physically had to be made up for  in other ways - namely by nailing the twisted, paranoid, arrogant, but still charismatic quality of one of the most compelling kings to sit on the English throne.

So when they announced that he would be playing the titular vampire in NBC’s new 10-episode series Dracula, I had few worries. Meyers might be a stretch as a massive monarch, but he was built to play the seductive and dangerous count. No wonder NBC chose to skip the pilot process on Cole Haddon’s creation and go straight into production. With a team of producers that included Gareth Neame (Downton Abbey), Emmy winner Colin Callender, Tony Krantz (Sports Night, 24), Dracula is poised to become a hit.

Unfortunately, if this first episode is anything to go on, Meyers—good as he is—may not be able to overcome two very serious obstacles to the show’s success: bad writing and lacklustre acting.

Set almost exclusively in Victorian England, the episode opens with Van Helsing (Thomas Kretschmann) awakening Dracula from a centuries-long sleep by slitting the throat and feeding him the blood of an avaricious but apparently otherwise innocent man.

I’ll let you take a moment to read that again.

The grand-dad of all vampire hunters brings the biggest and baddest of the breed back from the grave… literally. That’s quite the twist, and we hold our breath waiting to learn why, because this is going to be epic, right?

Because some group called the Order of the Dragon (think the Knights Templar, only actually guilty of everything they were accused of back in the fourteenth century) killed both Van Helsing’s family and Dracula’s wife. So of course they’re going to join forces, have an occasional but quickly mended spat or two, and then become the next great bro-mance.

If only it got better from there.

The Order has now moved from using the Church to cover its evil to allowing late-nineteenth century capitalism and industry to cloak its doings. In order to thwart and bring down the captains of industry and immolation, Dracula turns up in England disguised as a young American businessman who has a near-miracle to share: technology capable of transmitting electricity wirelessly. Lends a bit of steampunk to the already confused narrative.

Dracula reveals this scientific breakthrough (meant to eventually bankrupt the bad guys) during a party where the rest of the more traditional Bram Stoker characters appear: Jonathan Harker (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), the journalist, is escorting medical student Mina Murray (Jessica De Gouw) and un-Victorian flirt Lucy Westenra (Katie McGrath) to a party at the home of Dracula’s alter-ego Alexander Grayson. Renfield (Nonso Anozie) oversees the festivities, which most people appear to have come to out of curiosity or a desire to insult the American “interloper.” And Mina - who just happens to be the spitting image of Dracula’s dead wife - is, of course, immediately drawn to the mysterious American, while Dracula seems a touch too blasé about the incarnation of his wife who’s randomly shown up at his party.

The next thirty minutes include a murder, a rooftop fight, a head in a box, an evil-kickboxing-vampire-hunting-blonde (who also apparently enjoys a good fingering by the undead), and Ben Miles of all people, who seems to be playing one of the worst of the Dragonians, a man named Browning (a possible reference to Tod Browning, director of the 1931 Bela Lugosi Dracula?). For a series so determined to play it straight, Dracula reads more on paper as camp than horror or adventure. It was like the show was conceived over a drunken game of Cards Against Humanity.

Now, nothing says that you can’t reimagine a well-known story. Sherlock has proven that in spades. But if you’re going to run that risk, you need to offer a clear vision and a compelling story. Thus far, Dracula lacks both. But then it’s hard to be surprised that the writing here is such an obvious mess and miss. Cole Haddon’s experience in writing for the screen is practically non-existent and his co-writer Rebecca Kirsch’s last real gig was as an assistant on Leverage, a show of dubious quality, especially in the later part of the run on which she primarily worked.

Still, even the most ridiculous of stories (and dialogue) can sometimes be redeemed by a great cast. Unfortunately, while Meyers, Kretschmann, and Anozie put in solid performances, the rest of the ensemble seems a little flat. Lucy is one-note, Mina seems only vaguely aware of her surroundings, and Jonathan’s best quality is that he’s not being played by Keanu Reeves this time round.

You’re probably sensing that I’m disappointed.

None of this means that the series is beyond hope. But the final thing that struck me about Dracula was how languid it felt - and not in a good way. The pacing is near-glacial at times, which is a real issue in a short ten-episode arc like this one. There’s no time to mess about with atmospherics (one of the few things the show’s doing well). You need a strong concept and a tight story. At this point, it has neither.

Still, it’s a role Meyers was born to play and it’s that which will ensure NBC an audience for at least a few more episodes. Shirtless, smoldering, and seductive as hell, he’s something to watch in action. Here’s to hoping they give him the writing and supporting cast that allows us to enjoy him for far more than that. Both he, and Dracula, deserve better than what we’ve seen so far.

Read Bela Lugosi to Buffy: 10 very different on-screen Draculas, here.

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You know when you watch something and just think 'silly'...

This was my last great hope for the Autumn's new season - Shield is still 'meh'; Atlantis must have powerful friends at the top, and Sleepy Hollow has great elements that still need to be hit with a large, bloodied hammer to get them to play nice with each other. Oh well, at least there's plenty of Doctor Who to keep us busy (shuffles off to wimper in a corner, clutching his plush TARDIS to his tear-streaked face...)

Silly - Not the worst thing in the world. Roof top fight bobbins.. sets and atmosphere very good. Potential and limited run will probably be salvation no need to pad for 5 seasons before solution. Cheese fest

The show was supremely boring, which is unfortunate, because I really wanted to like this. DAMN.

yeah, you're probably watching Dr Who

I thought 'pass' as soon as I read the premise. The book is great & I urge anyone who hasn't to read it to do so. I have a huge bugbear about Dracula, namely nobody & I mean nobody (looking at you Coppola) has ever done a decent adaptation of the book. The closest was the BBC version in the 70's with Louis Jourdan & Frank Finley, but even that made some big changes. The reason that f***ing with the original story annoys me so much, is that it is better than anything yet committed to screen & yet it is very cinematic/televisual. The chase across Europe back to Transylvania is excellent, yet only 2 versions that I can think of even make a nod to it. Coppola shows us Indiana Jones style dot on a map & the 70's BBC has 10 minutes on a Welsh mountain path (probably due to BBC budget constraints). Everyone says that that audiences want a 'new take' on things, well I'd argue that in the case of Dracula, a 'new take' would actually be to film the bloody story!

HEY! Dr who is cool, as well are bow ties!

If I could 'like' this comment more than once, I would! I have watched this first episode and I am sad to say that Laura's review is right. Your comment reflects my thoughts exactly, I wrote my dissertation on the novel and am constantly disappointed that no-one has EVER translated it to screen in a way that is true to the actual, original story! *Stamps feet in frustration*

I loved Myers in Tudors even thought I couldn't actually see him playing the role, he did it so well I was excited to see him in this just like this writer it was the role he was destined to play but the story didn't seem to pull you in and too much introduction to too many characters or something and not enought to grab you. I hope they turn it around I will keep trying to watch for a few more episodes.

I watched it - it looks sumptuous, so I suppose that's something, and has a quick pace. But it left me with too many questions:
Why did the Order entomb Dracula with all his gold? And rig the spiky mechanisms (which still work after so many centuries) so that he can be so easily freed?
Why the American disguise for Dracula (Dracula is many things, but a Tesla-level genius with ambitions to give the people free energy has never been one of them), and what's more a disguise designed to antagonise and put your enemies on the alert?
Why does Dracula meet Harker for an interview in a room in Dracula’s house with open curtains and a chance of being burned by sunlight (which in fact does happen)?
Why does Dracula have so much trouble dealing with one guy on a rooftop at night? He's freaking DRACULA! I can see it if we were talking about some sparkly emo vamp who craps himself if he runs out of hair gel…
Where did Van Helsing’s blonde assistant Lady Jane learn modern kickboxing, and why is she keeping a spare vampire in a cage? Is it getting fed from poor chimney sweeps or orphans or something? And if she’s working with Van Helsing and is aware of Grayson’s true identity and dangerous nature, why does she let him, er, get familiar with her in her opera box? (yes, I wrote that)
And again, why the disguise? Dracula clearly knows who his enemies are, he even has photographs of them - just go after them and have a feast!

Oh God, not another adaptation that will have Dracula and Mina as a shipping possibility. We have one of the greatest gothic novels of all time her; why has every adaptation either buggered around with the plot or played the whole thing as a melodrama? I agree completely with Rich: just film the dam story as it was written for God's sake!

It's reasons like this that the best Dracula adaptation I've ever seen is an armature theatre production performed in Nottingham. The only changes to the plot were clearly to accommodate the time limits, budget and small cast, and it worked SO well. It's really not hard to do the dam thing properly!

I saw the trailer. It looked rubbish. And that whole "Mina is Dracula's reincarnated wife" thing? Again?!

Yes. What he said.

Thank you for summing up the failures of logic within this episode. People will buy that Helsing and Dracula can team up (the idea still makes me cringe) and that there is an all-powerful evil organisation that they must topple, but plot holes like these cause shows to bleed viewers.

While I appreciate your criticism of the series's pilot, I do think it's incredibly unfair and naive to cite a wonderful writer like Rebecca Kirsch in relation to the quality of the writing itself. She isn't even a senior writer on the show, nor was she involved in the writing of the pilot. It would make far more sense to attack myself, the episode's writer, and showrunner Daniel Knauf -- creator of "Carnivale" and the senior writer on "Dracula". We are the guilty parties, if guilt is to be assigned.

Agreed. OK the original can do with some updating but the basic premise is extremely good: Age old monster seeks to extend his sphere of influence to the modern world and uses unwitting employee to do so.

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