This Dracula review contains spoilers. It originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
Dracula Episode 2
Oh, those wily rascals. At the Dracula launch, writers Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat were asked if they’d considered making this a modern take on Bram Stoker’s story to match their updated Sherlock and Moffat’s present-day version of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde? Nah, they said. Nope, nuh-uh. It was always going to be a period piece.
“We really wanted it to be the original with Romania and the mountains and the castle,” producer Sue Vertue told the crowd. Gatiss nodded along, “Somehow it just felt right to be able to do big castles and moonlight and capes again!”
Castles, moonlight and capes we had in episodes one and two. In number three? ’Copters, motorcars and cops. Cake had and eaten.
It’s a fresh twist from the surprise mongers, and an entirely welcome one. At the exact point this retelling needed a shot in the arm, just when it was becoming possible to take the extreme charisma of its two leads for granted: record scratch. We zoomed a century forward to DCI Sister Agatha vs a fish-out-of-literal-water Drac. Now, we can anticipate the final instalment as though it were another new show – a gift that keeps on giving.
Episode two was a particular gift to fans of Agatha Christie. While its predecessor paid due homage to the horror genre, this one was a salute to detective fiction. A touch of Murder on the Orient Express, a little of And Then There Were None … Both stories were reimagined on a ship rather than a train or island, with their murder weapons swapped for a pair of fangs and a hunger for blood.
Simultaneously playing the murder mystery’s sophisticate detective, string-pulling mastermind and crazed killer (well, why wouldn’t you cast him in every role? The man’s an eyeball-magnet) Claes Bang had a satisfyingly full plate this episode. The Demeter’s varied guests gave him the opportunity to show off the Count in a range of colors. With Bavarian Portmann he was ruthless, with the Grand Duchess he was charming, with Lord Ruthven he was a flirt, with Lady Ruthven he was pure filth. And playing chess with Sister Agatha, he was strangely obliging.
As a figment of her fevered imagination, he could afford to be (that was the kind of Aha! Huh? revelation best not prodded too vigorously with the finger of narrative logic. The Count’s magic, remember. He appears in dreams and is occasionally a wolf/many bats. I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it).
The mystery of why a wimple-less Sister Agatha was acting matey with the creature she’d sworn to destroy was one of the strings pulling us through the episode’s first half. The chess game interview being revealed as a hallucination while Agatha lay drained in the mysterious cabin no. nine was … an explanation. Next to tremendous lines like “Why do you pick flowers?” as an insight into the Count’s approach to killing humans, who’s counting?
What that shift gave us was the return of Agatha proper, the brilliant Dolly Wells. No longer trapped in a cozy imaginary tête-à-tête with the Count, she was back as his adversary, taking charge just before the story risked going around in circles. (Speaking of circles, episode two, directed by Damon Thomas, may not have had as many weird horror moments as the first, but that jump-scare as Piotr stepped gingerly out from the bible pages was sublime.)
The Demeter’s journey was also a chance to discover more about the rules of the beast: this Count Dracula is trying to manage his blood addiction, can do the fog thing from the book, is able to show people their future in reflections, absorb their personalities from their blood, and can learn languages faster than Neo in The Matrix. He also picked up the German shipman’s stutter, momentarily. Might that mean he’s vulnerable to absorbing things from his victims that he might not want, or that could weaken him?
Still to be discovered is exactly how vampiric transformation works, whether the modern-day Agatha is a Van Helsing descendant or a vampire original, and what really drives the Count’s fear of the cross. Luckily, with 90 minutes still to go, there’s more than enough time to find out.
And so, this Dracula booked us a cabin on a voyage we’ve only previously seen from the outside, plumping out the original story with new characters, new mysteries, new homages, a new hero in Agatha and an increasingly compelling villain. Well, what did you think this invigorated version of the Count was going to do on his way to England, lie around in a box?