Saturday, May 31, 2014

Dracula – season 1 – review

Director: various

First aired: 2013

Contains spoilers

I had watched Dracula as it aired but decided, on reflection, that I wanted to re-watch the series before putting my thoughts to blog (so to speak). The series itself made me struggle towards the end and I really wanted to give it the optimum chance. Worrying then that I struggled to watch it again.

Mina, Jonathon and Lucy
That was a shame because, despite reservations, I found myself (first time round) enjoying the series – for the first few episodes. I felt that the naysayers (often on Facebook) kicked off because it didn’t meet their private vision of who Dracula (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, the Mortal Instruments: City of Bones) should be. If that was the case, and you are reading this, then all I can say is you are in for a lifetime of disappointment because the persona of Dracula shifts from book to book and film to film – this is probably why Draculas have become a plural common noun for vampire (especially, but not exclusively, in Japan). This Dracula was based on the Vlad Ţepeş model but was very different from many portrayals of that variety. The plot also added the resurrected love trope.

Dracula’s resurrection was well done. Two men entering a lost crypt and finding the coffin and mechanically impaled corpse. One – revealed to be Van Helsing (Thomas Kretschmann, Blade 2 & Dracula [2012]) – slits the throat of his companion in order that he might resurrect Dracula and it is this sort of turnaround of characters that the series did well.

let's make our enemy a vampire!
Dracula and van Helsing are uneasy allies campaigning to destroy the Order of the Dragon – the Order punished Dracula by burning his wife Ilona (Jessica De Gouw) at the stake and turning him into a vampire (ok, I wasn’t too sure about the appropriateness of that punishment, seemed a little silly to turn your enemy into a supernaturally strong creature) and centuries later punished Van Helsing by burning his wife and children to death in a house fire and forcing him to watch. Renfield (Nonso Anozie) becomes an erudite lawyer and loyal employee of Dracula, notably – given the faux-Victorian London setting – he is African American. Harker (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) is a journalist and engaged to medical student Mina, she is also played by Jessica De Gouw as she is Ilona reborn. Lucy (Katie McGrath) is still there as a socialite and secretly in love with Mina.

The enemies in the Order are new characters and of them the two most interesting are Order leader Browning (Ben Miles) and the chief huntsman (or vampire hunter to you and I) Lady Jayne Wetherby (Victoria Smurfit). She is distracted from the true identity of American industrialist Alexander Grayson (which is the persona that Dracula has adopted) by him pursuing her and involving her in a torrid affair. The supernatural aspect is continued with the Order adopting seers to try and track down the elder vampire they know to have come to London. Dracula’s presence is like a homing beacon and London is being infiltrated by the undead.

The way Dracula and Van Helsing intend to take down the order is by a technology they are developing that provides cheap wireless electricity. I liked this almost proto-steampunk feel the series adopted – though where they got the technology from is never answered (perhaps Van Helsing invented it, who knows). However, as much as it is an alternate Victorian London (allowing daring dresses and actions by the ladies) it was here that the series also fell flat. London was too clean, there may have been angst amongst the lead characters but London almost felt like a slightly darker Mary Poppins place of cheeky chaps, progressive (comparatively) asylums and was a place you could walk at night. It might be unfair to compare two series – especially as, at the time of writing this I have only seen episode 1 – but the dark, griminess of Penny Dreadful’s London was a million time more effective and should have been what this series aimed for.

Nonso Anozie as Renfield
The trouble with this generally, however, was that it really did not grab me. For about four episodes (first viewing) I was interested and then it became a drag. Re-watching it for a second time it really did become a chore. It wasn’t the actors, it wasn’t the characters – whilst some (like Harker) were ciphers, Lady Jane, and Renfield were cracking characters and I liked Rhys Meyers’ interpretation of Dracula (perhaps a little presence-lite and much more suave than monster but he had his violent moments). It wasn’t the lore, which was fairly standard in most regards – sunlight was added as deadly to vampires, which we know is out with the novel but it was a definite story element as Van Helsing tried to create an anti-sunlight serum so that Grayson could complete his industrialist persona and be seen in daylight. Other Dracula cinema invented tropes, such as reincarnated love, are virtually so commonplace as to be not noteworthy – neither interesting nor annoying. So what was it?

Vampire in Sunlight
The overall story didn’t grab me I guess, it had little in the way of teeth. It plodded along and, overall, I guess I didn’t care what happened and that’s a shame. Moments of violence and action were too infrequently peppered amongst industrial intrigue that wasn’t that intriguing. It isn’t surprising, however, that the series failed to get a second season. 4 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.


Octobercynic said...

I agree whole-heartedly with your assessment of the series. Despite the (to me) over-used trope of reincarnated love, the characters were drawn with enough clarity to attract your attention, yet enough unseen to allow for development as the series progressed. Kudos to the cast, who did much with what they had.
It started to feel as though the original narrative was abandoned around episode 5 or 6, and the story sped up, as if the creators were hurrying to get as many of the familiar elements in before the season ended.
The settings were a wee bit too sterile in some respects; even the London portrayed in the 1940's Sherlock Holmes movies seemed closer to the truth. Overall, a great start inexplicably wasted, as if midway through the series they lost their train of thought. Maybe next time.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

cheers for the comment - I think you are right, it was about episode 5 that the show lost my attention

Unknown said...

I found the series quite boring. Some of the lore was odd, like you mentioned, with the Order of the Dragon creating/cursing Dracula. Also, it was never explained how Lady Jayne was able to physically best vampires in a fight. Were the huntsman magically strengthened somehow by the Order? Or were the vampires other than Dracula just plain weak. Very disappointing show.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi Scott, Thanks for the comment and you make a good point re the huntsmen and their relative strengths

Prodosh said...

Andy, I quite liked the series. I watched it, as previously I had watched WACO, because of my crush on a particular actress (Melissa Benoist in WACO, Katie McGrath here) who turns out to be rather marginal to an otherwise absorbing show. The added bonus was the excellent Nonso Anozie whom I had liked in ZOO.
My question is: did the writer(s) incorporate Stoker's homophobia? Admittedly, the treatment of the gay couple in the Order of the Dragon seems sympathetic. It seems we are meant to feel the agony of the younger of the two (son of Davenport?) who commits suicide. In the novel, clearly Dracula's first intended victim is Harker, but, once in England, the vampire decorously vamps only women, and that bit is emphasized in this serial through the series of women Dracula feeds on.
When it comes to Lucy's sexual attraction to Mina, both Mina and Lucy's mother are revolted when Lucy comes out with it. Also, it is Lady Jane, who, jealous of Grayson-Dracula's obvious attraction to Mina, seductively provokes Lucy to come out to Mina and, when Mina rejects Lucy, incites the latter to seduce Harker by making Lucy suggest to him that Mina is cheating on him with Grayson-Dracula. The matter comes to its homophobic climax with Dracula vamping Lucy, saying, "If you want to behave like a monster, I will make you one!"

Am I right or am I reading it wrong?

Taliesin_ttlg said...

One media studies theory is that any reading by the audience is correct 😉...

However. I very much doubt there was any attempt to put Stoker's alleged homophobia into the series. I say alleged as I would be loath to accuse a man who I understand kept contact with Oscar Wilde, after the 'troubles', as homophobic. Stoker may well have been firmly in a closet, depending on your reading of Stoker's orientation, but I don't think he 'feared' homosexuality as such - certainly I don't read that in the novel.

For historic background, the homosexuality you have looked at is lesbianism - the position of Victorian Britain was that it simply didn't exist. Whereas there were stringent laws against gays, the legislation was silent on lesbianism as Queen Victoria could not conceive of such a thing.

So my reading of the series and the Lucy/Mina situation was that it was less homophobia and more Machiavellian on the part of Lady Jane. The reaction of the mother was probably historically accurate. The reaction of Dracula I read was to her being a monster by actively wrecking lives... but I will add that it is six years since I watched it and the series was pretty boring so I may just have ignored/forgotten nuance.