TV REVIEW: Dracula Season 1, Episode 1 – “The Blood is the Life”

DraculaI’ll be reviewing the 10 part BBC/NBC co-production Dracula (2013) for all of you until I think the new year. It only runs ten episodes per season and then in the spring, I believe, NBC has a show about John Malkovich being a pirate (no really). Anyway, let’s get a look at the newest and assuredly not the last reiteration of the Dracula legend.

Dracula - Season 1

Vampiric legend goes back as far as I know to at least ancient Greece. It’s not new. I would say, however, that while Carmilla, Varney the Vampire, and The Vampyre may have predated Bram Stoker’s seminal novel and brought a bit more of cohesion to vampiric legend, that there weren’t vampires in the cultural consciousness until Dracula came along and gave it a face and a driving character to latch onto. In fact, I’d really say there’s probably four iterations/characters within vampire media that have defined how we think of them. First there’s the literary Dracula, then his 1931 theatrical counterpart played by Bela Lugosi (who had also had the role on the London stage). Think about it, even The Count from Sesame Street has a Romanian accent. He does because Bela Lugosi did and vampires in big capes and with dramatic Eastern Europeans were all there were until maybe the nineteen seventies. I’d say that the next change came with the sympathetic monster, the trapped soul version we see with Anne Rice’s Louis in Interview with the Vampire. Please note that there’s no mistaking that Dracula is the monster in the original novel and films, Coppola added a lot of pathos for his 1993 film and more on that in a moment.

After Rice, vampires could brood and feel. They were still killers, but they didn’t all uniformly want to be that way. Whedon I adore, but you can see the fingerprints of Louis and Lestat heavily on Angel and Spike, respecitvely. Hell by season seven of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it’s revealed that Spike vamped his own mother as Lestat did to his mother Gabrielle in the Vampire Chronicles. You still see that sort of set up in other TV representations—-the sarcastic, more evil vampire who revels in the killing and his brother in arms (or sometimes more) the brooding buzz kill. Tell me I haven’t at least described early seasons of Bill and Eric Northman or most of the Salvatore brothers’ dynamic.

Then, of course, came Twilight. Even with all the undertones and weepiness in Rice’s work, the vampire was still a powerful killer and a monster. With Edward Cullen came the defanging of the most iconic monsters of the twentieth century. Now you say “vampire” and people cower at the thought of emo teens and sparkling. Point being, in a post-Twilight world we’ve had a vamp craze (see True BloodThe Vampire Diaries, and The Originals all still on the air), but showrunners have also had a stigma to overcome. Basically, Dracula might be the king of vampires and, frankly, by cinematic monsters by extension. He also has a huge mountain to climb because not only are vampires a saturated market but they’ve also been turned into wusses.

Let’s see how Rhys Meyers and Company have done.

***

Episode 1 — “The Blood is the Life”

Recap:

We start in Romania in 1881 or so our title card tells us. An expedition of two men descends into a long lost cavern where an ornate coffin has been hidden. One man, I shall call him minion, thinks that they’re there to grave rob. The other, whose face we do not see, slits his companion’s throat. The blood seeps through the coffin and reanimates the dessicated corpse of Dracula in a nicely gory touch. Dracula starts to sit up and draw breath (does he need to?) in his coffin when we cut to fifteen years later and Dracula emerging from a bath as he’s about to finish his final preparation for a huge party he’s hosting for his coming out in London high society as “Alexander Grayson,” an average American industrialist who has made his fortune on the western frontier under hazy circumstances but who has now come to London to harness electrical power.

While he’s prepping for the event, we’re also treated to the who’s who of London entering into his ballroom. We meet a few industrialists joking about the American upstart as well as the entrance of Jonathan Harker, a cub reporter at the London Inquisitor, and his girlfriend, Mina Murray, an outstanding medical student and daughter of the lead surgeon of Bethlehem Hospital. Alas for all of us, they are accompanied by Mina’s sniping and nasty friend, Lucy Westenra. Jonathan and Mina are talking about how expensive everything is and, of course, Lucy gets in a jab about how poor Jonathan is. We get it. She’s high society and Jonathan is working class and she doesn’t approve of him for Mina. The amount of nastiness Lucy gets in a few minutes of screen time is enough for me not to want to see her the rest of the series.

Lucky for me she’s a featured regular.

Yay!

Anyway, “Alexander Grayson” aka Dracula appears and tells them all about how he figured out how to make light bulbs light up with electromagnetic energy and without even needing a cord. It’s all to be something extremely similar to the way a compass works (no really). He’s able to demonstrate the efficacy of the light show but we can also tell its’ not quite there yet. While the bulbs do work in a very gorgeous visual, we’re also shown backstage to the factory where workers are at the bellows making it run. There’s a blow out and everyone there is almost killed off site while the high society spectators are none-the-wiser. That said, it’s clear that Dracula does have some special energy source knowledge working for him; he just has to make it safe and viable.

After his triumph, Dracula tries to get a Sir Clive, head of a coolant company, to see if he can buy interest because he’ll need coolant materials for his work. He’s rebuffed and called a charlatan and a fake and Sir Clive vows that he’ll block Dracula from making any headway in English society. You can guess how well this is going to go for Sir Clive’s continued health. Anyway, also at the party, Dracula meets Jonathan and Mina. He’s told in a bit of a joking conciliation from Jonathan that he shouldn’t worry about Sir Clive because he has a gambling problem anyway and is a terrible businessmen. While Dracula files that away, he also is taken with Mina who reminds him instantly of his dead wife, the one burned at the stake over four hundred years ago when he was first made a vampire. The last person of import he meets at the party is Lady Jane Weatherby, someone who comes on strong but who also is one of the few people he’s ever met who can get a drop on him.

That night, as London is settling down, Sir Clive is murdered. I wonder by whom! Okay, I like the way they did the kill. We know what Dracula is and what he is capable of. There’s something to be set for stylistically setting the stage for us by just having an offscreen kill in shadows with blood splatter. Well played show!

Next we’re also treated to a really great intro to the inner sanctum of the our villains for the show, the Order of the Dragon, which turns out to be the secret society of the one percent of London. We start with Jane Weatherby’s escort from the night before, a German mercenary, going to Sir Clive’s coffin before he’s interned (I guess it’s laid out in a parlor pre-burial?) and chopping off his head. He then delivers it to the headquarters, switching off the hat box containing the head slyly with Jane at a metro station. She presents it to the highest member of the League of Shadows that we’ve seen so far, Sir Browning (I really want to believe that’s a sly allusion to Tod Browning, director of the 1931 film). Anyway, he’s upset and orders her to have the German mercenary engage the vampire and take care of him. The last trouble they had back in Whitechapel in 1888 was such a mess after all…

Love that.

We are then in Bethelem Hospital watching Mina go to lecture with Dr. Van Helsing. It’s basically here to establish she’s the only female medical student in her father’s hospital. It really serves to show that Mina is so smart and speshul that she’s the only female medical student in Victorian London and she’s a very bright  one who can relate neural impulses to the day’s headlines about “Alexander Grayson’s” electrical displays. Yawn.

Next we cut to Renfield chastising Dracula for being so sloppy with Clive. Yes, Dracula wants in on the business and upper crust of London, but causing murder and making headlines and gossip with a huge murder isn’t the smartest way to do it. Dracula admits that wasn’t necessarily the best idea but he’s also busy. In his study, he’s laid out file after file on the floor about the Order of the Dragon.  Let’s just go with this, the way he’s sitting cross legged on the floor, talking to his manservant, and looking over files…well he’s a glass of orange juice away from being Bruce in Batman Begins. Hell, considering the Order of the Dragon first used religion and bastardized Christianity to gain power but then is using economic means by controlling oil interests (no fooling this is a driving plot point), it might as well just be called the freaking League of Shadows.

So let it be written, so let it be done.

Batman Dracula has to quit though because this morning Jonathan Harker is back by Drac’s invitation for an exclusive interview. The dialogue here is pedestrian, not much worth recapping. As far as cat and mouse games go, I’ve also seen a lot better this season already on NBC’s other show The Blacklist. Anyway, basically Dracula reveals he’s been able to leverage Sir Clive’s widow’s debts and have her sell him some stock in the company, giving him a toe hold into the League of Shadows’ business side. All through this, the funniest part is watching Jonathan stop buying Drac’s line of bull crap and instead make notes on his pad like “meglomaniac” and “grandiose.”

Back at Bethelem Hospital, Mina meets briefly after hours with Dr. Van Helsing in private as well, worried that while her oral and written exams are top of the class, that she’s not good at the practicals and actual surgery. He tells her that the problem with her hands is a problem of conviction, that her heart doesn’t trust herself and her own skill. No really, a man of science said that. Sure, moving on.

She goes to meet a friend after class so she can quickly head to the opera. Too bad the friend shows up because it really messes with Dracula’s stalking her plans. Instead he goes to Jane’s box at the opera, thus taking her up on an earlier invitation. They have sex right there while he’s looking across the view to see Mina in the box he gave to her for the night. Yes, the show is working extremely hard to nail you over the head with the fact he’s screwing Lady Jane while thinking of Mina the whole time, which, really, when you think about it is just more like thinking about his dead wife.

Post-opera, Drac is watching the comings and goings of Sir Laurent and Sir Other English Dude, other board members/League of Shadows members who are fretting over Grayson’s acquisitions so far. He’s interrupted by the German mercenary, whom he bests in combat before revealing his true vampiric nature and killing him. The mercenary is shocked to realize Dracula is alive. Dracula’s just happy to condemn the first of many, many victims to Hell.

Back in the bowels of The League of Shadows, Lady Jane is in pants! She’s in pants so that she can go all ninja on some punching bags. It’s a pretty good display of swordsmanship. She’s also taunting a rogue vampire who has come to London. The vampiress says she’s only the first and that others will come and be Legion to follow after one so old as the mystery vampire troubling the League.

Back at Castle Dracula, Drac is visited by Van Helsing. It’s then revealed that while Dracula is the supernatural brawn behind this plan to topple the League of Shadows and end its one percent stranglehold on the world, Van Helsing is the architect of the plan as well as the financier. How he’s come across such an amount of wealth, we don’t know yet. We do know that it was Van Helsing who saved Dracula over fifteen years ago and who, like Dracula, had his family burned at the stake in front of him because of orders from the League of Shadows. Van Helsing is furious that Dracula has killed Clive as well as German mercenary, that they have to be patient. Dracula almost kills him but Van Helsing reminds Drac that he owes Van Helsing his life as well as this chance for revenge. Begrudgingly, Dracula calms down and promises to stick more to the plan.

***

The Good:

*    The look —- this show is beautiful. I’m not a big fan of period pieces because they tend to put me to sleep. However, this show has amazingly beautiful cinematography. The whole thing feels like a sumptuous film, from the beautiful candelight and shadows, the exquisit costumes, and the gorgeous interior sets.

*     Jonathan Rhys Meyers—– I’ve never actually seen an episode of The Tudors. I’ve heard good things, don’t get me wrong, but I couldn’t afford Showtime so I’ve never seen it. However, I’ve been a huge fan of him since I watched Velvet Goldmine and he really doesn’t dissapoint here. He’s charming and sexy and plays joy in carnage and throat ripping well. I also like that his American accent is decent but that they also have plenty of scenes of Dracula speaking with Van Helsing or Renfield in private to let you know that he’s not even mastered his Britishisms yet. (Renfield actually corrects a mispronunciation of “schedule” before the party starts.) I was afraid I’d be getting all bland, trying too hard to be an American Meyers and I didn’t.

*    Sex and Gore —- let’s just say this vampire isn’t going to be practicing abstinence and we’ve seen some decapitations and throats being torn out already. It’s not going splatter punk or torture porn on us, but it has gore and isn’t afraid to remind us that Dracula is a monster and revels in it.

*    Van Helsing is on Team Dracula —- That was the best reveal of the episode, really the only big one. I really loved it. I thought it’d be “Oh Van Helsing is here so they’re gonna fight to the death, right?” I think it’s a brilliant twist to the mythology that Van Helsing’s grief and anger has caused him to unleash the monster himself. I want to see where that goes and how well he can keep Dracula leashed in order to accomplish their main goal.

***

The Bad:

*    The female characters pretty much suck — We have three female leads and none of them are interesting. Mina’s very much a Mary Sue. She’s so shiny special that she’s not only magically allowed to go to medical school in Victorian, England, but she’s also the star student there. I’m sorry. I don’t care who her father is. I call B.S. on that. She wouldn’t be allowed to be more than a nurse at that level. Heck, she’s not even bullied or mocked by her classmates. I might be tempted to buy that maybe, just perhaps, she had daddy beg a favor for her to get in but not that all the men sit there and never try mocking her in class or being shocked she’s there.

I actually do like the fact that Lady Jane’s an accomplished and fearless vampire hunter. If this were a different show, she would have made the Watchers’ Council extremely happy as a slayer. However, she’s still coded as the bad guy and she’s also just being used by Dracula as basically a replacement for Mina. I have no problem with female characters being painted as sexual beings on TV. That’s great. I hate that the female villain out to hunt Dracula is of course so wonton she’d have sex at the opera (in Victorian England, really?) and that she’s being so blatantly used by him. That sucks. She seems like a cool, badass chick who calls the shots but she’s still being played by Dracula?

Zzzz.

I hate Lucy. I hate her.  I know she’s a character from the novel (read it twice, thanks). However, I am not sure what the point of her in this show is except to make snotty remarks at Jonathan cause he’s poor. She has all the personality of cardboard and the couth of a rabid weasel. UGH.

*     The fight scenes are not good —- The big battle on the roof between Dracula and the German mercenary was painful to watch. The CGI for the London skyline is too cartoony and it just doesn’t work. Also, they’re trying too hard to ape The Matrix or 300 with a lot of slow motion and semi-bullet time moves. It just feels like it’s about five years too late for that; fad’s over!

*     Some mythology changes don’t seem like wise choices —- First, what’s the point of Jonathan being a poor reporter instead of a poor lawyer? It all seems like six of one, half dozen of the other. I like changing things to add more to it. Again see Van Helsing as working with Dracula now. Very cool. I like that Renfield is a sarcastic voice of reason and not eating bugs (yet?). Smart. I don’t get just making Jonathan a reporter though. Also, I would have preferred if Dracula didn’t burn in sunlight. He doesn’t in the novel. He can walk around in daylight although a lot of his strength is dimmed and his thrall powers and such don’t work in the sun. However, here I just would have liked if he hadn’t been weakened by sunlight. I get why they’re doing it. It is played as a moment of tension in the interview with Jonathan since the other man has opened the curtains and is standing half in sunlight to shake hands. Still, I was sort of digging a day walking Drac.

*     Not sure I’m sold either on the “Mina is reincarnated” plot —– That’s the big underlying plot point that this adaptation shares with Francis Ford Coppolla’s version. That film reimagined Dracula as a tragic hero who had lost his love and was desperate to have Mina because she was the reincarnation of his soulmate. It’s not in the novel anywhere. I really liked that in the film. I thought it worked great and that Oldman and Ryder had great chemistry there. While I also am buying there’s chemistry between Rhys Meyers and De Gouw, I don’t know if we need to retread that angle. I get that there has to be some love story of forbidden romance angle to make the show work. Ever since Buffy or Anita Blake, we’ve hungered for the forbidden vamp love. After Twilight, it became a pre-req for any vampire-related entertainment. Still, I wish they’d tried for something maybe a bit more original.

***

The Verdict:

Episode 1 is beautifully shot, cinematically powerful and has an engaging and devilishly sexy lead. However, it’s female characters are abysmal, it’s fight scenes distractingly gimmicky, and the heavy handed one percent and green energy storylines too preachy not to be laughable.

Other words — there’s potential but it has a lot of issues too.

***

Next Episode – Drac plots more to get closer to Mina and from the trailer it looks like there’s going to be shots to try and help him with his sun allergy. We shall see!

Rating: 3.5/5

Reviewer: Margaret Bates

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