The first episode of Dracula has arrived from Sherlock co-creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, and it’s fair to say that it’s a bloody, irreverent and sometimes deeply disturbing take on Bram Stoker’s novel.
Starring Danish actor Claes Bang as the titular Count, the story sees solicitor Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan) arrive at Castle Dracula, later retelling his story to atheist nun Sister Agatha (Dolly Wells) and his fiancé Mina (Morfydd Clark), though he’s unaware of the latter’s identity.
Full of bizarre moments, dark magic and a few intriguing mysteries, there’s (appropriately) plenty to dissect once the dust (and blood) has settled at the end of this first 90-minute adventure – starting with…
Was Harker a vampire the whole time?
Well, more or less. If you watch back early scenes of Harker in the convent you can see him shunning sunlight and attempting to eat flies just like Dracula’s brides, only for a cheery “Are you hungry?” from Sister Agatha to snap him out of his reverie.
However, Agatha also suggests that Harker isn’t “yet” a vampire even if he is undead. The rules of vampirism in this adaptation seem to be that anyone fed on by a vampire, then killed, may become a vampire, but the process is uncertain – sometimes people just become walking corpses instead, like the ones that attack Harker – and erratic. Apparently, most vampires are basically beasts, and few live as long or retain as much of their humanity as Dracula.
Accordingly, for most of the episode Harker appears to be in a kind of conscious, zombified state, though he begins to exhibit the full traits of a vampire by the end.
Was that a Sherlock reference?
Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Dolly Wells as Sister Agatha in Dracula (BBC)
Good spot! Towards the end of the episode, Sister Agatha reveals that she’s tracked down Jonathan’s fiancé Mina, with help from a “detective acquaintance in London.”
This is a subtle nod to Dracula creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ other BBC adaptation, Sherlock – and apparently the pair thought some viewers might not notice the little Easter Egg.
“I thought no-one would get that!” laughed Moffat at a recent screening of Dracula’s first episode.
“Really it’s Sexton Blake,” joked Gatiss, referring to a different fictional 1890s detective who often appeared in periodicals like Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes. “We’re just messing with you.”
Why does Dracula fear the cross?
Dracula (Claes Bang) and Sister Agatha (Dolly Wells)
While this new Dracula does obey the majority of “vampire rules” and weaknesses (including sunlight, stakes and being unable to enter rooms without permission), one of them gets a bit of a twist in this new adaptation.
It’s revealed during the episode that while Dracula does still fear the cross (meaning crucifixes are a useful deterrent) this is not true of all vampires – only him. And when Sister Agatha theorises that the fundamental goodness of faith is what puts him against them, Dracula hints that there’s another, more complicated reason behind it.
“For a moment there I thought you were clever,” Dracula tells her. “But no. No, that’s not why I fear the cross – goodness has got nothing to do with it.”
Later, when a group of nuns attempt to ward him off with their crucifixes, Dracula admits that those things “work, actually – though you will never guess why.”
Clearly, there’s some mystery here to be solved in the coming episodes. Could his aversion to crucifixes be based on some part of his mortal life, some trauma or other bad memory? Could the shape have some significance beyond religion? Or is it something weirder and more offbeat entirely?
Who is Van Helsing?
English actor Peter Cushing (1913 – 1994) as Doctor Van Helsing in ‘Dracula’, directed by Terence Fisher, 1958. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)
Towards the end of the episode there’s a fairly big reveal that Sister Agatha has the surname Van Helsing, which the Count discovers by tasting her blood – but if you’re not a big horror or Dracula fan you might be wondering about the significance.
In Bram Stoker’s original novel Dr Abraham Van Helsing is a medical man and scientist who ends up teaming up with a psychiatrist, a cowboy, an English lord and Jonathan and Mina Harker (yes, really) to fight Count Dracula, and over the last hundred years the character has evolved to represent the quintessential vampire hunter.
Accordingly he or his descendants have been played in various film projects (most notably by Peter Cushing) and TV shows, and Van Helsing is always a crucial part of any Dracula story. In this version, they’ve just combined the character with a minor figure in the book to create a female version.
You can read more about Van Helsing as a character here, and about Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ new version of the vampire slayer here.
While the new adaptation does keep a lot of things from the original Bram Stoker novel, there are also some serious changes. While Sister Agatha does exist in the book she plays just a small role in nursing Harker back to health.
She’s certainly not the atheist, science-focused figure we meet in this series, and her identity as a Van Helsing (replacing the elderly Abraham Van Helsing from later in the novel) is a new invention for the series.
Other major changes include Jonathan’s transformation into an undead creature (in the book he escapes relatively unharmed and survives until the end) and Dracula’s attack on the convent in Hungary, which never occurs in the book (instead, he leaves for England shortly before Harker’s escape).
You can read a more in-depth look at what does and doesn’t survive the transition from page to screen here.
Are there more Van Helsings?
Claes Bang and Dolly Wells in the BBC’s Dracula (BBC)
“Helsing! Van Helsing! What is your interest in me, Agatha Van Helsing? Who are you?”
With these words, Count Dracula revealed the true identity of Dolly Wells’ character to the world – but we also have to wonder whether he’s on to something.
Agatha seems to know a lot about vampires – so could it be that she’s not replaced the book’s older Van Helsing, exactly, but is related to him? And with that in mind, is it possible that the elder Van Helsing died at the fangs of Dracula or some other vampire, making this a particularly personal clash between the two figures?
Luckily, we don’t have long to find out…
How did Dracula disguise himself as Harker?
In one of the episode’s oddest moments, the final scene sees Mina welcome her somewhat vampiric fiancé Jonathan into the safety of her and Agatha’s circle – only to discover he’s not Jonathan at all, with his face sloughing off to reveal Dracula within.
And while this might seem like a bizarre out-of-nowhere bit of Mission: Impossible-style nonsense from Dracula, the episode does actually set up this ability earlier on. When Dracula has taken the form of a dog outside the convent, this power – to hide inside the skin of another – is displayed, though in that case the smaller size of the dog means that Dracula has to be “rebirthed” back to his usual size and appearance from within the animal.
Is Harker still alive?
Well, no – he’s undead – and based on what happened to the dog/wolf body that Dracula previously hid within, we’d say that this particular disguise will have destroyed what was left of him for good. Sorry, Jonny blue-eyes.
Are Mina and Sister Agatha about to die?
The episode ends on a real cliffhanger, with Mina and Agatha seemingly just moments away from doom as Count Dracula walks towards them, having been invited inside their consecrated circle.
Clearly, the Count doesn’t perish at their hands – there are already preview photos for the next episode, and it’s hard to imagine a series called Dracula continuing without Dracula –so unless he devises some reason to keep them alive (possibly to feed on or turn into new “brides”) it seems likely that Mina at least is done for.
As for Agatha Van Helsing, we’re not so sure – because it definitely seems like there are more mysteries to be solved with her.
Dracula continues on BBC One on Thursday 2nd and Friday 3rd January at 9pm