**Warning – this review contains spoilers for Dracula episode 2**
They’ve done it – after months, if not years of denials, Sherlock creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat have pulled one last trick on us all.
As it turns out their authentic, period Dracula adaptation will also be bringing the character to the present day, despite all their denials that they’d be updating the Count à la Sherlock, and this big twist – which ends tonight’s second episode with a flourish – is exactly the sort of brilliant conceit we’ve come to expect from their writing partnership.
But before all that there’s a whole episode (or film, given the length) to get through, and after some minor misgivings I had about the first Dracula installment I found Blood Vessel a treat.
Based on a very short section of Bram Stoker’s original novel – just four pages, in fact – episode two lands us on the Demeter, an ill-fated sailing vessel taking a motley crew of passengers from Eastern Europe to England. Suffice it to say that a tiny (if popular) part of the book has been massively expanded here, with Claes Bang’s Dracula launching a kind of murder mystery all of his own (continuing from episode one, some shades of Sherlock are visible) as passengers and crew are picked off one by one.
In other words, like their 2013 Doctor Who episode Cold War this is Moffat and Gatiss' take on Alien, though this time the ship is wooden and on the sea rather than travelling the stars, and the monster is a suave vampire rather than a ravenous ET.
Nearly all the characters here are new inventions for the series, from Sacha Dhawan’s Dr Sharma and Clive Russell’s Valentin to screen veteran Catherine Schell’s Grand Duchess, and the episode sets up a fun Christie-esque flavour by introducing these characters with their own captions – though sadly, we don’t have as much time to get to know them as we might like, the action instead focusing more and more on Bang and Wells’ Dracula and Sister Agatha.
Still, with characters this fun it's hard to begrudge the focus. After being a little inconsistent in episode one (understandably given the story) Bang’s Dracula really finds his feet here, nailing the smooth, good-humoured but ultimately vicious vampire as he verbally spars with Agatha in his “wine cellar” or wistfully apologises to his victims onboard the ship.
Wells, meanwhile, offers a great new take on her rebooted Van Helsing character, fighting tooth and nail (sometimes literally) to keep up with the Count and regularly challenging his atrocities so we don’t get too sympathetic with the monster.
By the end of the episode the pair truly seem like equals, locked in battle on the decks of the exploding Demeter – though if you thought the story would end there, you really had another thing coming. Somehow, some way, despite the efforts of Agatha and the surviving crew Dracula finds his way to England after all – just a century or so late – where, bizarrely, Agatha is still alive and waiting for him.
In an episode packed with twists (room number 9’s reveal was particularly ingenious) this one is the most enticing of all, suggesting that the secretive episode three – of which very little has been revealed at time of writing – will bring Bang’s Count firmly up to date, and after seeing him in his element for two episodes it’s an intriguing proposition to have him on the back foot at last.
Generally speaking, Dracula’s second episode for me was an improvement, albeit an imperfect one. As noted above, it felt like the large and interesting cast of passengers and crew were slightly sidelined and underused, while the powerful horror elements of Stoker’s original text are slightly watered down by the choice to make Dracula the lead character of this episode (notably, it’s less frightening than the first episode). This episode is fun and a little bit gross, but it’s not that scary.
Still, overall Blood Vessel is a great sign of Moffat and Gatiss’ ability to find an interesting thread in the source material and expand it to great effect, and it does a great job of setting up a thrilling conclusion in the next episode.
Luckily, unlike the Count we won’t have long to wait to see what comes next…
Dracula concludes on BBC One on Friday 3rd January at 9pm