When making an adaptation of classic vampire novel Dracula, no matter what kind of story you’re telling, people expect certain things.
A sharp-toothed, suave and black-suited Count, plenty of stakes, some handy garlic and a crucifix or two, certainly – but also the presence of the Count’s nemesis Van Helsing, the fearless vampire hunter who has been a part of the mythos for over a century.
And as it turns out, the new BBC version of Dracula from the creators of Sherlock has an intriguing new twist on Van Helsing, which was kept secret before the first episode aired – and if you don’t want to know exactly what that twist is yet, we suggest you look away now and catch up with the episode first.
Within first episode The Rules of the Beast the new take on Van Helsing is revealed around 15 minutes before the end, as Claes Bang’s Dracula tries to find out the truth about his surprising new foe Sister Agatha (Dolly Wells), the nun who rescues his victim Harker (Jon Heffernan) before taunting the vampire outside the gates of her convent with her own spilled blood.
“Who are you?” Bang’s Dracula ponders, before quickly divining sister Agatha’s first name to little reaction.
“Mother Superior used my name, you heard her. You’ll have to do better than that,” Agatha replies, similarly unimpressed when Dracula correctly divines her Dutch background (which he appears to learn from the taste of her blood).
“Well you can tell as much from my accent, I think. I bid you good night,” she concludes.
But with a final lick of her blood, Dracula soon has the whole truth – because in fact, Agatha’s full name is one of particular significance to the Dracula story, and may indicate she even has some history with the vampire.
“Helsing! Van Helsing!” Dracula cries. “What is your interest in me, Agatha Van Helsing? Who are you?”
For those not aware, in Stoker’s original novel Abraham Van Helsing is an elderly Dutch scientist and doctor who ends up a key foe of Count Dracula, teaming up with the suitors of victim Lucy Westenra in the latter half of the book and using his knowledge of the occult to battle and kill the vampire.
Since then the character has evolved in popular culture to become a kind of professional vampire hunter, played onscreen by actors including Peter Cushing, Edward van Sloan, Laurence Olivier, Anthony Hopkins, Christopher Plummer and (in a poorly-received blockbuster based very loosely on the character) Hugh Jackman among many others.
In fact, there have been nearly as many Van Helsings on TV and film as there have been Draculas – including a female Van Helsing, played by Kelly Overton, in the SyFy series of the same name – but this is definitely one of the biggest changes to the character yet.
According to series co-creator Steven Moffat, however, he and co-writer Mark Gatiss really didn’t set out to make a big change, instead finding Agatha’s voice during the scriptwriting process in an attempt to make scenes between her character and Harker’s early in the episode more interesting.
“It came about a different way – it wasn’t really that,” Moffat said when asked about the decision to make Van Helsing a woman. “Sister Agatha is [a character] in the book, though she’s got a tiny, tiny bit of the book. She’s got a much better agent now, clearly.
“We were trying to work out how to write these scenes and make them interesting – because you know, it’s a dead man talking to a nun, it’s not potentially that riveting. So we came up with the idea of atheist nun – we just called her atheist nun, the nun who didn’t really believe in anything and just made lots of jokes.
“And that character immediately leapt to the top of the script. You just thought ‘Oh my God, that’s great.’ And very, very quickly we just thought well… that’s Van Helsing, isn’t it? We don’t need anyone else. We just need the nun.
“And then you think, nuns are more or less dressed in a superhero outfit for fighting vampires, aren’t they?” he added. “They’re wearing a sodding cross! Why didn’t Bram think of that one?”
Once they’d landed on the idea, though, Gatiss and Moffat were keen to keep it a secret, and even Wells wasn’t informed of the full extent of her role to begin with.
“No I didn’t know, not at the beginning,” she said. “I knew she was a crazy cool woman, because the audition scene was the convent, the two scenes. And I thought this is the coolest woman I’ve ever seen on the page – it was so exciting.
“But I didn’t know she was Van Helsing. I knew I really wanted to be her. I’m a little bit Dutch, and I went to a convent school, so I was like come on. I wanted to be a nun until I was about twelve.”
“It’s Sister Agatha Van Helsing, and that’s what we’re doing with Van Helsing,” Moffat concluded. “So could you not tell anyone please?”
At the close of the first episode, the full truth of Agatha’s background is still unknown. Is she just a curious nun who happened to run into a vampire, or is Dracula right that she has a personal interest in his destruction?
And with that in mind, is it possible that the original Van Helsing, Dr Abraham, does or did exist at some point (perhaps as Agatha’s father?), and possibly perished at the hands of a vampire, or Dracula himself? In other words, is there more than one Van Helsing to be revealed in the series? Certainly, she seemed to have picked up a lot of knowledge about vampires in general, and Dracula in particular, by the time of this episode..
For now, it’s unclear just what history Agatha either does or doesn’t have with Dracula, and we’ll have to wait until the next episode to find out exactly what we’re getting with this new Van Helsing (or, if you prefer, Van Wellsing).
But for our part, we definitely hope she has a personal stake in putting Dracula in the ground forever…
Dracula continues on BBC1 on Thursday 2nd January and Friday 3rd January at 9pm