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BBC’s Dracula Review

Frazer Martin considers the issues with adapting Stoker's gothic classic

CW: queerphobia, misogyny, violence, blood, HIV/AIDS

Gatis and Moffat’s revamp (sorry) initially feels like a breath of fresh air, dusting away the cobwebs of a much, possibly over-adapted late-Victorian tone. Their decision to camp-up an overworked story, littering it with labyrinthine castles, stylized gore, and a smattering of puns, manages to limit the sense of treading old ground, and the script makes the most of its audience’s foreknowledge, turning it into an article of fun. The narrative structure plays into this as well, presenting the first two episodes within a frame narrative – the first with Agatha van Helsing (Dolly Wells) interrogating Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan), working out the cause of his mysterious illness after visiting Dracula (Claes Bang), and the second also with Agatha, this time interrogating Dracula himself, working out what happened on his sea voyage from Transylvania to England. This sense of narrated-ness manages to allay the fact that, realistically, we all know what’s going to happen, and salvages a compelling sense of suspense.

            The overall effect of this attempt to camp-up Dracula, however, is ultimately to code Dracula as more explicitly queer – I say more explicitly, because in Stoker’s novel Dracula is already quite clearly presented as an ominous non-het non-European invader bent on corrupting England’s unsuspecting gentlefolk. Gatis and Moffat’s version of the count is repeatedly sexualized, over and over and over ad nauseam, despite Moffat’s insistence that he’s ‘bihomicidal,’ not ‘bisexual’ (honestly, this is what he said). Dracula is transformed into an urbane, witty, Oscar Wilde-esque aristocrat, forever punning on his (explicitly sexualized) appetites, and the reliance on queer tropes in this re-characterization is unmissable. The task of Agatha, the sparky and cynical nun working to “neutralize” Dracula’s “threat,” thus implicitly becomes one of policing queer desire, protecting the nice heterosexual characters Dracula attempts to “infect.”

            The result is a narrative of containment, othering, and demonization. The first episode’s medicalized frame is, from the outset, related to sexual “contagion”: in the opening scene, a withered, deathly Harker is asked directly if he ‘had sexual intercourse with Count Dracula’ – the narrative logic here is clearly that of an AIDs narrative. The second episode subsequently becomes one of outing, as the ship’s passengers try and work out who’s killing everyone off – compounded with the only overtly queer subplot, in which Lord Ruthven (Patrick Walshe McBride), recently married as a cover for his relationship with his valet (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), cosies up to Dracula on discovering he’s a vampire, hoping they’ll become ‘partners’ and helping him to kill off further passengers. The danger, in each of these episodes, is queerness, framed as an invasive, infectious, intrinsically violent and deceitful presence. The queer characters gang up on the poor innocent straight people, and horror ensues. Which is underlined by the miniseries’ repeated reliance on a linguistic logic of “bestiality,” uncovering the “monster” beneath Dracula’s smooth, aristocratic “veneer.” What’s being reproduced here is, unmistakably, biphobia. Dracula can “pass,” but his ravenous (sexual) appetite prevents him from doing so.

            All of this comes to a head in the final episode, which plonks Dracula 123 years in the future in a conspicuously hospitable present-day England. Clearly we’ve reached the crux of Gatis and Moffat’s efforts: the series’ gradually-dwindling campness is now dropped in favour of an atmosphere of forced sincerity – now they’ve got your attention, Gatis and Moffat have Something To Say. Sadly/predictably, this takes the form of a boomer’s wet dream, paint-by-numbers, sixth-form-poet-esque critique of contemporary society’s sexual mores, and it’s just as problematic (and boring) as it sounds. Dracula’s now on Tinder. His victims, such as party-loving Lucy Westenra (Lydia West), now freely offer themselves up to the count – gleefully portraying sex-positivity as perverse, in what is possibly one of the most grossly misogynistic plot arcs in contemporary television (I can’t formulate content warnings to cover what Gatis and Moffat do to her, so I won’t describe it; rest assured, it’s revolting). After being briefly imprisoned at the Harker Foundation established by a fleeing Mina Murray (Morfydd Clark) from the first episode, Dracula escapes after asserting his “rights” through a lawyer he meets on the internet, as Gatis and Moffat take a not-so-subtle dig at rights discourse (LGBTQ+ and otherwise). And the forces ranged against Dracula (unintentionally) become caricaturishly puritanical: Jack Seward (Matthew Beard), mopingly “friendzoned” junior doctor pining for Lucy who only has eyes for Dracula (she doesn’t owe him shit, Moffat, move on), teams up with Zoe Helsing (also Dolly Wells), descendant of Agatha manically searching for Dracula’s key weakness. Why’s he afraid of sunlight, and crosses, and mirrors, she (and Agatha) repeatedly ask? These characters are hateful in the extreme particularly because Gatis and Moffat so clearly want us to take their mind-numbingly dull side. And in a queerphobic denouement par excellence, Zoe works it all out: Dracula’s ashamed of himself. He can’t bear spiritual introspection (the cross), or to be seen (sunlight), or to see himself (mirrors). The show’s queer-coded antagonist has been motivated, throughout, by self-loathing.

Seriously. You couldn’t make it up.

And I think that’s fundamentally the problem here. Initially we were promised a camp, tongue-in-cheek adaptation, laying bare what we now see as the ridiculousness of Stoker’s narrative and its entrenched queerphobia, vamping it up into a neo-Victorian horror-opera. But the final result is more an uncritical reproduction of Stoker’s queerphobic narratives, rather than a melodramatized distancing. Gatis and Moffat are, in a sense, being too faithful in their modernization. They’re not making anything up. Which all begs the question – what did we expect? Moffat is notorious for his gleeful queerbaiting (Sherlock) and appalling representation of women (Doctor Who), focalized through a weird nostalgic appreciation of, or even desire for, a lost Victorian past. This is what Moffat does. We shouldn’t have hoped for more.

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