CHRIS NEWTON recaps ‘Blood Vessel’, the second episode of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ adaptation of Dracula
(Editor’s note: Warning there’s a few spoilers ahead!)
I said that ‘The Rules of the Beast’ reminded me of Doctor Who’s ‘Heaven Sent’, in which the Doctor is trapped in a labyrinthine gothic castle. That episode is punctuated with scenes in which the Doctor, now safe in his TARDIS, is excitedly explaining to Clara how he escaped. Except we know Clara is dead, and the Doctor is just imagining these exchanges.
‘Blood Vessel’ begins in a similar fashion. Dracula and Sister Agatha play chess in the castle crypt as the Count regales her with the details of his journey to England onboard The Demeter. Given the previous episode’s cliffhanger ending, anyone who’s familiar with Moffat’s writing will know already that things are not as they seem.
It’s here that things begin to deviate severely from the novel, which Dracula himself cheekily addresses when Agatha remarks upon him ‘travelling openly’ on the ship. “It’s four weeks to England. What did you think I was going to do, lie around in a box?” In fact, the whole thing feels far more Agatha Christie than Bram Stoker at this point. Which sounds great – murder mystery with fangs!
Blood Vessel lacks mystery
Except there’s no real mystery. The atmosphere that worked so well in the first episode is just as expertly menacing here. The costumes, the sounds, the score all combine to create a gothic masterpiece as the passengers and crew are picked off one by one. This causes lots of superstitious mutterings and finger pointing as they realise that ‘one of us’ is the killer. Just a thought guys, but I reckon it’s the weird guy in the long black cloak with the pointy fingernails.
Despite a superb cast of actually very well-rounded characters (Sacha Dhawan and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett’s passengers especially), it’s hard to be invested in the drama when, a.) we know they’re all going to die and, b.) we know who the killer is.
The real mystery is the identity of the ‘diseased’ passenger in room no. 9 (a nod to Gatiss’ League of Gentlemen co-stars?), who is too sick to leave the quarantine of their cabin. Meanwhile, Sister Agatha is losing her game to the Count as he drinks something red from a glass despite the fact that he ‘never drinks… wine.’
Have you guessed it yet?
Yes, in true Moffat style, the crypt and the chessboard are not real, merely symbolic of Agatha’s loosing battle as Dracula slowly drains her blood. “One does not hurry such a vintage. I’ve been making you last.”
“It’s me. I’m in cabin no. 9,” Agatha realises about fifty minutes into the episode (around the same point that Jonathan Harker’s narrative was punctuated by sinister revelation in part one.)
Sister Agatha was the best thing about episode one, and again she comes into her own in the last half hour, smart talking her way out of a lynching and assuming command of the vessel.
At the very end, this episode came so close to giving me what I wanted – Victorian Gothic Whitby! And there it is! The jagged spectre of the abbey on the darkened clifftop! But when were things that straightforward with the creators of ‘Sherlock’? It’s here things take a bizarre and daring turn, and one which I won’t spoil just yet.
So, did the episode work overall? It lacked the full-on horror of the first, and had more of a whimsical air, but was no less enjoyable for it. A far more engaging story would have involved Dracula being absent – or in one of his boxes below deck a la Stoker – but having transformed one of the passengers, so that the identity of the vampire was hidden even from the viewer. Although, of course, Dracula has to be front and centre in his own show. We’re back to the making-the-baddie-the-main-character gamble when his peripheral presence was what gave the novel its’ menace.
As much as I hate to say it, Claes Bang is still not doing it for me. My perception of him as a dad-in-a-Halloween-cape wasn’t helped when he changed into what can only be described as a Bella Lugosi fancy cress costume for the evening meal. Normally I’m a sucker for any kind of visual nod or homage such as that, but in this context the references to past Draculas just remind me what we’re missing.