There are times when “The Dark Compass” justifies the decision to time-shift the final chapter of the Dracula story 123 years into the vampire’s future—into 2020, in other words. One of the best comes early, as Count Dracula surveys a random woman’s home, observing that her television and appliances represent luxuries beyond the comprehension of any of his noble contemporaries. “I knew the future would bring wonders,” he says. “I never imagined it would make them ordinary.” It’s one of the vampire’s most reflective moments, even if it is juxtaposed with the woman’s undead husband still crammed into a fridge somewhere in the background. As the subsequent flashback to Dracula’s arrival on the beach makes clear, advanced technology doesn’t flummox the count, as he immediately recognizes the video camera for what it is. He may not be from 2020, but nor is he really from 1897 either, and the time jump helps bring out the fact that he has always been a man—or monster, as the case may be—out of time, relying on his considerable intellect and aristocratic presumption to see him through.
There’s a version of “The Dark Compass” that gives itself over entirely to exploring these ideas, but after that initial section we only get glimpses of how the 21st century reshapes Dracula’s existence. His observation to his lawyer and mesmerized servant Frank Renfield that he never used to have to exercise s is especially tantalizing, as the suggestion there is that Dracula leeches off the strength of those he devours, yet living in the 21st century is so easy compared with the existences of our ancestors that we have far less to offer him as sustenance. Dracula’s most perceptive moments have come when it explores what a vampire is, not in terms of the apparent rules or how it fits in with the folklore but rather what it actually means conceptually. Dracula is a being of immense power, yet all of it comes from what he steals from humanity. Now he finds himself in an era where humans have much the same relationship with the planet itself. Blood is lives, but what value are those lives in a world of easy, empty opulence? No wonder Dracula has to work harder to survive in such a strange land.
To their credit, these are the kinds of connections that Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss excel at making. But “The Dark Compass” illustrates, the trouble is that their various creative instincts, any one of which is promising in isolation, eventually become irreconcilable. The story wants to go down the rabbit hole of translating Dracula to the 21st century, which means piling on lots of ridiculous lore around the Jonathan Harker Foundation. The theoretical value of moving the story to the present day is to do away with all the Victorian context that otherwise needs translating and cut to the heart of the story’s appeal—that was the initial promise of Sherlock, after all—but Moffat and Gatiss have never been able to keep things simple for long. The closest antecedent for this episode is the back half of Moffat’s Jekyll, which similarly takes what had been a focused, intriguing take on the original story and got distracted with conspiracies and secret organizations and just so, so much tangential mythology. In that show’s case, I actually think all that silliness just about worked, as crucially the show was always revisionist. It’s still weird that all these shows pile on complexity even when the ultimate goal is to boil the entire story down to a single profound line—and we’ll get to the question of whether this particular Moffat gambit pays off in a bit—but it’s easier to find such messiness endearing when, like Jekyll, the show is never actually attempting a straight adaptation.
Dracula, on the other hand, still insists on recounting the final section of Bram Stoker’s story. With Jonathan Harker properly dead and Mina Murray left behind in the 19th century, the focus falls instead to the beautiful Lucy Westenra, Dracula’s would-be bride, and her suitors. Well, I say suitors, as there were three of them in the novel, but of these Arthur Holmwood is adapted out—though he might be the vague inspiration for Lucy’s friend Zev—and American cowboy Quincey Morris is reduced to an assholish bit part. That just leaves Jack Seward, a junior doctor whose brief employ with the Jonathan Harker Foundation is what connects Dracula with Lucy in the first place. Much like the previous episode “Blood Vessel” got a lot of mileage out of the mood and atmosphere of a cursed voyage on the foggy seas, “The Dark Compass” attempts something similar with Lucy and her retinue. It’s just now that the setting is the London club scene, with one of the more striking images coming when Dracula first wanders into this alien environment and beholds his ultimate target.
But beyond that one image, this all feels so apart from everything else Dracula is trying to do. That needn’t be the case, as it’s not hard to see how all this could link up with a more recent source of vampire iconography. A lot of “The Dark Compass” feels like it’s wandering in the vague vicinity of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, where most of the biggest plot and character beats unfolded at either the local nightclub or the graveyard, both of which Dracula visits tonight. Jack’s staking of Lucy feels particularly evocative, with the vampire crumbling to dust in what very much looks like a 2020 update of the old Buffy effect. I don’t want to oversell any of this, especially since graveyards and stakes have plenty of vampire fiction antecedents, and the Buffy vibe might be entirely coincidental.
Indeed, my real point is that this section represents Dracula at its most muddled, struggling to pull a deeper meaning out of its adherence to the source material despite the fact its interests really seem to have wandered elsewhere. Even Lucy’s transformation, which helps set up the big reveal of Dracula’s great secret, is more powerful in terms of the show’s tangential exploration of undeath as a mysterious condition that afflicts the world. The horror of her situation comes from her being cremated while still conscious, rather than anything all that specifically to do with the count. Her total nihilism and unprecedented willingness to let Dracula feed on her are potentially interesting departures from the book Lucy’s depiction as a paragon of sweetness, as her role here is not as the corrupted innocent but rather as a disaffected wanderer through life. Her life isn’t so different from Dracula’s undeath.
Dracula attempts to wring its big theme out of the story with Lucy, as the combined consciousnesses of Sister Agatha and Dr. Zoe Van Helsing make one last push to deduce just what it is that governs Dracula’s existence. The insistence that all the different rules around direct sunlight, fear of the cross, and requiring an invitation to enter an abode are all manifestations of one unifying thing is pure Moffat gambit, and he and Gatiss try their damnedest to weld that to Dracula’s infatuation with Lucy. The proffered explanation is that Dracula is, at his heart, an ancient warlord who is desperate for the one thing everyone else in his bloodline attained but that he can’t have, which is the honor of a hero’s grave. He yearns for death yet is terrified of it, and so Lucy’s apparent love of death bewitched him. Or perhaps it’s that Dracula is so deeply, innately ashamed of his own continued existence that Lucy’s utter disaffection from any such judgment spoke to him in ways he could not understand.
None of this quite works, at least not in the context of Dracula and Lucy’s relationship. Here the show’s adherence to the source material does it in, as none of this really scans. What works better, as has been the case throughout the miniseries, is the relationship between the count and Van Helsing. Facing her imminent death for the second time in as many episodes, Van Helsing—in Zoe’s body but speaking with Sister Agatha’s voice—offers Dracula the brutal wisdom he has been looking for all these centuries, whether he knows it or not: “You seek to conquer death, but you cannot until you face it without fear.” Her ability to do so, both in 1897 and in 2020, is at the heart of her victory over him.
Again, this doesn’t really land as it ought to. It happens too fast and feels too apart from what “The Dark Compass” has spent most of its time exploring. But it at least keeps the focus on Dracula and Van Helsing, which means even where the writing falls short the show can turn to its actors to try to paper over the cracks. Claes Bang, in particular, does a lot of work with the count’s reactions to Van Helsing’s big speech, as he peels away all of Dracula’s arrogance to reveal the terrified lost soul beneath. Dolly Wells similarly elevates the material, merging her two incarnations of Van Helsing into one, switching accents to bring the story full circle in a way its themes as written can’t manage to. The final image, in which a mutually dying Dracula and Van Helsing lie wrapped in a lover’s embrace inside the sun, is a last, bonkers gesture toward ideas bigger and sillier than Dracula can pull off. “The Dark Compass” ends undone by its unwillingness to pick which one thing it wants to be: an exploration of Dracula in 2020, a faithful if temporally translated adaptation of the novel, or a look at the relationship between the vampire and his hunter. But there’s enough fascinating weirdness in all three strands to at least make it feel worth its failures.
- The gag about Dracula’s name being the foundation’s wifi password was exactly the right kind of clever: A fun observation that’s obvious the second you hear it but not before. Just generally, Dracula contacting the same law firm that dispatched Jonathan Harker to his castle 123 years ago is a fun way to avoid him spending the whole final episode locked up.
- As Mark Gatiss’s Frank Renfield points out, Dracula really doesn’t all that engaged with his theoretical plot of world domination. That’s another little detail that could perhaps have been expanded upon, but it feels true with the Dracula story as it is generally told, as you have a character who sure appears powerful and ambitious enough to take over the planet, yet is always too distracted by his next meal.
- The cryptic references to the Jonathan Harker Foundation’s mysterious benefactors are apparently intended as a sequel hook, which presumably would require undoing Dracula’s apparent closing death. Honestly though, I can’t help but assume the unknown power behind it all is Klein and Utterson, the seemingly omnipotent corporation behind everything in Jekyll. Listen, I know I’m obsessed. Doesn’t mean I won’t leave you with one last clip for the road.
Oh yes, that’s the stuff.