Saturday, October 26, 2013

In Which I Review Dracula (1x1)

Legend, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is "a story from the past believed by many people but cannot be proved true." 

Vlad the Impaler was a real life guy. We know his birth and death year; he know about his father and other family members. We know about Vlad's rule as Prince of Wallachia. We have actual physical historical documentation and records of Vlad's lfie. He is a historical person and is not a legend. Vlad, of course, is most famous (outside of the impalings which were numerous) for being Bram Stoker's inspiration for his famous vampire, but Vlad and Dracula are not one and the same. Dracula is not a legend, either. He's a fictional character that takes his name from the patronymic of a historical figure. Why am I harping on this? Because NBC for the past few months, in an attempt to ramp up interest in their new TV show, came up with the tagline "a legend is reborn," the entirety of which is so grossly inaccurate, that I had to start off this blog with some historical facts (the reborn part we'll get to in the actual review because this is not Dracula reborn. At all). 

Vlad III (1431-1476) was called Dracul because it was the name his father, Vlad II, used. It means son of the dragon. Language is not a static thing but morphs and reshapes itself over time so that now "dracul" can mean devilsh but you have to keep the original context in mind when discussing Vlad III. He called himself Dracul because it was what his father used. It is actually that simple. The Order of the Dragon, which the NBC show is using with considerable liberties, also existed and was founded in order to protect Christianity from the Muslims. This is really the driving point for why Vlad is remembered as some sort of bloodthirsty monster. You must understand that he was living at a time of incredible upheaval. In 1453, right around the time Vlad was coming into manhood and first ascended the throne (his rule is broken up into different years but that's incredibly complicated on its own) the Muslims took the city of Constantinople and renamed it Istanbul. There is virtually no way for me to stress the importance of this event in the Western and Christian Eastern World except with this bit of satire. This is the reaction of the Christians when the Muslims took one of the most holy cities in Christendom:
You must understand that the idea of the Muslims sitting literally across a tiny body of water eying the west freaked the Christians out to an absurb extent. The Ottoman Muslims continued to snatch up bits and pieces of land here and there, and Vlad's only reaction was to protect his people and his land. In Romania, Vlad is actually considered a hero! Yes, there are some pretty horrific stories about his sadistic killings and his fondness for impaling, which I will neither justify nor sweep under the rug. Best guesses put his body count at about 80,000-100,000. Cruel, yes. But historically understandable given the constant battling between the eastern Christians the Muslims who (again) were siting across an very small body of water with an almost unstoppable army. That's really all you need to know about Vlad. How about Dracula? Since this is a TV blog, I'm going to break down the characters both by who they are on screen and who they are in the Stoker book. 

Alexander Grayson/ Dracula 

The fact that our leading character has an alias and isn't going by Dracula at all needs to be your first big clue that there is something amiss.

Literary Version: Transylvanian nobleman and centuries old vampire with a host of supernatural powers such as superhuman strength, levitation, shape-shifting and of course hypnotic and telepathic abilities.

Television Version: Romanian vampire brought back after existing somewhere between life and death in a coffin for some untold amount of time. He is now playing as an American business man and entrepreneur interested in safe and free electricity and power.  (At this point we should shake in our boots with fear?) Alexander/Dracula has a secret plan to bring down the Order of the Dragon by taking business from them and robbing them of their riches. Thus far, shows no extraordinary abilities except brooding stare.

Mina Murray

Literary Version: A school teacher and fiancee and later wife of Johnathan Harker. She is often depicted as being held in thrall to Dracula and is slowly turning into a vampire, the Count both feeding off of her and feeding her which causes her to move in and out of consciousnesses. At the end of the novel she and Harker have a baby and presumably live happily ever after.

Television Version: A medical student under Dr. Van Helsing who is engaged to Johnathan Harker but shares a mysterious connection to Alexander Grayson. While not definitive yet, she is most likely Dracula's wife reborn.

Johnathan Harker

Literary Version: An English solicitor who is sent to assist Dracula in Translyvania. He soon becomes a prisoner of the Count and discovers that Dracula is a vampire. He also has an unfortunate run in with the Brides of Dracula. Over the course of the novel, he tries to kill Dracula several times until the climax at the end where Harker manages to slit the Count's throat.

Television Version: A newspaper reporter who is desperate for his "big break" in order to finally fit into aristocratic society. He hopes that his interview with Alexander Grayson concerning his magic electric power (for lightbulbs....) will be his big break.

Lady Jane

Literary Version:  Non-existant

Television version: Uber-wealthy wife of member of the Order of the Dragon. She is drawn to Dracula after meeting him and engages in a little risque behavior at an opera. who apparently is keeping a vampire in a cage in an effort to get information. Is deadly accurate with knives and swords. She is also really historically inaccurate. The plunging neckline of her dresses would cause so much scandal in Victorian England that old ladies would faint dead away. I'm all for strong female characters but at least keep them in whatever was appropriate for the times.

Lucy Westrena 

 Literary Version: Mina's best friend and Dracula's first victim. She is slowly drained by the Count until she "dies" and is reborn. She is a sweet and caring girl who becomes sexually vivacious. She is eventually destoryed.

Television Version: The walking sex pot. She flirts and is coy and wears totally non-Victorian clothing.

R.M. Renfield

Literary Version: A lawyer who eventually goes stark raving mad and eats all manner of insects after being tormented by the Count into worshiping him.

Television Version: I need to talk about race in TV for a moment. It is becoming more and more apparent that TV is suffering from an abundance of white people. In a show like this, where they are selling a brand name but giving you none of the brand (as you should already be able to tell) the casting department and writers could have really tried to mix it up and be unique. What if Mina was a person of color? What if Mina and Harker were an interracial couple? But no. They went with the horribly cliche type: the only person of color (by which we mean "not white") is the servant. I'm not even going to bother making any other comment than that. In the TV version, Renfield is perfectly sane and more than that, he's Dracula's confidant. He knows all about Dracula's plan to take down the Order of the Dragon.

There are some other characters here and there such as Abraham Van Helsing who in this TV version is a medical doctor and thus far not a vampire hunter, but in some bizarre twist is actually working with Dracula to take down the Order because his family was killed by the Order. Van Helsing is the man at the beginning of the episode who woke Dracula up. Also, some of the members of the Order who I couldn't keep straight so in my notes they were labeled "rich white guy #1" "rich white guy #2" and "rich white guy #3 who became Dracula's meal."

Are we just now getting to the plot?  This is where the wheels really fall off the wagon--though they've been rocking quite a bit since we started. Here's the biggest problem with the show: it's not Dracula. At all. I mentioned the tag line at the top of this now incredibly long blog post as being wholly problematic. The "reborn" issues is now at hand. What the writers of this show have done is taken "Dracula" as a brand, divested it of anything resembling Stoker's Dracula and then given it back to the audience, lying that it is Dracula. There is nothing Dracula about this show! Dracula, as both fictional character and work, is so prolific because he is so terrifying. There is something creepy yet enticing about him. He could seduce and cajole you into giving up your life blood willingly. He could create vast armies of vampires and minions. This Dracula (Alexander Grayson as I suppose we must call him) is nothing of the sort. He is not scary, he is not magnetic (sorry Johnathan Rhys Meyers but you're no longer Henry the 8th). He's a business man who doesn't think in terms of bloodlust but in terms of stock and bonds. Grayson's whole engineered plan is to hurt the wallets of the Order. He wants to subvert their plans with his new fangled technology which allows light bulbs to be lit up without needing to be attached to any sort of lamp, which I'm fairly certain we can't even do today in the 21st century! Our Dracula, apart from being sexual, has none of those mystical powers that make Dracula, Dracula. Please don't misunderstand, I'm not asking for Legossi. I'm not expecting him to wear a cape and speak about beautiful music made from the children of the night. But could he at least do something that makes me afraid? And then to top it off, Mina--instead of being held in thrall to the vampire--is actually his dead wife (killed by the Order of course). I found Alexander Grayson annoying. Meyers is always easy on the eyes and that may be a large part of what NBC is banking on, but his acting is limited to brooding sexily and being petulant. And then there is the American accent he is adopting. Why? Why make this guy American? The British Order of the Dragon has no interest in cooperating with an American, which he knew would happen. But if you really wanted to get on the inside of the Order to take them down, why make it even harder by putting on this act of being American? Especially when Meyers American accent is so horrendously distracting I was giggling into a pillow while trying to take notes. And then the blonde lady at the Opera who got *ahem* a standing ovation from Dracula turned out to be a ninja and I knew Stoker was weeping.

Miscellaneous Notes on The Blood is the Life

--I do enjoy the rather steampunk-esque feel to the whole show but honestly it's not enough to save it.

--Dracula is trying to sell coolant. I just have no words for how unhorrifying that is.

--Given the very brief flashback we saw of Dracula watching his wife burn at the stake, I'm going to assume that they are trying to connect him to Vlad the Impaler. He certainly had the hair.

--Best moment was the rooftop fight which was at least visually interesting. The blood work is also outstanding. 

Overall Verdict: It might be so bad that it's good. But more likely, it's just really bad. Watch the first episode and decide for yourself, but I'm only going to give it one more go before I write it off as simply idiotic.

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