Sherlock creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have now adapted Bram Stoker’s classic horror for TV. And the result is cheeky, camp and full of laboured puns, writes Stephen Kelly.

Sherlock co-creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have form for taking a story that is over 100 years old, and has been adapted countless times for the stage and screen, and making it feel so brand new you have no idea what’s going to happen next. So it seems obvious – in a way, too obvious – that their next project is a three-part adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 gothic novel Dracula, perhaps one of the most influential and heavily adapted horror stories of all time. Much like Sherlock, it raises the question of what they can possibly add. And much like Sherlock, the answer is youth, pace, style, quips, some inspired plotting, some frustrating choices, and a leading man who is simply to die for. 

More like this:

- The best TV shows of 2019

- The TV shows to watch in 2020

- The TV revolution that swept the 2010s

That man is the relatively unknown Danish actor Claes Bang, whose electrifying Dracula channels the snarl and aesthetic of Christopher Lee and Hammer House of Horror, but is in reality something closer to a deliciously evil James Bond.

For this is a Dracula who just loves nothing more than sucking blood and being Dracula. He revels in murder, he delights in terror, and it’s hard not to get swept up in his cheeky chappy charm and charisma, giddy self-awareness, and penchant for laboured puns. “You are what you eat,” is one example. “You do look rather… drained” is another. And my personal favourite, said with a shark-like grin: “I’m undead, I’m not unreasonable”. Your enjoyment of Dracula very much depends on how much you appreciate lines like these.

‘Sherlock before Sherlock ate itself’

We’re first introduced to the count, as we are in the book, through Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan), a hapless lawyer whose business trip from England to Transylvania ends in him becoming an unwilling guest at Dracula’s castle. But like the best adaptations, it pays homage to the text, rather than capitulating to it. Hence why the first episode opens with Harker, looking more like a corpse than a man, recounting his story to an inquisitive wisecracking nun called Sister Agatha (Dolly Wells).

What follows is a tale familiar enough to recognise, but which soon twists and turns in directions that are shocking, gruesome – a fingernail picked off a finger, a fly vanishing behind an eye – and engrossing. This is Sherlock before Sherlock ate itself, with dialogue that’s alive with wit, and a 90-minute plot that rarely loses its sense of momentum. The major difference is that where Sherlock could be pretentious and smug, Dracula is arch and camp. At one point the man himself emerges naked from the body of a wolf, strokes in front of a group of nuns, and says: “I don’t know about you girls, but I do like a bit of fur.”

Those hoping for meatier material to sink their teeth into will be disappointed, however. One of the core themes of Stoker’s book, for example, is forbidden desire, of which Dracula is a manifestation. This is, to an extent, explored in the show, with Dracula being portrayed as a slave to his blood lust, an addict to be pitied as well as feared. But the show feels remarkably toothless when it comes to the more interesting interpretation of that theme: of Dracula as a homoerotic text – one by an author whose sexuality has long been debated, and which was written in the aftermath of the infamous trial of compatriot Oscar Wilde. Sure, there are references to Harker being Dracula’s ‘finest bride’, and in episode two there’s a hand on a knee, but there is something quite half-hearted about it all. Especially considering that, for all Moffat’s talk of the character being “bi-homicidal”, the show’s most sexually charged moments are very much heterosexual.

Claes Bang’s Dracula is so charismatic that it’s difficult not to delight in how much fun he has moving from one victim to the next.

Episode two covers one of the briefest yet memorable portions of the novel: Dracula’s journey from Transylvania to England onboard the doomed Russian ship Demeter. In the book it is told primarily through the fevered, scribbled logs of the captain, whose ship is surrounded by a mysterious mist, and whose crew is gradually disappearing one by one.

Here the ship has been fully fleshed out with a cast of passengers, all of whom have their own stories and secrets. The effect is less Alien on a Victorian boat, and more like an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery where we already know who the murderer is. It’s an approach that, for better or worse, plays with your sense of alignment. We should, for instance, be on the side of the people being brutally killed. But Bang’s Dracula is so charismatic and charming, and the passengers so unremarkable and undeveloped, that it’s difficult not to delight in how much fun he has moving from one victim to the next. Although that does tend to mean that every scene Dracula isn’t in feels lacking.

Episode two is a bit more complex – and thankfully, engaging – than 90 minutes of Dracula killing people, however. Through various twists and turns it eventually builds to a surprise so big that it threatens to change the nature of the entire show. Not much can be said without ruining it, but suffice to say it’s a gamble that, while shocking and audacious, perhaps does more to hinder the story than enhance it.

The finale – which, for reasons that will become obvious, can’t be discussed in any meaningful way – circles the latter half of Stoker’s book: Dracula’s time in London, which he mostly spends preying upon Lucy Westenra (played here by Years and Years’ Lydia West).

A sexist take

One of the most enduring criticisms about Steven Moffat’s work on both Doctor Who and Sherlock has been his portrayal of women. They typically conform to two stereotypes: either they’re heavenly damsels made of glass or flirtatious, quip-laden ‘strong female characters’. In Dracula there are certainly elements of the latter paradigm in Wells’s fantastically wry and cutting Sister Agatha (who, again, can't really be discussed here for fear of spoilers); and obvious evidence of the former in characters such as Jonathan Harker’s meek and screaming fiancée Mina (Morfydd Clark).

But there’s something particularly grim about the show’s take on Lucy. In the book she’s introduced to us as a beautiful young woman who is trying to decide between three potential husbands – the wealthy Arthur Holmwood (not portrayed here), Texan adventurer Quincey Morris (Phil Duster) and psychiatrist Dr John Seward (here known as Jack, played by Matthew Beard). Adaptations such as Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 version have taken Lucy’s obvious attractiveness and turned her into a full-on vixen. But even that’s better than this Dracula’s portrayal of her, which is nothing short of disdainful: she is characterised as a narcissistic, promiscuous young woman whose vanity and lack of morals means she deserves everything she gets. And that portrayal is compounded by the relative sympathy afforded the skinny, pale Jack, who admires her from afar. ‘Why do girls always go for handsome dumb jocks like Quincey and not me, the Nice Guy who loves the smoking hot woman for who she really is?’ his character seems to ask.

It’s an unfortunate element of an episode that finishes the series on a disappointing note. It seeks to explore the character of Dracula, to get to the rotting heart of who he really is – and make us question whether he is really a villain or hero, the camp figure of naughty hijinks or the tortured soul in need of understanding. But while the answer is supposed to be both, the romp-ish overall tone of the series doesn’t complement such ambiguity: instead, it makes some of the more serious and sincere scenes towards the end come across as unearned and jarring. Still, there are worse things a show could be than too much fun for its own good.

★★★☆☆

Dracula is available in the UK on BBC iPlayer and on Netflix in the rest of the world from 4 January.

Love TV? Join BBC Culture’s TV fans on Facebook, a community for television fanatics all over the world.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.