What a very strange thing this is indeed. Based around the classic series of video games and more specifically Castlevania III, the show aims to resemble anime art and animation style as well as including more gore and adult themes.
What led me to watch it was three factors:
- It is written by Warren Ellis and Ellis can write interesting things.
- I still forgot to cancel my Netflix subscription for another month.
- I was stuck on a train without a book.
Point number 3 is why I watched more than one episode. Part way through the third episode (of four in total) I decided that I maybe had started to not dislike it quite so much.
Episode 1 doesn’t make much sense. Its focus is on Vlad Dracula Tepes who is a vampire (obviously) but also some sort of holder of advanced technology and a scholar who used to (but for some reason doesn’t bother so much now) impale people on stakes. He lives in Wallachia and it is the 15th Century. The last few bits plunge the story into an uncanny valley of alt-history. The initial direct borrowings of historical and geographical setting given an initial impression that the setting will be a kind of alt-history (which would be ok) rather than a video game fantasy world (which would also be ok). The net effect though, is a sense of historical cluelessness (e.g. why are there apparently Catholic priests in Orthodox Romania?).
The plot of the first episode is as corny as hell. Dracula falls in love with a doctor who has sought him out because she wants to use science to heal people. She convinces Dracula to explore the world on foot (maybe…I didn’t quite get that bit) and while he is away she gets burnt as a witch by the church. When Dracula finds out he warns the people of Wallachia that he will return in a year with a demonic army and lay waste to the land.
So Dracula is a bit all over the place as a character. A whole episode to give him a nasty fridging back-story to show that he isn’t all bad but yeah, he’s basically all bad. Also, he’s a high-tech (or at least Victorian steam-punk tech) evil vampire with hellish powers. Rather than emotional depth for a corny villain, this is a weird info-dump for the video-game setting. In later episodes, characters will need to explore buildings that have electric lights and mechanical traps as well as hell beasts, so Episode 1 spends its time laying this out as a premise. Probably would have been better saved as a mid-story explanation of what is going on.
The next three episodes work better. Firstly it becomes clearer that this is a bizarro fantasy world – which is good. The anachronisms aren’t what they seem and the history isn’t actually shonky, it’s just a generic fantasy world of taverns and magic and walled cities and improbable architecture. That includes a whole extra made up religion (the ‘Speakers’) and magic users so as to include a character who was a playable character in Castlevania 3.
The main hero is Trevor Belmont, an ancestor of Simon Belmont (the more regular re-occurring hero of the video game franchise) – played as a sarcastic reluctant hero by Richard Armitage.
The secondary bad guys remain a corrupt and bigoted Catholic Church. Given it is actually a completely different world, I guess it is just a church that happens to look like the Catholic Church (down to priest’s dog collars). I guess it is punching up but it still feels like a lazy cliche. There is an implication in the last two episodes that there is something else going on there and that some of the knife wielding priest-goons aren’t actually priests. Even so, I can sympathise with Catholic if they feel the show is just using the trappings of Catholicism as a simplistic way to create mortal bad guys.
By Episode 4 the season is over – so in total it is about the same length as a movie. By the end, the three characters who will fight Dracula have been introduced and that’s about it. Some bonkers but fun action sequences and fights have occurred and maybe the whole thing begins to look like it makes more sense than it does.