I have a long list of television programmes bookmarked on my Netflix profile which fall into the category of deferred viewing. I might watch them eventually but I’m in no particular hurry to do so. Most are overly-familiar genre shows, the sort of science-fiction and fantasy dramas I’ve seen a dozen times before. But I was somewhat surprised by Van Helsing, the post-apocalyptic horror series originally broadcast by the Syfy channel in the US, when I viewed all of the first and some of the second season last weekend. Sure, it is essentially a gothic vampire tale in modern dress, opting for the sci-fi veneer of HBO’s The Walking Dead or FX’s The Strain over the supernatural melodrama of HBO’s slightly less popular True Blood and CW’s The Originals. But it has a few redeeming qualities.
The complexity of the lead character, Vanessa Van Helsing (played by the actress Kelly Overton), makes her a fairly unsympathetic subject throughout much of the opening series. Indeed, at times she reminds me of the figure of Michael Burnham in CBS’ hollow Star Trek spin-off, Discovery. The differences here, though, are the narrative events and experiences which drive her behaviour, especially in later episodes. She is not dislikeable simply because the writers could not find the right tone and balance for the show’s chief protagonist but rather because her circumstances have made her like that.
Likewise, the fictional medical examiner or “Doc” is quite believable in terms of her fear-driven duplicity and desire to hide herself away from the awful situations she finds herself in (plus, the Canadian actress who portrays her, Rukiya Bernard, does a magnificent job of wailing in terror whenever the feral bloodsuckers approach). Indeed, a lack of trustworthiness seems to define most of the plotlines in the series and the people who feature in them. Betrayal is a major theme here, from abusive parents to false friends, as everyone fights to survive – or prosper – in whatever way they can.
Of course, there are some annoyances and plethora of eye-rolling tropes. I was particularly uncomfortable with the initially sympathetic figure of Sam (an excellent Christopher Heyerdahl), a deaf man who is later revealed to have a particularly dark secret. It’s obvious that the writers and producers were trying to stage a “shocking” twist in the story but I found this a bit too close to some of the older stereotypes of people with disabilities once favoured by American television and cinema (I saw the revelation coming from a couple of episodes in). There is also the macho figure of Axel, a US marine played by Jonathan Scarfe, who manages to partially resist or control his transformation into a bloodthirsty vampire when every other victim becomes a ravenous beast in no time at all. For the sake of a minor subplot the show’s internal logic is discarded.
However, putting clichéd stories, stock characters, some glaring plot holes and an over-reliance on foreshadowing to one side, I would recommend a viewing for yourself. Under the stewardship of cult writer-director Neil LaBute it’s not as bad as it could be, keeping some of the pugnacious spirit of the original comicbooks. And it certainly helps pass a wet and boring weekend.