Here’s how I started watching this one.
Netflix uses an algorithm that learns the viewer’s taste in television shows and movies, based on previous selections and ratings, then begins to make recommendations for entertainment choices based upon this history.
When I was a business college student way back in the Pleistocene Epoch, targeted advertisements based upon a customer’s personal data was a topic of discussion, even though it felt a lot like science fiction back then. I am blessed to be living in the future that we speculated about.
Netflix is pretty good at making recommendations. If I pull up my wife’s account instead of mine, which I’m doing as I’m writing this, there are a lot of suggestions about reality shows, true crime documentaries, and what I respectfully refer to as Hallmark movies (even when not produced by Hallmark).
Under my account, there are many science-fiction/horror selections, action-adventure movies, stand-up comedy specials, and documentaries about generally weird or offbeat topics or people.
On a Venn diagram, there’s some common ground between my wife’s tastes and mine in that intersection of the big circles, generally in music documentaries, and occasionally with shows like Ozark. But, the streaming service knows—because the past is the only predictor of the future—that I probably won’t watch The Notebook again, no matter how many times they suggest that I might like it.
Okay, I did like it. A little bit. Just not as much as my wife.
Because I had watched series such as Supernatural and The Walking Dead, Netflix suggested that I might like Van Helsing, a series I had never watched, not even once, when it was on the air.
My dad’s sister—my Aunt Rose—-was a nice lady. I say this as a prelude to what I’m about to write because it’s going to make me sound like a terrible person. Which I may be. The jury’s still out on that verdict. Anyway, Aunt Rose is no longer with us (neither is my father, for that matter), so I’m writing this now because there’s no danger of hurting her feelings.
Aunt Rose was a nice lady. But, she wasn’t all there, if you know what I mean. She had a seizure disorder, as I recall, and either that or the medications she was prescribed had robbed her of much of her mental acuity. This is a presumption on my part, since I never knew her when she wasn’t like that. I know that she had been married and had children, but more and more each day I learn that the mentally challenged aren’t excluded from this life experience, any more than they are prevented from purchasing assault rifles here in the USA.
Okay, the verdict’s in: I am, in fact, a terrible person.
Anyway, what I was going to say, before I was typically sidetracked, is that one year, when my family visited my grandmother (also no longer on this mortal coil) in my dad’s sad little hometown in upstate South Carolina, my Aunt Rose gave me a belated Christmas gift, which I thought, then and now, was a sweet gesture. The gift was an eight-track cassette tape of Elvis Presley’s greatest hits. She said she got it for me because she knew that us young people were crazy about “the rock and roll.”
Kids, if you don’t know what an 8-track cartridge or tape player is, ask your parents. Or, realistically, your grandparents at this point. I was alive during the peak popularity of this particular recording technology. I even had an 8-track player in the first stereo I owned after graduating from my Mickey Mouse phonograph. However, that was a few years before Aunt Rose gave me this gift. By that point, the compact cassette—the kind you would eventually play in your Sony Walkman—was quickly becoming the more popular format and I was still spinning vinyl. Eventually I would succumb to societal pressures and begin listening to cassettes, and, even later, compact discs. Even though I tend to lag a bit behind the technological curve, I eventually catch up. I’m streaming music now, even.
When Aunt Rose gave me the Elvis 8-track, I didn’t have a player for it any longer. Also, and this is probably beside the point since I do like some of Elvis’s music, Elvis was my father’s musical idol, not mine. When you talked about “the rock and roll” in the 1970s, it wasn’t Elvis you were talking about when I heard it. Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith and Black Sabbath were more my speed.
Terrible person or not, I thanked my aunt for the gift and gave her a hug. Often, it really is the thought that counts.
The point I was trying to make (you were beginning to think I didn’t have one, weren’t you?) is that the Netflix algorithm often seems like my late Aunt Rose. Because I liked the various Star Trek series, it thinks I might like anything set in outer space. I don’t, really. Because I watched every season of Supernatural, which did have some vampires in it, and a dystopian end-of-the-world series such as The Walking Dead, Netflix just assumes that a show like Van Helsing is right up my alley.
Netflix wasn’t completely wrong.
I do watch a lot of dystopian science-fiction stuff, but that’s mostly because damned little else is offered these days. None of us, it seems, are very optimistic about the future.
I was okay with vampires in Buffy, naturally. Vampires were only minor characters in Supernatural, but I was cool with those as well, with their shark-like rows of teeth. But, I’m not a fan of the Twilight saga and I think most of the Dracula adaptations have lost their teeth. Nor was I a fan of True Blood or the Anne Rice novels or movies based upon her novels. I know this is total heresy within certain factions of fandom, but it is my truth.
Okay, Cassidy the Irish vampire was great in Preacher. But, these are the exceptions, right? Just because a series has vampires in it doesn’t mean I’m going to like it. Or be inclined to watch it. In fact, the opposite is probably closer to the truth.
I took a flyer on Van Helsing because I recognized the names of a couple of actors in the cast.
Jonathan Scarfe, who plays Axel Miller, the first character in the series we’re introduced to, and the one it felt like we were meant to identify with, had a guest-starring stint on another series I liked to watch, Hell on Wheels.
Christopher Heyerdahl, who plays the deaf Sam in this series, was also in Hell on Wheels in an ever larger role, as the villainous Swede.
Since I believed Scarfe and Heyerdahl to both be Canadians, I assumed that this series was a Canadian production. I was correct. The show was co-produced by Nomadic Pictures, which is based in Calgary, Alberta, but most of the filming for the series took place in and around Vancouver, British Columbia. That’s not a point in the minus column in my book. Lots of shows I’ve enjoyed were filmed in Vancouver, including most of The X-Files, Supernatural, Smallville, Lucifer, Stargate SG-1, Fringe, and the DC Comics series on the CW.
By the way, Hell on Wheels, while filmed in Canada, wasn’t filmed in Vancouver. It was filmed in the Calgary, Alberta area, primarily.
I wasn’t familiar with any of the other actors in the series. I was okay with that as well. Sometimes, knowing an actor from another production can interfere with the willing suspension of disbelief. For instance, because Chris Heyerdahl was so good at being bad on Hell on Wheels, I kept expecting the sweet, deaf Sam to turn bad during this season.
Am I going to share spoilers in this review? Nah, not really. Maybe one thing, but it can’t really be a spoiler since it is the title of the series.
While the character Axel felt like the protagonist of this story early on, it quickly becomes apparent that the central character of the narrative was the initially comatose Vanessa. She’s Vanessa Seward in the early part of the season, but is revealed in the finale to be Vanessa Van Helsing, a descendant of Abraham Van Helsing, who was a great vampire hunter and not a fictional character created by Bram Stoker.
I told you there was going to be one spoiler. But was it, really?
Vanessa is portrayed by American actress Kelly Overton. I’m going to take it on faith that she’s a good actress. Her IMDb page boasts many guest spots in television series I’ve respected, and she apparently had a recurring role on True Blood, a series that I name-dropped earlier, and one that I just couldn’t get into. She played a werewolf on that series, not a vampire, but I suppose it earned her her supernatural fantasy bona fides. I’m taking it on faith because in this inaugral season, Vanessa seems as dull as dishwater. I have to believe it’s because of the way the character is written or directed, and hope that it will get better.
Vanessa is one of those fictional character tropes known as the Chosen One. She is awakened from her coma when a vampire attempts to feed upon her. It is a perversion of the Sleeping Beauty fable, when the slumbering princess is awakened by a kiss from her prince. Not only was Vanessa awakened, the vampire was cured, reverting to human. Vanessa somehow seems to be the key to defeating this sudden vampire plague.
Oh, I left out a bit of backstory, didn’t I?
Three years before Vanessa is awakened, the Yellowstone Caldera erupts and blankets the world in ash, blocking out sunlight. It didn’t create the vampires, but it did allow the vampires to overrun the planet in an event that’s become known as the Rising. That’s why Vanessa and her super-powers are so important. Her ability to turn vampires back into humans makes her a prime target for the organized vampires, and also makes her the de facto leader of the human resistance.
Vanessa, however, has more immediate character motivation. She wants to find her daughter Dylan, from whom she was separated when she went into her coma.
Along the way, a group of humans band together, Walking Dead-style, and there’s some in-fighting and drama, a dash of treachery, a few twists and surprises, although few of the surprises are really surprising. Someone—I’m not saying who—is a serial killer who is murdering humans from within the group, collecting fingers as trophies. A couple of recurring characters disappear partway through the season. At least one of these returns, sort of, in the finale episode. Even after watching every episode in the first season, I still don’t know who some of these characters are. In this, the series is very much like The Walking Dead to me.
Here are some of the other main characters in this season. Forgive me if I omit your favorite.
Jonathan Scarfe, who I mentioned already, is career marine Axel Miller. As the story begins, he is protecting the comatose Vanessa in a booby-trapped hospital that he’s turned into an anti-vampire fortress. The hospital is a main set through a lot of this season. Axel was the character who it felt like we were meant to identify with, and I did. He comes across as loyal and dedicated to duty.
Axel is also taking care of the character Doc (Rukiya Bernard), a medical examiner and scientist who was turned into a vampire prior to the beginning of our story. He keeps her locked in a supply cage (like the book cage in the first three seasons of Buffy) and feeds her his own blood.
A vampire named Flesh (Vincent Gale) is introduced early on. He bites the comatose Vanessa and feeds off her blood. This is how we find out that Vanessa’s blood turns vampires back into humans. Flesh, formerly the nebbishy Phil Fleischman, becomes a main cast member. We know he’s human again, but is he good, bad, or something else altogether? He is proof-of-concept, to the vampires as well as the humans, that Vanessa is a powerful weapon in the fight against the vampires.
Also breaking the status quo of Axel’s hospital “safe place,” is the arrival of a group of human survivors. Axel nearly refuses to allow the group entry, until it turns out there are other marines with them. Among the newcomers—a few of whom should be wearing red shirts, if you know what I mean—are the deaf Sam (Christopher Heyerdahl) and the young Mohamad (Trezzo Mahoro). Both of these become main characters.
During the season we are introduced to several of the vampires as well. There seems to be some kind of pseudo-royal hierarchy to the vampires that reminds me of both Grimm and Game of Thrones. I’ll admit that I don’t fully understand it, and that it’s the least interesting part of the show to me. It also reminds me of what little I did see of True Blood. This was probably not an accident.
Julius (Aleks Paunovic) is a powerfully built vampire who leads a large group of warriors. Dmitri (Paul Johannson) is an older vampire, an ancient, who sired Julius. Along with Rebecca (Laura Mennell), Dmitri seems to be higher ranking than Julius. Maybe just because they are older vampires. I don’t really know. As I mentioned, this is the least interesting part of the series for me so far. I feel like the vampire leaders will become as interchangeable as the Goa’uld System Lords on Stargate SG-1.
There are different classes of vampires in this story as well. Ferals are the most animal-like, as their name suggests. They feed upon animals and exhibit traits of their non-human diet, such as claws, fangs and other mutations. From a storytelling standpoint, the ferals are most like the zombies from The Walking Dead.
The higher classes of vampires seem more human-like in their social interactions, including sexual relations, and I feel like the distinctions between the various vampire levels will become more important later in the series. For this season, they appear to be organized in clans or families, vying amongst themselves for territory and power. Like Goa’uld System Lords, in fact.
I’ll stop making this comparison when it no longer seems to apply.
Partway through this short thirteen-episode season, the hospital ceases to be our main set. We move to a couple of farms, if memory serves, and then a top-secret military base. Episodic things happen. The serial killer who has remained active in our group of survivors is revealed. There’s the expected amount of backstabbing and betrayals. Including one big betrayal towards the end of the season that results in the death of one of our main characters. Or does it? This is a vampire show, after all, with Vanessa as our anti-vampire juice box.
I have already continued to watch this series at a sedate one-episode-per-week rate. Yes, it reminds me of a lot of other television series, in both good and bad ways. I don’t love it like I did the early seasons of TWD, but I don’t hate it either. Not yet, at least.
It’s more like a diet soda that is an inferior but potable imitation of its non-diet predecessor.
Firewater’s We-Live-to-Die-Another-Day Report Card: B-
This doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement of this series. I guess it’s not. But I’m still watching. It scratches a survival horror itch.