Even within a singular body of work, there can be a power struggle. Like the fight between good and evil, there could be two distinctly different elements clashing against each other. The pilot and second episodes for Van Helsing premiered on the same night, and they couldn’t be more different. The pilot, “Help Me,” is dark, grim and post-apocalyptic. We find ourselves after society has collapsed and is now controlled by feral, zombie-vampire hybrid creatures. They retain some intelligence but are nothing but a hollow, hungry shell of a former human. We can only glean what happened, but even then it is all said in vaguities. The entire attempt of this first episode is to build intrigue by offering crumbs about the past in order to bait us into becoming invested in the future. It creates a high-stakes, fast-paced environment with little time for delving into the character’s past in between the creature and human attacks.
The second episode, “Seen You”, offers a fuller image on the ambitious scope of the show. We see Vanessa’s (Kelly Overton) origins prior to her death coma, and we see her significance as the main character. The biggest difference between the first and second episode is the shift in character attention. The name of the show is Van Helsing, which means Vanessa should be the focus of the show. For most of the first episode, not only is she unconscious, but she is also condescendingly referred to as “Sleeping Beauty.” Meanwhile, this female-led show becomes a vehicle for a man, Axel (Jonathan Scarfe), as he hijacks the narrative and attention from who the focus should really be on.
By the time the first episode truly introduces us to Vanessa, we’re already forced to be invested in Axel, the only character with any development that we have no choice but to cling to if we want to continue watching this show. That cheapens the importance of Vanessa and makes her feel more like his sidekick than the actual lead of this story. It also betrays any anticipation the audience had about the show starting off with a strong, female character. Luckily, this all changes in episode two, when writer Simon Barry is introduced. His experience writing strong, female characters is evident, especially in his previous show, Continuum.
In this episode, we become emotionally invested in the character right away as we witness tenacity, strength and compassion as a single mother just trying to survive. This is the character we were promised, and Barry delivers. By all respects, this episode should have been the introduction to the series because watching the first episode alone is enough to disinterest the average viewer. The second episode also introduces a better understanding of the world we were thrust into during the first episode. It adds a layer of complexity to what had appeared to be another Walking Dead type, post-apocalyptic survival show on its surface. There are clear-cut villains and a group that Vanessa will likely have to deal with, in line with the type of storytelling her character’s name originates from. This episode was the bait, and I’ll be the first to admit it managed to hook me after very nearly losing my interest entirely.
There is no doubt that this is a SyFy channel show. The undeniable canned visual feel from the many shows that the channel produces has a noticeable characteristic. It has a clean, professional, mid-budget and mass produced quality that clearly marks the show. This isn’t so much a negative comment as it is an observation of the show’s style. Veteran SyFy TV show director Michael Nankin doesn’t do much to help the show stand out visually. He uses the same filming style we have come to expect from a sci-fi/horror show on this network. I’m hoping that changes in the future as the show begins to develop more of its own personality, but the tried-and-true technique will suffice for now.
My hope for Van Helsing is that it continues the energy and ambition of the second episode with the continued chemistry of our two leads (eventually skewing more towards Vanessa) in the first episode. Under the guidance of Simon Barry, who directs and writes a few of their upcoming episodes, this show can awaken from its comatose beginnings and become something exhilarating.