“Jeremiah is dead! Barnabas is here! The book is wrong!”
Every time travel story has to figure out the answer to the big question, the one that Ebenezer Scrooge asks the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in A Christmas Carol. Confronted with a vision of a future where his own death inspires only joy and relief that he’s gone, Scrooge asks, “Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?”
In Scrooge’s case, the answer turns out to be things that May be. He still has the opportunity to wake up on Christmas morning, buy the Cratchits a turkey, and change his fate.
Ray Bradbury’s seminal time travel story, “A Sound of Thunder”, adds a scary element of chaos-theory mischance — stepping on a butterfly in the prehistoric past produces subtle but devastating ripples in the present. Taking up the alternate position, Robert A. Heinlein’s story “By His Bootstraps” describes a circular timeline, where the time-traveler has to follow a path that he’s already seen his future self walk.
Every writer who tells a time travel story ends up taking a position somewhere on that continuum between “the things that Will be” and “the things that May be.”
Except for Dark Shadows, of course, which is being written at the last minute, during a hurricane, by lunatics who didn’t even realize they were writing a time travel story until it just kind of suddenly already happened.
But over the next few episodes, Dark Shadows becomes a time travel story, for keeps. The events of the next few days will become the beating heart of the story for the rest of the show’s run — even when Vicki gets back to 1968, we’ll see wave after wave of refugees from the 18th century, which only ends when the show chooses a new historical period to visit.
But for a show that’s so dominated by traveling back and forth from the past to the future, Dark Shadows is cheerfully cavalier about how it’s all supposed to work. The writers have no idea whether there’s predestination or free will, and they clearly couldn’t care less.
And right here is pretty much the point where that happens — the day that kindly old Grandfather Paradox settles into his not-very-easy chair, and tells us a story that could never have been about to have happened.
Because now Josette’s got The Book.
Our irresponsible lead character, time-traveling governess Victoria Winters, has decided to save Josette from the cliff-diving suicide that we’ve always known is in store for her. Vicki’s currently being held in the Collinsport Gaol on suspicion of witchcraft, and in a misguided attempt to wreck the structure of causation for everybody else, she’s told Josette where to find the Collins Family History that she brought with her into the past from 1967.
She thinks that if Josette is warned about her fate, she’ll be able to avoid it. The possibility that knowing her predestined fate is the thing that actually drives her off the edge of the cliff does not appear to have occurred to anyone.
So here we are at the inaugural meeting of the book club. Opening the book, Josette spots the copyright date — it was printed in Bangor, in 1965.
That means that this object that they’re holding is only two years old, so why it looks all weather-beaten and ancient is a bit of a mystery. I guess they’re hard on books in the mid-60s.
Josette, like everybody on television, is blessed with the magical gift of opening to the exact page that she’s looking for, on the very first try. It looks like the Josette bio is about seven-eighths of the way through the volume, so I guess the Collins family kind of front-loaded all the interesting stories before 1795, and then pretty much coasted from there.
So here’s Josette and Natalie, making contact with the unknown. They’re actually pretty chill about it, all things considered.
Josette: Natalie, look! It’s my portrait! It only arrived last week from Paris; how could it…
Natalie: I don’t know.
And that’s all she has to say on the subject. You see? So chill.
Josette (reading): Josette du Prés Collins, wife of Jeremiah Collins, was born in Martinique, came to Collinsport in 1795, and —
She stops reading, and shudders.
Natalie: What is it?
Josette: I would never do that! Never!
Natalie: Never do what?
She keeps reading.
Josette: Died by her own hand that same winter… 1795.
What follows is a metatextual argument about the status of the Jeremiah retcon.
Three months ago, just a few weeks before the 1795 storyline started, Barnabas brought Julia out to Widow’s Hill and told her the story of Josette’s marriage to his uncle Jeremiah, and his own secret attraction to her. Then Vicki took a time tunnel back a couple centuries, and what we saw was completely different — Josette came to Collinwood to marry Barnabas, not Jeremiah.
They changed their minds; it’s as simple as that. When Barnabas told Julia about his tragic past, the writers had no idea they were going to be visiting that past in just a few weeks. They didn’t have a plan for how they were going to unfold this story. The Dark Shadows writers never have a plan. They just decided that it would be more story-productive to do something else.
Now, the sensible thing to do is just to keep on going, and pretend that that never happened. It’s 1968; nobody has a VCR or a season pass. It would be easy for the writers to decide that nobody was going to remember what Barnabas said three months ago anyway.
But this is Dark Shadows, where they rarely take the sensible path. They spot that incongruity, and they head straight for it.
Natalie (reading): Jeremiah Collins met Josette du Prés when he was on a business trip to Martinique.
Josette: That’s not true! He never came to Martinique; I met him here!
Natalie: You see?
Josette: Go on.
Natalie (reading): Josette was the daughter of Andre du Prés, who owned the largest sugar plantation in the West Indies. When Miss du Prés arrived in Collinsport for her marriage to Jeremiah —
Josette interrupts again.
Josette: No! When I arrived in Collinsport, I was going to marry Barnabas!
Natalie: You see? None of it is true.
Josette: But it almost is. I did marry Jeremiah. It’s almost as if somebody knew some of the facts, and wrote them down, and did not know what actually did happen.
Natalie (reading): But in Collinsport, the marriage between Josette and Jeremiah seemed unhappy… and family legend has it that Jeremiah’s nephew, Barnabas, was attracted to his uncle’s wife.
Josette: That’s true!
Natalie (reading): The legend further has it that Barnabas, realizing the futility of his love, removed himself to England.
Natalie (reading): … Where he enjoyed a long and prosperous life.
That’s a very clever connection, which ties this retcon all the way back to Barnabas’ first appearance, when he introduced himself to the present-day Collins family as a long-lost cousin from England. Now it’s up to Natalie and Josette to decide which version they want to believe — the real facts of their lives, or this strange episode guide from the future that forgot to include a spoiler warning.
Remarkably, that question is so compelling — why is the story that we’ve seen so different from what we were told before? — that it actually overshadows the other plot point in this episode, which is that Barnabas Collins dies.
That’s a pretty big milestone in the storyline, obviously, but within the structure of this episode, that event is framed as just a piece of evidence that helps Natalie and Josette figure out whether to believe the book.
You can tell that Barnabas’ death isn’t the focus of the episode, because he drops at the end of act three. The real cliffhanger shock happens a few minutes later, when Joshua tells them about his plan to cover up Barnabas’ death.
Joshua knows that if people find out that Barnabas died of the plague, there’ll be a panic, ruining the Collins business, and probably destroying the entire town. So he’s got another idea.
Joshua: I have decided to keep my son’s death a secret.
Natalie: A secret?
Joshua: It is my wish, and I trust that you will follow it. Tomorrow, I will spread the word that Barnabas left suddenly, on a business trip to England.
Josette turns to Natalie, in horror and shock.
Josette: The book — the book! It’s true!
It’s gorgeous, a moment of pure inspiration that turns a retcon-mistake into a thrilling plot twist. But that’s the great thing about time travel; there’s always an opportunity for another second chance.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
When Natalie tries to convince Josette not to believe the book, she says, “But, Josette — you were not married to Jeremiah. Jeremiah is dead! Barnabas is here! The book is wrong!” She means to say “you didn’t come to Collinwood to marry Jeremiah.” You can tell that she realizes that she’s made a mistake as it’s coming out of her mouth; she stumbles for a moment, and then moves on to the next line.
A moment later, a mysterious wind blows out the candles on the desk in front of them. But it only blows out one of the three candles. The stagehands try again, but they only blow out one of the two remaining lit candles. Then the director cuts away so you don’t have to see them keep trying to blow the third candle out.
— Danny Horn