“Well, so much for that little brainstorm.”
Today’s episode begins with another Great Moment in Monster Medicine, as Dr. Julia Hoffman injects some magic fluid into the patchwork Frankenstein that they’re planning to bring to life on Friday.
Looking on, Barnabas asks, “Why do you keep giving him these shots?”
Julia sighs, and says, “If he should begin to decompose, then he will be utterly useless to us.”
The logic behind injecting things into the dead is a little tenuous — the body doesn’t have a functioning circulatory system to move the fluid around. At this point, I think what we’re looking at is a rotting corpse with an exceptionally well-preserved shoulder.
So it might be a wise idea for the medical team to start considering the benefits of refrigeration. Although, honestly, this thing’s been lying around the lab at room temperature for several weeks, so maybe they know something I don’t.
After all, once you get into the applied science of Monster Medicine, you’ve pretty much left literal reality behind, and entered a world of pure metaphor. For example: there’s no such thing as a “life force,” and even if there was, it couldn’t be transferred from one organism into another. Also, there’s no such thing as qi, “energy” doesn’t mean what you think it means, and reiki certification is not medical school.
Last week, Dr. Lang tried to free Barnabas from his curse by plugging the vampire’s consciousness into his inanimate patchwork monster. It didn’t work out that well, and now we’re down one mad scientist, plus Barnabas’ life force is in exactly the same place that it’s been this whole time.
So now Julia needs to study up on Lang’s work, and then try the whole procedure over again, which is not a very dramatically compelling situation. In fact, the more that they talk about it, the more it feels like kind of a hassle.
So in order to create a sense of urgency, Barnabas and Julia have been standing around all week establishing make-believe deadlines for themselves.
Barnabas: How long will this body remain intact?
Julia: I can only guess, but I’d say no longer than twenty-four hours.
Barnabas: Twenty-four hours! You mean to say that we have to make this experiment successful within twenty-four hours, or it will fail, and I will revert to what I was?
Julia: Yes. That’s exactly what I mean.
They act like that’s a huge problem, but twenty-four hours is plenty of time. Each episode is only half an hour long, and that’s including commercials. It would take them forever to get through twenty-four hours. But maybe I’m not doing the math right.
So basically this week the entire show is about inventing fake countdowns and then telling us how stressed out everybody is. It’s kind of driving me crazy.
Julia’s also upset about the Dream Curse, which is a whole other layer of false drama. Angelique is angry that Barnabas is trying to shake off her curse, so she’s created a magical chain of spooky nightmares that’s working its way through the cast until it gets to Barnabas, at which point he’ll die and revert to his vampire state.
And again, it’s really hard for the audience to invest emotionally in this situation, when it’s obvious that the only logic behind it is “cause we say so”. We don’t know how long the chain of characters is supposed to be before the Dream gets to Barnabas; all we know right now is that Julia is supposed to pass it along to Mrs. Johnson.
So Barnabas could be next in the chain, or he could be twenty steps away. The storyline is like a slot machine — we’re supposed to keep feeding quarters into this thing, and hope that at some point it pays off.
This is an essential tension in the structure of open-ended serial narrative — the ancient truce between writers and audience. We want more exciting things to happen — more plot twists, more secrets revealed, more danger and spectacle. On the writers’ side, they want to conserve story as much as they can, just in case they run out and can’t think of anything to do next.
That means that our interests are not actually aligned with the characters’ interests. Right now, Barnabas and Julia are talking about how awful it would be if the story moved on — if the Dream Curse reached its conclusion, with terrible consequences for Barnabas and everyone that he loves.
That is the opposite of our problem. We want the bad things to happen. We like seeing pretty people in terrible trouble; that’s the whole point of watching television. If the characters are successful at averting every danger, then the show is boring, and we won’t want to watch it anymore.
It’s not that we’re rooting against the characters — but we’re not really rooting for them, either. Our interests and the characters’ interests are on completely different scales.
The characters are thinking, I want to keep this secret, or I want my advertising agency to win this account. The audience is thinking: I want you to keep saying interesting things, I want him to keep flirting with people, and then I want to see something explode. If that’s more likely to happen if your agency gets the account, then sure, knock yourself out. But our only loyalty is to the story.
Because it turns out that the people on TV aren’t actually real. We don’t need to feel bad about rooting against them, and it’s totally okay to enjoy watching them struggle. We don’t actually have a “suspension of disbelief,” where we allow ourselves to be tricked into thinking that the TV people feel joy and pain in the same way that we do.
We know that everything that we see on the show is constructed by the writers and actors and producers, and it’s their responsibility to figure out how to tell interesting stories. So there will always be a last-minute reprieve, or an astonishing coincidence, or whatever device the writers need to use, in order to guide the characters through the story.
That’s the ancient truce between the writers and the audience — we’ll keep paying attention, as long as you keep telling an interesting story.
So they can’t expect us to care about the progression of this Dream Curse storyline, because it’s obviously just a delaying tactic with a completely arbitrary deadline. I don’t want to keep dropping quarters into this slot machine. Let’s play a different game.
Tomorrow: Bein’ Green.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
At the beginning of the episode, as Julia injects the fluid into Adam’s body, there’s a squeak from the studio.
Julia talks about medical matters with Barnabas:
Julia: Perhaps if we increased the voltage…
Barnabas: We could mean success or failure.
When Barnabas leaves the laboratory and closes the door, the wall shakes a little.
Maggie recites the Dream Curse poem to Professor Stokes, and she messes up a couple minor words: “Through endless corridors of trial and error” should be “by trial and error,” and “One door leads to a point of return” should be “the point of return”.
Behind the Scenes:
This is the first episode that Lang’s recorded message plays, but it’s far from the last. We’ll hear it in fourteen episodes over the next two and a half months.
Tomorrow: Bein’ Green.
— Danny Horn