“We all know the supernatural is real and dangerous, and it’s time to do something about it.”
EVIL! That’s what’s here. You must leave this place! There is no peace for you here. The dead must rest!
Sorry, I’m having a little flare-up of my sudden-onset Caretaker’s Syndrome. While I’ve been going about my business in August 1968, an irresponsible troupe of time-travelers has been fooling around with the seals and sigils, recklessly summoning a fresh nightmare into our world.
They call themselves Big Finish Productions, a UK-based audio drama production company, and for nearly twenty years they’ve been filling the world with extra episodes of TV shows that you’d think there were already too many episodes of. They started out with audio plays based on Doctor Who, and then moved on to Blake’s 7, Highlander, Terrahawks, Sapphire & Steel, Stargate: Atlantis, and The Avengers (not the one you’re thinking of).
Heedlessly ignoring the warnings of every sensible person they knew, Big Finish launched a range of Dark Shadows audios in 2006, with as many original cast members as they could get hold of. For several years, they’ve been doing a semi-monthly series of audiobooks featuring some of Dark Shadows’ most beloved characters, including Cyrus Longworth, Sabrina Stuart, Charles Delaware Tate, Ivanka and Pansy Faye’s sister.
No, sorry — just kidding. That’s not fair, because they’ve actually made some really great stories featuring Quentin, Angelique, Maggie, Carolyn, Willie, and several Trasks, as well as those offbeat minor characters that you wouldn’t think they’d even bother with. At their best, the Big Finish stories can drill down into a character, to find new depth or to continue a story thread that was left unresolved in the original show.
I haven’t written about the audios before, because we haven’t reached a storyline yet that Big Finish has really mined for gold — their main storylines are mostly spinning out of stories from 1969-on, and I’m still mid-’68.
But this week, they’ve put out the first episode of Bloodlust, a new Dark Shadows miniseries which they’re releasing as a 13-part serial. It’s the first time they’re treating the show like a soap opera, so how can I resist?
Now, I don’t want to post spoilers, so I can’t do my usual stroll through the episode. It’s too early to write a review, after just one episode, and I hate writing reviews anyway. So instead I’m just going to go super deep into my Grand Unified Theory of how serialized narrative works, and if that turns out to be boring, then so be it. If it helps, I’ll illustrate the post with pictures of Jonathan Frid making funny faces.
So the problem, obviously, is that the cast members are forty years older than the last time we saw them, and some of the ones we really want to see aren’t around anymore. Big Finish has done a neat job of recasting a few parts — mostly with kid characters who have aged into adults — which gives them a little more room to run.
But there’s a healthy chunk of the present-day cast who just aren’t around anymore, which can make Collinwood feel like a lonely and unfamiliar place.
So far on this blog, we’ve looked at several attempts to tell Dark Shadows stories that are too broad and too deep for the small screen — the 1991 revival series, the Paperback Library gothic novels, and the Dell comic books.
They are terrible. Almost anything is, when you’re adapting a story from one medium to another, and that goes double for Dark Shadows, which had a hard time staying in its own lane in the first place. Even Dark Shadows couldn’t do a good version of Dark Shadows about three-quarters of the time.
With that in mind, the easiest thing to do is a pastiche of the old style. Anyone could do it. I might do it later tonight, if there’s nothing good on TV. You take the old music cues, you slap together some overheated dialogue, and then you cast a drag queen as Julia, to sob, “Barnabas, Barnabas! Where are you, Barnabas!” And then you fill the rest of the time with people opening and closing doors.
And yet here they are, the brave and stubborn people of Big Finish, assembling a reasonable twenty-first century version of Dark Shadows without the use of Chromakey, boom mic shadows, or drag queens of any kind. Apparently it can be done.
They establish a modern aesthetic in the Dark Shadows audios with a more naturalistic approach to the dialogue, by which I mean that it sounds like pretty much everything on television. Bloodlust episode 1 doesn’t aspire to the level of gloomy wit that the original show managed to hit about forty percent of the time that it tried, but it also doesn’t have mind-numbing recap scenes, or long stretches with characters silently pacing around the room and glaring at clocks.
And Bloodlust has a huge cast — more characters than you even have time to get to know in the first half hour. I think there’s twelve people with speaking parts in episode 1, which is simply showing off. It even builds to what is essentially a big soap opera party scene, with people splitting off in twos and threes around the periphery, to gossip and drop clues.
Still, it needs to feel like it’s Dark Shadows, because otherwise, why even bother? They’ve got some original cast members, which helps to bridge the gap, even if they’re not playing the same parts that we know. In the first episode of Bloodlust, the most familiar voice is Kathryn Leigh Scott as Maggie, and they’ve also got Marie Wallace and Jerry Lacy on hand to reassure us that yes, this is actually supposed to be Dark Shadows.
We don’t get anywhere near Collinwood in this episode, which is an interesting move. The mansion is the remote house on a hill again, and the current occupant is apparently pursuing some mysterious goal that we only hear about in passing.
It looks like Bloodlust is going to be a story about Collinsport, which brings it more in line with normal soap opera procedure. Soaps usually take place in a small town or in a close-knit city neighborhood, because you can get lots of different people mixing around, and if things get slow, you can always have a mysterious stranger move to town.
But Dark Shadows never had that much patience for Collinsport, except for the woods and the graveyards. Most of the action happened in and around the Collins estate, which for a soap opera is kind of like doing the Seinfeld parking garage episode every day for five years. After a while, they had to start visiting parallel dimensions just to feel like they were getting out of the house and meeting new people.
But new people is what Bloodlust episode 1 is all about. This episode mostly takes place in the Blue Whale, the traditional hub of the Collinsport social scene.
Maggie owns the Collinsport Inn now, and since the start of Big Finish’s audio line, the Blue Whale’s been run by Ed Griffin, who’s familiar enough to rate his own story thread. Marie Wallace plays Ed’s chatterbox mother, Jessica, and she does a lot of the heavy lifting in this episode, introducing all of the characters to each other so that we know who everyone is.
Now, there are three simple steps to make your audience like a new character — make a friend, make a joke, and make a plot point happen. In this episode, the make-a-friend step is pretty well covered — for a story called Bloodlust set in the spookiest town in America, everybody seems to adore each other. Maggie can vouch for Ed, and Ed is friends with Franklin, and Frankie’s nice to the newlyweds, and meanwhile, Jessica is circulating around to make sure everyone’s having a good time.
Unfortunately, in lieu of the “make a joke” step, the episode spends a lot of time with a couple that we’re supposed to find charming, and who I am two hundred percent un-charmed by.
Like I said, not a review, and this is the only thing I’m planning on being critical about at this early stage, but on the whole, the jokes don’t land, especially from the newlyweds. The characters all spend a lot of time teasing each other and self-deprecating, which might be cute if we knew them better, but they aren’t actually funny, and that makes them hard to warm up to.
They’re constantly saying things with built-in exclamation points, like “You have, haven’t you? You’ve actually made a list!” and “Don’t blame me if I tread on your toes!” and “It’s practically compulsory to learn how to cook seafood in this town!” Everyone’s being pleasant, but it’s cocktail party banter, which you pretend to chuckle at because you don’t want to be rude.
But Bloodlust manages to nail some solid plot points, including the absolutely thrilling idea of Maggie Evans leading a group of Collinsport teenagers to take down the supernatural threats around them. Just think about that for a minute. Maggie the Vampire Slayer! I seriously can’t wait.
Also, halfway through the episode, there’s a reveal involving Ed Griffin that makes his story thread snap crisply into focus. It’s the best moment in the episode by far — real people in a heartbreaking situation — and I instantly wanted to know more about it.
There’s also a character who pops up for just one scene late in the episode, but she gets to deliver all of the Collinwood-related exposition, and I want to hear more from her, too.
Still, there’s one thing that’s missing — a trick that’s so fundamental to the soap opera structure that I’m amazed they haven’t done it over the last eight years of Dark Shadows audios: Quentin’s sexy illegitimate children.
If Big Finish wants to create a new generation of Dark Shadows stories — and bless them, it appears that they do — then they need to start breeding Collinses before the original series actors get too old to pass on the family name. Big Finish introduced an aged-up Amy Jennings a couple years ago, and I understand from the cast list that she’s got a new family in this series.
That’s a step in the right direction, but there’s nothing more exciting than the thought of a new crop of Collins kids. I don’t know what David’s up to at the moment, but it better include a couple little hellions playing hide and seek in the mausoleum.
So, citizens of Big Finish: listen up. I expect a dark-eyed bisexual twenty-something Quentin Jr to show up by the end of this series, or I’m going to have to move to England and start writing these myself. I’m not even kidding with you. Make it happen.
Monday: The Hangover.
Don’t forget to check out
Bloodlust, episode 1
— Danny Horn