“If my social life ground to a halt every time my mom was investigating a murder, I’d be a nun.”
Okay, here are some further thoughts about Dark Shadows: Bloodlust, because I have some and you might as well hear about them.
Bloodlust is a new 13-part miniseries by Big Finish, a UK audio-drama production company that is determined to fill up the world with things that we don’t strictly need. They’ve been at it for decades, and there doesn’t seem to be a way to stop them, so here we are. I wrote about episode 1 last week, and today I’m looking at episodes 2 and 3.
Now, the question that every DS spin-off has to answer is: What is the purpose of bringing more Dark Shadows into the world?
Because history is not on the side of people who think that they have Dark Shadows stories worth telling. The original excuse for making Dark Shadows in the first place was that the producers didn’t realize what kind of show they were making until it suddenly became a hit, and by then it was too late to do something more sensible. Everybody following them can only dream of having an alibi that strong.
Forty years later, we’ve seen movie adaptations and prime-time revivals, novels and comic books and View-Master reels. But Bloodlust poses a question that nobody’s ever asked before, namely: What happens if we let British people try it?
This is a more productive question than you might expect, because British people have a different relationship with soap operas than Americans do.
In the US, the term “soap opera” traditionally applies to episodic dramas aired five days a week in the afternoon, a format and timeslot that we’ve been gradually abandoning for decades.
In its place, we’ve grafted the soap opera structure onto everything else in our culture, including wrestling matches, TV shows about meth dealers, superhero comics, and documentary podcasts about 15-year-old murder cases. Americans don’t usually call these “soap operas”, because you don’t need a special word that describes absolutely everything that you can see. It’s like a fish that doesn’t know the word “wet”.
But on British TV, they’ve got actual for-real soap operas that are still a major part of popular culture. Coronation Street and EastEnders are the two big soaps, and as far I can tell, they both air eight days a week, and are watched by everyone.
So it actually does make sense to let some British people revive this weird old American soap opera, and update it to modern soap standards. Big Finish is creating something new in the world — a new set of influences to mash-up, using a different set of tools — and that turns out to be worth doing.
For example: mornings. The way that a narrative day begins and ends on a modern soap opera has a special rhythm to it that wasn’t possible back in 1968. On Dark Shadows, there were only a few times of day available to the characters — mostly “day”, “dusk”, and “thunderstorm,” and the only difference between them was the sound effects. Characters never really need to go to bed on Dark Shadows unless they’ve got a dream sequence to cue up. Otherwise, they can run around all night grave-robbing, and still be fresh as a daisy the next morning for the inevitable police interrogations.
But modern soaps create a ritual around mornings. You get a cross-section of all the characters, and you see what everybody’s doing at that particular time of day. In the 1960s, soap operas couldn’t support that narrative structure, because you need a lot of characters, and a lot of sets, and editing equipment that lets you cut back and forth between them. It just wasn’t practical.
So episode 3 of Bloodlust shows us what a soap opera morning looks like in Collinsport. Amy Jennings — all grown up now, and married to a guy with a badge for mathematical excellence — has to get coffee for her demanding husband. Jackie yells at her mom that they’re out of breakfast cereal. Kate and Frankie wake up together, and banter about analgesics and birth control pills. It creates a sense of intimacy with the audience, like we’re watching real people going through their day.
Part of that intimacy relies on establishing little personal details. The breakfast cereal scene is a good example:
Jackie: Mom! We’re out of Lucky Charms!
Rhonda: That crap’ll rot your — oh. Hi, Cody.
Cody: Hi, Sheriff Tate.
Rhonda: Rhonda, Rhonda, Rhonda, Cody. I get enough of that at work. Speaking of which — I’m going to be back late again tonight. There’ve been some developments in the Melody Devereux case.
Jackie: Is Reverend Trask a suspect? Is that why you bolted when I said we saw him in the alley?
Rhonda: (on her way out the door) Bye, honey. Bye, Cody.
Jackie: Get Lucky Charms!
So that’s adorable, and it’s kind of striking to hear a resident of Collinsport talking about a particular brand of breakfast cereal. The original Dark Shadows didn’t believe in sketching characters in that kind of detail. Outside of their plot functions, the Dark Shadows characters aren’t actually very distinct from each other.
Nobody on Dark Shadows really has any particular individual taste. Adam’s been reading Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and thanks to Dr. Lang, we all had to listen to Mozart for several months — but beyond that, we don’t really know what the characters actually like, in their off hours when they aren’t lurking behind a tree or tampering in God’s domain. Really, the only preference that a DS character might express is whether they want sherry, brandy or port, and even that changes from one episode to the next.
The only character on the show with his own distinct taste is Professor Stokes, who likes Oliver Bennett — “the greatest cabinetmaker Marion, Massachusetts ever produced” — and collects occult talismans. In that case, the first characteristic is there to provide evidence that Stokes is an unpredictable eccentric, which then supports the weight of the second, plot-relevant characteristic.
So Dark Shadows, as originally envisioned, ends up with people that basically have two character traits each: #1. Nice or not nice, and #2. Wealthy or not wealthy. That divides everyone up into four neat quadrants:
Nice + Wealthy = Liz
Nice + Not wealthy = Maggie
Not nice + Wealthy = Roger
Not nice + Not wealthy = Jason
The Nice people all have the same hobbies. They like reading, taking walks, drinking sherry, dancing in moderation and being nice to other Nice people. They go to bed at a reasonable hour, they believe in long engagements, and they don’t believe in sex before, during or after marriage.
That level of character uniformity exerts such a strong gravitational hold that even if you have a character like Nicholas Blair, who is literally Satan’s emissary to the mortal plane — what does he do when he’s not scheming? He reads, takes walks, drinks sherry, etc. His house is furnished in the same way as everyone else’s — down to literally the same lamps and the same paintings on the walls, thanks to the Sims-2-without-any-expansion-packs props budget. We know that he’s nasty, and he’s trying to create a race of devil-worshipping corpse monsters, but beyond that, he’s pretty much the same as everyone else.
Modern soaps are much better at creating a sense of character through the accumulation of incidental details. So far in Bloodlust, that comes across the strongest with the three teenagers. Jackie likes Lucky Charms and (probably) smokes pot, Cody built a trebuchet and knows how to steal cable, and Harry loves his Polaroid camera and used to play the glockenspiel. A couple of those details might turn out to be plot-relevant, but they’re mostly just there for color.
Another thing that’s new in modern soapcraft is establishing a sense of memory and self-awareness. In the 1960s, serial-narrative television shows were non-repeatable — an episode would only air once, and it was hard to count on the audience’s memory of previous episodes, so most shows would reset to the same default settings at the end of every installment.
Over the last few decades, television has become increasingly repeatable, as our technology advances from syndicated repeats to video releases, DVD box sets and Netflix binge-streaming. The audience has grown more observant and better at recognizing familiar tropes, and the characters’ observation skills have kept up with the times.
This is an area where Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the real pioneer. As the first decade when you could count on finding a VCR in every viewer’s home, the 1990s was a golden age for postmodern self-awareness. Seinfeld, Friends and The Simpsons were major players, but Buffy was the reigning champion.
Everybody in Sunnyvale knew that the town was peculiar, and they’d make ironic meta-jokes about the high school’s unusually high mortality rate. It was an in-joke shared between the show and the audience, ruefully acknowledging that one fatal monster attack per week would probably attract more outside attention than the show’s premise could support.
In Bloodlust, that style of fictional civic self-awareness has finally arrived in Collinsport.
Kate: Whereas I take the point of view that vigilantism is not what this town needs.
Maggie: It’s not vigilantism, Kate. It’s just a group of concerned citizens.
Kate: Yeah, who right now amount to you, and a pair of Cub Scouts.
Maggie: A group of concerned citizens, who want to make this town a better place.
Kate: By stirring up anger.
Maggie: By acknowledging what’s staring us right in the face. Collinsport is not a normal town. Things happen here.
They certainly do, and right now, what’s happening is a mash-up of Dark Shadows, modern British soap opera dialogue, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with Maggie hanging up her hammer and stake, and maturing into the Rupert Giles role.
That’s not a criticism, by the way, because Dark Shadows has always been a crazy mash-up. It’s 1960s American soap opera, plus Jane Eyre, Dracula and The Turn of the Screw, with an occasional dash of The Maltese Falcon and something from Edgar Allen Poe. The whole game of the show is to see how many ingredients they can stir together, and still pretend it’s a coherent narrative.
Doing Dark Shadows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a natural combination for Big Finish. Like other purveyors of professional Doctor Who fan fiction, including Virgin Books, IDW Publishing and BBC Wales, the folks at Big Finish have taken a master class from Joss Whedon about how to make modern fantasy-horror parables.
According to that formula, each character gets an individualized interior life, and the fantasy elements are all metaphors for various stages of relationship status. If you’re expected to like a character, they accrue lots of random details, and they make self-aware quips on a regular basis.
Given all of that, it’s not surprising that the most engaging characters in Bloodlust so far are the ones involved in the gay teen romance. And to answer my original question, if I’m challenging Big Finish to explain why they want to make more Dark Shadows stories, “so we can include a gay teen romance” is pretty much the best possible answer. That is a project that’s worth doing.
So that’s cool. Also, Angelique lives in a cave now, and there’s a better-than-average chance that sometime during the next ten episodes, we’re going to see a grown-up David Collins and a grown-up Amy Jennings, talking things over with Quentin, who hasn’t aged a day since the late 19th century. Is anybody else curious about how that conversation is going to go?
Dark Shadows: Bloodlust
The first four episodes of
Big Finish’s new DS audio serial
are out now!
Monday: Raising the Stakes.
— Danny Horn