“Then you’ll be dead, and he will have changed the course of history.”
Barnabas looks grave. But he’s in a graveyard, so that’s appropriate.
“What did happen on that night?” Julia asks.
Barnabas says, “It was the most tragic night I have ever experienced,” and coming from him, that means a lot. This is a guy with a lot of candidates for most tragic night.
And that’s how we start a clip show — the first one that Dark Shadows made, and probably the first one in soap opera history.
It’s been a few weeks since girl governess Victoria Winters followed her new husband back in time to the 18th century. She figured they could run off and be happy together, apparently forgetting that they were both executed for an assortment of charges, including witchcraft and murder. That’s why they left the 18th century in the first place.
So now that they’re gone, Vicki has noticed the down side, and she’s been reaching out to the present day and aggravating everybody. Barnabas has decided to put a stop to this nuisance by visiting Vicki’s grave, and using the secret magic number of the universe to travel back in time, and change history all over again.
To kick that process off, today we’ve got a clip show that shows us what happened in the last couple episodes of the 1795 time trip.
A clip show is an installment primarily made from reconstituted episode parts, with a little bit of new material around it to explain to the audience why we’re watching disconnected scenes from earlier episodes. TV shows mostly do clip shows because they’ve run out of money, and the producers need to squeeze the budget for one more episode.
To make a clip show, you get some characters onto a standing set, and set them to reminiscing. Somebody says, “Well, it hasn’t always been easy keeping up with Arnold,” and then they screenwipe to a scene from a previous season.
Clip shows are easy to write, easy to film and easy on the budget. And in the days before DVDs and streaming, they gave the audience a chance to revisit the good old days, before the show was so desperate for money and ideas that they had to make clip shows.
On Dark Shadows, they’re not necessarily trying to save money with this episode; they have bigger concerns. Executive producer Dan Curtis has noticed a little dip in the ratings, which is the real secret magic number of the unierse. Audience numbers have surged from 1967 to 1968, but that’s slowed down, and Dan wants to do something about it.
So this week, Barnabas is going to return to the end of the 1795 storyline, to give the fans an extra treat. It’s only been ten months since the episodes that they’re clipping here, but so much has happened in that time that it actually does feel like 170 years ago.
1968 was a year of peculiar choices, and the most peculiar decision of all was to release Barnabas from his vampire curse, just at the point when the housewives and teenagers of America were falling in love with the vampire. All of the promotion and merchandising they’ve done for the show is based on Barnabas the vampire, but just as that publicity blitz was getting underway, they cured Barnabas, and made him human again, apparently forever.
Daytime audiences will put up with a lot, but sooner or later, people are going to catch on that this isn’t the show they were promised, and that might be the reason why the numbers are dropping a bit. Giving people a taste of Barnabas vampire action should bring them back, and keep them satisfied while the show figures out what to do next.
Returning to an old storyline for a week is a leap of faith, relying on the audience’s capacity to keep track of what’s going on. Dark Shadows is unbelievably fast paced now, compared to other soap operas at the time, and jumping from one time period to another just highlights how many story threads the show is expecting the audience to handle.
The basic guideline for soaps is that most of the audience can only remember about six months back, so if you’re referencing an old story, you have to spend a lot of time recapping.
This changing-history week puts even more of a demand on the audience, so Barnabas spends this episode telling Julia the story of what she missed back in April, when she and the family stood around in the drawing room, frozen.
Now, you’d think that an episode-long recap show would be easy to throw together, but this is Dark Shadows, where nothing is easy.
To start with, they’re making two episodes on the same day. They’re only taping six episodes ahead of broadcast right now, and the holidays have made that even narrower. Christmas and New Year’s both fall on weekdays this year, so they’re losing two days of shooting — but the show is only pre-empted on Christmas, which leaves them an episode behind.
So they taped Friday’s episode and today’s on the same day, to save time. The two framing scenes in today’s episode just use Barnabas and Julia, standing on the set that they ended the last episode with.
It’s only two scenes, but again, Dark Shadows, so the second scene includes a lengthy Barnabas monologue and a Chromakey effect.
But once they’ve taped that sequence, it’s smooth sailing, right? The rest is just a matter of slapping a few clips together, adding some voiceover narration, and calling it a day.
Except that editing clips is a really hard job for 1969 Dark Shadows. Back then, editing videotape was expensive and difficult, and involved literally cutting up footage with X-Acto knives and putting it back together with tape. Plus, the editing machine is thirteen blocks away, at the WABC/Channel 7 studio, where they have to wait for the news people to finish with the equipment.
That’s why they film Dark Shadows as live-to-tape, just a single thirty-minute take, leaving empty space for the commercials. Lately, they’ve been doing an occasional edit if there’s a special effect they really want to do, but it’s usually just one cut, planned around the effect.
Today, they have to splice together nine different scenes, adding some voiceover from Barnabas on top. It turns out that’s not as easy as you’d think.
So there are some obvious artifacts of the editing process in today’s episode.
For one thing, it doesn’t include the opening theme. They end the teaser with Barnabas talking to Ben, and then go straight to the commercial break, without showing the opening titles.
Also, the scenes look awful. The clips at the beginning and the end of the episode are all right, like they were made from second-generation copies of the tape. The middle section is terrible.
The recap is telling the story of Barnabas coming to kill Nathan, who he blames for causing his mother’s death. Nathan grabs a crossbow off the wall, and fires a bolt into Barnabas’ chest, but he misses the vampire’s heart, and everybody lives happily ever after.
And look at that screenshot above. They must have been using a fourth-generation copy. It’s fuzzy, and the color is washed out, especially on patches of white and yellow. Unfortunately, most of the scenes are about Nathan, who’s entirely dressed in yellow.
For comparison, here’s a shot from the original episode:
And here’s what the clip in today’s episode looks like:
It’s really bad. I’m surprised this was considered broadcast standard. Once again, Dark Shadows gets a pass, because it’s a daytime show and nobody cares. They’d never show this in prime-time, even in 1969.
And then there’s the ending. They finish the episode, and the credts roll. But just when they get to Dan’s executive producer credit, it stops abruptly —
And then they play the opening titles, which they’d skipped earlier.
My theory is that they actually forgot the opening as they were editing the tape. They realized their mistake after they were done, so they just spliced the opening into the end of the show, and called it a day.
That’s how primitive this production is — the clip show is actually harder to produce than a real episode. The new scenes that they film today are fine, but the clips are a mess.
These days, in an age when eight year olds can edit video seamlessly on the family computer, just thinking about how this episode was made counts as time travel. Just look at what they had to go through, just to not film an episode.
For the cast and crew, Dark Shadows is just live theater with cameras. They know how to do that. But a clip show is television, and as it turns out, television is really, really hard.
Tomorrow: This Is the Night.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
Barnabas bobbles a line in the first scene: “Only because there was someone in the present to take her place. But this time, she has not been able to get back to the present.”
In the final scene, Julia rescues Barnabas from a flubbed line.
Julia: And what if that night doesn’t go the way you want it to go?
Barnabas: It will. I will control… (trails off)
Julia: But you won’t have any more control than any of the others involved.
The closing credits say that the episode was written by Sam Hall and Gordon Russell, but the clips were from episodes written by Ron Sproat.
Tomorrow: This Is the Night.
— Danny Horn