“Don’t ask questions. Now, you mustn’t panic, or ask — or be afraid, or ask questions, because something unexpected may happen. And you mustn’t panic! Do you understand?”
So where do I even start with this? Barnabas Collins has handwaved himself back into his own history, where girl governess Victoria Winters is still awaiting execution for witchcraft. You’d think the statute of limitations would run out after 170 years, plus she’s already been hanged for this, so it’s double jeopardy. Also, it’s not even the real Vicki.
But Barnabas is doing what the Collins family does best, namely: rewrite their family history with a black magic marker, powered by authentic black magic.
This is the start of a challenging run of episodes, because Sam Hall and Gordon Russell — also known as the good Dark Shadows writers — are taking a week off to figure out what they’re going to do with the show following this little cul-de-sac in story progression.
So the next five episodes are all written by Ron Sproat, who’s not a very good writer, and directed by Dan Curtis, who’s not a very good director, and it’s smack in the middle of nine consecutive episodes featuring Jonathan Frid, who’s not very good at remembering his lines. It’s like the perfect storm of barely adequate television production.
As an artist, Dan Curtis’ best quality is that he’s never satisfied doing the same old thing; he’s always pushing boundaries and trying something new. Naturally, this is also his worst quality. He loves to set up gimmick shots, and this episode’s opening sequence is a perfect example of his refusal to ever play it safe.
Barnabas is brooding in the Collinwood study about time and fate and his terrible curse, when he suddenly notices that the corpse of his latest victim has been carefully arranged on a nearby armchair. Alarmed, he runs to the foyer, and calls to his servant, Ben.
Visually, this is a weird sequence, so we’re going to have to take it slow for a second.
Barnabas says that something terrible has happened, and he leads Ben to the study, through a passageway that we’ve never seen before.
Although I suppose we’re not really seeing it now either, because this isn’t part of the set — they’re actually walking between the foyer and the study set, through a darkened section of the studio.
The camera holds tight on the faces and candles, so that we don’t see anything in the background that we’re not supposed to see.
But this is Dark Shadows, so naturally we see something anyway. It’s hard to tell what the guy they pass is operating — probably a camera, but it could be a light or something. Who even knows what the Collins family of the late 18th would install in the pitch-black netherworld between the foyer and the study? Interior design principles were probably different back then.
So they just keep walking through the not-really-a-set, with rapidly diminishing returns. At one point, they open a door and walk through, and you think that they’ve arrived and the scene can actually start, but then they just keep on strolling through the darkness.
The real suspense of this scene is that you don’t know how long the dialogue can hold out. Sproat’s dialogue tends to be functional rather than decorative, and he struggles to accommodate a lengthy West Wing walk and talk.
Where are we going? To the study. Why? She’s there. You took her in there? I found her there! How’d she get in there? I don’t know. Etcetera.
The boys finally reach the study, and instead of the dead woman oh my god it’s Angelique! Ta-DAH!
Now, I have to admit that I’m a huge fan of the supervillain ta-dah! moments, where the presumably-defeated foe suddenly pops up again for a new confrontation. They do this, like, a million times on Dark Shadows, and I always find it thrilling.
This is actually the primary definition of the larger-than-life kaiju characters on the show; they’re the ones who can completely change the story just by appearing in a room unexpectedly.
So Barnabas provides the traditional response — a shocked look, and a throaty cry of “ANGELIQUE!” — and then the fun begins.
The time travel mechanics in this story were already a bit fragile — what with Vicki once again borrowing somebody else’s life, and Barnabas apparently being possessed by his own future consciousness — but now Ron Sproat just takes a hammer and starts hitting things.
Angelique originally came from this timeline, so you’d expect that this is the 1796 model, unaware of the future events that she’ll experience in 1968. In fact, when they revisit this period again later on this year, that’s exactly what they’ll do. But Dark Shadows never takes the sensible path.
Barnabas: How did you return to this time?
Angelique: I must remain in this century now, as a punishment for the mistakes I made in the past — mistakes that I will never make again.
Now, when she says “mistakes I made in the past,” obviously she means the future, but whatever.
Barnabas: How did you find out about me?
Angelique: You mean about your return to this century? Oh, never mind. I found out.
So, okay, I guess that means the characters are experiencing events in the order that we see them, which isn’t particularly logical if you think about it for too long, but it makes sense emotionally.
This is soap opera, not hard SF, and it would be pointless to try to explain to the audience that Angelique doesn’t remember all the things that we’ve seen her do this year, because we’ve now traveled back to a time before she traveled to the future, and so on. Nobody cares. It’s easy to accept that Nathan and Ben are still in the same place that we left them, but the characters who we’ve seen in the ’60s — Vicki, Barnabas and Angelique — keep their memories intact.
The lighting is broken, by the way. Only a third of the set is actually lit properly, so most of the time, either Barnabas or Angelique is in total darkness. There are some moments when they’re basically just squabbling silhouettes.
Meanwhile, Frid is delivering his typical impromptu dialogue mash-up. Angelique says, “I have the power to save Victoria Winters,” and Barnabas reacts by looking uncomfortable, and peeking at the teleprompter. “So,” he exclaims, “why did you want to save her life?”
Angelique admits, “It’s true, I never was very fond of Miss Winters,” and Barnabas counters, “Then how did you even — stop to think about it?”
And then this televisual triumph becomes even more amazing, courtesy of R. Sproat.
Angelique: I will do it, if you will make a bargain with me.
Barnabas: A bargain?
Angelique: I am forced to remain in this century; I am consigned to this time forever! And I want you to stay here with me.
Angelique: Yes, and never make any attempt to return to the century from which you came.
So I feel like that sets a new standard for perplexing dialogue. “I am forced to remain in this century forever”? How does that work?
It’s kind of like Star Wars geography, where you turn adventure-story tropes into science-fiction, so every exotic location becomes its own planet. There’s an ice world, and a desert planet, and the forest moon of Endor, as if Earth is the only planet with a crazy patchwork biosphere. In Dark Shadows, the past is a foreign country, and a person can get permanently exiled to a specific year.
Meanwhile, on death row, Peter is trying to comfort Vicki, who’s taking a moment to think things through.
“Before, when this happened,” she says, “I managed to escape. That was because there was someone else to take my place. Now there’s no one!”
So by this point, characters are just free to make up their own nonsensical theories about how time works. If this was originally Phyllis Wick’s timeline, then presumably she’s still displaced somewhere. The implication here is that Phyllis just gave up and evaporated, and for all I know maybe she did.
Peter’s confused, and Vicki says, “I know, don’t listen to me,” which is the first sensible thing anybody’s said all day. He murmurs, “Don’t say anything else, okay?” which ditto.
The jailer lets Barnabas into Vicki’s cell, which is interesting because everybody is supposed to think that he went to England, and the fact that he’s still walking around in Collinsport is a secret that people have been murdered over.
In fact, Barnabas’ mother drank poison earlier this evening, when she found out he was still around. I hope the employees at the Collinsport Gaol have health insurance.
Next, Barnabas gives the prisoner a Fridspeak-inflected mission briefing.
Barnabas: I have no time to explain. Just listen to me, and listen to me carefully. There’s a way of saving your life.
Barnabas: Just listen to me, and follow my instructions.
Vicki: All right.
Barnabas: Go to the gallows. You’ll be safe, if you do everything I tell you to do.
This is one of those dangerous scenes where Barnabas is the only person who knows what’s going on, and everyone else is just there to say things like “How?” and “I don’t understand.” Unfortunately, that means Barnabas has to remember how to say a big chunk of dialogue, with no helpful cues to point him in the right direction.
Barnabas: First of all — the hangman will give you a mask. Refuse it.
Vicki: But, I —
Barnabas: Don’t ask questions! Now, secondly, you mustn’t panic, or ask — or be afraid, or ask questions, because something unexpected may happen. And you mustn’t panic! Do you understand?
She says that she does, which makes one of us. Maybe her mutant power is the ability to absorb escape plans through osmosis.
As Vicki is taken away, Barnabas tells Peter about Angelique’s cunning plan.
When Vicki walks up to the gallows, Angelique will put her under a spell. Vicki will fall down, and everybody will think that she’s dead, because people often die suddenly as they’re walking from one place to another.
Then Angelique will remove the spell, and Vicki will spring to her feet, shouting, Ha ha, I’ve fooled you! And then I suppose she and Peter start running in the general direction of Mexico. This is one of those foolproof what-could-possibly-go-wrong kind of plans.
Vicki is led to the courtyard. She pauses for a shot of her face framed in the noose, because Dan Curtis, and then the execution pretty much unfolds on schedule.
She walks across the courtyard without serious incident, and steps up to the gallows. They offer her a hood, and she says no, as per Barnabas’ instructions.
There’s a steady beat of kettle drums as they throw the noose around her neck, and then they take the ladder out from under her, and that’s about it.
So Barnabas did manage to change history, I guess, if you count Vicki refusing the hood. It’s not exactly what he was hoping for, but I suppose it’s something.
Tomorrow: Vicki Ruins Everything (Reprise).
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
When Barnabas leads Ben from the foyer, the front doors of Collinwood are open.
Barnabas has pronoun trouble: “What else can I do? I can’t save Vicki myself. If there’s one chance — one chance in a million that I can save her, and that I can believe what she says, then I can accept her offer.”
When Barnabas and Peter argue outside Vicki’s cell, you can clearly see scratches in the paint on the “metal” cell door.
As the Hangman prepares the gallows, the camera pans to show the courtyard. This includes showing the guy crouching next to the smoke machine. The camera quickly turns away to get him out of the frame.
There’s a close-up on Ben as the scene changes, and Barnabas and Peter hurry from the courtyard set to the Collinwood study. Ben has some lines to fill up the time, but not quite enough — there’s a pause after he’s done, and he quickly peeks at the camera to see if it’s still on him.
Before Angelique “appears” in the study to look at Vicki’s body, you can see her standing in the shadows for a while until she gets her cue.
Behind the Scenes:
There’s something of a party at the hanging today, with five day players mooching around the gallows set.
Anthony Goodstone plays the “Jailor” — that’s how it’s spelled in the credits — and he’s the only one who gets any lines. This is his third and final appearance on the show — he played a Blue Whale customer in March 1967 when Willie showed up for the first time, and then he was a bailiff at Vicki’s witch trial in February 1968.
James Shannon, the cute monkey-looking guy who’s a personal favorite, is the Hangman. We saw him last in November, playing the cute monkey-looking Gaoler in episode 623, when Eve visited 1795. His big showcase episode was in August, playing the cute monkey-looking Deputy in episode 556 that Angelique was seducing. We’ll see him again more than a year from now, playing a zombie in March 1970. I don’t know how cute or monkey-looking he is in that role, but I will keep you posted.
Okay, who else? David Groh is the Hangman’s Assistant; this is his second of two appearances. We last saw him as a ghost raised by Nicholas in July; he was the corpse who contributed an arm to Adam’s construction.
Pieter Jan Van Neil plays a Spectator; this is his only episode.
The other spectator is Timothy Gordon, who’s something of a regular — he’s in 31 episodes, which is second only to the Blue Whale bartender. We saw him last in November, as the Minister who didn’t marry Vicki and Jeff at their aborted wedding. We’ll see part of him again in June, when he plays the hand of Count Petofi.
Tomorrow: Vicki Ruins Everything (Reprise).
— Danny Horn