“Life was more exciting, when I was around.”
So, the lesson, I suppose, is that you shouldn’t lock up your relatives, build paneling over the door, and pretend that they went to France.
I mean, I understand the impulse. Quentin is selfish and mean, and practices dark sorcery. You’ve tried to kick him out of the house, but he just laughs, and keeps on drinking other people’s brandy. And then there’s a sale at Home Depot, and you think, This could be so easy…
The downside, of course, is that then your descendants come along and unseal the tomb, because they’re young and curious, and you forgot to write “Dangerous ancestor, do not open” on the entrance portal. Although they probably wouldn’t have paid attention anyway; descendants are dumb like that.
So now the genie’s out of the bottle, and nobody knows the magic words to get him back in. The sinister specter is running roughshod over the house, stealing children, throwing mediums down the stairs and messing with people’s hairstyles. But eccentric millionaire Barnabas Collins has decided that enough is enough, so he uses the mysterious Chinese art of I Ching in a desperate attempt to communicate with the ghost.
Strictly speaking, this is unnecessary, because the kids already have a magic telephone that they’ve been using to communicate with Quentin for months. Barnabas could talk to Quentin any time he wants; Quentin just doesn’t care. Communications technology is not the issue.
But Barnabas never listens to reason, thank goodness, because this leap into the unknown is exactly what Dark Shadows needs. For one thing, it gets Barnabas back in the coffin, a bit of essential fanservice that puts the vampire back at the center of the vampire show.
It also kicks off another time travel storyline, which gives the writers the opportunity to redesign the show from the ground up, and do it right this time.
To make things personal for a moment, this is an important episode for me. The first time I saw it was in 1985, when I was fourteen years old, and this is when I officially fell in love with Dark Shadows.
I’d seen the first six months of the Barnabas episodes in middle school — from opening the coffin to killing Dr. Woodard — but then the reruns stopped, and I didn’t realize another station picked it up. I rediscovered the show in high school with episode 639, the day that David and Amy found Quentin’s telephone. I liked the werewolf, and I liked the ghosts, but the show dragged a bit. Then 1897 happened.
My family didn’t have a VCR yet — we were tragically late adopters — but sometimes I would put a tape recorder next to the TV speaker, and record the audio of a Dark Shadows episode. I didn’t keep them all, but I kept this one. That’s your sepia-toned picture for today — Young Danny sitting next to a tape recorder, just me and the audio track to 701.
I couldn’t rattle off the entire episode by heart, the way I could with some Monty Python sketches at the time, but there are lines in today’s show that will always be with me.
When we leave Collinwood, we leave with rubies.
I saw a ruby this morning, the size of a guinea hen’s egg!
Life was more exciting, when I was around.
Who am I to disturb his dreams?
Edward, thank God — now, I can die.
You do make me feel young, and Judith and Carl make me feel like a piece of paper that’s about to blow away.
Every one of you will get what you deserve — except Edward.
I even tried to make a couple of my friends listen to the tape, so they would understand how great Dark Shadows is. They couldn’t make heads or tails of it. I do not have a normal relationship with episode 701.
But this is not a normal episode. In fact, it’s an episode that’s specifically designed to throw the audience off balance.
When Dark Shadows introduced the 1795 storyline more than a year ago, it was a huge risk — they weren’t sure if the audience would accept or even understand that the regular cast was now playing different characters. So the first 1795 episode took a very deliberate series of steps, carefuly designed to lead the viewer through the discovery that something new is happening.
Vicki is the audience proxy at the beginning of the 1795 trip — the girl governess, suddenly transported through time from the 1960s to the 1790s. She’s outside the Old House, which looks new again. Then she meets a series of characters, spaced out evenly across the episode — first Barnabas, and then Sarah, Nathan and Naomi.
This starts with the characters that the audience would be the most familiar with, and then moves to the next step. Meeting the young, happy Barnabas establishes that we’re in a flasback to his early days. Then we see Sarah, who we knew as a ghost. And Barnabas is kind to Vicki, talking to her gently and welcoming her into the house.
By the time the show introduces Nathan and then Naomi, the audience has had some time to process what’s going on, and we’re ready for more information. All of the characters in that first episode are happy and calm, preparing for Josette’s arrival, and the only disruptive element is Vicki, the character that we know best.
The introduction to 1897 is pretty much the opposite of that. Barnabas is the only character that we know, and he’s stuck in a coffin for the entire episode, wondering what’s going on. We get a quick shot of the year “1897” on a wall calendar, and then everything that follows is intended to make the viewer confused and uncomfortable.
In this first scene, the only thing we’re familiar with is the Old House set, and it’s a shambles. There are cobwebs and cracks in the wall, the curtains are damaged, and there’s junk strewn around the room. And just look at the candelabra — the candles are all different lengths, some of them are broken, and one of them isn’t even blue. They’ve put a lot of work into making the visuals as discordant and upsetting as possible.
And then the very first thing that we see is a completely unfamiliar character, throwing knives at the wall.
The first 1795 episode is all about reassuring the viewer that this is still the place that you know. Episode 701 is saying: We are currently in the process of destroying the place that you know. Dark Shadows has been trashed, and given away to gypsies.
But at least the gypsies are having a good time. This is Julia and Professor Stokes, two of the most interesting cast members, all blacked up in gypsy drag, laughing and squabbling and talking about old times.
Magda: (laughing at Sandor’s knife-throwing act) You were not good at that when you were young! I remember every night, I would wonder, “Will I live?” I would stand there on stage, waiting for “The Great Sandor” to make his first mistake.
Sandor: And you are still alive! I was too good. If you want proof, go on — stand against the wall, I will show you. I have not lost any of it!
And Magda just keeps on chuckling, and looking into her crystal ball.
It’s a brilliant opening. As regular readers will recall, if you want to make the audience like a new character, there are three steps: Make a joke, make a friend, and make a plot point happen. A fourth step — casting Grayson Hall in the role — is not absolutely required, but it doesn’t hurt.
In this first exchange, Magda is making jokes, and she and Sandor are already friends. The plot point is coming up next.
Like a Disney princess, Sandor starts off with a wishing song.
Sandor: You read the palms, as I throw the knives! We will be rich!
Magda: We are starting again? We will buy a horse?
Magda: All right, steal a horse. Hitch it to a caravan…
Sandor: Yes… and go!
He gets that faraway look in his eyes.
Sandor: Sandor’s Egyptian Elixir! A sure cure for coughs! Colds! Asthma! Skin diseases! Nervous conditions!
Magda: And nothing at all.
Sandor: (deflated) You drink it.
Magda: But I am well.
Sandor: Because of it!
So there you go, that’s what ABC television has decided to offer you this afternoon: a comedy scene starring 19th century gypsies.
A lot of today is going to be “here’s what I love about this,” but here’s what I love about this: They’re finally admitting that Dark Shadows is a comedy.
It seems so obvious now, when you think about it. 1968 was pretty much one farce plot after another. Barnabas’ ex-wife shows up at Collinwood, disguised as somebody else. Then her “brother” shows up, except everybody knows he’s not really her brother. Vicki’s boyfriend turns up too, but he’s got amnesia, and he’s working for the crazy doctor who just happens to have a ready-to-wear Frankenstein monster at home. People get kidnapped and tied up, everybody turns into a vampire, and Vicki gets a happy ending.
So it totally makes sense that as the new storyline begins, it starts with a makeshift drawing room comedy scene, complete with makeshift drawing room.
But the plan to unsettle the audience is still in effect.
Magda: Sandor, when we leave Collinwood… we leave with rubies.
Sandor: Oh, don’t start that again!
Magda: I saw a ruby this morning, the size of a guinea hen’s egg! She was wearing it on her old, shaking hand. And she has many more of them. She said it was “one of her favorites.” Emeralds… and diamonds there, too. She told me that.
Sandor: She is crazy. She is dying!
And who is she, again? So far, we know she’s old and has a lot of jewelry, but we haven’t heard a name yet. “She” is probably a Collins, because here we are at Collinwood, but so far the only names we know from the 1890s family are Quentin, Jamison and Oscar. (Except maybe not Oscar.)
This is a deliberate choice. They’ve decided that as this time travel trip begins, we should be in the same position that Barnabas is: confused, lost, and chained up in a box.
Maggie and Willie and Carolyn are in a whole other century; now we live among strangers, planning jewel heists with a crystal ball.
Magda: The jewels are in the drawing room.
Sandor: (chuckles) Yesterday you said it was the bedroom!
Magda: (Stands up. She is not kidding.) Do you want to be rich or not, Sandor?
Then we get a list of unfamiliar names. Keep in mind that this is 1969, and nobody has DVDs or DVR. You can’t hit rewind to listen to a confusing line again — unless you’re particularly foresighted, and you have a tape recorder next to the speaker like Young Danny does.
But for normal people, these names are supposed to wash over you, as you struggle to keep up.
Magda: Judith is at her prayers… the old lady is sleeping… Carl and Edward are gone. Go to the house, to the drawing room, and —
Sandor: And if I am caught?
Magda: Who will catch you? The Collins are afraid of night.
It’s gorgeous, and Grayson Hall and Thayer David are clearly having a marvelous time, all decked out in wigs and bangles and makeup and accents. And they’re just doing what they do best, which is make a spectacle of themselves.
Now, I suppose I should say a word somewhere on behalf of sensitive people everywhere, who find it troubling to see white actors in brownface, rolling their eyes at each other on afternoon television. Although once you point that out and say, hmm, that probably doesn’t make actual brown-skinned people feel very good about things, then I’m not sure where else to go with it. I know, there’s a long-overdue national conversation about race that I should probably be helping with, but Magda and Sandor are funny, and besides, the next scene has Quentin in it.
And here he is, the angry ancestor himself. He knocks on the door, the maid answers, and it turns out he could talk after all. He assumes one of his more roguish expressions, and grins, “You’re still beautiful, Beth.”
She tries to slam the door, but he pushes past her, swaggering toward the audience.
“I’ve learned several tricks since we last met,” he grins. “Many has been the door that has not wanted me to pass through.”
He drops something heavy onto the table, and then he just stands there at the front of the stage, as if he’s waiting for a round of applause. And he gets it, and it lasts for the next two years.
And so, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to present to you: the missing piece, falling into place.
Long-running serialized narrative is natural selection for productive story ideas, and this is exactly what it’s for: Quentin Collins, the character that nobody realized they always wanted.
This is why we bother to have things like soap operas and comic books and Lost and Doctor Who, because it would never occur to you under normal circumstances to turn your stone-faced fantasy child abuse metaphor into this. You only come up with an idea like Quentin at the last minute, because you have to do something, and wouldn’t this be neat to try.
There are eight major turning points in Dark Shadows’ history, and they go like this:
- Barnabas comes out of the box,
- Julia offers to cure Barnabas,
- Sam Hall joins the show,
- Angelique is introduced,
- Jonathan Frid’s ten-city publicity tour,
- Ron Sproat leaves the show,
- Quentin is introduced,
- and MGM greenlights House of Dark Shadows.
Today is one of those days, and I’m probably going to spend the greater part of the next eight months explaining why.
There are four characters, all of them originally intended for much smaller roles, who walk into Dark Shadows and instantly become essential. Barnabas, Julia, Angelique and Quentin step onto the stage, and they’re immediately more interesting than anything else on television.
Allow me to demonstrate.
Beth: Why did you come back here?
Quentin: Question for question. What are you doing, still working here? Why didn’t you leave with your mistress? Jenny… wasn’t that her name? Jenny Collins?
Beth: You know her name as well as I do.
Quentin: I have a short memory. (He looks around.) Ah, home… (He sneers.) How much I’ve missed it.
So there you go, he’s about five lines in, and he’s already done three different emotions, referenced a new plot thread and told two jokes. He ought to do this for a living, whatever this is.
By the way, Jenny Collins is another name to add to your list of characters which we don’t know who they are yet. 701 is just going to keep throwing names at you, for the whole episode. At this point, they’re basically trolling the audience.
Beth tries to regain control of the situation. It doesn’t go that well.
Beth: You should never have come back.
Quentin: Oh, now I couldn’t let my only grandmother die alone, now could I? My rich grandmother? (He chuckles.) You don’t understand how close we Collins are.
He reaches out to take her hand, and she turns away.
Beth: Does Mr. Edward know you’re coming?
Quentin: I should hope so. I would hate to shock him.
She turns back, and he gives her a mocking smile. Quentin is a younger son, and like all younger sons, he’s prone to revolution and dissent.
Also, it’s official: Quentin is funny. That’s the second most important thing about Quentin. Practically everything he says is a joke, a lie or a threat, with joke running far ahead of the rest of the pack.
But there are other items on the agenda today.
Beth: He’ll throw you out so fast…
Quentin: You wouldn’t like that, Beth. You’ve missed me. I can tell. Life was more exciting, when I was around.
Beth: Not for me.
He grabs her arm, and pulls her close.
Quentin: That was your fault, wasn’t it? I offered to make your life exciting, too.
She refuses to play, so he orders her to take his bag to his room. He’s half-joking, but when she flatly refuses, he grabs her, and twists her arm behind her back.
“Beth,” he snarls, “I’m here to stay.”
So that’s another element they’re layering into the character — the simmering rage of the younger son, nursing a lifetime of bitter slights, and willing to take it out on whoever’s nearby. This is the steel of the character, which connects him back to that vengeful ghost, playing his cruel games with the children of the present day.
But that’s a temporary storm that only lasts for a commercial break. When we come back, he cycles through some more emotions. There are several people involved in creating this new character — Sam Hall, David Selby, Dan Curtis, director Henry Kaplan — and you can tell that they’re all having a good time. We are, too.
Beth: It’s not up to me whether you’re here to stay or not. Play your tricks on your own family. I merely work here.
Quentin: That in itself is pretty amazing. Edward must be getting more tolerant in his middle years. Don’t you remind him of Jenny?
Beth: I’ll tell Miss Judith you’re here.
Quentin: I shall see Jamison first, Beth.
Beth: (surprised) The child’s asleep.
Quentin: All right. Who am I to disturb his dreams?
Beth: You will.
Quentin: Then, grandmama. She will want to welcome home the prodigal, and I shall announce myself. Is she as ill as I hear she is?
Beth: She’s failing.
Quentin: And her mind?
Beth: Still strong enough to fight you!
Quentin: Perhaps she won’t want to. Women, you know, are notoriously open to my charm.
He walks up a few stairs, then turns to pose for her.
Quentin: Do you think she’s well enough to make out a new will?
Beth: I think she’s well enough to know better.
Quentin: You’ll regret those words when I’m master of this house.
He shoots her a confident leer.
Quentin: You know, Beth, it would be much easier for you, if you simply relaxed… and admitted how interested you are in me.
And there you have it. He’s hired.
The most important thing about Quentin is that you want to have sex with Quentin.
Yes, of course you do; it’s practically a biological imperative. It is not possible to watch this half hour of television without secretly wanting Quentin to push you up against the wall and do something terrible to you, even if it’s only for a minute. Don’t worry about it, just stay cool. Miss Edith will never know.
And no, I don’t care how straight or gay you are. There are two dudes in 1969 that absolutely everybody wanted to have sex with — Jim Morrison, and Quentin Collins. You don’t want to be Quentin, and you don’t want to be friends with him. You just want him to look at you, the way that he’s looking at Beth.
This is a cultural phenomenon that just happens every once in a while. In 1977, it was Han Solo.
There’s more — a lot more, actually — but I’m not going to go line-by-line through the entire episode. Grandmama turns out to be a dotty old windbag with a heart condition and a terrible secret. She and Quentin sit around and gossip about the rest of the family for a while, setting up some of the little dramas we’ll see unfolding over the coming days.
Then Quentin finds Sandor breaking into the drawing room, and there’s more stuff with Magda and the crysal ball, and it just keeps on being good, all day and for the next eight months.
But the best moment in this best episode happens quietly, exactly where you don’t expect it.
Quentin is trying to charm Edith into leaving him money, but she brushes him off. “Edward is the oldest,” she says, “and because of that, he’s the one that I have to tell the secret to. He must come back soon! I must live to tell him the secret!”
Quentin’s eyes light up, and he leans in close. “Tell me,” he urges. “Tell me, grandmama.”
And a whole bunch of emotions cross his face, all at once. There’s greed, obviously, and excitement, and a hopeful kind of scam-artist fake innocence. But there’s also a flicker of fear in there, so fast that I can’t even catch it in a screenshot. Fear that she won’t tell him, fear that she will — fear that there’s no secret anyway, that it’s all been a practical joke and he’ll never know for sure.
David Selby has had weeks — months, really — to think about this day, about what he would do if they ever gave him any lines and really let him run with it. He must have read this script and danced up and down through the streets of New York, drunk on the impossible miracle that his first day could possibly be this good. He’s been running his lines in his head ever since, making plans.
He’s been skulking around in the shadows for months, not saying a word. Now, all of a sudden, he’s the lead character, and he has so many things to say.
Tomorrow: The Vampire Strikes Back.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
Edith waves a tarot card at Quentin, and says, “Edward… uh, Quentin, dear — you are this card!” (This is obviously a line flub, but it’s perfectly in character, since she was just talking about getting her grandchildren mixed up.)
There are two abrupt edits at the end of Edith and Quentin’s conversation.
In the mausoleum, the 1795-era plaques for Joshua, Naomi and Sarah are missing.
They’re shooting from the wrong angle when Sandor opens the coffin, and you can see Barnabas twist and kick his leg when he grabs Sandor’s throat. They do it correctly in tomorrow’s teaser.
Behind the Scenes:
My favorite prop, the Ralston-Purina lamp, is seen in Edith’s bedroom today.
Tomorrow: The Vampire Strikes Back.
— Danny Horn