“The sensible option isn’t always the most interesting.”
When you get right down to it, what is a Dark Shadows story, anyway?
A couple months ago, I passed the blog’s halfway point, which means there’s now more Dark Shadows behind me than there is ahead. I mean, we’ve stll got plenty of time — it’s only 1969, and what does time really mean anyway — but it makes me start to wonder about what happens when there’s no more Dark Shadows.
One thing that I know for sure is that trying to retell the story over again is a bad idea. They’ve tried three times — the failed 1991 show, the failed 2004 pilot, and the failed 2012 movie — and there’s just no point to it. This is a story that can only be told once, and it’s not like it even made that much sense the first time.
But there’s another path for post-Dark-Shadows Dark Shadows which is marginally more sensible, and that’s the road taken by the Big Finish audio dramas, the Lara Parker novels and the Dynamite comics.
Instead of trying to squeeze the original story into a new shape, they say: Okay, it’s April 3rd, 1971. Now what?
Of all of these spin-off engines, Big Finish is the one that’s really made a sustained run at being the reigning monarch of April Third. Since 2006, they’ve made two four-part audio plays, a 13-part full-cast serial and, as of press time, 50 audiobooks, which are basically the same as the audio dramas, but with not quite as many actors.
There are some prequels scattered around in that collection, and stories that fill in some open gaps, but for the most part, Big Finish faces forward and tries to construct a compelling long-form answer to the question of What Happens Next.
At the moment in BF-Collinsport, Quentin’s back at Collinwood after a long absence, along with Amy Jennings — all grown up now, and raising some cursed kids of her own. Barnabas still lives at the Old House, Angelique is probably stirring up trouble somewhere, and Maggie is moving on with her life. David and Carolyn are still around, and so is Sabrina, Eve, Hallie, Cyrus Longworth and various versions of Trask.
And keeping the story moving forwards is basically mandatory, if only for the fact that mortality is real and actors get older. Most of the characters are played by the original actors, and there’s only so long that David Selby, Kathryn Leigh Scott and Nancy Barrett can pretend that they’re still in their late twenties. So, onward it is.
Today I want to talk about the first two audiobooks of Big Finish’s 2015 releases. The first play of the new season is about Quentin, and the second features Barnabas, Julia and Professor Stokes.
This is an appropriate place in the series for me to look at these two audiobooks, because here in May 1969, Quentin has just joined a team that includes Barnabas, Julia and Stokes. Admittedly, Julia and Stokes are wearing funny outfits and calling themselves “Magda” and “Sandor”, but those are just details.
Also, I promised Big Finish producer Joe Lidster weeks ago that if he wrote a blog post for episode 742, I would write a post about these stories, and you don’t want to get on Lidster’s bad side. He’s an animal. Besides, I didn’t really want to talk about this episode anyway.
Now, one interesting thing about these two plays is that they both take the characters away from Collinwood, one to London and the other to Cairo. You’d imagine that sticking around Collinsport would be mandatory for a Dark Shadows story, so this gives us a chance to see if Dark Shadowsness is portable.
First up is Panic, written by Roy Gill and starring David Selby as Quentin, with Susan Sullivan as a new character, Lela Quick.
It starts with a framing sequence set in the vaguely-defined present day of Big Finish Dark Shadows. Quentin’s making breakfast for his great-great-grand-nephew Tommy, and telling the story of how he met his second wife, Lela.
The story that Quentin tells takes place sometime after 1971, during a period when Quentin was roaming the world, trying to get away from all the terrible things that happened at Collinwood. He’s bought an antique shop in London, which is just as good of a place to sulk as anywhere else.
Making a love story for Quentin on audio is a delicate process, because the character is supposed to be eternally young, 28 forever. David Selby doesn’t have the same voice that he had 45 years ago, obviously, but the character talks and thinks and feels like Quentin, so you accept it and move on. But it’s difficult to cast a love interest for this aging, ageless man. If they cast a young woman, it would sound like he’s taking advantage of a young girl. So what can Big Finish do?
As it turns out, they cracked the problem brilliantly. They cast someone who’s the same age as David Selby, and she plays young along with him, which means you only have to suspend your disbelief once and then apply that to both characters. The clever bit is that they cast Susan Sullivan, who was Selby’s love interest on Falcon Crest, which means they’ve got built-in chemistry right from the start. And if you happen to know Falcon Crest, then it sounds exactly right. Even if you don’t know Falcon Crest, it sounds right anyway. They’re really fun together.
Now, the most important thing about Quentin is that you want to have sex with Quentin, so bringing in a new girl is especially difficult — we need to feel right away that she’s worth Quentin’s time. They solve this problem in her first scene.
There are three steps to making the audience love a new character: Make a friend, make a joke and make a plot point happen. The joke means that the character is appealing, the plot point means that she’s making the effort to be narratively useful, and the friend gives the character worth and value. If she has a friend, then she’s not showing up to the party alone. Somebody likes her, which means it’s safe for the audience to at least give her a chance.
So Lela is introduced with a rapid-fire monologue into a tape recorder as she hurries down the street. She’s a professor at a nearby university, and she’s got a lot on her mind.
Lela: Dan, just a few reminders. I hope this is recording… Anyway, if you type up a list and leave it on my desk, that would be superb. All right, let’s see,… [hums a tune] Oh! I should have had proofs from my publisher, God knows what indignities she’ll try to foist on me, so I need you to keep a sharp eye. Oh! And chase Kay Miller for her journal edits, she is so slow, I swear she works with ink and quill. But a great mind like hers shouldn’t be forgotten; I’ll drag her into this century yet.
So there you have it, thirty seconds in, and she’s already nailed the friend and the funny, and she’s halfway to a plot point. I’m going to break that opening speech down a little, just for clarity.
“Dan, just a few reminders” — she has a connection with someone, who’s close enough that she doesn’t need to say hello. “I hope this is recording” — a self-deprecating half-joke. “That would be superb” — a funny word choice, she’s fun. “I should have had proofs from my publisher” — another friend. “God knows what indignities she’ll try to foist on me” — another half-joke. “And chase Kay Miller for her journal edits, I swear she works with ink and quill” — first actual joke, not hilarious but cute. “A great mind like hers shouldn’t be forgotten” — a third friend! Lela’s hardly taken a breath, and she already has three people that she cares about, plus she has a sense of humor and an eccentric vocabulary.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to analyze the entire play line by line. But Lela’s introduction is an absolutely crucial moment, where you can win or lose the audience, and she wins. It’s good writing.
Anyway, the plot point. Lela’s got a tune stuck in her head, and a passing student tells her that he’s heard that song coming from an old antique shop down the road. Lela marches in and finds a record that looks promising, but it needs to be played on an old gramophone, and the only one in the place belongs to the manager, aka the newly-reclusive Quentin Collins.
Lela and Quentin have a crabby little meet-cute argument — sample line: “Can we talk reasonably, academic to lunatic?” — and they part hating each other, which obviously means they end up together. The story is written like a 1930s screwball comedy, with a fast-talking dame and the guy she despises, cracking wise and falling for each other as they get themselves into and out of some ridiculous jam. Helpfully, Professor Quick analyzes the story as she goes along, even mentioning screwball comedies about halfway through. This makes my job way easier.
But we’re not here to enjoy ourselves; we’re supposed to figure out whether this feels like Dark Shadows or not. The comedy helps, actually, because at its core, Dark Shadows is a door-slamming farce filmed in slow motion during a thunderstorm. There is no other way to interpret a plot twist like the crazy knife-wielding ex-wife turning out to be the long-lost sister of the gypsies who live next door. That is what Dark Shadows does.
Setting the story in London is a little trickier. A long-running farce like Dark Shadows has to keep all the characters close together, so they can run around and murder each other. The series takes place entirely within the boundaries of Collinsport, and by this point in the show, we hardly even leave the grounds of the great estate. Taking Quentin across the Atlantic and dumping him on a deserted island off the coast of Belgium is a risky move. If this doesn’t feel like it takes place in the Dark Shadows world, then it’s just a clever audio story with David Selby in it.
Panic solves that problem by keeping all the scenes on sets that you could imagine fitting inside ABC Studio 16. They spend a lot of time in the cramped antique shop, and then there’s a bit of a street, a corridor, a coffee shop and a misty wood that’s supposed to be endless but is actually just the same set of trees filmed from different angles.
So the characters are funny and shouty, the sets are cramped, and by the way there’s a terrible thing lurking in the antique shop hidden in plain sight, so that does actually sound a lot like Dark Shadows. The monster in Panic is a recognizable Laura Collins/Count Petofi style villain — a credible, magical threat who occasionally does awful things on camera but spends most of his time making fun of people.
The remaining item on the “is this Dark Shadows” checklist is whether the story feels like a soap opera, and not just a scary screwball comedy.
The point of a soap opera is that it’s a never-ending story, and if Big Finish wants to propose this set of audio plays as Volume II, then they need to take advantage of the story they’ve inherited.
The important thing about long-term serialized narrative is that it’s natural selection for stories, an active process of throwing new characters and situations into the story, and allowing the strongest ones to thrive.
That’s why we have a character like Quentin in the first place. They didn’t start the show in 1966 thinking, “wait till they see the sexy bad-boy werewolf we’re going to introduce three years from now, they won’t know what hit ’em.” You can’t plan for a thing like Quentin, or Barnabas, or Julia. You just feed story points to the good characters and kill off the bad ones, and if you’re clever and fast on your feet, eventually a Quentin emerges.
Quentin is a creature of never-ending story; he has to keep swimming, or he dies. If we’re supposed to believe the guy in this story is really Quentin, then we need to see his story continue.
I can’t actually finish this thought, because it would involve all the spoilers, so I’ll just say this: they have that aspect nailed down too. Panic is a Dark Shadows story, and it’s a really good one.
Okay, continuing the longest post of my life (why did I promise to do this, damn you Lidster), we come to The Curse of Shurafa, which is written by Rob Morris and stars Andrew Collins as Barnabas, telling a story to Amy’s son Harry about his experiences in Egypt with Julia and Professor Stokes.
Now, one of the problems that Big Finish has to work around is that some of the most important actors aren’t available anymore. They recast Barnabas early on, because you can’t really do this without Barnabas, and Andrew Collins does an excellent job channeling a mash-up of Jonathan Frid and Ben Cross.
But Julia is hard to recast. She’s a crucial character, but you only get one Grayson Hall, and so far they haven’t had the nerve to try and replace her. This story is actually the first time they’ve included Julia at all. They get around the casting problem by having Barnabas narrate the story, doing all of the Julia and Stokes dialogue. And then every once in a while, they use little sound clips of Julia, pulled out of the show and mixed in with the other sound effects. Surprisingly, it works. They’re careful not to overuse it, and it helps the story feel like Julia is still among those present.
In the story that Barnabas is telling, we’re in that hazy post-1971 period, and Barnabas, Julia and Stokes are apparently traveling the world, trying to find a cure for Barnabas’ vampire curse. They’ve arrived in Egypt, where Julia is doing something in a hospital while Stokes wanders around Cairo, looking for trouble.
Again, we’ve drifted far from Collinsport, which gives us another chance to see how a Dark Shadows story works when you take it on the road.
As the story opens, Professor Stokes has heard of a burial that’s going to take place in Cairo’s sprawling City of the Dead, a sprawling four-mile-long cemetery where the lonely and displaced live among the tombs. That sounds a lot like home, so Barnabas and Julia accompany Stokes to the funeral.
They watch the ceremony from a discreet distance, and Barnabas takes notice of a young girl who intrigues him — she keeps herself apart from the other mourners, and seems especially watchful, like she’s waiting for something to happen. Then something happens.
People start to run, scattering from something terrifying that’s approaching the mourners.
I found myself urging my companions to leave, but Stokes’ attention had already been caught. “Barnabas! Julia! Over there! What are they?”
We followed his gaze, and there, in the dim light, we saw two… figures. It was hard to see them properly, but it seemed they were merely men, or at least… they had been. They advanced, but the way they moved was wrong, as if they were unaccustomed to the motion.
It was Julia who spotted it first. The flies in Egypt are persistent, but they rarely stay long on one who is actually walking. She grasped my arm as the figures passed — and I could feel Stokes behind us, pressing to get a closer look, soon as he realized how many insects were crawling over the figures’ skin. Dozens of them covered the men’s faces as they passed. The men’s jaws were slack, and for a moment, I was sure I saw more flies emerging from their cracked lips. As I watched, I could see something pulsing under the skin of the neck, wriggling.
So, obviously, this is not another screwball comedy. This is a monster movie, which is a different part of the Dark Shadows DNA. But the horror tropes in Dark Shadows are mostly borrowed from the Universal Monsters films — cunning vampires, marauding Frankensteins — and this is something else.
We have flies in Dark Shadows, of course — sometimes very tenacious ones, buzzing around the characters with a stubborn persistence to stay on camera until they’re discovered by a passing Hollywood producer. But we don’t usually get them infesting the walking dead, and pulsing under their skin. Who even pulses?
This is body horror, a genre that Dark Shadows never really does, because it’s expensive and gross. The closest the series ever gets is Zombie Josette with the weird eyeball hanging out. There are tons of possession stories in Dark Shadows — practically everybody rents out their consciousness at one point or another, and the kids probably spend half their time in some kind of psychic Airbnb. But we haven’t gotten the flies involved. I don’t think even Dan Curtis would spring for a fly wrangler.
The monster in The Curse of Shurafa turns out to be an ancient, powerful and extremely pissed-off ancestor, reaching out from beyond the grave to mess around with the living. So that does fit in with core Dark Shadows; it’s basically the ghost of Quentin, but meaner and with insect powers.
But I’m trying to resist just saying “this is like something that happened in the show, and that isn’t,” because that doesn’t help me figure out what a Dark Shadows story actually is. If the only way to create a Dark Shadowsy story is to do a pastiche of stuff they already did on the show, then we might as well not bother. So Big Finish is taking the opportunity to experiment, trying out new things and seeing what sticks.
Shurafa gets the main characters right — pushing them into some new territory, but staying true to the way they behave. There’s a crucial moment in the story when Julia’s in danger, and Barnabas comes up with another idiotic Plan A, where he’s going to kill somebody and then everything will be fine. When Julia finds out about it, she’s furious, and there’s a lovely moment where he basically says, I care about you, my dearest friend, and I will always do idiotic and self-absorbed things on your behalf. So they’ve nailed that relationship.
But I’d say the supporting cast is a little wobbly. The girl’s name is Nazira, and she comes pre-loaded with plot points, but I don’t think she makes a single joke in the whole story, so it’s hard for me to warm up to her. She’s got an interesting background and she makes surprising choices, but without a joke it kind of feels like she didn’t show up ready for work.
But there’s one major thing that makes Shurafa not feel like Dark Shadows, and it’s something I didn’t expect. The problem is that it’s not selfish enough.
Shurafa is about a group of brave explorers poking around a strange, quasi-historical setting. They see a young girl with monster trouble, and they rush off to the rescue. Learning the villain’s true nature, the adventurers try to negotiate their way out of a bind, but when that fails, they take strategic action to neutralize the threat. Once the crisis is over, they all move on, leaving Cairo behind.
That’s not a Dark Shadows story. That’s a Doctor Who story.
Characters on Dark Shadows don’t travel around the world like this, looking for monsters to fight. They stay indoors, and deal with the monsters currently living in their house. The creatures that Barnabas and Julia fight are almost always people from somewhere in the Collins family’s past, crawling out of their graves and looking for revenge. Shurafa is clearly somebody else’s problem.
In Panic, the monster was actually from Lela’s past rather than Quentin’s, but they set up Lela as a soon-to-be member of the Collins family right from the start. Plus, the villain’s installed a dimensional fissure in the middle of Quentin’s antique shop, so Quentin stumbles into the plot without even meaning to.
In The Curse of Shurafa, if Barnabas and Julia had just sat tight for a second, they could have avoided the whole problem. The Doctor and Nyssa were probably right around the corner, wondering why they hadn’t seen any bug zombies walk by. The characters on Dark Shadows don’t fight monsters for a living; they are the monsters.
Shurafa is still a good story — creepy and compelling, with a pounding rhythm that gets increasingly intense as the story goes on. But apparently it’s not a Dark Shadows story unless everybody in it is entirely self-absorbed. Yeah, that sounds about right.
Tomorrow: Rabbit Season.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
The playing cards in yesterday’s episode were blue; in today’s reprise, they’re red.
Barnabas struggles with closing the front doors of Collinwood; everyone’s having trouble with those doors lately.
On the phone, Barnabas says, “Thank you very much, Ezra. Oh, Ezra — you’re going to be a great addition to your father’s firm. Good night, Evan.”
Behind the Scenes:
The young Ezra Braithwaite is played by Edward Marshall, who also subbed in for Harry Johnson’s last episode in January. This is his last appearance on the show.
Tomorrow: Rabbit Season.
— Danny Horn