Episode 772: Nothing Lasts

“Apologies are the Devil’s invention.”

So like I said yesterday, Pansy Faye was killed after only one episode, a promising new character taken from us too soon by a wiggling plastic bat. And it’s a real shame, because it feels like we only scratched the surface on the entertainment value of a gold-digging fake-Cockney lunatic mentalist. But now Pansy’s dead, and she’ll never appear on the show ever again. Well, you can’t have everything.

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But since we all bothered to show up today, we might as well talk about something, so let’s take a moment to pay our respects to another entertainment legend cut off in its prime — Star Trek, which boldly went on its last journey just a week before today’s episode aired.

Star Trek premiered on NBC in September 1966, just a few months after Dark Shadows began. (On the day that Star Trek’s first episode aired, Sheriff Patterson was questioning Matthew Morgan about Bill Malloy’s murder, to no avail.)

Star Trek was a groundbreaking and essential television show, as everybody knew at the time, except the network and approximately 100% of the American viewing public. Over three seasons, Star Trek made 79 episodes, which by daytime TV standards is adorable.

So the crew of the S.S. Enterprise limped through their final journey in early June 1969, when Dark Shadows was at a ratings high. And that’s why Dark Shadows is still a revered national treasure, and nobody remembers that Star Trek even existed.

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Now, when Dark Shadows and Star Trek started in 1966, nobody would have thought of even putting them in the same sentence. Dark Shadows was a gloomy little daytime soap, following a typical 60s storyline about buried secrets and family sins. There were occasional hints about a ghost or two, but the fantasy element was low in the mix. Meanwhile, Star Trek was a loud, imaginative prime-time action-adventure with spaceships and alien worlds, a vision of humanity exploring the stars in the 23rd century. Plus, Dark Shadows was serialized narrative, and Star Trek was episodic. In 1966, these shows had nothing in common.

But ten years later, when Dark Shadows fans were starting to organize as a group, they intentionally borrowed the model of science-fiction fandom that was mostly created by Star Trek fans. The first DS fan gathering happened in 1977, as part of a Star Trek convention. They invited cast members, and photocopied fanzines, and gossiped about each other, as fans have always done through the centuries.

By that point, it was obvious that Star Trek and Dark Shadows were absolutely the same kind of show. They were “Cult TV”, niche shows that had lost their mainstream popularity but were supported and celebrated by an in-group of enthusiastic fans. When a show leaves the network schedule and moves into syndication, the format and the timeslot don’t matter anymore. Star Trek had Klingons, Dark Shadows had vampires. This is not an important distinction.

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So, as the green-skinned alien babe said to the hunky space captain, we are not so different, you and I.

In fact, Dark Shadows and Star Trek began in the same way. They were each created by a visionary showrunner with a dream, and specifically a dream about a train.

Gene Roddenberry wanted to make an outer space version of Wagon Train, a show that spent eight years documenting the progress of a wagon train as it traveled from Missouri to California in 1869. (This is a journey which would have taken maybe four months in real life, by the way, plus they already had a transcontinental railroad by then. I’m just saying.)

The appeal for Gene was that sense of an endless voyage of discovery — a five-year mission where the characters could discover new worlds, overcome obstacles and then move on to the next one.

Dan Curtis also dreamed about a train, carrying girl governess Victoria Winters to Collinwood on her own journey of discovery, trying to link her past with her future. As it evolved, Dark Shadows developed its own five-year mission, exploring the boundaries of life and death and time and makeup and common sense.

Gene’s pitch was Wagon Train to the stars, Dan’s was Jane Eyre in Maine; both men were absolutely convinced that good television should take things, and put them someplace where they absolutely do not belong. And that turned out to be more or less true.

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For both shows, the network had some reservations. ABC kept Dark Shadows on a thirteen-week leash, and it was close to cancellation when Dan started bringing monsters on the show. Star Trek had a particularly painful gestation period — after viewing the first episode, NBC ordered a second pilot, with a different script and replacing practically the entire cast. Hit with low ratings and mixed reviews, both shows struggled to stick around.

And in both cases, the show found success by attracting unexpected viewers. The networks were just starting to use demographic data to judge audience appeal, and Star Trek was attracting a younger and more upscale audience than NBC was used to on Thursday nights. Even with low ratings, NBC ordered more episodes for the first season, and renewed the show for another year. And Dark Shadows, as we’ve seen in detail, started supplementing the traditional housewife soap opera demo with a new teenage audience.

Thrilled, ABC eagerly embraced the young set, and started targeting teenagers with promotions — live appearances, exclusive interviews with 16 Magazine, trading cards and Halloween costumes. Most importantly, right before the 1968 school year started, they moved the show from 3:30pm to 4:00 to make it easier for kids to see the show.

Oddly, NBC went in the opposite direction. Star Trek aired at 8:30pm on Thursday nights during the first season, and for the second season, NBC moved it to 8:30 on Friday nights. This slot was terrible for attracting young viewers, and the ratings got worse. For the third season, NBC moved the show to 10pm on Fridays, which is just being a dick about it.

For Star Trek enthusiasts, the constant rumors of cancellation inspired them to work together and support the show. NBC got thousands of letters a week, urging them to keep the show on the air. ABC was swamped with fan letters for Dark Shadows too, a key indicator that kept Barnabas on the show and changed the direction from gothic soap to spookshow.

The letters are a huge part of the production story for both shows. Any time somebody tells the story of how Star Trek was produced, there’s a ritualized counting of fan letters, and that goes double for Dark Shadows and Frid’s fan mail. In fact, the highest estimates that I’ve seen are exactly the same for both shows — 6,000 letters a week, in late 1968.

But Star Trek, ignored and sabotaged by its network, passed away quietly on a Tuesday night in June 1969. And that should be the end of the story, for a low-rated show. Star Trek is dead.

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Except obviously that’s not the end of Star Trek, and getting cancelled was basically the best thing that could have happened to them. The show went straight into strip syndication before it even left prime-time, and became a huge hit. The fanbase actually grew, and the demand for more Star Trek material just got bigger over the next decade.

There’s a couple reasons why Star Trek did so well in syndication, compared to its prime-time run. For one thing, the show finally aired in a timeslot where kids could see it. Local affiliates would run the show in late afternoon and early evening, just after school and just before dinner. The young viewers who couldn’t follow the show to 10pm Fridays got the chance to reconnect with the show.

But even more importantly: the show was rewatchable. Star Trek was episodic, little self-contained hour-long stories that didn’t continue in the next episode. But the theme of exploration and discovery meant that over time, Star Trek started to piece together a fictional galaxy. There were planets to visit and monsters to fight, and every once in a while you’d learn something about an alien race that would actually matter the next time the Enterprise ran into them.

The Vulcans were particularly rich in cumulative detail, because Mr. Spock was a main character and at a certain point you want to know how he eats. We met his parents and learned about the Vulcan Academy. We even got to see him go into heat. So Star Trek wasn’t episodic like Starsky & Hutch was episodic, where every episode resets completely and there’s not much to pay attention to. Star Trek rewarded fans by letting them track the development of the Vulcans, the Klingons and the Romulans, making connections between episodes that you can appreciate on a second viewing.

When Dark Shadows was stripped for syndication, they had a much bumpier time. I went into crazy detail about this a couple months ago in “All About That Vase“, so I’m not going to get into it, but the basic problem was that Worldvision only released twelve months worth of episodes, so even if a station was getting decent ratings from Dark Shadows reruns, eventually they’d run out of episodes and have to stop. Dark Shadows had a much richer narrative for fans to follow, but once a station ran through the available episodes, they didn’t cycle back and air it all over again.

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So Star Trek flourished in its afterlife, building a stronger fanbase over time, and Dark Shadows didn’t. I mean, we’ve kept Dark Shadows alive long enough to get our own embarrassing movies and dreadful TV reboots, but Star Trek became a franchise that will apparently renew itself endlessly, for as long as there are people who look up at the stars.

I can think of a couple more reasons why Star Trek continued and Dark Shadows fumbled, and one of them is the quality of the spinoff material. Through science or magic, Star Trek publishing has always been readable, and true to the show.

Star Trek‘s action-adventure space opera grew out of paperback science-fiction, so it was easy to move back in the other direction. While the series was still going on, James Blish was writing short-story adaptations of the TV episodes. In a time before VCRs or reruns, this was a way for Star Trek fans to remember and relive the experience of watching the show. Then the first original Star Trek novel — Spock Must Die!, which is a fantastic title — appeared in 1970, and that spawned decades of continuing adventures that stayed faithful to the show. Bantam Books started publishing a series of Star Trek novels in 1976, which moved to Pocket Books in 1981, and then it just kept on going. There’s more than 150 books in that series now, and there are six currently scheduled for release in 2016. Six!

So all that new material acted as a lifeboat for Star Trek fans. The same thing happened for Doctor Who, too — the BBC cancelled the show in 1989, and the books and audio plays just kept on going until the show came back in 2005.

Meanwhile, the Dark Shadows spinoff material was a terrible lifeboat. As we’ve seen, the Gold Key comics couldn’t keep a sensible narrative going from one page to the next, and the Paperback Library novels completely rebooted Barnabas’ history every 160 pages.

So in the 1970s, the episodic Star Trek started acting more like a serialized narrative, while the serialized Dark Shadows became painfully disjointed.

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And there’s one more reason why Star Trek had a better afterlife than Dark Shadows did — it was designed that way. Gene Roddenberry’s vision was adaptable — you could always travel to a new planet, meet some new aliens, welcome a new officer to the bridge. Dan Curtis’ vision was ultimately limited — this family, this house, this governess.

Given the chance to make a movie, Gene continued the story, and ended with the promise of further adventures. When Dan made a Dark Shadows movie, he told the same story over again, and ended with the grisly death of the entire cast. Gene thought about longevity in a way that Dan did not. For Dan, more Dark Shadows always meant another damn governess on another damn train, headed towards the same damn house.

I mean, the metaphor is right there in the structure of the show. Star Trek was all about traveling forward to an exciting future. After a while, Dark Shadows turned into a show about looping backwards, and rewriting the past.

So here in June 1969, as the lights go out on the Enterprise, we know that’s not the end for Star Trek. In fact, here in November 2015, we’re eagerly waiting for the sixth Star Trek TV series and the thirteenth movie. Well played, Roddenberry. Keep on boldly going.

Tomorrow: The Persecution and Assassination of Minerva Trask as Performed by Tim Shaw Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade.


Footnote:

There’s a Dan Curtis pilot from Aug 1969 called “Dead of Night: A Darkness at Blaisedon,” which I need to get my hands on for blog-related purposes. If anyone has it or knows how I can get it, please leave a note in the comments? Thanks!


Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:

When Barnabas discovers Pansy’s body in the reprise, she’s got a piece of rope around her neck, as if she’s been garrotted rather than vampire-bitten. The rope wasn’t there yesterday, and doesn’t make any sense.

Charity enters Tim’s bedroom, alone and unchaperoned, to deliver a tray of coffee that he doesn’t even particularly want. I know that they’re engaged, and they’ve been working at this boarding school together for a long time, but that still feels like it would be unacceptably forward for the 1890s, especially for Charity’s tighly-wound family.

When Carl rattles the “locked” basement door in the Old House, the door starts to open, and he has to hold it shut.


Behind the Scenes:

The colorful afghan is really getting around these days. Two weeks ago, it appeared in the Old House drawing room, and last week it was in Beth’s room, post-werewolf attack. Today, we can see it on Tim’s bed.

Tomorrow: The Persecution and Assassination of Minerva Trask as Performed by Tim Shaw Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade.

773 star trek spock must die

Dark Shadows episode guide

— Danny Horn

22 thoughts on “Episode 772: Nothing Lasts

  1. Damn, I love your cross-genre references, which is another way of saying that I love the way your mind works. If your edition tomorrow is even half as good as the title you’ve given it, it’ll be brilliant.

    1. On the other hand, I would love to have Pansy as a vampire A singing vampire When she bites, her victims are happy that she has to stop singing to do it..

      1. It’s almost like, after they saw her performance, they changed that detail to get her off the show….her farewell was nice, but her one episode put her in Addison Slocum constellation.

  2. “Dead of Night” is the title of a TV anthology film made by Dan Curtis, but it doesn’t sound like there’s any connection to the pilot you mean beyond the title.

    I have one obvious question, one that it would take a lot of reading through places like IMDB to answer, so I wonder if anyone has it right in front of them – was any actor on both shows, Dark Shadows and Star Trek?.

    1. I can actually answer this question, thanks to my Kindle copy of “Barnabas & Company”.

      • Mitchell Ryan was Riker’s father on the TNG ep “The Icarus Factor”
      • Kathryn Leigh Scott was in the TNG ep “Who Watches the Watchers”

      • David Hurst (Justin Collins, 1841PT) was in the 1969 ep “Mark of Gideon”

      • Donald Hotton (Rev Brand, who marries Carolyn & Jeb) played a Bajoran monk on DS9

      • Natalie Norwick (stand-in for Josette and Edith) was in the TOS ep “Conscience of the King”

      • Norman Parker (body of Judah Zachery) was in the DS9 ep “Covenant”

      I feel super nerdy right now.

      1. That’s a very thorough list.

        I haven’t seen “1841PT” in a long while, so I had no idea that David Hurst played a Collins, even briefly. (In spite of being such an “all-purpose” kind of character actor, to me he’s always the comical German colonel in Kelly’s Heroes.)

  3. I have the “Dead of Night” DVD with the “A Darkness at Blaisedon” speciall feature. Both Thayer David and Louis Edmonds pop up it it … could have been an interesting TV series, a “Night Stalker” ahead of its time.

  4. I was 12 in ’69, very into Star Trek. Wanted to be Mr Spock. I guess I was out of touch, because I was shocked when Star Trek was cancelled. I had no idea, everyone seemed to like it. There was no sense that it had peaked.

    Dark Shadows was different. I enjoyed 1840 well enough the first time through, but it was pretty obvious that they were doing something very similar to 1897, but not quite as ambitious. Gerard was like Quentin, only more despicable. Daphne was a little like Victoria/Josette, or something.

    It began to seem like they were running out of places for time travel. The 1920’s? The 1740’s? I thought they could do a completely different Parallel Time, in the present, and really shuffle things around, but it was not to be.

    Dark Shadows burned hotter, more brightly than most, and when the fire began to cool, I felt it. Five years is very respectable. By the time its cancellation was announced, I was sad to see it end, but didn’t question it. By 1841 Parallel Time, it was a different show, one I found hard to watch. Like the show had died, and was now haunting itself.

    There was a wave of TV cancellations all across the board around 1970. Suddenly, most of the wacky, far-out, spaced-out, supernatural, under-water or rural shows of the 1960’s, were all gone.
    Star Trek was one of the first to go, and Dark Shadows, was one of the last, and in between them, the 1960’s finally ended.

    Norman Lear happened, and TV changed.

    1. I have heard (and even made) the argument that 1840 is a rehash of 1897, but after rewatching both over the years, I’ve come to view 1840 as more of a sequel to 1795: There’s Ben, Daniel, and the avenging Trask son. Even Barnabas and Angelique’s relationship at the start feels more like a continuation of what we’d seen in 1795 as opposed to 1897.

      I think the haunting of Collinwood that begins both storylines is probably what demands comparison to 1840 and 1897. The stakes are certainly higher in 1970 — Quentin merely drove the family out of the house, but Gerard destroys it and the entire Collins family. The biggest weakness, I think, is that Hennesy and Cody are way too old for the characters they’re playing — they should be playing doctor not hanging out in a playroom.

      However, there’s much to enjoy about 1840 on its own merits. Pennock is great as Gabriel, and Virginia Vestoff’s Samantha is a constant delight — arguably the best actress ever on DS.

      1. The problem was that while the format was of a continuing story, the form itself has to reach resolution, and once that resolution is reached, the characters have nothing to do. In most novels, if they get a happy ending they marry and lead uneventful lives. In DS once Liz found out that Paul was not buried she no longer had a story. When Burke had Roger confess, he no longer had a story. The alternative to reaching a resolution is that characters do no seem to learn a damn thing. This is what makes the “possessed children” storyline so irritating when it happens again. So, they end up retreading over and over.

        The alteranative is to have characters to whom things happen because of some hardwired character trait (like Barnabas’ penchant for bad decisions). The gold standard for that kind of narrative is probably “The Odd Couple” There will always be a conflict between Felix and Oscar and always stories about them. They will never reach resolution, and while they may learn a few lessons, they still will do what they do.

  5. Ah, someone else who quite enjoys 1841 PT! I was debating about mounting a defence but i’ll stick with a thorough ‘THIS!’ to the above. I’ve often wondered if i was being perverse in liking the Leviathan storyline & 1941 PT, when the fan consensus seems to be that they suck, but i can’t help it.

    I wish Big Finish would do an audio or two continuing the PT storyline. Mainly to hear Lara and Nancy as Catherine and Melanie again, and to have something other than That Sudden WTF Cliffhanger to end it on. i don’t really expect it’ll ever happen, but i can always dream (BF have managed to get a lot of good use out of the Leviathans, too, which is nice).

  6. “And the post-sex scene between Lara and Frid
    stays with me. As a 12 year old boy, though, I didn’t even notice it, at the time.”

    Are you certain?! If this is true, Angelique must have put more spells on him…this really should have been Josette, his true love.

    I haven’t seen 1841 PT yet.

    1. In 1841PT, Frid plays Bramwell, and Lara Parker plays Catherine. They’re different characters, except in the sense that the audience is actually thinking about Barnabas and Angelique the whole time.

  7. Kathryn Leigh Scott was in the TNG ep “Who Watches the Watchers”

    So glad you mentioned this, Danny. She did well in that episode, and for me, it’s one of the great underrated episodes of “Next Gen.”

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