“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
— Danny Horn