“I regard anyone who tries to choke me as an enemy.”
Okay, the story so far: The Dark Shadows writers have decided that they want to stick around in the 19th century for a while, because the 1897 storyline is fun and popular. Plus, it’s got great characters, not counting the ones that they’ve murdered recently, which is most of them.
So we’re currently four days deep into the 1897 Relaunch week, where they start staffing up again for another few months on this uncertain and frightening journey into the past. So far, we’ve met Aristede, a dangerous, dark-eyed rogue from the Arabian Nights, and we’ve seen the latest reboot of Angelique.
Today, another mysterious stranger strolls into town, and he’s even more mysterious than the last one. We’re going to see a lot of mysterious strangers over the next month or so; it’s like an epidemic or something.
Now, a high-quality mysterious stranger is a complicated piece of machinery; you can’t just put a hood over somebody and tell them to whisper. Actually, you can — see: Kylo Ren, from The Force Awakens — but usually, you need to work harder than that.
For Dark Shadows, the gold standard for an effective villain introduction is Nicholas Blair, who showed up at Collinwood in June 1968 and immediately started acting like he owns the place, and by “the place” I mean the entire surface of the planet Earth. It didn’t end well — Nicholas was a huge disappointment, and there was nothing to do except send him out to Widow’s Hill and engulf him in flames for no particular reason — but don’t worry about that part.
Think back to when we first met Nicholas, when everything was new and the world was filled with promises. The only thing we knew about him was that he wasn’t the person that he said he was. He showed up at Collinwood and introduced himself as Cassandra’s brother, and that was impossible. So we were drawn in, leaning forward to catch any clues that he might drop about who he was, and what he wanted.
As it turns out, he was Sydney Greenstreet from The Maltese Falcon, and what he wanted was to make Dark Shadows a lot better in the short term, and then a lot worse over a period of several months. Today’s surprise guest is also Syndey Greenstreet from The Maltese Falcon, so either the Dark Shadows writers are obsessed with The Maltese Falcon, or I am, or all of the above.
So let’s take a look at the introduction of Victor Fenn-Gibbons, as he follows the Nicholas Blair playbook.
The key to the Sydney Greenstreet intro is that he has to be way scarier than the person you were scared of yesterday. By mid ’68, Angelique was unquestionably the Big Bad; she spent four months practically annihilating the Collins family of 1795, and she was starting in on the present-day family. Then Nicholas arrived, and he just treated her like an employee, and one that he didn’t think particularly highly of.
Over the last couple days, we were introduced to Aristede, who has a terrifying Persian dagger and somehow knows all about Quentin and the legendary Hand of Count Petofi. Then Angelique sucker-punched Aristede and took the Hand away from him, because reboot Angelique is scary again.
So when we left Aristede, he was lying on the Collinsport docks, unconscious and Handless. And then things get worse.
A large man in a black cloak kicks at Aristede, and tells him to get up. Aristede stumbles unsteadily to his feet, and the man growls, “Look at me. I said, LOOK at me!” Aristede does, and the man slaps him across the face: WHAM! “You didn’t get the Hand, did you!” the man shouts. And Aristede just stands there and takes it.
Now, we don’t know a lot about Aristede yet, but the one thing that we know is that he’s physically dangerous. He has a razor-sharp dagger with an ironic name, and he enjoys using it. But Victor smacks him, and all Aristede can do is make excuses. “I’ll get it back, believe me!” he sputters, as the man backs him up against a wall.
The man talks in a whispery rasp that makes your throat hurt just listening to it. “Which was it, Aristede? Liquor, a woman, an assailant — or a combination of all three?”
Aristede tries to gain some ground. “She was no ordinary woman, Victor. She possessed powers. She almost killed me!”
“She SHOULD have killed you,” Victor thunders, “and spared me your ineptitude!”
So that’s what we know about the new guy so far — his name is Victor, and he’s a Bond villain. The criminal masterminds love tossing their subordinates around when they fail at something; it’s their main form of exercise.
The next step in the Sydney Greenstreet villain-introduction plan is to know more about the plot than the audience does. Anybody can lurk in the shadows, with a big black hat obscuring their face. The new baddie needs to give us a reason to pay attention to him, and the most efficient route is to preview some upcoming story points.
“The Hand is vitally important to someone here,” Victor says. “I suspect its power has already been used. Am I correct?” Aristede says yes. “Then it is imperative that I put in an appearance. My credentials are in perfect order. I will go to Collinwood at once.”
So he knows about the Hand of Count Petofi, the spooky plot accelerator that everyone’s been chasing around in circles for weeks. The Hand has magical powers and its own strange agenda, but we don’t know where it comes from, or who controls it, or all the crazy things it can do. Victor appears to be an expert, so he’s definitely worth keeping an eye on.
Plus, he knows that if you’re going to get anything done on Dark Shadows, the first thing you do is report in at Collinwood. That was Nicholas’ first move too, gliding through the front door and talking his way into an invitation to stay. This proves that the character has a deep understanding of how the show works, which is vital. The most powerful characters on Dark Shadows always know what kind of show they’re on.
So Victor struts in and introduces himself to Edward, announcing, “I bring you greetings from our mutual friend in England, the Earl of Hampshire!”
“The Earl of Hampshire?” Edward frowns.
Victor reaches into a pocket, and pulls out a small envelope. “He asked me to give you this. I suspect it will tell you whatever you may wish to know about me.”
Edward looks over the letter, and all of a sudden, this strange creature is an honored guest. We’ve never heard of the Earl of Hampshire before, and I bet Edward never has either. The letter must be printed on psychic paper, an incredibly useful Doctor Who device that makes everybody stop asking tedious questions like who are you, and how did you get into our undersea nuclear reactor.
That’s when we get our first good look at Victor, and will you look at that. He’s wearing a tight gray Harpo Marx wig, all teeth and curls, with round, purple-tinged magnifying spectacles that make him look like a miildly deranged owl. He looks fantastic, unlike anybody else on the show, and it’s an incredible power move. A guy has to be pretty scary to get away with a look like this. The only appropriate reaction is to back away and call for animal control, but Edward is all over him. That psychic paper really works; it must be prescription strength.
“By the way, there’s something that I should explain,” Victor says, which is the understatement of the year. “My voice. I can barely speak above a whisper. I served with Kitchener in the Sudan. The knife of a tribesman caught me just above the shoulder blade. The tip pierced my throat. Almost gave me up for dead.”
“Good heavens,” Edward says, because what else can you say.
“Splendid man, Kitchener,” Victor smiles. “Integrity. Pride. A bit too much pride, perhaps, but still — a man among men, if you know what I mean.” As it happens, I don’t have the faintest idea what he means, but that’s the mark of a top-shelf Dark Shadows eccentric — the ability to distract everyone, by explaining all the wrong things.
While he’s at Collinwood, Victor has a scene with Angelique that we don’t really need to get into right now, except to point out that this is a television show that thinks these two belong in the same room together.
Then he sashays down to the Blue Whale, to meet with his co-conspirator and co-conspire for a while. The scene starts with Aristede lighting Victor’s cigarette, which is delightful.
Victor is still dressed in his black hat, fur-lined cloak and leather gloves; he’s been in five scenes so far, and we haven’t seen him take off anything but the hat. Victor Fenn-Gibbons does not have casual days.
Aristede asks what Victor’s learned from his stay at Collinwood, and Victor says, “That the lady named Angelique may be a most formidable enemy… or a most valuable friend.”
“Victor,” Aristede sulks, “I regard anyone who tries to choke me as an enemy.”
Victor gives a throaty chuckle as he puffs on his cigarette. “The Hand doesn’t always bring out the best in people, Aristede.”
So that’s another item we can check off the supervillain checklist: Have a unique set of values that don’t quite match up with any normal person. We don’t share the same worldview as Victor, which means his responses are going to surprise us. That is the single best quality that any TV show character can ever have.
Then a young gypsy girl walks into the bar, and Victor loses the entirety of his shit. Seriously, he gets all panicky about it. “Look — over THERE!” he whispers, and his hand shakes as he reaches for his drink.
Aristede tries to reassure him, saying that it’s only a gypsy. I mean, you know how there’s gypsies all over Maine; the state is basically just one big caravan. Gypsy capital of the world, they call it. You can’t go to New England and think you can avoid running into the occasional gypsy.
But Aristede tries explaining that to Victor, and the man just falls to pieces. He tells Aristede to find out what she’s doing, and then he exits the bar and runs off into the woods, trying to get some distance between him and the folk dancing.
And that is a phenomenal power move for the character. A good supervillain needs a weakness, and gypsies is a fantastic thing to be afraid of. I mean, imagine if his weakness was snow, or eyelash mites. You can’t write a story about a man at war with his own eyelashes. But gypsies! Throngs of them, hounding him through the streets of Collinsport, banging on tambourines and reading each others’ palms! Think what an unholy racket that would make!
In fact, there’s only one possible weakness that could be better than gypsies, and the Leviathans snag it. We’ll see the Leviathans by the end of the year — they’re an incredibly boring time traveling death cult, if you can imagine such a thing, and they’re entirely disappointing, except that their one weakness is that they’re deathly afraid of werewolves. You literally cannot get a better Achilles heel than werewolves. Really, any relationship with werewolves gives a character instant curb appeal, so guess what Victor’s got.
Late in the episode, Victor meets Aristede out in the woods, and the boy’s gotten into a physical dispute with one of the local wolf men. He’s screaming for help, but Victor just stands there, calmly, and tells Aristede to get up and leave them alone.
“I am not afraid of this creature,” Victor says, “and he is not afraid of me.”
So Aristede gets up, and leaves them alone. They make a charming couple, actually. One of them is a snarling, vicious monster, and the other one is a werewolf. They ought to get along fine.
Tomorrow: The Pits.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
At the beginning of act one, as Angelique looks through the drawing room doors into the foyer, the boom mic appears overhead.
Victor asks if Edward is at home, and Angelique says, “Why, no, I…” and then trails off for a moment. “Well, maybe he is,” she adds, looking on the bright side. “Perhaps he’s in his study.”
At the Blue Whale, when Victor sits down at the table with Aristede, the boom mic comes into view at the top left.
Aristede asks Victor, “You went to Collinsport?” He means Collinwood.
Julianka tells Barnabas, “My grandmother — my great-grandmother began the curse, when she put it on Count Petofi. She passed the secret of it on to my grandmother.”
Behind the Scenes:
Bob O’Connell returns to the show as the silent Blue Whale bartender. The last time we saw him was more than a year ago — in February 1968, during the 1795 storyline. And we won’t see him again for a while — his next appearance is in February 1970.
Barnabas communicates with Angelique through his portrait today, and he’s done that sort of thing before — but usually with a throbbing heartbeat sound, and lighting effects. Today, his call is a complicated electronic whine from a theremin. I’m pretty sure that’s the first time that’s happened, and I don’t recall if they ever do it again. It sounds awful.
Tomorrow: The Pits.
— Danny Horn