“I do believe you need me, to jack you up by the bootstraps.”
“Place it there, please,” says the man from the Cryonics Institute. He’s addressing three hulking men, who are lugging a heavy coffin-sized piece of science down into the ancestral basement crypt of the cursed Desmond family, here on this tropical island paradise where we, as you know, currently are.
The man from the Cryonics Institute is directing two underlings — large, late middle-aged balding men in turtlenecks — plus Quito, the silent man-brute who lifts all the heavy things around here. I don’t know what the Cryonics Institute would have done if the Desmonds didn’t already have a third large late middle-aged strongman on the premises. They’d probably have to pop somebody out of the freezer to pitch in. That’s the nice thing about working at the Cryonics Institute, you’ve always got another pair of hands if you need it.
This is day four of our week-long detour to the Caribbean island of Maljardin, which is French for “Michael Jordan”. We’re taking a break from Dark Shadows this week, to check out Strange Paradise, the Canadian knockoff supernatural soap opera, which took to the airwaves in September 1969, and disintegrated on impact. If you’re just joining us mid-week, here’s the other Strange Paradise posts, and if you’d like to watch along, there’s a YouTube channel with all of the episodes, which is too many episodes.
Now, I keep referring to this show as a knockoff of Dark Shadows, but it isn’t really an imitation, and it’s unfair of me to suggest that they stole all their ideas from DS. Creator Ian Martin just rummaged through the pantry a bit, snatching a few basic concepts — magic portraits, mysterious ancestors, spooky basements — before heading off in his own direction. That turned out to be a ten-month-long journey to nowhere, but at least they still had their artistic integrity. I mean, Ian didn’t, because he was fired from his own series after nine weeks, but everybody else felt okay about it.
The story is essentially Ian Martin’s autobiography. It begins with a stressed-out middle-aged man, who thinks that he’s going to create new life, when all he’s actually doing is pumping dry ice into a corpse. Everyone tries to warn him that it’s futile, but Ian insists that he can beat this dead horse until it gets up and wins the Kentucky Derby. Everyone has a dream.
But, look! The men from the Cryonics Institute are here. Hooray! We’ve been expecting them to come for three days now, and here they are. Plot development! Also: one of them is Black! The main one! There’s a main Black Cryonics man, on television!
I’m a little extra excited about the diversity-minded casting here, because up till now, it looked like this was one of those Caribbean islands that don’t have any Black people on it. I was getting worried this was just another example of gentrification, with all the rich white voodoo-worshippers crowding out the natives, and filling the strorefronts with expensive herb and candle shops, and upscale voodoo spas.
Jean-Paul Desmond, the wealthy boss man, tells the Cryonics guy to get a move on with the installation. Cryonics guy says they’re getting the rest of the equipment, and Jean-Paul sighs, “Then I will have my Erica back.”
Trying to manage expectations, the doctor says, “Mr. Desmond, only the scientists of the future can answer that.” This earns him a dirty look from Desmond, and a sharp reduction in the gratuity.
This raises an important question, re: plot development. So far, this storyline is about waiting for the mad scientists to come and fill Erica up with cold fusion. The dramatic tension hinged on whether the Cryonics guys could get here in time. But being “in time” doesn’t really advance anything plotwise, because there’s not very many places this can go. As my colleague from the Cryonics Institute just pointed out, closing the freezer door is pretty much the end of this chapter. Then we have to sit around and wait, while medical science advances. This is not a pulse-pounding prospect.
To liven things up, Jean-Paul gets another call from his dead gay twin brother, who leers at him from the wall, addressing him with a sultry oil painting purr. “Losing faith?” the voice simpers in his ear.
This unnerves Jean-Paul, and he was already pretty unnerved. But the portrait’s just getting started. “I owe you a favor,” it mews, “for freeing me. And I do believe you need me, to jack you up by the bootstraps.”
So there you have it, ladies and gents, the single gayest line of dialogue in the history of the dramatic arts. Nobody even gets second place.
This idea catches on, somehow, and Jean-Paul allows the guy in the painting to take possession of his consciousness, somehow. There’s a lot of somehows stacking up in this scene.
So now the portrait on the wall is blank, and behind Jean-Paul’s eyes, the mind of his 17th-century ancestor Jacques Eloi des Mondes steps in and takes over, which I’m going to assume is a metaphor unless somebody tells me otherwise.
I mean, thinking logically about this scenario, which is the one thing that everyone on this program categorically refuses to do, the backstory goes something like this:
Three centuries ago, the allegedly wicked Jacques Eloi des Mondes is killed, or caught in a bear trap, or otherwise rendered helpless. Pleased that he’s finally in their power, the voodoo people bind his soul to a puppet, and they drive a silver nail through its head. Then they throw the stuffed animal into Jacques’ coffin, file it away in the family crypt under J, and forget all about it. This is a typical slice-of-life aspect of the human condition, and does not need to be explained.
But then there’s the portrait, hanging on the wall in the front parlor, within clear view of basically everything in the entire mansion. There are several portraits around the place, but Jacques’ picture is smack in the middle of the wall. You can’t miss it. And Jacques is a dead ringer for his descendant, Jean-Paul, because they’re played by the same guy.
But Jean-Paul’s been living in this house for at least a few months, and he never really noticed the portrait until it suddenly started talking to him. And apparently haunted housekeeper Raxl hadn’t thought to mention Jacques Eloi des Mondes until Jean-Paul brought it up, although since their first conversation about it, she has literally not talked about anything else.
Plus, Raxl — the caretaker, and practically the only resident in the house for possibly decades — has never taken the opportunity to remove or destroy the portrait of a man she hates worse than poison. Just think of what she could have done, given the time available to her. She could have snatched the portrait off the wall, sliced it to ribbons, burned it on her voodoo altar, mixed the ashes into sour bran mash, fed the mixture to a pig, sliced the pig’s throat, bathed herself in its blood and entrails, and gone outside to run around in the yard under a full moon — naked, gore-streaked, her hair bedecked with mud and twigs and pig organs and sunflower seeds — lighting a bonfire, singing a sea shanty, throwing her hands in the air like she just don’t care, all in a desperate appeal to her personal loa, Big Papa Santa Claus, to either heal this cursed island or just go ahead and destroy it, so she can finally move to the mainland, and pursue her dream job as a head coach for the WNBA.
But she didn’t do that, during all that time. I bet it never even occurred to her.
So if she’s going to continue to freak out about this accursed oil painting, then I have very little patience for hearing about it. Raxl needs to be part of the solution.
Meanwhile, Jacques Eloi des Mondes — the very Devil himself, according to a source closely connected to his campaign — has another chance to demonstrate his unstoppable penchant for deviltry. He does this by inviting the Cryonics boys to a pleasant lunch, where he offers them wine, and makes light conversation. That is exactly what Hitler would do.
“The purpose of Cryonics,” explains the doctor, “is only to preserve the body vitally enough, until the cure for what caused death becomes an accomplished medical breakthrough.”
His Satanic majesty has a follow-up question. “Assume that the breakthrough never occurs?”
Cryonics guy chuckles. “That’s what some thought about putting a man on the moon.”
This is an interesting response for a couple of reasons. For one, it’s an acknowledgement that this television show takes place in 1969, which Dark Shadows very rarely does. I mean, they mention the year 1969 all the time, but nobody ever talks about the War or the moon landing or the Beatles. I hate to say it, but this means that Strange Paradise is a little more up-to-date than Dark Shadows.
The other thing that I find interesting is that there used to be actual people living on the earth who thought that cryonics could work, using that “putting a man on the moon” line.
I mean, just because two people were put on the moon a grand total of once in 1969 does not mean that humankind can achieve any stupid and impossible task that we set ourselves. Some things are not just a matter of trying harder.
For example: We cannot and will not flash-freeze a dead human being, stuffed to the brim with that blue Slurpee stuff that looks super extra cold, and then later, in some unspecified future time — perhaps centuries from now, long after the shady tax-dodge LLC that accidentally bought out the Cryonics company because they thought it was making crying robots and they wanted to see what that looks like has gone bankrupt — we will open those caskets full of dead white people and say, you know what, let’s fire up the aneurism fixer. Also: we will not be able to do that on the moon, either. Honestly, I don’t know where people even get these ideas.
And then, guess what! Talk about infusing life into the dead, here’s Dr. Alison Carr, still stuck in the same tiki bar since Monday. It’s not easy subsisting for days on pots of tea and occasional screen time, but she’s somehow managing to keep it together.
She’s trying to hop a boat across the channel to Maljardin, where she can see her sister Erica, who hasn’t been particularly communicative recently. You and I know that’s because Erica is currently a quiescently frozen confection, but nobody’s clued Alison in on that.
From the audience’s point of view, watching her continue to cool her already-cooled heels, there are several questions that we expect the narrative to answer. These are:
#1. Will Alison get out of the bar, and across the channel to the island?
#2. Will she learn that her sister is dead?
#3. Will she discover that Erica is in cryogenic suspension?
#4. What will she do about it?
Using our televisual literacy and basic common sense, we know that this particular narrative cul de sac can’t last forever. The Desmond mansion’s front parlor is clearly the show’s main standing set, and there aren’t that many people with access to it. If Alison is going to be a character on this show — and her blood relation and screen time indicate that she is — then eventually they’re going to let her graduate to the big set.
Knowing that, we can easily fill in the rest of the answers, which are: #1) Yes. #2) Yes. #3) Probably. #4) Not very much.
Because once Alison is on property, they can’t keep her away from the other standing set, which is the crypt. We know that Erica is in a big shiny machine, so Alison is certain to discover it. And what could she possibly do after that? Cry, obviously, and be sad and angry. But then what? Erica died of eclampsia during her pregnancy. It’s a tragic thing, but Alison can’t vow revenge against anyone in particular. She might toss in a jab about maybe if she’d been in a hospital rather than all the way out on an island, but once you’ve said that, then what?
As it happens, Jean-Paul does come to the bar to pick up Alison. After Jacques had lunch with the Cryonics boys and overseen the end of their work, he let Jean-Paul back into his body long enough for him to be confused and sad. Then, when the great strain of going to a bar to pick up his sister-in-law proved to be too much for Jean-Paul, Jacques stepped in again, and here he is.
I’m sure that description doesn’t make sense to anyone at all, which is appropriate, because it shouldn’t. They don’t actually make a big deal about when Jacques left Jean-Paul’s body, or why. At one point, he’s Jacques, and then when we see him later, he’s dozing on the couch and he’s Jean-Paul again. The possession doesn’t fill any particular narrative purpose.
In fact, Jacques in possession of Jean-Paul is doing exactly the same things that Jean-Paul would be doing anyway. He was hanging around the house until the Cryonics men arrived. Once they came, he sent them downstairs to get set up, and then had lunch with them. After lunch, he hung around until they were finished, and said goodbye. Now he’s picking up Alison at the bar.
During some pieces of that time period, he was Jean-Paul, and during other pieces, he was Jacques, but either way, it made absolutely no difference, except in his mood and manner. When he’s Jean-Paul, he’s sour, and when he’s Jacques, he’s upbeat and silly. That is literally the only thing happening on the show right now.
There is a real conflict happening on Strange Paradise — a life-or-death struggle that means everything to these characters. This battle takes place within the minds and hearts of the audience, and it goes like this: Do I want to watch the next episode?
That struggle is still going on today, almost fifty years later. Part of the reason why I’m watching the show this week is to see if it’s actually interesting enough to spend time on later. I’m contracted through the end of episode 5, in order to fulfill my self-imposed blog obligations, but here’s the cliffhanger moment — will I care enough about it, to want to watch episode 6 on my own time?
So that’s the cliffhanger for today, and so far it’s not looking good. They’ve introduced a couple of characters that I don’t mind looking at. Jacques’ at the top of the list, because I’m still enjoying his impression of a gay Snidely Whiplash taking muscle relaxants at his beach house, I think Alison’s acceptable, and I wouldn’t mind seeing Holly taking off her sunglasses and making smart remarks.
But Raxl’s routine has already grown stale for me, and it looks like we’re heading for a show that’s mostly going to be people glowering at each other. They have succeeded in capturing my attention for one more episode, but they’re going to have to come through with a compelling reason for me to keep watching their show.
Can they do it? FIND OUT in tomorrow’s captivating conclusion!
Tomorrow: When Raxl Attacks.
— Danny Horn