“I like Collinsport. There’s all this stuff going on all the time. Weird stuff.”
The 1897 storyline is coming to a close this week, and once again Dark Shadows is tying up a time trip by murdering everybody who isn’t nailed down. Do you remember how they killed everybody at the end of 1795, and then went back eight months later because they realized they hadn’t killed Natalie? Well, they’re not going to make that mistake again.
This scorched-earth approach is hard on everyone, but it’s especially tough for the folks at Big Finish, who watch these episodes, and all they can see is the lights going out on one spinoff after another. Big Finish has been producing new Dark Shadows audio plays for the last ten years, and every character that gets exterminated is just money taken out of their pockets.
I mean, this is a production company that’s made twelve box sets worth of audio stories about Jago and Litefoot, two secondary characters from a six-episode Doctor Who story made in 1977. Now, I don’t think they would have squeezed that much juice out of The Adventures of Evan Hanley and His Assassin Associate Aristede, but I’m sure they would have appreciated the opportunity to try.
It’s been a little while since I wrote about the Big Finish audios, and they’ve got some big Dark Shadows 50th anniversary stories coming up soon, so I ought to catch up on more of their recent releases. In my last post about Big Finish, I wrote about the first two stories in their 2015 season — Panic, which paired Quentin with a new love interest, and The Curse of Shurafa, which featured Barnabas, Julia and Professor Stokes traveling to Cairo to dig up trouble. Those stories feature some of the show’s heaviest hitters, but the next two stories in the season — In the Twinkling of an Eye (written by Penelope Faith) and Deliver Us From Evil (by Aaron Lamont) — put the focus on more tangential cast members.
In the Twinkling of an Eye stars Marie Wallace, who played Eve, Mad Jenny and Megan Todd, and unfortunately none of them are available for further adventures. So Marie’s got a new character in the Big Finish plays — Jessica Griffin, who first appeared in Kingdom of the Dead and then had a role in last year’s 13-part miniseries, Bloodlust. In this story, she’s paired with another character from the Bloodlust cast — Jackie Tate, a spiky teenager played by Alexandra Donnachie.
Obviously, for a story that doesn’t include actual Dark Shadows characters, the big question is: Can they make us care about these people? It’s easier when Big Finish can count on some inherited affection — their grown-up versions of David and Amy, a couple of Quentin’s great-great-grandchildren — but Jessica and Jackie aren’t even related to anybody from the show, unless Jackie Tate is actually a descendant of Charles Delaware Tate, and even then, I’m not sure it would help.
Jessica runs the Blue Whale, which is still a central gathering place for the Collinsport townspeople who aren’t lucky enough to get an invite to the big house on the hill. She’s a warm, grandmotherly type — much more down-to-earth than her lunatic characters from the TV show. Jackie is a teenager who hangs out in the bar a lot, because her best friend is in a new relationship and I guess she’s not going to school or anything. These Big Finish audiobooks have a limited cast, and you have to bring them together somehow, so here we are.
As we’ve discussed many times, there are three steps to making the audience like a new character — make a friend, make a joke, and make a plot point happen. The Big Finish folks take that seriously. The third character in the story is Nate (played by Ryan Wichert), a mysterious young stranger with a mildly hypnotic T-shirt, who comes to town and immediately befriends the others. He makes Jessica laugh, and he trades sarcastic barbs with Jackie, and the story is about the friendship that develops between these three.
But there’s something mysterious about Nate, of course, because perky guys in their mid-20s always turn out to be dangerous in the Big Finish Dark Shadows range. The overriding theme of this season appears to be a general suspicion of cute young guys that you meet by chance. He’s connected to Jessica in some way that she doesn’t quite understand, and he’s apparently in Collinsport specifically because he wants to know more about her.
In Bloodlust, Jessica was hospitalized following a brutal attack, and Nate’s got something to do with the period when she was in a coma. There are weird flashbacks to Jessica in her private garden, where Nate is taking care of her — but Jessica doesn’t remember ever meeting Nate before.
So Nate is basically a walking plot point, which makes him the focus of the story. He’s the mystery that Jessica and Jackie are trying to figure out, and they spend all their time either talking to him or about him.
Unfortunately, that means that the other two don’t really get their own plot points. They have friends and jokes, and Marie Wallace is lovely to listen to, but they’re strangely passive, curious about Nate but not really doing anything about it. Eventually, Nate gets tired of waiting for them to solve the mystery, so he just goes ahead and tells them who he is, because the story’s almost over and somebody has to initiate the climax.
That means that the most interesting character in the story is the one with the weakest connection to Dark Shadows. This is testing the boundaries of how far Big Finish can spin off before this stops being a Dark Shadows story, and becomes a story about a weird town starring a Dark Shadows actor.
Deliver Us From Evil is its own strange animal, mixing together an odd assortment of minor players. The leads are Lisa Richards as Sabrina Stuart and Christopher Pennock as Cyrus Longworth, but not the one you’re thinking of.
On the show, Cyrus Longworth is a scientist with a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-style drinking problem from the Parallel Time universe, and his assistant/love interest is the PT version of Sabrina. In 2012, Big Finish introduced a “Regular Time” version of Cyrus, and then brought him back for 2013’s The Enemy Within, where Cyrus met Sabrina and became non-parallel-universe bros. Oh, and Cyrus has an evil voice in his head, because he’s possessed by the son of the Devil. It’s a whole thing.
And then there’s Danielle Roget (Brigid Lohrey), the spirit of a French Revolution murderess, who appeared on the show as the evil life force inhabiting the Bride of Frankenstein. Now, she’s possessing a woman from another 2013 story, Beneath the Veil, and it turns out she’s got a relationship with Cyrus’ imaginary devil man.
As you can see, Big Finish continuity is mildly complicated, but not on the level of Dark Shadows circa fall ’68, when Eve was really Danielle Roget, who pretended to be Leona Eltridge, and Eve was in love with Vicki’s boyfriend Jeff, because Danielle knew Jeff (who was really Peter) from their previous lives in the 1790s. And then she went back in time to steal the Collins family history book, except later Barnabas went back in time and stole the book first, but from a later time period because Eve, in the present, went back in time after Barnabas was already back in time. Or something. Compared to that, Big Finish is a breeze.
So this audio pairs up Cyrus and Sabrina, who make a nice couple, because they’re both haunted by terrible secrets and probably nobody else would put up with them. Sabrina’s relationship with werewolf Chris Jennings went sour in kind of a fatal way, so she’s got that on her mind.
And Cyrus shares his body with the son of the Dark Lord — I’m sorry, I guess I should say THE SON! of THE DARK LORD!!, since that’s what everybody in the story calls him. “You can’t fight me, Cyrus!” he says. “I am THE SON! of THE DARK LORD!!” Okay. Well, I’m the son of a real estate lawyer from New Jersey. It’s nice to meet you, I suppose.
Happily, they also call him John, which is a helpful time-saver; if they had to do the “TS!oTDL!!” thing every time, then the story would be at least fifteen percent longer.
John is played by James Unsworth, who’s a handsome guy in his 20s and is therefore irrevocably evil and sadistic. This is seriously a thing with this series. It makes sense, really, because the original cast is aging, so what’s the most threatening thing in the world? Cute young guys, who are currently playing your grandchildren. It’s like your mortality is just standing there, smiling at you, pretty sure that they’re going to get all the good roles, and you’re going to die soon.
And that is basically how John works, actually. He’s been tagging along in Cyrus’ head for his whole life, making snide remarks, and Cyrus is yet to come up with a productive response. He tries to rebel against what is basically an inescapable evil housemate, and he can’t shake him, because John has control over basic systems like Cyrus’ windpipe, which he can close at will. It’s awful.
Now, the interesting thing is that Dark Shadows villains usually operate on visual spectacle, which is tough for Big Finish to re-create. All the really scary things on the show are visual treats — a vampire flashing his fangs, a werewolf jumping through the window, a floating Chromakey hand. But a werewolf attack in a Big Finish play is mostly growling and smashing sounds, and the other characters have to keep the audience updated on its location.
John, on the other hand, is an entirely audio villain. He poses a serious threat — to Cyrus, and the audience — because he’s going to sit in the back of your head and say smug things like “We don’t want to keep Miss Jennings waiting, do we?” and “We can’t let her miss the end now, can we?” There’s a lot of “now can we” dialogue with John. It doesn’t take long for you to really start rooting for Cyrus and Sabrina to make this guy shut the hell up.
The other half of the story is about Danielle Roget, who’s on a road trip to visit Cyrus and Sabrina. She’s traveling with Alfie, played by Simon Kent; he’s another cute guy in his 20s, so obviously he’s a serial killer. I swear to god, Big Finish.
Now, when Danielle was inhabiting Eve on the show, Nicholas Blair did a big song and dance about how she was the most evil woman in the world. When Professor Stokes used magnetic letters to figure out that “Leona Eltridge” was really “Danielle Roget” — in one of the all-time most deliriously goofy moments in the series — it was a big deal, because of all the killing she was reportedly going to do.
But then Danielle/Eve didn’t really do much of anything, except hang around Nicholas’ house in an evening gown and talk about how bored she was. Here, she finally gets the chance to be dangerous, and it’s quite creepy.
So there’s a sequence where Alfie and Danielle toy with a hapless victim, to establish menace. Alfie is one of those self-aware mass murderers like they have in movies, who say, “We’re going to play a game, Conrad. Would you like that? I know I would.” It’s more “now can we” dialogue, really — the cool remove of a cat playing with a mouse — so you kind of have to be into that, if you’re listening to Deliver Me from Evil.
In a medium with no visuals, all we’ve got are the sonic shocks, and taking pleasure in serial-killer sadism can be fun, if you don’t make a habit of it. But it’s a bit rough on the actual Dark Shadows characters, getting them mixed up in slasher-movie torture games.
So, yeah, Beth, Evan and Aristede are all dead, but they may be the lucky ones. There are fates worse than death, and Big Finish is hellbent on exploring them.
Monday: Sunny Day.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
In the teaser, they play the dramatic music cue too soon, so they have to play it again.
When Aristede throws Quentin to the ground in the cemetery, he falls next to a gravestone marked Carolyn Collins Stoddard.
The sound effect of Judith hanging up the phone receiver plays a little bit too early.
Behind the Scenes:
Widow Romano is played by Lana Shaw, in her only episode. This is her only IMDb credit, and IBDb comes up blank on her, so I have no further information on Lana Shaw.
Monday: Sunny Day.
— Danny Horn