“What demon have you summoned up with your lies and spells?”
Soap opera is a hungry beast. It chews through stories, as fast as you can write them. It eats ideas and feelings and relationships — stripping them down to the bone, and beyond. Creators retire and actors die, fashions change, networks rise and fall. And the soap opera keeps going, driven by its remorseless hunger for more story. You can cancel it, but it will be replaced by another, just as ravenous. Soap opera can not be stopped.
In its day, Dark Shadows was the hungriest of all, chewing up stories and characters and whole generations, every few months. And that’s why it stopped, in the end. The writing team stuffed the beast with tears and wit and English lit for all of 1969, but found their cellar depleted within a year.
Here on the blog, we’ve just reached the Leviathan story, an ambitious tale for a washboard weeper, and one of the first signs of trouble. The show will go on, for another sixteen months or so, but we’re already starting to line up suspects for the Who Killed Dark Shadows murder mystery dinner theater. As we go along, we’ll uncover a lot of different explanations for why the show eventually got itself cancelled, but the most important one is the simplest — they just ran out of stories to tell.
Dark Shadows flourished because they thought outside the box, busting out of the normal confines of a 1960s daytime soap, because it was fun and they didn’t know any better. They built themselves a new box — a mystery box, stranger and more exciting than anyone else’s — and they spent a few years exploring all its dark corners and secret passageways. But once they’d investigated the contours of that space, it turned into a familiar toy box, with a particular set of tropes and a limited set of characters. After a while, there just weren’t any new stories left to tell.
So that puts Big Finish in something of an awkward situation, because they’ve spent the last ten years making more than 60 new Dark Shadows audio dramas, continuing and expanding on a franchise that ran out of juice four decades ago. If the original creators couldn’t think of anything new to do with this story, then what hope does anybody else have?
Well, that question brings us to Blood & Fire, Big Finish’s celebration of Dark Shadows’ 50th anniversary. It’s a full-cast audio drama, released in June 2016, and it features just about every original Dark Shadows cast member that they could get in front of a microphone, plus a star from the 1991 revival series and an assortment of Big Finish players. The story’s written by Roy Gill, who wrote Panic, one of my favorite Dark Shadows audios, so I’m coming to this with all kinds of heightened expectations.
Over time, Big Finish has been developing their own take on what happened to Collinsport after April Third, once they took all the television cameras away, and the survivors were left to carry on as well as they could. Barnabas has been reborn, in another body. David and Carolyn are still living at Collinwood, and Amy’s got a couple of teenage kids who call Quentin great-great-grandfather. Maggie’s making a new life for herself outside Collinsport, and Willie’s in a relationship with the woman who runs the Blue Whale. And Angelique has been cast into the fiery pits of Hell, which means she’s basically doing fine. They’re moving on.
But an anniversary special has to link your past with your future, as Victoria Winters might say. The challenge is to tell a story that’s never been told before, but still feels like it fits into the whole.
The story opens with Angelique having a heated argument with the Devil about her job performance. It turns out the father of lies is just as obsessed with the Collins family as we are, go figure.
“Such a frustrating family,” he sighs. “So much potential for mischief! Yet every curse that is visited upon them, they twist to their advantage.” Well, the Devil’s tired of it and that’s all there is to it, so he’s offering to send Angelique back in time and strangle the family in its crib.
Angelique calls him the Dark Lord, but obviously she means Time Lord, and he’s sending her to Skaro to prevent the Daleks from being created. You have to watch out for this kind of thing in Big Finish stories; everyplace is Skaro to these people.
“You must find a way to unpick their lives from history’s tapestry, before they’ve even begun,” says the Devil. It’s a sinister plan, because if she succeeds, Dark Shadows will never exist. This is how television shows get cancelled; the Devil sends people back in time to unpick stuff.
So Angelique is hurtled back through time to 1767, given a new face and the alias Cassandra Peterson. She’s the perfect lead character for this story, because an existential threat like this could only be handled by one of the show’s major arcana. Barnabas and Quentin haven’t been born yet, and Julia’s not available, so it has to be Angelique.
And luckily, Lara Parker has made an actual deal with the actual Devil, because she sounds amazing. She first played this part in 1967, and here she is, with all the same quirks and tones in her voice. For some of the original cast members in Big Finish audios, you have to make believe a little bit that they sound the same as they used to, five decades ago. But listening to Blood & Fire, you don’t have to make adjustments. She sounds like Angelique; it really is witchcraft.
Sending us to visit a period of the Collins family that we never saw on TV, the story presents the cast that we know in surprising new roles.
This is the generation before Barnabas met Josette in 1795; in this period, the parents are Kathryn Leigh Scott as Patience Collins and Mitchell Ryan as Caleb, with Joshua and Abigail as young adults.
Joshua’s played by Andrew Collins, Big Finish’s recast Barnabas. His Joshua is pitched somewhere in the Ben Cross area, charming and well-bred and smug. Abigail is Daisy Tormé, who played Melody Devereaux in Bloodlust, and she’s just as headstrong and opinionated as you’d expect Abigail to be — but innocent, and free-spirited. This is Abigail in the days before she turned cold and hard and suspicious. Just a few days before, actually.
And then there’s David Selby and Nancy Barrett as the New York branch of the family, with Marie Wallace and John Karlen as servants. Jerry Lacy and James Storm have pivotal roles, too. I don’t want to say too much about everybody’s parts, because part of the pleasure of the story is discovering old friends in new places, just as it was every time the show drifted off to another time period.
This new masquerade makes the story feel like a party, with lots of little jokes and references for fans to enjoy. There are some familiar family names that pop up through the story, the ancestors of Collinsport residents that we’ve met through the years. And as a special treat, this story uses the original Robert Cobert music cues, which makes it sound like we’ve really traveled through time, as if April Third never came after all.
And then there’s Joanna Going — Victoria, from the 1991 revival — who plays Laura Murdoch Stockbridge Collins Collins Collins, the dreaded Phoenix, an Egyptian-adjacent fire demon who dies in the flames and is reborn in each new generation, always horny for the Collins guys for some reason. But she’s just plain old Laura Murdoch Stockbridge in 1767, of course. Her multiple Collins marriages are still in her future, assuming anybody has one.
They establish Laura’s character quickly, in an early scene. She’s traveling by carriage with Patience and Malachi Sands, who’s building the new Collins mansion. Laura is curious and intelligent, and kind of a smartass. “How poetically you speak,” she tells Sands after a little flight of fancy, “and yet you tell me nothing at all.”
The carriage suddenly stops short, and Patience exclaims, “Perhaps a horse has thrown its shoe, or there may be a highwayman.” Laura’s intrigued. “Goodness, how exciting,” she says, giving us another quick glimpse of personality.
It turns out there’s a witch in the road — Angelique, just arrived from the netherworld — and Mr. Sands wants to drive on, but Laura ignores him, and offers the woman a ride into town. Angelique climbs aboard, makes their acquaintance, and recognizes Laura as the Phoenix that she fought in 1897. She tries to reach out telepathically to challenge this creature, but Laura just wants to talk, and make friends.
This is Laura in happier times, before she started walking like an Egyptian, and she’s charming. Roy Gill is excellent at these little character sketches. Patience is kind, and somewhat weary of her husband. Sands is a blowhard, who thinks he’s mysterious. And Laura is interesting, and thoughtful, and not at all what we expected.
That’s when Angelique discovers that there’s going to be a wedding soon; Laura is arriving to marry young Joshua Collins. We know that can’t happen, because when we met Joshua in 1795, he was married to Naomi — and we found out later that Laura was actually married to Jeremiah, Joshua’s much younger brother, who was just a toddler in 1767. So this is impossible, and bothersome, and it makes you want to hear more.
We haven’t just gone back in time to replay the history as we imagined it. Right away, Blood & Fire declares that this trip is full of surprises.
Joshua and Abigail are surprising, too — both playing against the grain of the characters as we knew them. They’re just barely grown up, still squabbling and teasing each other. Over the course of the story, we’ll see the path that these young people take to become the haunted family that we know.
Abigail gets a big share of the attention, which is marvelous, because she was an underappreciated character in the original show. Yes, she was a suspicious handful of splinters in 1795, perpetually scowling at everyone and accusing them of intrigues, but she happened to be right about almost everything. The family really was beset by witches and demons, just like she said, and she was right to take action.
So early on in Blood & Fire, Caleb sighs at Abigail. “Such a sweet face, such a bitter tongue,” he moans. “Or, perhaps, a quick wit,” Angelique adds, and that’s all we need. Angelique is our entry point into this family, and Angelique appreciates Abigail. Like I said, Roy Gill knows how to do this, pulling the levers that make the audience respond.
The story is about these three passionate, haunted, doomed women — Angelique, Laura and Abigail — as they flirt and scream and rage, and create the Dark Shadows that we know.
Angelique is tempted, at first, to take it easy on the family. They’re kind to her, and she admires all the women. But as she gets to know the men of the family, it all comes back to her. They’re judgmental, and deceitful — pretending to be above everybody else, when they’re just as foolish and faithless as anyone.
“History repeats!” Angelique crows. “And the Collins family tell the same old lies about respectability and duty — and the rest of us can go to Hell. They show one face to the world, and keep the true one for the shadows. Well, I won’t have it! I’ll put a STOP to it! All these stories end NOW!”
But they don’t, of course. Angelique is a Dark Shadows kaiju; getting angry is act one. If you really want to put a stop to the Collins family’s stories, there’s a whole procedure that involves making a movie, and trying to do Lovecraft, and letting Frid play somebody who isn’t named Barnabas. And once you’ve done all that, you have to go and replace it with a game show; honestly, it’s too much trouble. If Big Finish really wants to spend the next ten years making audio dramas based on Password, then I suppose they could try, but I think it’s a mistake.
Instead, they do the impossible: they tell a new Dark Shadows story. Blood & Fire doesn’t just sound like Dark Shadows, it’s telling a story that Dark Shadows can tell — about money and love and terrible choices, about mistakes and murder, and most of all, about interesting people standing around in rooms, saying horrible things to each other.
If this is what Big Finish can do, when they really put their minds to it, then they deserve our love, and our gratitude. With Blood & Fire, they’ve done something that I don’t think anyone else has managed, in the last 45 years. They’ve made more Dark Shadows.
Monday: The Long Con.
— Danny Horn