“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.
You can get Blood & Fire at the Big Finish website,
and check out the whole line of Dark Shadows audio dramas.
Monday: The Long Con.
— Danny Horn
21 thoughts on “Your Lies and Spells (Blood & Fire)”
Laura Murdock Stockbridge Radcliffe Collins Collins Collins?
I think Radcliffe was in the Kelvin Timeline.
Sorry, you’ve lost me, I don’t know what you mean by Kelvin. In the “beginnings” episodes Laura was Laura Murdock Stockbridge (died by fire 1767, lol), then Laura Murdock Radcliffe (died by fire 1867) – with her son David Radcliffe. Of course this 100 year thing makes no sense at all later when she is supposed to have known Barnabas Collins in the 18th century…and exists in 1897…but who the hell cares? It’s Dark Shadows. But I do love stacking all the names up like this.
Kelvin — You’re talking The Outer Limits “Demon with a Glass Hand” here, aren’t you, Danny? The Kelvins tried for nefarious reasons to change history, but failed. Correct?
I LOVE The Outer Limits. 😉
Wait — I have to correct myself. It was the Kybens, not the Kelvins in “Demon in with a Glass Hand.” The Kelvins were in a *Star Trek” episode, a race of beings who lived in a sped-up dimension compared to our own, right?
As Emily Litella used to say, “Never mind….”
OK — I got that wrong, too. My pop-culture memory is failing me terribly today — the debilitating effects of age, no doubt — so I’ll quit now and confess that I, too, have no idea what Danny’s referring to. 😉
Kelvin timeline Googled as the JJ Abrams Star Trek reboot timeline.
There were Kelvins in the original ST; they had paralyser belt buckles and hijacked Enterprise to go to the Andromeda galaxy.
There was a guy in my dorm in college who was named Kelvin, but I don’t think Danny knows him… 🙂
You never know though, you never do know! 😛
Thanks John E Comelately. Star Trek OS is great, but it’s quite a while since I watched it…this Dark Shadows thing is taking over my life! I will have to hire that out again or buy it, because I also have a young daughter who is such a sucker for these sorts of things. She loved Star Trek OS, but now she is lost somewhere in the depths of Collinsport…poor dear.
Can you tell my daughter is just finishing the phoenix storyline, around episode 190? A few days ago I found my bookmark had been defaced with a list of Laura’s various surnames, lol. It’s a slippery slope…
The sins of the father, etc., etc.
So’s you know, ST was ‘remastered’ with improved SFX a few years back. Check out the “Doomsday Machine” ep.
(and we need to buy Batman first! I’m sure you know the Batman I mean)
Yeah, sorry — Kelvin Timeline is a super-nerdy Star Trek joke. That’s what they call the new continuity for the Star Trek reboot, which doesn’t take place in the same universe as the original Star Trek series.
It’s likely that the next Star Trek TV series will ignore the movie “Kelvin” continuity, and just follow the regular TV continuity, the same way that Lucasfilm turned the Star Wars Expanded Universe into “Legends”, so The Force Awakens can ignore everything but the movies.
So my obscure joke was about the 1867 Laura Radcliffe being erased from the continuity when they created the 1897 Laura. Tune in next time for more random nerd references that are understood only by me.
Wow, I was right? And my ST dork sense hasn’t deserted me.
Super Nerd power! You GO, Danny – we’ll just try to keep up.
Yeah you go! Way over my head, but obviously it’s worth it for the few who will get it.
I appreciate it, an apt reference for what you were trying to convey.
Of all of the million things i love about ‘Blood & Fire’ (and i adore every single syllable, every tiny nuance of it), i think the thing that made me grin and cackle the most was about halfway through episode one, wherein i realised that Angelique’s nom de guerre of ‘Cassandra Peterson’ was not only utterly appropriate to DS history – especially including the Tony ‘n’ Cassandra mini-era – but also the real name of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.:) Combined with Angelique being given a new disguise complete with ‘long, black hair’, i found i was mentally picturing our favourite witch in a somewhat more… ah… buxom form than usual. Ahem.
Lightning strikes again. Well done Lara/Angelique and the rest of the cast.
This is the first time Mitch Ryan has taken up a role other than Burke Devlin, so it’s very interesting indeed to have him in this milieu of an 18th century Dark Shadows storyline.
At least it will answer some of the questions I’ve had on my mind for years, whether he could have convincingly pulled off a character portrayal of a landed gentry 19th-century member of the Collins family. I’ve always thought, given Mitch Ryan’s lantern-jawed, palooka joe reading of Burke Devlin, that only Anthony George could have portrayed Jeremiah as it should have been done in 1795, that is,… that is,… well, as Timothy Gordon did when it was time to take over as the zombie — I mean, who really noticed the difference? At least until the credits rolled.
OK, so perhaps Anthony George was a bit unremarkable in that role, as he was in Burke Devlin’s role — this jowly, rumple faced impostor wearing Burke Devlin’s turtlenecks and blazers, looking like Vickie Winters’ disapproving father at the same time he was trying to date her. Could anyone imagine Anthony George squaring off against John Karlen’s Willy Loomis in a knife fight at the Blue Whale?
So, looking forward to Blood & Fire, for more Dark Shadows revelations, even 50 years on.
Just watch Strange Paradise (well the later half). Many DS writers went to that show.
Blood and Fire is the Laura the Phoenix origin story I didn’t know I wanted to hear. I think it’s one of the best Big Finish audios. I found it for free on Hoopla through my library, readily available even with covid restrictions.🙂