“It is a metaphysical attempt on my part to expand man’s natural horizons, that’s all.”
He’s not mad, really, just disappointed, and he’s also not a scientist, so how he ended up getting involved with mad science is anyone’s guess.
“Now, Gerard,” says Quentin Collins, “what would you think if I told you that by going up those stairs, you could actually travel in another time?”
Gerard is nonplussed. “Well, I’d say you were having a minor pipe dream.”
“But it’s true!” Quentin declares, with no elaboration. “This is my Staircase In Time.” Then he starts walking up the stairs, and nothing happens.
So I think it’s about time we ask some pointed questions about this staircase, starting with: What does it do?
I mean, we know it does one thing, which is to appear suddenly in an upstairs linen closet, and transport panicked doctors running away from zombies to an impossible playroom, minus one hundred and thirty years. So obviously, it does something; it’s essentially the first thing that happens in this whole storyline. But is that what it was designed for?
Because I’m sorry, but I don’t understand the user interface. We saw the staircase appear three times in 1970, under perplexing circumstances. In one instance, it was there in place of the playroom when David and Hallie opened the playroom door, and we saw what I believe were the ghosts of Tad and Carrie, urging the kids to get on board. At least, I think it was their ghosts, because the actual kids didn’t know about David and Hallie, and had no particular reason to try to contact them. Although I suppose the ghosts didn’t have much of a reason to get the kids to join them on the staircase either, because they were trying to possess the kids, and there’s a difference between spectral possession and time travel, which I’m pretty sure I used to understand.
And then there was the time when the ghost of Carrie appeared to Barnabas and Julia in 1995, and showed them the staircase through a doorway on the opposite wall of the playroom, which there isn’t one because past that wall is where they keep the outside of the house. Again, I’m a little fuzzy on the workings of the ghost-activated deus ex horologia.
The third time was when Julia was running away from the zombie pirates, and that time, it just turned up on its own, with no pilot and no steering wheel. Julia just jumped on and climbed the stairs, and on the other side was two months ago, which as far as I can tell was actually before the staircase was even invented.
So what is this contraption for, and how are you supposed to turn it on?
And what is it, anyway, mad science or the occult? There are no buttons or blinky lights, but there’s also no candles or pentagrams on the floor. There’s no astrology poster or crystal ball or Mark 7 respirator, or anything that would give us a clue about how to decode this baffling bit of stagecraft.
We get a nice long shot of the basement, so we can try to get some context, but all it offers is a random assortment of props suitable for a drawing room, a study and a woodshop. There’s a lamp, a clock, an untidy desk with a quill pen, a bookshelf with books, several tables and benches, a barrel, a wood planer and a couple of hammers. There’s also something on top of the bookshelf that looks like a bronze bust of somebody, but we don’t get close enough and honestly it could be anything.
This basement set ought to help us understand the genre of the story we’re looking at, but it’s entirely opaque. Is this science-fiction, magical realism, horror or miscellaneous? There are no signifiers around to make sense of the staircase, and nobody seems to care. It’s just a piece of unfinished set dressing, erected in an open space and lit well. There’s something hollow at the core of this story, so Dark Shadows does what it always does, which is to fill up the empty space with architecture.
“I’ve been working on this principle for years,” says Quentin, which is hard to figure. “And now I’m ready to put principle into practice. You see, I believe that time is extremely fluid and accessible.”
So there’s a thing that’s difficult to imagine somebody working on for years. How do you work on a principle like that? Other than smoking pot, obviously.
Now, it feels like I’ve been doing this a lot lately, just breaking down the dialogue and not making sense of it, but that’s what the show is like now — kind of a permanent dream state, where you can say anything you like, as long as you say it with confidence.
Gerard asks if his friend is serious, and Quentin says, “I’ve never been more serious about anything in my life.” We’re still talking about the staircase. And we accept it, as we always do, because what’s the alternative, watching Somerset?
Gerard asks if Quentin has written down any notes about his experiments or whatever they are, and Quentin says yes, and goes upstairs to fetch them. And as soon as Quentin’s out of the room, Gerard peeks out of the door, checks that the coast is clear, and starts casting a completely unrelated voodoo incantation on someone else.
So I want to take a second — and it’s insane that I have to point this out — to consider how casual Gerard is being about this entire scenario. He is alone in a room with what is surely the most promising plot twist generator of the year, and the only reason why he’s feigning interest in it is to get Quentin to leave the room while he incantates.
Gerard is currently being possessed by the spirit of Judah Zachery, a warlock from 1692 who’s angry at the Collins family for beheading him, and taking his favorite mask away. He’s currently fixated on getting Quentin accused of witchcraft, so that he can get beheaded and see how he likes it.
But it apparently never occurs to Judah that a Staircase In Time could offer a much better opportunity for revenge, namely going back to 1692 and killing Amadeus Collins directly, rather than plotting against a random descendant who has exactly nothing to do with it. How is it possible for the current Big Bad of the show to overlook a weapon of mass destruction, staring him right in somebody else’s face?
But the inner workings of Judah Zachery’s plans are fluid and inaccessible. He’s trying to get himself all worked up about Quentin, but he’s having a hard time finding a reason to hate him. Pretty much everyone hates Quentin in this storyline — his wife, his brother, his governess, the local undertaker — and he hasn’t really done anything, except for pointless carpentry projects.
In yesterday’s episode, Gerard introduced his henchman Charles to Quentin, who smiled, made small talk, poured them all brandy, gave them the run of the house and then politely excused himself.
“It’s too bad,” Charles said, taking a swig of his beverage. “Quentin Collins really seemed like a very friendly chap.”
“Yes, he is,” allowed Gerard. “But he is a Collins, and therefore must he pay for it.” He paced around the room. “As will all the Collinses — every last one of them. They will all pay.”
And it never seems to occur to Judah that maybe the vengeance thing is unnecessary, now that he’s got Gerard’s body. I mean, yeah, he had to wait around in a glass case for a hundred and some-odd, but now he’s alive again, in a handsome, healthy body and with a whole coven of worshippers. Nobody suspects that he’s a dead warlock, and there aren’t any gypsies after him. He could just forget about the vengeance, and go have a good time. Dude needs to quit while he’s a head.
Besides, it’s not like Amadeus was out of line. He was the judge in charge of Judah Zachery’s trial, and presumably that was just an assignment for him; it wasn’t personal. Judah was accused of being a warlock and a murderer, and he really was. Amadeus didn’t even entrap him; Judah’s crimes were discovered because he was the kind of guy who stands around ranting about how he’s going to kill everybody. Amadeus was just the guy on duty at the time.
And this is a problem with the whole storyline, this seems-like-a-friendly-chap business. Quentin actually is a friendly chap, if you’re not married to him, and the number one rule of vengeance stories is that the punishment should fit the crime. Oedipus killed his father and slept with his mother, Lear disinherited his only nice daughter, Fortunato drank too much wine, and Barnabas had sex with the wrong housemaid.
The Collins family is supposed to be in the wrong; that’s how tragedy works. Barnabas broke Angelique’s heart, Quentin killed Jenny, and Elizabeth was haunted by a murder that didn’t happen. They deserved to be punished, the Furies were hounding them for their crimes.
But in this case, Amadeus was protecting the community from an actual supernatural threat, and Quentin wasn’t involved in any way. When bad things happen to people who are doing their best, it’s not epic tragedy, it’s just sad.
“There is no such thing as time,” Gerard reads, when Quentin comes back with his mad science journal. Which is good, because if there was, we’d be wasting it.
Monday: A Dark Horse.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
Gerard says, “Lamar, we must execute with all extreme caution.”
At the start of act 1, Quentin has a hard time opening the drapes to reveal his staircase. He eventually gives up on the left drape, and has to be satisfied with opening the right drape.
When Quentin mounts the stairs, a boom mic moves across the frame.
Gerard asks, “Tell me, Quentin — do you have the theories towards this staircase written down anywhere?”
Someone coughs when Gerard asks how long it’ll take to finish the staircase, and again about ten seconds later, after Samantha says she thought Quentin was alone.
In act 2, a fly lands on Trask’s jacket, then flies up and lands on his face. When Trask promises to keep Samantha fully informed, he brushes the fly away. A moment later, the fly lands on Samantha’s nose.
When Quentin gets up from a chair, we can see the studio lights. About twenty seconds later, the camera pulls back, and shows the studio lights again.
Samantha says, “Do you mean he hasn’t told you?” Daniel replies, “Would I be asking you, if I had?”
Gerard asks Lamar, “Why did you go to Samantha? I thought you two were at a great difference between each other.”
Gerard tells Daniel, “I am very best friends with Quentin.”
Monday: A Dark Horse.
— Danny Horn