“So the next step is that we must go to the basement!”
So with pop sensation Quentin Collins on trial for introducing plot points, and the show’s ratings sinking slowly in the west, I might as well introduce The War for Dark Shadows, a latter-days theme that’s going to run through the last few months of the blog. We’re approaching the dreaded April Third, 1971 — history’s first day without Dark Shadows — and naturally the show’s not just going to lie down and take it. Going gentle into that good night is not what you might call one of Dark Shadows’ core competencies.
After April Third, the show does in fact go on, hopping from one medium to another in a long line of spinoffs and remakes. The Paperback Library novels keep running until 1972, and the Gold Key comics stretch all the way to 1976. We’ve already discussed the Dark Shadows comic strip, the Night of Dark Shadows movie and the 1991 NBC remake, each of them disastrous in their own individual way, and there are more disasters to come, including a book series, a failed pilot, another comic book series, and yes, a certain medium-budget Hollywood spectacular.
But the thing is, the show is so complicated that none of the remakes and spinoffs can agree on what Dark Shadows actually is. For the comic strip, Dark Shadows is an adventure serial, the story of hardly-hungry vampire Barnabas Collins, who secretly battles a series of supernatural villains in order to protect his cousins, Elizabeth and Carolyn. Meanwhile, the 1991 show thinks that Dark Shadows is a super-sexy time-travel love epic, spending a lot of time setting up a quite vicious Barnabas with Victoria Winters, who’s the reincarnation of his lost love Josette.
Those two ideas have very little in common, aside from a few character names and the fact that they only lasted for a year. They’re not the same kind of story at all. But when you look at either one, you can recognize that they’re based on Dark Shadows as you understand it. So the concept of “Dark Shadows” must be big enough to encompass both of these kinds of stories, and probably more to come, and each interpretation is casting a vote for a particular way to read the show. The War for Dark Shadows is a decades-long struggle to figure out what kind of show Dark Shadows was, and what it means for us today.
With an appropriate disregard for causality, I might as well begin at the end, and work sideways from there. Today we’re talking about Bloodline, the second season of Big Finish’s audio serial, which was released during April and May 2019 — at the time I’m writing, they’ve released 12 of the series’ 13 episodes, and just about to release the finale.
If you’re not familiar with Big Finish’s Dark Shadows audio dramas, then you have quite a bit to catch up on, because they’ve been doing it since 2006. A lot of actors from the original series have reprised their characters, including Quentin, Maggie, Angelique, Willie and Carolyn, and even Amanda Harris and Tony Peterson have come back to life on audio — sounding a little older, perhaps, but recognizably the characters that we know. Most of the releases are essentially short stories — dramatic readings with two actors apiece — but every once in a while they splash out for a full-cast production.
In 2014, Big Finish released their most ambitious Dark Shadows project — Bloodlust, a 13-part serial that brought together all of the individual story threads that they’d been knitting together over several years of the dramatic readings. After Bloodlust, they did another set of stories in 2015, and now the storyline continues in this new second season, Bloodline.
The Big Finish audios are meant to be a continuation of the show, rather than a reboot, so by now the timeline has advanced to around 1983 — long enough for David Collins and Amy Jennings to grow up and fall in love, as incredible as that may seem. Quentin’s married too, and a few years ago, Barnabas had his spirit sucked out and plunked into a new body, because they don’t have Jonathan Frid, and a Dark Shadows without Barnabas would be intolerable.
Bloodline opens with a girl on a train, obviously, because these people have spent more than a decade making Dark Shadows spinoff fiction, and they’re total nerds about it. But it’s not a governess this time — it’s teenager Jackie Tate, a new character who was introduced in Bloodlust and is utterly, utterly delightful.
Seriously, I’m not even going to try to pretend like I’m too cool for Jackie; it’s impossible. As they know at Big Finish, if you want to make the audience like a character, there are three steps — make a friend, make a joke and make a plot point happen — and Jackie handles all three during the first track of the first episode. After a harrowing pre-credits flash-forward in which she’s on trial for murder, Jackie meets a stranger as they’re getting off the train at Collinsport, fills in a little exposition, makes a quip about the Blue Whale, and then almost gets squashed by a falling mystery box. She’s the perfect character.
Episode 1 is basically about making sure that the audience is in love with Jackie, so that she can then spread that magic around to everyone she runs into. She’s friends with everybody in town — or at least, everybody at the Blue Whale, the hospital and Collinwood, which is the same thing — and that gives her an all-access pass to any storyline that she takes an interest in. We like her, and she likes everyone else, and that builds a remarkably smooth path to introducing more than a dozen characters in the first half-hour.
And there are so many characters this time! If you don’t remember Bloodlust that well from four years ago, then you need to go and refresh, because season 2 rolls hard. They started slowly with season 1, establishing the townsfolk a few at a time before gradually heading up the hill to Collinwood over six episodes or so. This time, you’ve got about 10 minutes to get settled and then they drop you into a busy Collins family party, starting with Quentin’s new wife, and if you don’t know who she is then you need to go listen to Panic too.
It’s basically a big noisy party, where everybody has their own little story thread to pursue. David sets the date for his wedding to Amy, the gay teen boys have just broken up, Barnabas is trying to get his vampire hunger under control, there are two different disembodied supernatural entities floating around, and a long-lost relative shows up by surprise with a secret agenda. You’re given zero opportunities to get bored.
Most of the characters are relentlessly likeable, including the new soap vixen. I had a hard time connecting to Sabrina and Cyrus in their last story, but even they get a comedy action scene and a plot point hidden in the trunk of their car, so now I like them too. Big Finish has cracked the code.
And then guess who shows up about three-quarters into episode 1? Dr. Julia freakin’ Hoffman, that’s who.
This has always been a challenge for the Dark Shadows audios. The show was dominated by four kaiju — Barnabas, Julia, Angelique and Quentin — who stomped through the storylines, pushing over power lines and spoiling other people’s fun. David Selby and Lara Parker are available, and they resurrected Barnabas in a new body back in 2006, so Big Finish has been operating with three out of four kaiju for years. But they’ve never been able to do anything with Julia, because Grayson Hall was unique and irreplaceable.
Of course, if you’re going to try to replace her anyway, and why the hell not, then you need to do something bold and campy. So they went ahead and hired Julie Newmar.
Oh, of course you know who Julie Newmar is. She was Catwoman in the 60s Batman show, which gives her plenty of camp cred, plus she played Julie Newmar in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. She was on TV constantly in the 60s, 70s and 80s — Star Trek, Get Smart, Bewitched, Jason of Star Command, Fantasy Island, Hart to Hart — plus she played Carlotta Ravenswood in The Maltese Bippy in 1969, which is exactly what Grayson Hall would have been doing if she wasn’t busy with something else.
They give her a brilliant warm-up in episode 1, starting with Jackie messing with the mystery box.
Jackie: I mean, I could always take just a teensy peek inside…
Woman: You know what they say about curiosity.
Jackie: Sorry! I didn’t see you. Are you — ah, if you are who I think you are, then whatever they say about curiosity never stops you.
Woman: And who do you think I am?
Jackie: I think… judging by your clothes, you’ve recently returned from a long trip. I think you’re wearing a veil, even though it’s dark outside, so you’re weirded out by your appearance.
Woman: Which is something I might be rather sensitive about.
Jackie: Oh, yeah — sorry.
Woman: Don’t apologize. I’ve never been that good with a sensitive thing myself.
Jackie: So you’re probably the woman who pretended to be writing a book, but was really investigating a bloodthirsty vampire… If you’re just a taxi driver or something, I’m going to be really embarrassed right now. Please say you’re the fabled Dr. Hoffman?
Julia: I am Dr. Hoffman, but you can call me Julia.
Jackie: Hey! I’m Jackie. Jackie Tate. Not a doctor.
Julia: So, Jackie Tate — what do you think is in the box?
So that’s very clever, letting the audience’s favorite character approach the recast step by step, constructing a little guessing-game routine so that we figure out it’s Julia just a line or two before Jackie says it out loud. They talk for a moment about the mystery box, describing it but not quite spelling out what it is, and then this:
Julia: I heard you were visiting colleges. How was it?
Jackie: Oh, it was horrible! Thank you for asking.
Julia: (chuckling) My pleasure.
Jackie: So, are we friends now? I think we’re friends.
And there you have it, now we like recast Julia. That is how it’s done.
The thing that makes it work is that Newmar isn’t doing a Grayson Hall impression; she’s just going ahead and being a different person. Julia’s in a strange new body, which is an alienating experience — later on, she talks about the shock of looking in the mirror every morning. So it makes sense, if sense is a thing that we need to make, that she would be changed by the experience — a little awkward, and not sure of herself. She’s not actually Julia, because “actual Julia” only exists on videotape, but she’s Julia enough. We’re friends now.
There’s another point that I want to make about the show, and to accomplish that, I need to quote another Julia/Jackie scene, this time from episode 3. Don’t worry, there aren’t any spoilers, except that Julia is in the Old House working on mad science, as she obviously would be.
Julia: I can see you behind those boxes, show yourself! I… I have a gun, in my handbag. Oh! Now, what I can do for you?
Jackie: Um… I guess my first question is, why do you have a gun in your handbag?
Julia: And mine would be to ask you why you’ve broken into my laboratory?
Jackie: I — I don’t know. Well, I do, but it’s weird, and — Julia, what exactly happened in Jaipur?
Julia: Jackie, why are you here?
Jackie: Eh, you’ve got the gun, so… well, in New York, I went around to these colleges, and it was great and all, but I don’t know what I want to do, and I think it’s because of the things I’ve seen here, in Collinsport. How can I leave all — this behind?
Julia: This isn’t a game, Jackie.
Jackie: I know, but — everyone else is caught up in their own things. And it’s like, I’m only here just to listen to other people. You know what I mean? What about my life? What do I want to do? And then I thought, do you know what I really, really want?
Julia: Enlighten me.
Jackie: I wanted a sandwich. So I made myself a sandwich! And then I made some more sandwiches, because you remind me a bit of my mom, and I know what she’s like when she’s on a case. She forgets to eat. And I figured, I bet you’re the kind of person who gets caught up in your work, and forgets to eat. So I’ve got sandwiches and chips, and some fruit juice. I figured, as a doctor, you’d want fruit juice, not cola.
Julia: Right. So why am I going to let you become involved?
Jackie: Because… because you see something of yourself in me. Sorry, can you put the gun down?
So Jackie is actually aware of the fact that she’s a manic pixie talk-to who exists in order to support other people’s storylines, and it pisses her off, so she’s going to break into a secret lab and hide behind a box with a bag of chips and a glass of fruit juice, and wait for someone to pull a gun on her so she can offer a mad scientist sandwiches. This is what happens when a writer understands that it’s their responsibility to entertain you.
As I said before, The War for Dark Shadows is a battle to define what Dark Shadows is, and Bloodline is very clear: Dark Shadows is a soap opera. This hasn’t always been the case for Big Finish — for a long time, their answer was “ghost stories,” with a side order of “sadistic serial killer taunts somebody and won’t go away”. I mean, yes, in Bloodline there is a mean disembodied voice inside somebody’s head who makes fun of them and won’t go away — Big Finish can’t drop all of their bad habits at once, be reasonable — but it’s in the service of a soap opera storyline about lovelorn teens.
And England is a country that respects soaps. In America, we’ve been allowing our soap operas to slowly wither and die, because we put them on every afternoon, and we don’t have enough housewives to support them. England schedules its soaps for early evening on an indeterminate number of nights a week, and people watch the hell out of them.
So Bloodline painstakingly constructs criss-crossing storylines about money, infidelity, heartbreak and stolen blood bags, and also takes the time for character moments, like a quiet chat between Quentin and his grandson Harry, or a drunk, gossipy bachelorette party. People get punched in the nose, and trapped in a fire, and then they all come together for a wedding, and chaos ensues.
In fact, Bloodline is so in touch with the soap side of the force that at one point, it seems like they’re breaking the rules of soap opera — conspicuously forgetting about something important — and then around halfway through the season, you discover that was intentional, and sets up a huge scary plot twist. I can’t say any more about it, except that I’m pretty sure it’s a reference to Bobby Martin from All My Children, and if it is, then I will love you forever, you clever boys.
I could keep on going like this, but honestly, you should just go ahead and listen to Bloodline. I don’t want to spoil any of the cool secrets, and at this point I’m just getting in the way between you and the show.
Happily, Big Finish is planning to do more Dark Shadows serials — next year, they’re doing a 13-part season called Windcliff, and another called Thirteen in 2021. So it turns out Dark Shadows does have a future after all. And on this blog, The War for Dark Shadows is just getting started, and I think I’ve got another entry with Alec Newman around here somewhere…
Tomorrow: How I Long to Be Wrong.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
Trask tells Gerard, “There is one who should be on the witness stand with Quentin, awaiting the judgment of the tribunal!” He means the prisoner’s dock. Gerard uses the correct word after the commercial break.
Speaking about Flora, Gerard says, “She’s dealt long and hard into the old records.”
Trask says, “For the first time, I feel that I shall live to see peace about my Roxanne.”
Gerard trips on a word: “I asked him not to accept the ca- the case.”
Flora says that Carrie is old enough to be courted, but advises Jeremy, “You should ask her, her, uh — her, her sponsor, first.”
Flora tells Gerard and Trask, “And those attacks, exactly like those suffered by you and poor Julia, began in the year, the winter of 1796.”
Gerard asks Flora, “Ben Stokes… he was Barnabas’s Collins’ servant, was he not?”
Gerard tells Carrie, “Mr. Trask and I were just talking about your grandfather. He had some belongings that we don’t know where they are. He — after his death, we — we couldn’t find them.”
When Carrie asks Jeremy, “Where would you go?” someone in the studio coughs.
Gerard muses, “It’s also very incredible how much Barnabas’ father looks a lot like him.”
Trask reads Ben’s journal: “It was during the witchcraft trial — the day I testified that Victoria Winters was not a witch, the day the witch herself appeared in court — that the Reverend Trask made his last trip to the Old House.” Trask was actually entombed a week later — Angelique’s appearance in court was episode 435, the trial ended in episode 437, and then Trask made his last trip in episode 443. There will be lots more 1795 revisionism in tomorrow’s episode.
When the skeleton is first revealed and Trask says, “At last I’ve found my father’s burial place,” the camera swings a little wide, and you can see that the set ends just past that section of wall. It looks like part of a hallway there, with a picture on the wall.
Today, Gerard and Trask take Ben Stokes’ diary to the Old House basement and leave it there, apparently. Fifty-seven years later, in episode 755 (May 1969), Dirk Wilkins finds the book behind the Old House secret bookcase. I guess at some point Barnabas brought the book upstairs and stored it in the secret room, assuming this is the same timeline, about which who even knows.
Tomorrow: How I Long to Be Wrong.
— Danny Horn