Monday, August 6, 2012

Welcome to the Beginning (and the End) of the World

A look back at the first episode of DARK SHADOWS

It's hard not to love Victoria Winters, at least in the early days of DARK SHADOWS. Yeah, she's not the sexiest character on the show, at least from an actor's perspective. The writers maintained her fragile innocence by divvying the better dialogue and dramatic confrontations to the rest of the cast. This practice last just long enough for actress Alexandra Moltke — and, perhaps, the audience — to lost their patience with the character. After a while, Victoria stopped looking na├»ve and started looking kinda stupid.

But that wasn't the case when DARK SHADOWS launched on June 27, 1966. Winters was a blank slate by design and saw the world with a childlike, if reserved, sense of wonder. She was such a sweetheart that the writers almost immediately that the easiest way to establish a villain on DARK SHADOWS is to have them act nasty to Victoria.

The "pilot" for DARK SHADOWS is one of the most complexly staged episodes of the entire series. The number of locations in this short, 22-minute episode is staggering, especially when you consider the amount of exposition that had to be transported from script to screen in such a short amount of time. We see two locations for the "Foundling Home" in New York, a train car, a train station, the lobby and diner of the Collinsport hotel, Collinwood, The Blue Whale and a handful of pre-filmed location shots.

And there's more at work in the set design than mere carpentry. We're introduced in the opening shot to Moltke as Victoria Winters, a woman with no clear past or future, her reflection looking back at the audience from the darkened window of a train as it speeds through the night. You'll see Vicky's reflection quite often in this episode, and it's this "second" Victoria Winters that she's come to Collinsport to find. It's an idealized version of herself, one that has a material connection to the world through her absent family.

Winters hopes she'll get these answers from her mysterious benefactor, Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, who has offered her the job of governess for her brother's son. Victoria can't imagine why a stranger from another state would offer her a job she hadn't applied for, and rightfully assumes that the two mysteries in her life actually one mystery. Adding fuel to her suspicions: Stoddard's home is a short drive from the place where Victoria was abandoned as a child.

The identity of Victoria's parents is a plot point plot that has confounded the nature of DARK SHADOWS since the very beginning. Her background is never adequately explained in the original television series, and even became a dangling plot point in the Marilyn Ross DARK SHADOWS novels. When Victoria was added to the cast of the 1991 "revival" series and the 2012 movie, neither production seemed to know what to do with the character. While considered an essential element of DARK SHADOWS, Victoria became a narrative loop of frustration for DARK SHADOWS fans.

In June, 1966, though, Victoria was still our heroine. And her mysterious past isn't the only unanswered questions posed in the first episode of the series.

Arriving on the same train as Victoria is Mitch Ryan as the show's first anti-hero, Burke Devlin. Looking a little like the unholy offspring of Lloyd Bridges and Aaron Eckhart, Devlin has a dark mission in Collinsport that somehow involves the Collins family. Meanwhile, Elizabeth's brother, Roger, really doesn't want Victoria in Collinwood. Introduced to the series while pouring his trademark glass of brandy/sherry, it's strongly hinted that Roger's motives for wanting Victoria to fuck off have little to do with his love of privacy.

Along for the ride (and to provide ominous exposition) is Katheryn Leigh Scott as waitress Maggie Evans, who manages to look quite lovely even while capped with a horrible blonde wig. Having seen the series all the way through (twice), this brassy version of Maggie looks and sounds a little alien. It's odd that the producers thought audiences would be confused by having two brunettes share the screen, because Scott and Moltke have nothing in common beyond relative age and hair color.

The episode ends on an ominous note, as Victoria crosses the threshold into Collinwood, met by black widow Elizabeth Collins Stoddard. The final scene (hell, the entire episode) is Mythology 101 and one of the reasons why DARK SHADOWS continues to resonate with fans all these years later. Collinwood isn't meant to be a real place: It's a symbol of the unconscious mind, a place of magic and monsters where Victoria has the chance to discover her "true self." DARK SHADOWS is a 1,225-episode dream sequence that is more beholden to the imagination than to logic, as is the case with any good nightmare.

While Victoria's mystery is never solved on DARK SHADOWS, producers eventually merged the characters of Victoria Winters and Maggie Evans, with the former waitress moving to Collinwood and assimilating Winters' role as governess (and, consequently, her identity.) If Victoria's reflections are symbolic of her true self, then Maggie is another reflection looking back at her. Fans of MULHOLLAND DR. ought to appreciate the idea the narrative doppelgangers.

Goddamn, I wish DAVID LYNCH had directed  the DARK SHADOWS movie.


Sandi McBride said...

Loved this treatment of DS...I often felt like slapping Vicky...hard...she's the stupid heroine on the screen in the darkened movie theatre that half the audience is screaming "RUNNNNN" at with the other half rooting for the monster...they really want that gal dead...good work!

Unknown said...

Great idea and a great first installment. Am looking forward to more!

BT said...

I loved these early episodes and adore Victoria Winter's character as played by the elegant, charming Alexandra Moltke. She was definitely a clone of Joan Bennett. They fit perfectly together.
Love KLS, but she lacked the elegant quality that Alexandra had IMO. And I thought Alexandra was the better actress. Just my opinion.
Thanks for doing this!

Unknown said...

I wish it to be noted that Elizabeth looks very different in the Pilot, than in any other episode. Her dress is very low cut and much more flamboyant than any other time. There is such mystery and intrigue to her character, from the pilot. In a way, I'm very disappointed how they rather "Modernized" her character--she later comes off much more grounded--and less of the eccentric, bejeweled widow.

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