Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Dark Shadows Daybook: November 14


Taped on this day in 1967: Episode 366

When a seance thrusts Vicki back in time to the year 1795, will she alter history or be its cause? Sarah Collins: Sharon Smyth. (Repeat; 30 min.)

Mid-seance, Vicki finds herself in front of the Old House in the year 1795, where she meets a youthful Barnabas and Sarah, all quite human. They mistake her for Sarah’s governess and bring her in despite her protests. She later meets a skirtchasing officer, Nathan Forbes, and Joshua Collins, who elects to hire her. 

1795. If you’re a real fan, you may not remember where you were when you heard that the show was headed there, but you might recall how you felt. 

For me, it was a unique kind of excitement, and it was when I knew that Dark Shadows offered something beyond a one-off, fluke experiment… that strangeness that was Barnabas Collins. Shows sometimes stumble onto something like that. This was a promise by Dan Curtis that for once, there was a program on which anything could happen. Legitimately. When learning about the strange series through Fangoria and oral tradition, the 1795 flashback was the first thing I discovered. In a world of endless franchise milking, this may be nothing special. But in 1967, just seven months after the appearance of Barnabas Collins, this was an insane thing to do. TV was largely devoid of costume dramas -- unless they involved chaps, leather vests, and masks. Oh, and they also did a lot of westerns. But Masterpiece Theater was still four years from TV. It’s one thing to do a costume party episode. It’s another to ask writers and audiences to abandon the narrative creature comforts of cars, phones, cigarettes, and hospital scenes. Fortunately, Dark Shadows kept these at a minimum, anyway. In planning this, I have a feeling that Dan’s main concern was if he’d have to hire a string quartet to play “#1 at the Blue Whale” at the Eagle. 

A study of the history of show business is a study in the word “no,” especially toward good ideas. The more familiar you are with this, the more extraordinary Dark Shadows becomes. It’s a net-free highwire act that defines itself by disregarding conventional wisdom. Every place that they could have played it safe, they didn’t. Even down to 1841 PT, where they threw out every known character, an act that mirrored the thinking behind Night of Dark Shadows. Did it kill the show? Maybe. But there would have been no show to kill without the very same thinking. A vampire on TV is incredibly bold. Taking that show to depict his origin, with an entirely new slate of characters in another time period? For months? That investment is programming suicide. Unless it isn’t. And it wasn’t.

The move makes the program crackle with novel possibility. Sy Tomashoff, as always, is to be congratulated. Sets designed to look ancient feel new… so new that the idea of Collinwood seems vaguely premature. They even sound new. It may be my imagination, but when Vicki enters Collinwood, it actually sounds like the door of an empty under-construction house nearing completion. If that’s just the power of suggestion, he deserves even more credit. The Old House seems spanking new, and heretofore unseen areas, such as Vicki’s bedroom, give the place a sense of new possibility and grandeur. At every turn, novelty. 366 gives us what we wanted for months, whether we knew it or not. Joel Crothers confirms our suspicions as he and the show take off the gloves and portray a (so-far) lovable cad with an aptitude for eyebrow-arching normally seen only by graduates from Starfleet Academy. At this point, he seems like a prime ally, if a little grabby, and that’s a solid set-up for a fall. Seeing Sarah alive and well is as unavoidably heartwarming as you’d imagine, and her vaguely psychic prognostication of Vicki is an eerie detail they vaguely avoid later on. I enjoy seeing a progressive take on Naomi and Joshua, in which she’s always encouraged to speak her mind, and Abigail is always present to accuse others of booziness and other shortcomings. 

The inevitable question is, “What about Barnabas?” 

Jonathan Frid goes into Buster Brown overdrive to sell his wide-eyed, naive, innocence. There are subtle notes of Eddie Haskell to his first exchange with Vicki… notes drowned out by his overall sincerity. Seeing Barnabas warmly lit and made-up, sans the empty and bitter loss that will define his future debut, is exciting and heartbreaking. Barnabas often has paranoid fears or prideful aspirations that seems out of touch with reality. And that’s after the change. Here, we see him with the same sense of baseless optimism. Like the audience of a Shakespeare tragedy, we know that this quality will lead to his downfall. Dark Shadows is rarely more bittersweet.

This episode was broadcast Nov. 20, 1967. 

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