Tuesday, August 27, 2019

The Dark Shadows Daybook: August 27


Taped on this date in 1969: Episode 834

When Count Petofi appropriates Charles’ studio for a clandestine rendezvous with Edward, Charles is puzzled to learn that a beautiful portrait of Amanda Harris might ruin the mood. Petofi: Thayer David. (Repeat. 30 min.)

Charles Tate discovers the secret of his own power just as Petofi monopolizes his home to meet Edward and expose his knowledge of Barnabas as the vampire. Barnabas ventures forward, via the I Ching, to interview Quentin’s ghost about how he died.

Nothing defines swagger like Jonathan Frid, Thayer David, Grayson Hall, and Louis Edmonds, and 834’s I Ching wands glisten with a palpable mist of their testosterone. I have no idea how a show like this, with an episode like this, could be called a soap opera. “Supernatural drama” is more like it.  Or maybe just, “Dark Shadows,” because at this point, it defines itself. The swagger begins, though, with Roger Davis. And a bit before. 

The writers swagger, having established Charles Delaware Tate as the most powerful being in the universe. I would say more powerful even than Petofi. If the Count were that powerful, he would have given the abilities to himself. Tate is the perfect man for the job, however, because he is one of the people in the dark shadows universe least likely to want it. If Petofi has to choose a vessel for the power, let it be Tate. Roger Davis responds to the task with his most cerebral performance on the show. Most Davis characters are situational pugilists, dealing with very direct conflicts with high stakes and little time. Tate, however, is a man saddled with the ultimate existential realization of his chosen profession, art. It’s safe to live by manifesting imagination if that manifestation is only two dimensional. But the responsibility that he realizes here is beyond the infinite. Can he change a math equation? Would that make buildings rise or fall? Can he change the shape of a continent? Or eliminate the stars with a splash of black paint? Is he experiencing the ultimate liberation of an artist or the ultimate prohibition? Roger Davis captures this complexity with the deliberate economy of a Go master. No small feat. 

Petofi, of course, is Living Swagger, forging names and appropriating art studios to trap Edward. Edward returns the swag by both embracing and dismissing bohemianism And then staying even after he realizes it’s a trap. It’s the perfect embodiment of mechanized, Victorian thinking and propriety. When his worst enemy, Count Petofi, drops a dime on Barnabas, Edward should suspect that something is up. But Edward thinks like a reptile, with only a few up and down switches that give him very limited modes of very binary thinking. That only enhances his confrontation with the former Fenn-Gibbon, because Petofi is nothing but operational contradictions.

Best of all in this is Barnabas. Because he doesn’t have the power cosmic. He’s not the living embodiment of Victorian ideology. Early in the episode, he realizes that he must figure out how Quentin is going to die and how to stop it. Frid’s own actor’s terror here comes to the rescue, as always. It gives him a marvelously petrified millisecond of indecisive horror. Unlike any other TV hero of the era, he’s not a master detective. Barnabas Collins is largely the master of finding himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, making him more akin to the heroes of Easy Rider and Little Big Man than Mannix. Nevertheless, he must summon the inner Mannix and solve the problem in the most ludicrous way possible, by projecting his soul temporarily through time to his awaiting body so that he can chat with a lethal ghost who never talked, get him to discuss his own death, and then return to 1897 with the news. It’s ridiculous anti-thinking, tantamount to solving a Rubik’s Cube by switching around the stickers. It smacks of desperation.

It works.

Desperation births a strange willpower, and Barnabas may not be a master detective, but he’s no slouch at risking everything on insane ventures. It’s one of the benefits of being a living corpse who’s suffered every conceivable tragedy. The schemes he executes, especially in this era, work because of sheer chutzpah and the bravery one can only achieve through abject terror. At this point, the audience isn’t tuning in to feel afraid, but rather to see what someone else can do when fear is all they know… and fear for the right reasons.

This episode hit the airwaves Sept. 4, 1969.

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