Monday, October 19, 2020

The Dark Shadows Daybook: Oct. 12

Taped on this date in 1969: Episode 871 


As Angelique explains how she made Barnabas a new man, Charles Delaware-Tate reluctantly shows Count Petofi the proper way to ‘69. Count Petofi: David Selby. (Repeat; 30 min.)

Kitty Soames manifests the spirit of Josette to such an extent that she and Barnabas seem nearly reunited, and it feels so good, perhaps because Barnabas understood. But what? That, Angelique explains when she tells Quentin how she faked Barnabas’ staking by creating a duplicate of him while she cured the other of her own curse. Meanwhile, Petofi forces Charles Delaware-Tate to throw the I Ching wands, and the 49th hexagram at last appears, taking the artist into visions of 1969. Petofi now knows how to transport himself there, and he roars with triumphant anticipation of his destiny in the future.

871 makes me appreciate just how elaborate Dark Shadows actually is. It also makes me wish the rest of the show were more like 871. There is not one frame of subtlety to be found. Even if the line delivery is occasionally muted, the writing is not, and it makes me appreciate Sam Hall and Gordon Russell all the more. The episode’s writer, Violet Welles, was their amanuensis -- Barnabas taught me that word -- and by just inhaling the creative fumes coming off their conversations and creations, she may be the show’s best writer and secret weapon. 

And she doesn’t have time for nuance. Sometimes, god love ‘em, Sam and Gordon had the other characters in prior episodes suck the wind out of the series with talk-talk-talk. That’s what happens when you fill ten weeks of programming with ten hours of actual plot. Because, perhaps, she had fewer shots at being produced, Violet Welles is a writer who’s got a lot to accomplish, thank you. And if anyone opens their mouth around here, it had better be to advance the plot or FINALLY explain what in Sam Hall is going on over at the Old Mill at this time of night. 

This episode is almost all payoff. Sam and Gordon were wrapping up 1897, the show’s finest hours of entertainment and imagination, with a length of nearly 175 episodes. That’s almost the duration of the entire series before Barnabas was introduced. They (and the other writers) must have been led staggering out of their office to this “day off.”  I can see interns putting little capes on them like James Brown’s pit crew helping the equally spent legend off stage at the end of a concert. They were probably led to typewriters elsewhere to keep working on House of Dark Shadows’ latest draft. 

This isn’t the last episode of 1897, but it’s awfully close. Might as well be. Violet’s assignment must have been a bittersweet compliment. To get that far, and then hand it over to someone else? Was there envy? Pride for a colleague? Relief? All of those things are probably too interesting. It was probably just business. It’s very easy to gaze at art on a deeper level than the artist ever did. “Theatre,” I was told, “is art. Television is a piece of furniture.” 

That was a truism within the tv business, itself. For Sam, Gordon and company, it was more than likely another day at a good gig, one that fans liked far more than they did. And how can we not with 871? It begins by rooting us in the core mythos, and giving our hero what he’s wanted since we met him: Josette. Yes, okay, she’s supposed to marry Edward, but, well, Edward’s no Jeremiah. And, yes, she’s having flashforwards to being Kitty again. That’s pork chops and applesauce compared to barriers that Barnabas has faced before, including sending his soul backwards by nearly a century to be intentionally trapped in a sealed coffin. But even the few lines of happiness we see are an emotional banquet we’ve wanted for nearly five hundred episodes. Barnabas isn’t the only one who’s been waiting. 

The big news follows right after, which is the narrative of how Angelique both cured Barnabas of vampirism and arranged for him to be staked... without causing him actual harm. It’s a monologued montage that deserves a Lalo Schifrin score, and Lara Parker walks away with it. Unusual for Dark Shadows, it includes flashback pieces featuring the actors who are, themselves, in the narration. Normally, DS takes us behind the magician’s curtain very early on. We’re on Team Monster. In this case, we’ve been sitting in the audience with the rest of Collinsport. 

It’s a whackadoodle plan involving a Doppelganger created by doubling Barnabas in a mirror -- literally through the looking glass. It’s a nutzo piece of fantasy fluff, but it works because Lara Parker sells it with her trademark, passionate sincerity. That, and… when I hear New Age people who pitch the woo to me, their descriptions of what they do are always vague. When I ask them to break it down, they castigate me for expecting something like a scrying mirror to behave like a household appliance. Jeez. Sah-ree. Somehow, the dreamlike logic of Angelique’s plan makes as much, if not more, sense. It’s like something narrated by my subconscious as I slip into sleep, and has a sense of realism that is undeniably true because it makes a very specific type of credible nonsense. That, and it’s a technique they used on Laura Collins months earlier, giving it verisimilitude without letting us know it’s Chekhov’s Doppelganger. It’s a strangely cruel plan. I’m never confident about the peaceful passing of the staked double, and every time I watch The Prestige, The Great Danton’s cruel sacrifice reminds me of this. No wonder that Barnabas is relatively unphased by things like his upcoming trip to 1796. At this point, he’s been several types of dead… and that’s his least-troublesome set of experiences of late.

This is only in the first half of the episode, mind you. Petofi has had it with hanging around Collinwood. The Old Mill is clammy, it’s fun to be David Selby, and the future awaits. When he gets Delaware-Tate to throw the wands, he gets instant results as to which-way-to-1969. It’s amazing what a competent stooge can accomplish after suffering years bungling incompetents. (Just ask Barnabas after he put Carolyn on the staff.) In an episode where Barnabas experiences the most romantic fulfillment he’s had in three timelines and Angelique describes the most amazing occult caper in Dark Shadows history, leave it to David Selby to walk away with the ending. As Petofi, future bound and claiming that nothing will stop him, Selby brings a maniacally grand sense of emotional oomph that makes the Ring Cycle feel as important as the “Chicken Tonight” jingle. There are moments in drama so, let’s face it, shamelessly overwrought that they cannot be resisted, only embraced. Most mortal actors would have mugged their way through it with shamed insincerity, bellowing to Just Get It Over With. But Selby is a poet with a native sense of integrity and wonder. His loyalty to storytelling is too great and too real, and he nails the unadulterated joy of pure evil with a zestful energy I’ve rarely seen. In that moment, he is a living Marvel Comic book… reason, emotion, and passion completely bound together. 

And to the credit of both Selby and the originator of the role, we somehow don’t feel as if Thayer David is upstaged. On this particular stage, it is a spiritual collaboration of beautiful and perfect unity. These men were as opposite as the Trylon and Persiphere, and in Count Petofi, with the tight poetry of Violet Welles, there is suddenly no difference at all.

This episode was broadcast Oct. 27, 1969.

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