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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The coming (and going) of Shadows

Some four months ago I indulged myself in a reminiscence of one of my favorite television series of all time, Dark Shadows. At that time, I promised that I would be writing more about that series and why I think it such a classic for all time. But I have been biding my time before taking up the topic again. I have been waiting for just the right time, when I could devote the subject all the attention it deserves, when the creative juices were at their peak so that I could do this consummate bit of video literature justice. In other words, I was waiting until I ran out of other things to write about. Well, that time has come.

The good news is that Dark Shadows isn’t just a memory for strange old people like myself. Thanks to the magic of cable and satellite television and the myriad channels they have spawned, there is bandwidth for Dark Shadows to play continuously forever. The last time I checked, it could be seen once or twice daily on the Sci-Fi Channel, a contribution to culture and humanity that almost (but not quite) makes up for the fact the same channel has fallen short in the case of another one of my favorite programs of all time, Babylon 5. In January Sci-Fi made lots of friends in the B5 fan community by running the made-for-television movie (take a breath) Babylon 5: The Legend of the Rangers—To Live and Die in Starlight, which was a potential pilot for a new B5 series. Not only were B5 fanatics getting two more hours of a story in the B5 universe, there was the possibility of a whole new series, which could possibly lead, or so we all hoped, to a revival of the aborted Babylon 5: Crusade series. Life looked good for B5 aficionados, and it was all because of the Sci-Fi Channel.

But then there was a plot turn worthy of the original B5 series’ fourth season. Random chance caused B5:TLofR—TLaDiS to be aired the same night as some play-off game that apparently seemed important to a lot of people at the time. The ratings weren’t great, as a result. Then Sci-Fi released its new schedule and it did not contain any mention of Legend of the Rangers. There was some kind of statement that Sci-Fi was “moving away from outer space shows” because, after all, what could outer space have to do with science fiction? Suddenly, Sci-Fi’s name was dirt with the B5 crowd.

A typical comment was that the channel’s very name betrayed its lack of seriousness. A lot of people make the distinction between “science fiction” and “sci-fi.” The former, they say, is thoughtful fiction that, while depicting technology or events that haven’t actually occurred, sticks to things that are possible according to the known laws of nature. “Sci-fi,” on the other hand, more or less makes things up as it goes along, making no clear distinction between science and magic. As such, it is less deserving of respect. Personally, I’m not that hung up on the distinction. (Who’s to say what actually might turn out to be possible in a distant future?) But I am disappointed in Sci-Fi for not ordering more B5. On the other hand, they may have done us a favor. What if Legend of the Rangers had turned out to be really bad? That sort of thing could ruin the original series for all of us. That’s what some Star Trek fans say happened with Star Trek: Voyager. But you know what? I don’t care. I trust B5 creator J. Michael Straczynski enough not to screw it up. And, even if he did, it would be worth the risk just for the chance to see something really good.

Okay, so far this column about Dark Shadows has mostly been about Babylon 5. But that’s okay. Because I don’t have to wrap this up in one column. I have permission from the owner of the web site to continue this topic as long as necessary. So, Sci-Fi gets low marks for bringing us new stories in the Babylon 5 universe, but it still deserves a lot of gratitude for keeping the original B5 series alive as well as Dark Shadows. And what about bringing us new episodes of Dark Shadows? Wouldn’t that be better than watching the same old dated reruns over and over? Well, it’s been tried. Dan Curtis, who created the original series, actually did a prime-time updated version in 1991. It was cool to see the old series with much higher production values and plots that passed at a speedier rate than the old daytime version that had to drag things out interminably to fill up two and a half hours per week. But there three fatal problems with the 1991 version: 1) The casting of Ben Cross (of Chariots of Fire fame) as Barnabas Collins just wasn’t right. There was nothing he could to do to erase or even obscure Jonathan Frid’s classic depiction. The rest of the cast was pretty good, though, especially horror veteran Barbara Steele, as Dr. Julia Hoffman, and Lysette Anthony as the bewitchingly beautiful but evil sorceress Angelique. (Young David Collins, the family’s anti-Christ-like son, was played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who would go on to have a longer run on Third Rock from the Sun.) 2) They basically recycled the plots from the original series, so there was absolutely no suspense. In a genre where one of the main attractions is the element of suspense, this is not a good thing. 3) The series debuted at practically the exact moment that the Gulf War began, so no one was paying attention anyway.

So the 1991 version of Dark Shadows disappeared faster than a never-before-seen actor playing a drunken woman with an open bodice walking home alone from the Blue Whale Tavern late on a foggy night. Have there been any other attempts to do something like Dark Shadows again? Well, there is one soap opera currently on American daytime TV that has been compared to it. More about that next time.

-S.L., 13 June 2002

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