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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Second coming of shadows?

I am going to amaze you right now by reading your mind. You are going to wonder how I possibly could have known this, but here it is. You have been wondering why it has been so long since I have written anything about two of the greatest television series of all time, Dark Shadows and Babylon 5. Well, your wait is at an end. I will mention both this week.

There is currently a common thread between these two television programs. And that link, of course, is retired General Wesley Clark. Just as America’s security watchdogs monitor chatter from terrorist groups around the world, I am constantly monitoring chatter among the Dark Shadows and Babylon 5 communities. And I like to think that the intelligence I glean from this monitoring is every bit as reliable as what the U.S. intelligence community gathers.

The name of General Clark, who finally abandoned his quest for the White House the other day, surfaced a couple times in the recent past. Apparently, some radio disc jockey somewhere thought that Clark was a dead ringer (no pun intended) for Barnabas Collins, the long-suffering vampire at the heart of Dark Shadows lore. Personally, I don’t really see it. On the other hand, if he is still trying to run for president in 2204, I may have to consider it.

Clark’s name also came up in Babylon 5 internet discussion groups as soon as he declared his candidacy, entirely because of his surname. As loyal B5 devotees know well, a lot of the conflict of the B5 story is set in motion when a man named Clark becomes president. Of course, he is not merely president of the United States but of the entire earth. In the future period in which the series was set, the Bush administration’s worst fears have already been realized and there is one worldwide government. Clark moves up from vice-president to president when the elected president is killed in a suspicious space shuttle accident. From that point, earth becomes a repressive place, reminiscent of Nazi Germany. Needless to say, the theoretical possibility of America getting a President Clark sent a frisson through B5 fanatics. But this was merely a temporary diversion from the ongoing debate about whether George W. Bush is really our era’s President Clark or whether he is actually our John Sheridan, the man who leads an alliance of light against the forces of darkness.

Politics aside, there is exciting news in both the Dark Shadows. and .Babylon 5 worlds. On the B5 side, series creator and guru J. Michael Straczynski, who regularly communicates with fans via the internet, let it be known recently that he had a new B5-related project in the works. In his typically frustrating and cryptic Vorlon-like way, JMS said it was not a new series but that if one guessed it was for TV or the film medium, one wouldn’t be far off. Further information will have to wait for all paperwork to be signed and dated and officially announced. He did let slip one other detail: the initials B5:TMoS. That set off a flurry of speculation about what that could stand for. The guesses have ranged from the plausible (Babylon 5: The Movement of Shadows) to the silly (Babylon 5: Three Minbari on Survivor). We will just have to wait to see what it turns out to be. Personally, I would prefer to see the abortive spinoff series Crusade continued and completed. But, unfortunately, that’s not very likely.

At the same time, there seems to be new life as well in Dark Shadows. As I mentioned more than a couple of months ago, it has been announced that there will be a pilot made for yet another incarnation of the series, this time on the WB network. A primetime remake of the series (which originally ran on daytime TV from 1966 to 1971) was attempted in 1991, but it didn’t last long. The fact that its first episodes kept getting preempted by coverage of Gulf War I may have had something to do with it, but ultimately the result wasn’t particularly satisfying for either die-hard fans or for newcomers. For better or worse, this new version sounds as though it will be even farther removed from the original series. DS creator Dan Curtis will again be involved, along with John Wells, whose producer credits includes at least a couple of major hits, ER and The West Wing. The pilot is being written by Mark Verheiden, who has written for Smallville. If the pilot is picked up, a new Dark Shadows could be on the air in September.

The possibility of Dark Shadows on the WB raises some interesting prospects. This is, after all, the network that has given us series like Dawson’s Creek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the aforementioned Smallville. Kids, I don’t think this is going to be your father’s Dark Shadows. When I first heard that this was happening, I thought I might write a nice satire about what a WB version of DS might be like. You know, something where the characters are all changed into angst-ridden teenagers. But, before I got around to penning my parody, someone beat me to it. And that someone might actually the people who are producing the show.

Last November an alleged casting call for the new DS pilot began circulating on the internet. I have no way of knowing whether it is authentic or not, and with the internet it is always safer to assume a hoax. But, still, there is something plausible about it. For example, the pivotal role of Barnabas who, as played by Jonathan Frid in the original series, was nothing but mature and chiseled, is described as “Handsome, 20-25 yr old slender/built Dark hair.” Angelique, the enchantress who put the curse on Barnabas, is depicted as “18-20 yr old, Hispanic… Bleach Blonde/Buxom & Sexually ‘loose.'” Professor Stokes, who was played by avuncular Thayer David in the original, becomes “Handsome, Late 20‘s.” It sounds like a joke, but given the known mindset of television programmers, I can just about believe it.

Despite my cynicism, I actually feel that the more the change the series, the better chance it will have for success. The problem with the previous remake was that it followed the original a bit too closely. People not already familiar with Dark Shadows were probably a bit confused. The die-hard fan base was merely reminded how much they missed the original. Smallville has succeeded because it has totally re-imagined the original Superman/Superboy story. Dinosaurs like me who still think of Superman and Superboy as the way they were depicted in DC Comics back in the 1960s may be totally lost. But it may work better for the current generation, and isn’t that what’s supposed to happen to legends anyway?

* * *

Since I brought up DC Comics, I have to observe the passing of Julius Schwartz, who was the guiding hand at DC from the 1940s to the 1980s. Before that, he had promoted the careers of writers like Ray Bradbury, H.P. Lovecraft and Alfred Bester (who later received the ultimate honor of having a Babylon 5 character named after him). Schwartz was at DC for the so-called Golden Age of Comics and, it can be argued, saved the comic book superhero from extinction during the reactionary time of the 1950s, making possible the so-called Silver Age of Comics. Without him Superman and Batman might have gone out of print long ago, and there would have been no Justice League of America. Stan Lee and Marvel Comics took the genre farther in terms of creativity and quality, but there simply might not have been a Marvel Comics if Julie Schwartz hadn’t made superhero titles viable again.

-S.L., 12 February 2004

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