Gothic Tales - The History of DARK SHADOWS

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Many properties in genre and Telefantasy are often compared to soap operas. Game of Thrones has been frequently described as a soap with blood and dragons, The X-Men is famous for its over-the-top relationship drama and so on. But in the vast halls of genre goodness, only one show holds the honour of actually starting out as a genuine soap: Dark Shadows.

The American series originally aired weekdays on the ABC television network. Though launched on June 28th, 1966, it wasn’t until 1967 that the vampires started to show up. Like many American shows, it focused on the trials and tribulations of a wealthy family; it this case, the Collins of Collinsport, Maine. Its formula of soap-style melodrama mixed in with a Gothic sensibility has led to its cult following, with fans still getting their fix of scenery-chewing paranormal romance thanks to audio dramas produced by Big Finish.

During its short five-year run, there were 1,225 episodes made of the classic series. It was low-budget and high drama, with the tone set to as melodramatic and as Gothic as the producers could manage. Plotlines involved witchcraft, time travel, alternate realities and possession. Characters included ghosts, werewolves, reanimated corpses and of course, various types of occult dabblers.

Many of the plotlines centre on the vampire Barnabas. Though the first year of the show featured supernatural and creepy family conspiracy style elements, once Barnabas is released from his coffin, he becomes pretty much the main character. Other characters attempt to cure him of his vampirism, get bitten or seduced by him, or even get sent back in time to witness his transformation into one of the undead.

The original run of the show ceased mostly due to changes in American advertising rules, which meant less revenue for the networks. This, combined with a sub-par Lovecraftian-style follow-up to a wildly popular storyline sounded the death knell for the show; although ABC did its best to wrap up the loose ends toward the climax.

Luckily for Dark Shadows fans, recordings of every episode bar one survived. The show has had the devil’s own luck, surviving various purges whilst in storage, narrowly avoiding a fate similar to early Doctor Who episodes. The series enjoyed some re-runs in the mid-seventies, but its real revival happened in the early ‘90s through to the noughties. The TV channel that now calls itself Syfy showed much of the series as part of its regular programming, making it enormously popular with Goths and general fans alike. 

The show’s longevity was also helped along by the shortly-lived 1992 show, Dark Shadow’s Revival. Best described as a ‘greatest hits’ of the original series, it crammed a lot of Barnabas storylines and plenty of witchcraft into twelve lengthy episodes. It’s a decent way to introduce fans to the series, and certainly a more superior route to Dark Shadows weirdness than showing them the 2012 movie, directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp as Barnabas and Helena Bonham Carter as Dr. Julia Hoffman, the family’s live-in psychiatrist. Though it’s fun in a high-camp Goth sort of way, it’s more a generic Depp/Burton/Bonham Carter movie than it is a take on the original show, leaning slightly more to farce-type movies than it really needs to.

The current incarnation of Dark Shadows that’s getting the most love from fans and those new to the series is the Big Finish audios. These tales are a continuation of the original TV series, with Big Finish acquired the license for the original show back in 2004. Whereas much of the action in the original series take place in the late ‘70s, the audios move things forward slightly to the next decade, giving the new stories some much-needed breathing space.

The audios have taken a comprehensive approach to the show, using original cast members throughout. The series kicked off with the occasional werewolf and all-round focus of bad news Quentin Collins returning to the town of Collinsport in the drama House of Despair, a haunted house tale, and continue onwards and upwards in that vein. Not only is it a pleasure to hear the original cast again, they all seem to relish their roles throughout. Most stories standalone extremely well, but each also stacks on top of each other. Like any good soap opera, one can dive in at any point, but you’re rewarded for loyal listening by being drip-fed some of the dark and dirty secrets of the town in a gradual manner.

The cast of Big Finish's Dark Shadows

We also recommend grabbing the Dramatic Readings, which expand on the original show’s storylines. It even makes the highly unpopular Leviathan storyline good, thanks to enthusiastic acting and clever rewriting.

Dark Shadows’ continuity is long and involved, much like any soap, but one of the joys of the new Big Finish audios is that they’ve kept the soap opera principles intact. This makes it effortless to jump with almost any show and immerse oneself in world of Gothic drama and things that go bump in the night.

Find out more about the audio series at BIG FINISH will be celebrating the DARK SHADOWS 50th Anniversary in June with a special release: BLOOD & FIRE.

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