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Has it really been 6 months without Dark Shadows?

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Apparently so – despite increasing in our own learned estimation as what was becoming a rather engaging forum for several ongoing single to multi-character story arcs, last July’s The Darkest Shadow appears to have closed down the original Big Finish audio series for good.  But it seems all is not lost…

Trying out some new avenues of creative approach, Big Finish actually goes the weekly route, releasing 2 individual episodes per week of this 13 episode “miniseries” to be collected in two more standard sets thereafter.

At this point, we’re past the halfway mark here in review land, and it’s becoming somewhat apparent as to why they chose to split the baby at this particular point…but we’ll try to stick to the more enjoyable and laudatorily worthy set one for now, and hope for things to turn around in the final five episodes.  But a word of warning: buckle your seat belts, because it’s looking like listeners may be in for a bit of a bumpy ride come set two

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With the arrival of a pair of newlyweds, the haunted Maine port of call bearing the name of its founding family falls into a tailspin of recurrent deaths, personal intrigue and group madness, led by a well meaning but deservedly monikered “Mad Maggie” Evans…

Wait…you mean Amy Jennings, long noted for her inner strength, has become a weak willed, domesticated housewife under the thumb of an unlikeable, tyrannical and somewhat shady Matthew (Adric) Waterhouse?  Despite the events of Fall of the House of Trask, there’s yet another member of that fanatically religious family around town…only he’s a hopeless drunk, and servant of a cave-dwelling Angelique?  Why is the Blue Whale’s new owner’s son talking to his dead wife at every opportunity…even in public?  Why has David Collins abandoned the family fishing and cannery industry for a mysterious mining operation?  And why has Beyond the Grave’s fallen star Kate Ripperton moved into town?

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As events begin to worsen on both an interpersonal and townwide scope, what at first seemed innocuous is revealed as more sinister than expected…and Maggie Evans’ harmless crackpot meetings for groupies of the supernatural down at the Blue Whale turn into something far more significant…and dangerous for the future of Collinsport…

Wow.  If you stop the train right here with episode six, I’d have to say that Big Finish really made the right decision here.  But as hinted at, come episode eight, some doubts begin to creep…only time will tell how this all works out in the end.

As much as I loved the adventures of Lara Parker’s Cassandra Collins & Jerry Lacy’s Tony Peterson, romantic occult detectives, the Colin Baker Nicholas Blair storyline or even the wonderful ongoing Jerry Lacy Gregory Trask denoument, it became apparent that the fine folks at Big Finish were on to something when they started building a more “modern”, ongoing story arc connected in some respect or another to the previous October’s excellent Beyond the Grave.

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With increasing prominence being given to Stephanie Ellyne’s strong willed student of the occult Amy Jennings and an increasingly fragile “Mad Maggie” Evans (original series veteran Kathryn Leigh Scott), more recent tales such as The Harvest of Souls (which melded the Blair and Grave storylines), The Happier Dead (which seemed to follow closely on from the events of Grave) and Carriage of the Damned (which followed on from Happier Dead) seemed less the prior series motif of unrelated but ongoing storylines in the lives of one or a pair of characters than a whole mise en scene whose events built on those of an episode or two prior, impacting more and more seemingly uninvolved characters as things went along.  In effect, it was like a soap opera, once again.

But all of that pales by comparison to this surprisingly fully fleshed out, amply casted short run series, whose sheer breadth of interweaving characterization and storylines builds a complicated skein worthy of a Dan Curtis Production.  One wonders, in fact, just how closely authors Alan Flanagan, Will Howells and Joseph Lidster studied at the feet of such men as Sam Hall, Gordon Russell and Art Wallace, so closely reminiscent are their efforts here to the original 1966-71 teleseries.

Without being overly nostalgic or quaint in any way, there is no question that, at least to judge by the first six episodes contained herein, this is the first time the Dark Shadows audio series really felt like the televised Dark Shadows – not in oft-impressive, individual character backstory-exploring parts, but as a living, breathing, integrated whole.

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While it’s hard to pick out specific performances of note in a cast quite so large and impressively arrayed, it’s almost without question that the standout performance here comes courtesy of a Lachele Carl, whose longsuffering yet warm hearted Sheriff Rhonda Tate must balance the needs of her community with single motherhood and the need to maintain logic, order and sanity in a populace driven to the atavistic level of an enraged mob by a series of unexplained killings around the much beleaguered town of Collinsport.

Further especially notable members of the cast are Asta Parry’s Kate Ripperton, with her somewhat unbalanced embrace of the darkness that destroyed her professional career (and compatriots’ lives), Jerry Lacy’s sympathetic yet turn-on-a-dime-into-madness drunken Isaiah Trask, Stephanie Ellyne’s always impressive Amy Jennings-cum-Cunningham and Lara Parker’s contemplative yet volatile Angelique, but there are few sour notes among a fittingly large assemblage of thespians both familiar (Lacy, Scott, Parker, David Selby’s Quentin Collins and Marie Wallace as current Blue Whale owner Jessica Griffin) and new (series guest and Doctor Who veteran Matthew Waterhouse, Carl, arguably the audio series regular Ellyne, Beyond the Grave’s Parry and a host of newcomers, all of whom acquit themselves admirably).

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These first six episodes of Bloodlust have been a real breath of fresh air, not only as a long awaited return to the shadows of Collinsport, but as a surprising improvement on a series that was already filled with some very enjoyable (and often quite impressive) moments.

Reaching back to the roots of what made Dark Shadows work all those years ago, the authors and performers have turned back the clock in a sense, bringing back all the pertinent bits and general template without painting themselves overmuch into the nostalgia corner.  This feels very much like a “present day” setting, while retaining all the elements needed to stir up that perfect storm the original series’ writers and performers gave to generations of fans, from their long lost original airdate straight through to the present day.

Kudos for an excellent job all around, with hopes of more like this to come.

 

http://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/dark-shadows-bloodlust-collected-episodes-1—7-1130

 

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