In a recent article in The New Yorker, David Letterman is credited with the aphorism “Buy the premise and you’ll enjoy the bit.”
First of all, a correction (I really should email them about this): Johnny Carson was saying “Buy the premise, buy the bit” long before David Letterman ever had a TV show.
However, the more interesting issue here is that I’ve recently become even more aware of how true this is, at least for me, with characters.
I talked recently about my lack of connection with most of the Marvel movie characters.
As I said, the movie (Endgame) offers much fan service. The middle third of the movie has most of the major characters traveling back in time to various different eras, thereby popping up in the middle of scenes from earlier movies in the series. I was only mildly engaged by this, and, based on what I’ve read online, I missed a lot of the references anyway.
But it occurred to me more recently that Endgame was not the first story I’ve enjoyed recently which used time travel in this way. Earlier this year, Big Finish released a new Dark Shadows audio serial called Bloodline. It starts in the present, with a huge cast (around forty actors playing around seventy-five characters), and in the middle section various characters are sent (involuntarily) back into the past — into earlier episodes in the series.
I enjoyed this tremendously, and in almost all of the cases I knew who the characters were and remembered at least some of their history and relationships. And some of the characters were never introduced by name — you had to recognize the voices.
Fan service can be much more rewarding when you’re actually a fan, and when there’s a good story.
Speaking of voices, the Big Finish website doesn’t list the actors for this story, because many are intended to be a surprise, but some are more surprising than others:
Barnabas Collins and his long-time friend Dr. Julia Hoffman are now living their lives in different bodies (original actors Jonathan Frid and Grayson Hall being dead), but at the end of this story they magically get their original bodies back, and their final scene is pasted together, and quite well, from scraps of dialogue from the TV show (there were over a thousand episodes of the show, so a lot of raw material was available).
That was very moving, and definitely wouldn’t have been the same if I’d been expecting it.
There were a couple of amusing father-and-son things in Bloodline, by the way (we’re now getting to the point where you may want to skip ahead to The Point — if you want).
1) David Selby played Quentin Collins on Dark Shadows back on TV, and still does on the audios, and Quentin was very fond of his nephew Jamison Collins, so much so that Selby named his own son Jamison. Jamison Selby has been on the Dark Shadows audios for a while, playing Ed Griffin, who runs the Blue Whale bar (and who hates Quentin Collins), but in the most recent story, in one of the past eras, he also played Jamison Collins. I’ll bet that doesn’t happen very often — that an actor plays the fictional character he was named after.
2) The previous story, Bloodlust (not to be confused with Bloodline) introduced a lot of new characters, including Cody Hill and his father Dr. Richard Hill. They didn’t have any scenes together (as far as I can remember) and they were played by the same actor, which works fine in audio. Probably made it more difficult in the newer story, though, since they did have scenes together.
3) Speaking of Cody Hill, here’s an inside joke that made me laugh:
Cody’s friend Jackie has decided that his nickname is “Eagle,” but nobody calls him that except her.
In the Bloodlust story, his last name is never mentioned, but we can assume it’s “Hill” because that’s his father’s name.
Which would make him “Eagle Hill,” according to Jackie.
“Eagle Hill” is the name of the town’s cemetery.
This joke is never explained. You have to figure it out.
Okay, now it’s time for the point.
I wrote before about being less than engaged by the fact that various characters died in Infinity War, since I knew they would come back. And they did, mostly. And then I got all snooty in the vein of: “I write mystery stories, which are better because when people die they stay dead” and so on.
But people die in Dark Shadows and come back. And, yes, you could make an argument that resurrection is more forgivable in a supernatural-based universe (Angelique, on Dark Shadows, has been alive and dead and alive again quite a few times over the last few centuries, and I wouldn’t have it any other way).
But, science vs. magic aside, the real difference is that I bought the premise — and the characters — of Dark Shadows back around 1969, so I’m on for the ride (and apparently there are enough of us that Big Finish can keep on pulling together all those tons of actors from time to time to make it all happen again).
It’s always a mistake to try to generate overall theories based mostly on your own personal preferences. My premise in the earlier post: “there’s no reason to care about what happens to characters if even death is temporary”?