Because I began writing for this website after the first series of full-cast Dark Shadows audios was released, my previous reviews have dealt with Big Finish’s line of dramatic readings. I often complained that those stories had nothing to offer but simple, slow-moving plots and heavy doses of repetitive melodrama. The same is true of the new storyline, Kingdom of the Dead, but because it’s a four-hour, full-cast experience with more than a dozen characters, these flaws are less serious, no more of a disappointment than they are when they crop up in the television series itself. Kingdom of the Dead is a well-structured, well-acted piece of traditional Dark Shadows storytelling that fans of the series will certainly want to check out.
In the aftermath of the sinking of the Lorelei, Quentin and Barnabas have found themselves in a place that even the long-lived werewolf and vampire can’t fully understand. Who is Seraph, and what does he want with them? Angelique is, as ever, determined to find Barnabas and be reunited with him, no matter the cost. Meanwhile, Maggie Evans has discovered Barnabas’s secret, and must go into hiding for her own safety. But is the onetime haven to which she has returned even more dangerous than Barnabas?
Kingdom of the Dead follows directly on from that first series of full-cast audios, and since I haven’t heard those plays, certain aspects of this storyline aren’t clear to me. I’ve no idea why Barnabas has a new body, apart from the outside-the-box answer that Jonathan Frid didn’t want to reprise the role. Nor do I know why Big Finish elected to cast an actor who sounds nothing like Frid, and plays Barnabas in a very different way. I’ve got nothing against Andrew Collins, who gives a fine performance; it’s just that there’s something strange about hearing the established Angelique, Willie, and Maggie interacting with a new Barnabas. This isn’t a problem, exactly, but it is a bit of a distraction. There’s another instance of recasting, an equally necessary one that I can’t describe because it gets into spoiler territory; it too is distracting despite the skill of the performer in question.
As for the familiar regulars, they acquit themselves as well as ever. I’ll admit that I sometimes have trouble telling Lara Parker and Kathryn Leigh Scott apart when they have scenes together, but it’s only because they have such lovely voices and bring a similar forcefulness to their characters. John Karlen and David Selby, of course, have much more distinctive sounds, and both tread the line between drama and melodrama without crossing it more than is appropriate for Dark Shadows. Other cast members I particularly admired were David Warner as Seraph and Lysette Anthony as Dr Rankin, playing two very different but equally creepy antagonists.
The fact that it has two different antagonists is the major flaw in the structure of Kingdom of the Dead. There are two separate plotlines, one of which is central to Parts One and Four, the other to Parts Two and Three. The two have nothing to do with each other; they just happen to occur at the same time. In an ongoing televised soap opera, multiple narrative threads are an occupational hazard, but given the planning time the audio drama format allows, a tighter story ought to have been possible. A minor issue, perhaps, in the scheme of things, but it rankles.
I should mention that, having been provided with a copy of the box set version of Kingdom of the Dead, I listened to all four parts in the course of a single day, and that my enjoyment of the storyline is based on that. I have a feeling that if I had been hearing it over a longer span of time, the slow development of the plot would have become annoying. These aren’t separate plays with distinct plots, which is presumably why, unlike the four parts of the first series, they don’t have individual titles. The reason the leisurely pace doesn’t become a problem during continuous listening is that the scripts balance the different characters and their various relationships so well that time passes quickly, and it isn’t easy to notice that all people have done for the past half hour is reiterate what’s already happened and worry about what might happen next.
When the big dramatic moments do come, Big Finish’s excellent music and sound design make them much more dynamic and exciting than 1960s television ever could have. A major part of the success is that they don’t go over the top: the music is (comparatively) subtle, and the sound effects are spooky rather than ostentatiously horrific. I particularly admire the cliffhanger to Part Two, in which two separate scenes are played simultaneously, cutting back and forth and delaying the climax of each, to great effect.
There are no novel themes or moments of character development, of course. Quentin is still doomed to immortality and fear of the beast within, Angelique still loves Barnabas, Barnabas still doesn’t love her back. All three of them are still torn between good and evil. Fortunately for the listener, the script doesn’t belabor these points as some of the dramatic readings have. It’s likewise fortunate that the script largely avoids the cliche-ridden dialogue of some of those releases, although there are a few stock lines like “We don’t have any other choice!”
I was underwhelmed by the resolution of the storyline. It didn’t match the scale of what had come before, and while I appreciate that the writers may have hoped to do something that was effective in a quieter way, there isn’t enough at stake for such an approach to succeed. The execution of the sequence, which revolves around a familiar dilemma, isn’t particularly involving. However, the last few minutes, which set up certain elements of a future series, are fun, especially the final cliffhanger. It’s so ludicrously melodramatic that I ought to have been rolling my eyes, but by that point my cynicism had been worn down, and I simply enjoyed it. Full-cast series are definitely the way to go with Dark Shadows audios, and while I’m sure getting all the actors together poses no small challenge, I hope it won’t be another three years before a follow-up to this storyline appears. If it does take that long, I can only hope that the result will, like Kingdom of the Dead, be well worth the wait.
Kingdom of the Dead (by Stuart Manning, Eric Wallace; starring David Selby, Lara Parker, Kathryn Leigh Scott, John Karlen) was released by Big Finish Productions in July 2010.