Monday, September 11, 2006

You Are Entering My Darkplace

As further proof that TV programmers hate quality, the Sci-Fi Channel, which had acquired the six-episode run of GARTH MARENGHI'S DARKPLACE, aired it in weeks past, and appeared to be gearing up for another cycle through with a repeat of the first episode two weeks ago, has pre-empted it for the two weeks since. Its website still lists the show's airtime as Sunday at 12/11pm Central. This is a damned lie. Given this, and the fact that even the British DVD is some ways away (possibly next year), this is the worst possible time to blog about a show that my readers have no way of seeing, but the Great Content Drought continues (seriously, do you folks want to read ANGEL reviews starting from halfway through the second season?), so just bookmark this and save it for when the Sci-Fi Channel comes to its senses or the DVD is released, whichever comes first.

Back in the 1980s, visionary horror writer Garth Marenghi created DARKPLACE, a unique horror/sci-fi drama about supernatural happenings at Darkplace Hospital, and the efforts of Dr. Rick Dagless (played by Marenghi himself) to unravel the place's ominous mysteries. The series was too controversial and daring and innovative to see the light of day, and only now is Marenghi sharing his lost treasure with us, complete with commentary from himself, Dean Lerner, the show's co-star and producer (as well as Garth's press agent, manager, and publisher), and actor Todd Rivers, who played the young, handsome-but-not-as-handsome-as-Dagless Dr. Lucien Sanchez. (Madeline Wool, who played lady psychic Dr. Liz Asher, has sadly disappeared and is presumed dead.)

All of that was a lie. GARTH MARENGHI'S DARKPLACE is a mix of comedy and metafiction, presenting a particularly cheap and goofy 80s horror series alongside self-aggrandizing commentary from its self-absorbed creator. Garth Marenghi is actually Matthew Holness, who wrote the show with director Richard Ayoade, aka Dean Lerner. Alice Lowe, who plays Madeline/Liz, is alive and accounted for. I think. And so on. In some ways the game is obvious- the plots are too silly, the bad effects too obvious, and of course Dagless has an emotional song number in one episode. But it is remarkable how much care has been taken to make the illusion work- the character's costuming and hair give them the perfect retro look, the film itself has been mucked with to look like it was recorded in the proper era, and at least half the dialogue is poorly ADR-ed in. Half of the joy of the show is just the nostalgic authenticity of it- though "Darkplace" itself is crap, one could easily imagine a good show being made in the same era with the same premise, reflecting a bygone dramatic sensibility. Personally I can't get enough of this sort of thing- I don't see why we had to stop making 80s drama shows just because the 80s themselves ended, or why I can't go to the cinema now and see a completely new 1956 B-movie. With digital grading it all finally seems possible (though the actual DARKPLACE was apparently quite expensive to make for this very reason, which may be why we've only got the six episodes. Marenghi hints there may be more yet unfound.)

If that's not won you over, the real hook of the series is basically how it's all one man's power trip. Marenghi is never short on praise for his own talent, preferring to call himself a "dreamweaver" or visionary, and carefully explaining how every episode is an important social statement of some kind or another. In the show itself, Dr. Rick Dagless is the ultimate Mary Sue, strong, brilliant, handsome, tortured, and admired by everyone around him. Garth Marenghi's power trip is quite fun to watch, and honestly, downright insightful. All authors, myself included, have to have a bit of the pretentious self-aggrandizing prat to us; we have to be able to convince ourselves on some level, however subconscious, that our scribblings are vitally important to the future of mankind. Otherwise we'd ditch the whole trade and play Nintendo. There's something alluring about entering, as Marenghi puts it, "the world of my imagination"- the place where we're in charge. He's just not as good as hiding it.

Of course, on a final level, the thing's damn funny. The actors deadpan so effectively as to make nearly every other line a laugh-getter, and Marenghi's ramblings contain several gems (at one point he takes credit for his twin daughters not eating each other.) The humor is verbal, physical, subtle, broad, sexual, scatological, whatever works- it's not so much a "bad taste" kind of program as one where bad taste manifests when necessary (though this may be the reason Sci-Fi airs it so late to start with.)

In some ways it's appropriate that a show about a lost and obscure program should be itself so damn hard to get to see. Not that I don't desperately crave more, but maybe this gives us time to reflect and get in touch with our inner Marenghi-ness. I hope to see more of Darkplace very soon. And I hope Ms. Wool shows up safe and sound, though hope grows fainter every year.

[Additional info at Save Darkplace]

1 comment:

Matt said... is still offering the pilot episode for free on the website. For those who've never heard of the show, it's worth checking out.
I discovered Darkplace on SciFi this summer and thought it was the funniest thing I've seen in a longtime. Everytime I tell people about it, though, they just don't get it. Their loss, I guess.