It took awhile for “Dark Shadows” to pick up a head of steam. When it was first introduced into the 1966 ABC daytime television line-up, “Dark Shadows” was all about Victoria Winters (Alexandra Moltke), an orphan to comes to the dark town of Collinsport, Maine to try to find out about her past . . . one that included ghost stories that were very real.

Because Moltke wasn’t a recognizable name, the soap opera got off to a slow start. But when the series introduced supernatural elements like ghosts, time travel, werewolves, witches and vampires—a first for daytime television—the audience share increased. When vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) became a main focus, the show really took off. Twenty million viewers watched the show at its peak.

When I first heard that MPI was releasing “Best of Barnabas” and “Fan Favorites” collections, my eyebrows raised higher than bats taking flight. How was it possible, I wondered, to take a series of 1,225 episodes that are joined together and which end with the standard soap-opera cliffhangers and come up with a representative sampling that will still make sense?

MPI tried to address that, with Lara Parker, who played the witch Angelique on the series, setting the table for each episode on optional introductions. But even at that, once you see Episode 221 and get into it, you’re not going to want to jump to Episode 349. What happened in between?

Maybe . . . just maybe someone can watch this DVD and pick up enough about “Dark Shadows” to claim cultural literacy and nod knowingly or take exception when the show is discussed (as no doubt it will be, given upcoming May 11 debut of the Tim Burton film starring Johnny Depp and Michelle Pfeiffer).

Naturally, that’s one reason why MPI is released these DVDs now. The other reason is to put them out there as teasers or samplers for people who think they might be interested in the pricy Complete Original Series collection (131 discs, 1,225 episodes, $600 SRP) but aren’t sure about committing, at that price.

So really, this promo isn’t of much use by itself—only as a tool to help fans decide whether they want to plunk down the cash for the complete series, or to enable them to talk quasi-intelligently about the series when the topic comes up.

And what will people say, besides “it’s campy”? Well, they’ll probably note the effective original music by Bob Cobert, and the limited use of lighting to create a solidly Gothic atmosphere. They’ll probably be able to appreciate how different this soap is from all the rest . . . but recognize that when all is said and done it remains a soap opera. The sets are unmistakably sets, the dialogue is stilted, the monologues are often long and slowly delivered, and there are more dramatic pauses than there are cobwebs in this spooky series. But people will be able to see how it’s easy to get hooked, especially from the first episode introducing Barnabas. The trouble is, then you want to see the next episodes . . . not skip forward.

Here are the episodes contained on this disc:

Episode 221 (May 2, 1967)—Waitress Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott) meets Barnabas Collins at the Collinsport Inn. She later feels as if someone is watching her.

Episode 349 (October 26, 1967)—An aged and withered Barnabas must seek a victim, but he cannot bring himself to attack Victoria Winters (Alexandra Isles).

Episode 418 (January 31, 1968)—In 1795, Josette (Mary Cooper) is drawn secretly to meet with Barnabas, who tries to resist baring his fangs to bite her.

Episode 535 (July 12, 1968)—After Barnabas forces Victoria to tell him her dream caused by Angelique’s curse, he is attacked by a bat.

Episode 703 (March 5, 1969)—Quentin Collins (David Selby) is suspicious when Barnabas introduces himself to the 1897 Collins family as a cousin from England.

Episode 718 (March 26, 1969)—In 1897, Angelique shows Barnabas a terrifying vision and Quentin attempts voodoo on Barnabas.

Episode 915 (December 29, 1969)—Barnabas is told that the Leviathans have Josette under their power and that he must cooperate with their plans.

Episode 982 (March 31, 1970)—In parallel time, Maggie realizes that Quentin’s son Daniel resents her. Will Loomis (John Karlen) chains Barnabas to his coffin.

Episode 1133 (October 29, 1970)—In 1840, Angelique, using the alias Valerie, causes Roxanne Drew (Donna Wandry) to collapse in front of Lamar Trask.

The first episode on this disc is in black-and-white, and the rest are in color. I have to say that some of the color episodes are in terrible shape, with blurred objects and figures and slightly washed-out color—though we’re not talking vampire pale. It’s presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio.

The audio is no great shakes either, a 2.0 Mono that at least is relatively clear of pop and hiss.

There are no bonus features apart from the episode introductions.

Bottom line:
This is the first DVD release I’ve run across in a long time that really doesn’t stand alone, but rather acts as a promo or teaser. And my rating reflects that. Unlike most “best of” TV series collections, this one features more loose ends than a bad haircut. It’s only of use for people who can’t decide whether to order the full collection, or for people who want to have some sense of what the old “Dark Shadows” was all about before the new movie hits theaters.