Which reality do you live in?
The 2004 Canadian TV series Dark Oracle combined high school misadventures with supernatural freakiness. This one, though, doesn’t feature a teen girl who karate kicks vampires. Instead, it has the gimmick of animated comic book panels interacting with the live action characters.
The show ran for two seasons, and all 26 episodes are now on this three-disc set. Is it fun and exciting, like a trip to your neighborhood comic book store, or is it gloomy and disturbing…like a trip to your neighborhood comic book store?
One day after shopping for comic books, fraternal 15-year-old twins Cally (Paula Brancati, Degrassi: The Next Generation) and Lance (Alex House, Jane and the Dragon) discover they’ve brought home a comic they didn’t buy. The comic, called “Dark Oracle,” features twins Violet and Blaze, who share numerous similarities with Cally and Lance. The stories in the comic somehow are able to predict what will happen to Cally and Lance in the near future. Armed with future knowledge from the comic, our heroes must deal with ordinary teen crises, such as romance, bullies, and grades. In addition, they keep encountering the supernatural, as another, more sinister, reality bleeds into their own, like ink and color bleeding into the spaces between panels of a comic book.
I didn’t know what to expect from Dark Oracle, with its promise of mixing animation with live action. I feared it would be nothing but a gimmick show. Instead, I was happy to see that the show sticks to the story at hand, with the animation serving to move the plot forward. The show’s writers have created a fascinating fantasy world to play with, and it’s great to see it develop over two seasons.
The basic setup is that at the start of every episode, a new issue of the comic book mysteriously appears out of nowhere, giving our heroes a glimpse of their own future. As Lance and Cally act on their own futures, usually to prevent trouble from happening, the story in the comic changes to reflect what they’ve done. It’s kind of like Early Edition, but with a comic book instead of a newspaper—and with more black-cloaked evil necromancers.
During the first season, it’s mostly stand-alone stories. An episode guide would look like this: The big dance almost ends in disaster! The school fashion show almost ends in disaster! A paintball game almost ends in disaster! And so on. But with every episode, the world inside the comic book comes closer and closer to merging with the real world. This keeps things interesting, as each episode ends with the promise of complicating things even more for Cally and Lance in the next episode. This makes the show compulsively watchable—once one episode ends, you want to start the other one right away.
Just what sort of fantasy adventure are we dealing with here? There’s the “real world” and the “comic book world,” and the characters from the comic world badly want into the real world. Over time, the show’s writers come up with interesting ways for the two worlds to interact, and set things up so that the contact becomes less ambiguous and more direct as the series progresses. It starts as just a vague sense of a connection between the two, but then it’s gradually revealed that the characters in the comic are aware of the real world. This sets up a ticking clock, in which the two world get closer and closer with every episode. Skipping over the question of how any of this is possible, the big mystery is, what do Violet and Blaze want? It’s not until late in the season that we discover they’re not nice people, and Cally and Lance worry about the trouble to be caused if their doppelgangers ever escape from the printed page. Violet and Blaze are sympathetic villains, though. The glimpses of their world that we get through the comic show it to be always night, with gangs of scary mutants standing in for school bullies, etc. In one of their rare dialogue exchanges, Violet states that it’s not enough to see the world, she wants to “feel” it, which says a lot about the struggles these otherwise villainous characters are experiencing.
During the first season, in every episode, there’s a moment in which everything “goes blue” for lack of a better word. This is when, as the story reaches its climax, the lighting switches to an all blue scheme, going from normal colors to looking like something out of that movie Underworld. While everything is blue, all the characters except for Cally and Lance act differently, either exaggerated or with a more sinister tone. When reality switches from blue back to normal, there’s a brief moment of confusion, and then everyone except our heroes don’t realize something strange has just happened. What’s interesting is that this phenomenon is never questioned or even discussed by the main characters. You and I both know that it’s caused by the influence of the comic book world exerting itself onto the real world, but the show’s writers never take the time to sit viewers down and actually say that. Is that I good thing, in that it assumes the audience isn’t made up of idiots, or is it a bad thing, in that Lance or Cally never stop and say, “What just happened?” Either way, the blue effect doesn’t appear at all in the second season, and that’s too bad. I looked forward to these blue scenes. They have a real “David Banner’s eyes turn green” feel, in that when it happens, you know the really cool stuff is about to go down.
There are other powers at play in Dark Oracle. Lance and Cally’s connection with the comic brings them in contact with some odd characters who dabble in magic and the supernatural. This is where the above-mentioned black-cloaked evil necromancers come in. Their devilish dabblings provide our heroes with information they need to deal with the cursed comic, as well as serving as live action villains for them to square off against. I must admit, though, that the necromancer plots are the show at its cheesiest, but this is a cheesy fantasy show at heart, though, and they are integral to the story, cheesy or no. The best bad guy of the bunch is the character played by Kristopher Turner (Instant Star), whose identity I’m not going to spoil. Like Vern, you’re never sure just who’s side he’s on, but in his case it’s done right, and the story builds suspense whenever he’s around.
Lance’s love of all things geeky is what kicks off the action in the pilot. It’s his regular visits to the comic book store that first puts the magic comic in his possession. Lance is a “gamer,” which in this series encompasses everything from MMORPGs to tabletop games to paintball. Lance’s interests are what lead him to unlock the comic’s secrets, and he’s the one to jump into action whenever there’s a possibility to learn more about the unseen magic happening around him. Despite the character’s flirtations with the dark side, actor Alex House sells his earnestness and his desire to do the right thing, making for a nice hero for audiences to get behind. Lance has a nice, easygoing chemistry with his sister, too, which makes the wilder aspects of the show easier to swallow. I especially like the “Don’t hit!” running gag they share.
Cally, as the less-geeky half of the duo, is more concerned with school, friends, and, of course, boys than she is with comic books. When there’s trouble, though, she turns to the comic for some future predictions, and runs off to rescue her brother just as often as he runs off to rescue her. If Lance is the “action hero” of the pair, then Cally is clearly the “heart” of their team. She wants to be free of the burden of the comic, but she also cares enough about the people she encounters in her crazy adventures to want to help them. In addition to worrying about the magic and fantasy, Cally also pursues romance from a couple of hunky guys, struggles to maintain her loyalty to her best friend, and deals with numerous projects and activities at school. There are times when actress Paula Brancati went a little overboard on the “know-it-all teen girl on a rampage” shtick, but mostly she comes across as a nice “everygirl” for viewers to relate to.
As for the supporting cast, Danielle Miller (Corner Gas) stars as Sage, the offbeat girl who works behind the counter at the comic book store. She and Lance develop a romance as time goes on. Miller gives a quirky performance, and yet she does so naturally, as in it wouldn’t surprise me if she really is this outside-the-norm girl in reality than she is on the show. An episode late in season two had Miller playing two characters, and her turnaround really surprised me. Our comic relief is provided by Dizzy, played by Jonathan Malen (The Rocker). He’s your basic “goofball best friend” that always pops up in shows like this. There’s some attempt in season two to depict him as a more well-rounded character, but for the most part he’s here to make his customary few slapstick jokes per episode, and that’s it.
It’s with the other live action villains that things get a little sketchy. In the first season, we meet Doyle (Mark Ellis, Flashpoint), the comic shop owner, who keeps all kinds of mysterious secrets locked away in the store’s back room. In the first season, he’s genuinely menacing, as he desperately tries to keep Cally, Lance and the others from learning what he’s up to. In the second season, his arc takes an interesting turn, where he tries to reform his dark magic ways and turn his life around, ultimately becoming a good guy. The show’s other ongoing villain is Vern (David Rendall, Radio Free Roscoe), a goth classmate of the twins. Vern struck me as inconsistent. At times, he’s the stereotypical bully, pushing Lance around, while at other times, they seem to have this slight respect for one another. In the second season, Vern decides to take Doyle’s place as necromancer numero uno, and it doesn’t go well for him. The problem is that it’s hard to take Vern seriously as a threat when his pitiful attempts at being evil are his own undoing. Also, what sort of dark necromancer is named Vern?
I’ve heard that some folks are uncomfortable with the fact that the otherwise carefree teens in Dark Oracle do things like mess with tarot cards, attempt to cast spells, conduct weird rituals in graveyards, etc. This is a fantasy series, and scenes like this, cheesy though they may be, are integral to the fantasy plot. If the subject matter still bothers you, perhaps you should look elsewhere. For the rest of the parents and/or conservative types out there, the show is quite chaste when it comes to sexiness and violence, and I didn’t catch any references to alcohol or drugs.
All 26 episodes of the show’s run are on this three-disc set. The picture quality is slightly soft and the black levels aren’t as deep or rich as they could be, but in general there are no major flaws in the video. Same goes for the stereo sound. It’s not a booming, immersive track, but all the dialogue and music is clean and clear. For extra features, we get bonus episodes of Mona the Vampire and Treasure, two flaky-but-inoffensive kids’ shows, and a bonus feature film, Sally Marshall is Not an Alien. Made in 1998, the movie is about two kids who make a bet to determine if the strange family in their neighborhood is, in fact, not a bunch of aliens. Didn’t anyone teach these kids that it’s a lot harder to prove the negative? Like the bonus cartoons, the movie is light and inoffensive, though its slow pace might be a deal-killer for kids, not to mention their parents.
Dark Oracle isn’t the best TV show you’ll ever see, but it nonetheless knows how to entertain. For as much as it occasionally wallows in TV teen cheese, it also creates a cool alternate world that really draws viewers in. If you like your fantasy tales on the lighter side, check it out.