The 1980s was perhaps the dawn of the TV action star. Between Magnum, P.I., Knight Rider, and MacGyver, it might have felt like there was no room for anyone else. However, as much as Thomas Magnum, Michael Knight, and Angus MacGyver kicked ass, Dr. Rick Dagless M.D. kicked just a little bit more.
Dr. Rick Dagless M.D. is the protagonist of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, a show from the mind of visionary horror author Garth Marenghi. Set in the Darkplace Hospital, Dagless (Marenghi) must fend off the hospital’s supernatural happenings with the help of his buddy, Dr. Lucien Sanchez (Todd Rivers), their boss Thornton Reed (Dean Learner in his acting debut), and colleague Liz Asher (Madeleine Wool). While the series never made it to air due to its content — ranging from bloody, gutsy monsters to controversial themes — Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace may just be more relevant than ever.
While Marenghi is best known for his shocking horror stories, Darkplace has a surprising amount of heart to it. While Rick Dagless stands among the great stalwart TV action heroes, he is also very damaged. The shots he fires from his magnum are only as strong as the emotions in his heart. I’d be remiss to spoil just what causes Dagless’s pain, but it is as heartfelt and genuine as any modern show. Breaking Bad who? Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, that’s who. If it were not for the fact that these episodes were believed lost, I would assume that most modern television was influenced by the emotional dialogue and music of Darkplace. There is hope yet, however, that shows can take from Darkplace’s ahead-of-its-time approach to storytelling that combines action, horror, and feeling. While Marenghi is a horror author first, human being second, his dabbling in the erotica genre clearly paid off.
Marenghi’s performance would mean nothing if the rest of the cast didn’t bring their A-game, however. Todd Rivers is excellent as the cool-as-ice Dr. Sanchez, in a way acting as the Robin to Dagless’s Batman. Sanchez brings an element of fun and humour that balances the dark, tragic baggage Dagless carries throughout the show. Then, of course, there is Thornton Reed, played by Marenghi’s real life publisher and producer, Dean Learner. It would be easy to get skeptical upon hearing that about Learner, but upon his first spoken lines your worries will immediately quell. Reed (with the help of his trusty shotgun) often brings a level of stability to the crew, best exemplified in a climatic motorcycle chase in the episode “The Apes of Wrath,” though I won’t spoil beyond that. It is truly a scene that must be seen to be believed.
Included in each episode is commentary from Marenghi, Learner, and Rivers, who each give their own insights into how these supernatural scenes were brought to life. There are even the occasional funny anecdotes, such as when Learner talks of punching an actor who insulted Marenghi’s writing. Learner’s level of dedication is apparent in all of the actors. A show such as this could only truly be made by a crew who wholly believed in the material. I would not recommend watching Darkplace without the commentary, as it adds a new, essential element to the original show.
A horror show such as this is only as strong as its special effects, and these are truly next level, especially considering the time it was produced. Whether it’s a body split into pieces or sentient office supplies, there really isn’t any effect too daunting for production company Deanamatronix. (Note: I tried to reach out to Deanamatronix for a quote, but received no response.) Horror media made around this time was often beyond hokey, but Darkplace shows that it’s not about how many special effects you have, it’s how you use them. When you find yourself crying from the actions of a one-eyed baby monster, that’s a special effects artist doing what they do best: creating effects that not only affect the mind, but the heart.
It is hard to keep raving about this forgotten ‘80s gem without spoiling too much, as only six episodes have been released since its rediscovery in the early 2000s. Much like Thornton Reed’s trusty shotty, you yourself can shotgun these episodes in two or three hours. Better yet, they’re all available on YouTube, including the cast commentary. It is a cliché nowadays to call something a “forgotten gem,” but considering it never actually aired, I feel justified in saying that Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace is not only a forgotten gem of the 1980s, but is the forgotten gem of the 1980s. So, the next time you’re remembering your favourite ‘80s action stars — not just from TV, but any medium — don’t forget the unsung hero, Dr. Dagless: doctor, soldier, father, poet, hero.