(with thanks to The Daily Show for the title)
I got into Buffy The Vampire Slayer relatively late in life. Looking back on the old site, I was saying as far back as August 12th 2000 that "I'm not particularly well up on matters Buffoid, despite one or two people insisting it's exactly the sort of thing I'd like." I jumped on board with season 5 in early 2001, caught up with a repeat of season 4 later that year, and I've been hooked ever since.
But even when I wasn't the sort of person who watched Buffy, I was always the sort of person who knew a lot of the sort of people who did, with The Belated Birthday Girl being the most prominent example. And it was her idea that we should mark the tenth anniversary of March 10th 1997, the day when the first ever episode of Buffy was broadcast in the US. Which is why I spent most of March 10th 2007 watching the entire first season of the show in one go, and the rest of the day trying to get my thoughts on it written up before midnight.
I've known plenty of other Buffy fans over the years, such as Smudge The Cat, Kenneth O'Lovee, and our old chum Suzanne Vega Fanclub. Suze was the one who wrote to the site on the subject back in August 2000, boasting about his lust for both Buffy's mum and for Willow. So, especially for him, this article starts off with a nice early picture of Xander, Buffy and Willow all together.
I'll just wait for Suze to stop screaming, and then I'll explain.
You may well be aware that the Buffy TV series was creator Joss Whedon's second attempt at the character. Whedon wrote a movie script around the concept back in 1992, which by all accounts got seriously mangled by its director and some of its actors on the way to the big screen. Five years later, he was the executive producer of a TV show of the same name, making sure that he had more control over the material this time.
What you may not be aware is that in between the two, Whedon directed a half-hour pilot show which never made it to air. Of course, thanks to the internet, it can be tracked down with a little intelligent searching: which is why we started our all-day Buffy binge with a copy of the pilot that I'd got off the web and burned onto a DVD. It's a fascinating experience watching the pilot back to back with the first episode of the series proper, because even though the first two-thirds of both have an identical storyline, there are some curious differences.
That storyline roughly follows on from the movie, with enough references to exploding gymnasia thrown in to make it work as a standalone story. Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) has just moved with her mum to Sunnydale, California, and is trying to fit in as the new girl in her high school. She feels more comfortable with the geekier kids in school like Willow Rosenberg (Riff Regan) and Xander Harris (Nicholas Brendon) than with the more popular ones like Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter). But aside from all the usual teen angst, Buffy has another problem: she is the Slayer, the girl who comes along once in every generation to save the world from vampires and other demons. And as her mentor Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) reveals to her, Sunnydale is more prone to these than most other places.
The pilot is the first thing Joss Whedon ever directed, and frankly it shows: even accounting for the crappiness of the bootleg copy, there's virtually no visual style to speak of, and it's just a plain attempt at capturing the story on film to see how it will look. The main thing the pilot does is show how, thanks to Whedon's smart writing and the excellent work of his main cast, the key characters were pretty much defined from the word go... with one exception. Riff Regan gets a hard time in fan circles for her first attempt at Willow, mainly because Alyson Hannigan (who took over the role in the series) is infinitely cuter. But even aside from shallow comparisons, Regan just doesn't convince as the swot of the group, because we're told how smart she is rather than shown it - she plays Willow as a soppy girl with a couple of funny lines but nothing more. When Hannigan takes over in the series, Willow's sparky intelligence becomes one of its key plus points.
The first season of Buffy is only twelve episodes long - it originally aired as a mid-season replacement, one of those shows that American networks hurl onto telly in the springtime to cover up for another show being taken off-air prematurely. If nothing else, it made the task of watching a whole season in one day a bit easier than it would have been if they'd had a full 22-episode run. Also, it makes the learning curve of the show more apparent: they had a goal to reach full match fitness within twelve episodes, and they made it with three or four to spare.
The first two episodes aired as a double bill ten years ago today, on March 10th 1997. Welcome To The Hellmouth starts off in the same fashion as the pilot, but better. Director Charles Martin Smith was better known for giving accountants a violent role model as an actor in Brian de Palma's The Untouchables: but he'd directed a couple of features as well, and he gives the episode some visual flair that Whedon wasn't capable of providing at the time. Whedon, meanwhile, had given the script a full-on polishing, doubling the number of funny lines and giving the characters much more depth. Cordelia, in particular, is now allowed to show us why she's so popular as well as being a total bitch, a combination that made her a fan favourite in both Buffy and Angel.
Whedon also adds several characters that weren't in the pilot, mainly for the purposes of generating a season-long story arc about The Master (Mark Metcalf), a vampire king attempting to break the spell that stops him from wreaking havoc across the planet. Xander has picked up a best mate called Jesse, played by Eric Balfour, who pulls you up short when you realise it's Milo from 24 but ten years younger. And taking an initially unexplained interest in the battle is Angel (David Boreanaz), who long-term Buffy fans will realise is a major part of the show's mythology. (And non-long-term fans should be able to work that out from the previous paragraph's reference to a show called Angel.)
Angel's a peculiar one, in that he's possibly the only character in the first season who isn't perfectly drawn from the word go. His role for a large part of the season is as a plot device, turning up out of nowhere to tell Buffy some useful information and then disappearing again. Obviously he has a Dark Secret which is eventually explained, but for several episodes his strategy for conveying the fact he has a Dark Secret is to basically not act at all. (To be fair, he gets better as things go on, and it may well be he was just learning acting on the job: I'm told he's perfectly fine in Bones nowadays.)
The Hellmouth story continues in episode 2, The Harvest, also written by Whedon: after that, assuming you believe the credits, he handed on the writing duties to his team of producers until towards the end of the season. And for my money, that's where it starts getting interesting. The first two episodes have a lot of work to do to establish both situation and character: once all that's out of the way, the writers can start to play a little. The rest of the season is notable for feeling like a writing team feeling their way around discovering just what they can do.
Episode three, Witch, shows the house style already in place. It has a standard horror premise (involving the school cheerleaders suffering from attacks of witchcraft), but pumps it up with unexpected humour, copious pop culture references, and a genuinely surprising plot reversal before the last commercial break. And it introduces one of the key themes of the show as a whole: taking the way that teenagers regard everything in their lives as being life-or-death matters, and making them really life-or-death matters.
It's a narrative trick that has been written about by countless cultural commentators, precisely because Whedon and his team do it so well. Part of that is because of a genuine feel for adolescent trauma, and part of it is down to their sure-footed way they depict it in horror genre terms. For example, The Pack deals with the apparently random cruelties that teenagers can inflict upon each other: and it does it by basing those cruelties in a curse passed on by a glowy-eyed hyena who possesses teens. (This wouldn't work if we didn't believe in the characters, of course. By this stage, we've come to know and love Willow and Xander so much that the impact of this on their relationship is heartbreaking.)
At the same time, the series is happy to take classic old horror themes and rework them in new and interesting ways. The Puppet Show takes the hackneyed old idea of a ventriloquist's dummy come to life, and adds a few narrative twists to create something genuinely moving by the end (which is then splendidly undercut by a hilarious end credit sequence). Nightmares takes a similarly overworked idea - nightmares taking substance in the real world - and makes it succeed through a detailed imagining of all the possible ways that could ruin people's lives, even if you consider the most cliched dream scenarios ever (fear of public nudity, fear of flunking an exam, fear of clowns). And I Robot... You Jane pulls off the rare trick of mixing high-tech with horror (a demon trapped inside the internet) and not looking cheesily dated ten years on. Okay, Buffy's amazement that people can meet up online is rather touching, but the whole online stalker plot still works, even though nowadays the demon would be trapping people via www.myspace.com/molochthecorruptor.
I know The Belated Birthday Girl will kill me for saying this, but season 1 of Buffy isn't perfect. The overall arc is scrappily spread over the twelve episodes, and frequently falls back on just wheeling out another Monster Of The Week while the writers try to work out how to involve The Master. The musical interludes at the Bronze club feel like clumsy attempts by record companies to get their bands on the telly (which still goes on today, of course, just more subtly). And watching all twelve episodes in one day just emphasises how atrociously the title music is edited to fit the end credits (including one bar in 7/4 time just because someone can't count).
But this is still hugely watchable TV, ten years after its original broadcast. Later seasons would have better effects, more cunningly constructed scripts, and much darker themes as the characters went through the long painful process of growing up. But the seeds of all that are visible even in those early episodes, and you can actually watch the show itself grow up in the twelve parts of the first season. By the finale of Prophecy Girl, Whedon is directing again, but by now he's got the visual confidence to match up with the script's emotional hairpin bends. And things only got better from that point on.
Nevertheless, it does worry me that The Belated Birthday Girl is now suggesting we give similar attention to the remaining six seasons and 132 episodes of Buffy. This may take me some time. Being a monkey, and all.