Buffy The Vampire Slayer: 10 F#@king Years
(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.
Well of course I have to reply to this, and is it really ten years since it started ! (seems that the older you get the younger the recruitment age for policemen, and the faster the time goes). So does Buffy really stand the test of time ? Hmmm !
I am not a great fan of American television per se, however for me there have been five great US shows over the last decade: FRIENDS, FRASIER, STAR TREK - NEXT GENERATION (include in this VOYAGER, but not ds9 or enterprise), ALLY MCBEAL, and BUFFY. Now all of these were essential television when they first came out, and I still enjoy catching the occasional episode of Friends and Fraser as they are currently repeated on E4 and C4. However I don't know what it is about the other three, but for me they very much suffer from what I call 'Live TV Sport Syndrome'; namely hugely exciting to watch at the time, but not something one could ever contemplate sitting through for a repeat viewing. Obviously you feel different.
I will come to the criticisms in a moment, but lets deal with the hot totty bit of the show first, which I know is why you and me (Spank) really watched it. I have to admit Miss Buffy Geller never really did it for me (but yes I did like her mum though). Also Ms Callender (killed off far too early) was a bit of alright, and someone old enough to fancy with a clear conscience. However for me the most disturbing part of the show was not all the demons and vampires, but instead how much I had the hots for young Willow (Hannigan). Not being a fan of the AMERICAN (........) film series type of comedy, I have always hoped she would pop up in something else, so I could tell myself 'look it's alright she is really a grown up'. Yet the only time she did, it was by surprise on TV in a repeat viewing of My Stepmother Is An Alien (made when she was 14). AAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRGGH where's my psychiatrist ?
Cordelia was a great character, and one of my biggest criticisms of ANGEL, was the total personality shift she was given by the writers of that series. A classic Cordelia line was when an indignant Xander tells her that he has been watching Buffy's back for years. To which Cordelia replies: "You mean you have been watching Buffy's Butt for years". Another great line was when Evil Willow was trying to convince her she was Normal Willow, by saying 'I'm so weak and helpless'.To which Cordy replies: "Oh yes the I'm so weak and helpless act, that all the boys seem to go for" (sightly paraphrased but you get the idea)
So alright enough of the good times, it;s time to stick the boot in. So to start all of the Buffy romance threads whether with Angel, that army type bloke (initiative was it ?) and finally with Spike, were for me nothing more than a dreary distraction, which thankfully the shows didn't hang on, otherwise they would have been unwatchable. Also it seems the longer the series/s went on the duller it became, probably starting with that whole Initiative thing (and the stupid series long robot monster) which was turgid in the extreme.
This also began to coincide with two major shifts in Willows character, which suggested new writers on board trying to impose their own mark. Now if you had told me that Willow would stop seeing werewolf boy, and instead would become a lesbian well...... (well by rights it should have been double sessions for me with the psychiatrist). In the event it was completely boring and unbelievable, which if I happened to be a real life lesbian (work with me on this) would no doubt have had me spitting blood along with the curly hairs. The other real stinker was this whole thing of Willow becoming a Super Power type witch ? (wow they must have had a bitching library at Sunnydale High). This being the final nail in what was the best character in the series.
What else (this is probably me not paying attention), oh yes 'every once in a generation there comes a chosen one to be a slayer'. Okay, so how did that explain Faith ? Then there is evil Spike suddenly becoming good spike (can nothing be relied upon). In fact what nearly stopped me viewing altogether and with immediate effect, was the moment Buffys mum said to Miss Geller as she was about to go shopping "don't forget to take your sister". Ironically however the whole Dawn/Key thing, was the one latter plot twist that appeared to have been thought through, rather than tacked on, and breathed a final bit of life into an otherwise dying series.
Now I don't know did I read this somewhere, or was it my take on the thing, but that the Buffy series was really a metaphor for the real life dangers of being of student age in present day America. Surrounded as they are by gangs, drug dealers, and psychotic killers. After all in Buffy armed guards don't patrol the school corridors, that only happens in real life. However this leads in to my MAJOR CRITICISM of the show (which surprisingly I never picked up on at the time - blame Willow), namely the inherent Racism in it. Joss Whedon is that an anagram for Aaron Spelling (you work it out). Because in Sunnydale there are no black people, well not among the good guys anyway. However you will find all the vampires (certainly once they kick off) become somewhat darkish and ethnic in appearance (Obviously not Angel and Spike, but of course they are realy good guys at heart). Maybe you can seek and find one or two exceptions to this, but I don't think you can deny the drift of my theme here, and that by implication the serie/s suggests that all crime in America is driven by ethnic origin, and that what White (Supremist) America is crying out for is a chosen one, to lead some sort of ethnic cleansing drive. I can see you now choking on your cornflakes, thinking I am completely over the top in my analysis, but sadly I don't think so at all, and is the main reason why I could not sit through any repeats of a once favourite series.
Posted by: Suze (accept no imposters) | March 11, 2007 at 10:30 AM
I actually wanted to make a couple of comments about Spank's original piece, and I will do so in a minute, but I have to respond to a couple of outrageous comments from Suze - who is, of course, entitled to his opinion, just as I am entitled to point out a few things.
I know that the changes in Willow's character over time annoyed a lot of the fans, not just Suze. But, whether you like the directions she was taken in or not, the fact is that a lot of it was foreshadowed in many earlier episodes: most obviously the Lesbianism in Doppleganger Land, but Willow's early fascination with magic right from Witch in Season One, where we first meet Amy, and other points in-between. Dislike the changes all you want, but they cannot legitimately be described as hurried, shoe-horned or not thought through, and anyone who does re-watch the episodes will find a wealth of material supporting not only Willow's character changes but others, too. The show is all about the characters and their growth and development. Everyone changes.
Quick easy to pick up one, which is to do with where Faith comes in, and how it really does show how little attention Suze paid. To anyone who has never seen the show, and wants to use this 10th Anniversary of the first airing in the US as an excuse to start, there will be Spoilers to follow, so look away until the next paragraph. But the fact is that Buffy died - briefly - in the last episode of Season One. This activates the next slayer - a Jamaican named Kendra, who Suze has either missed through inattention or decided not worthy of mention. Anyway, after Kendra dies, that activates Faith. Simple, really.
Finally, I don't want to get into this last in a big way, but I do have to address the accusation of racism. Joss's work has on a few occasions picked up criticisms for the lack of non-white characters, and in a small way, simply on invisibility grounds, there may be a case to answer. But the accusation that there is an actual racist theme in it is nonsense and offensive. I'm not going to list counter examples, as that's getting into a tit-for-tat game that I'm just not interested in playing. The show isn't commenting in any way on crime and its origins, and even if it were, the conclusion leapt to here would be very strange. Joss's writing and work is empowering and positive, and anyone who watched Buffy through to the end of Season Seven will see how totally absurd Suze's comments about the Chosen One are.
What I really wanted to talk about was a couple of things Spank said, and my own reactions to this marathon.
The unaired pilot was, as far as I know, a kind-of sales pitch, never intended to be aired. The effects were not fully finished, and it was not full length. I know I have heard Joss himself say how he didn't really know how to direct at that time, and I don't think he would ever have intended it to be seen widely (oh, the dubious joys of the Internet). I'm glad I have seen it, merely as a curiosity piece, though.
Far from killing Spank over this, I would agree Season One isn't perfect: until I've rewatched them, I can't be sure whether any of the seasons were, but I always remembered that Season One was new and feeling its way. It is still terrific for a first season of a show, though, and it actually stood up better than I thought it might. All my favourite episodes from the season stand up to my memory of them, and there are others I'd not remembered so well which exceed it.
I think it really was the season finale, Prophecy Girl, which stood out. It was Joss's real directorial debut, and I knew that. But it also was one of the few he wrote by himself (althugh any interview with any Buffy writer gives the distinct impression he had a hand in all of them - I wonder if that was the case right from Season One?), and it was the first one which affected me the way so much of Joss's work has subsequently. Even though I've seen it a few times before, and so knew what was going to happen, it still brought up tears into my eyes. No-one can play with the emotions the way Joss does, and it is for that that I will always love his work.
And I am definitely planning on re-watching all ofthe rest of the show, although whether by the end of this year or not remains to be seen. If I have to content myself with picking one or two from each season, to get myself through to the end of the year, then I still know that will be worth doing. But rewatching the whole of Season One has whet my appetite.
Joss's continutation of the story, in comic-book form, starts next week, and I am looking forward to that enormously, too. Although I would still prefer more Jossy goodness on the TV screen.
Thank You, Joss (in case you're looking...).
Posted by: TheBBG | March 11, 2007 at 03:15 PM
Wow we have got a debate going in Spank The Monkey, things are looking up.
Okay I will respond to some of BBG's points and agree to differ on others, especially based on the fact I have only ever seen the episodes once.
1) Yes I bow to your more in depth knowledge on how Faith came about (on that I was actually asking a question not making a statement). However I still think a series based upon there being a once in a generation, chosen one slayer, should not then have a second slayer thrown into the mix, just because it was explained in a single episode (it confuses simple types like me). Again this is a question (as my memory fails me) when Buffy died again at the end of series six (or five), was there yet another slayer created ?
2) I have to stand by my Willow comments here. Firstly she had a relationship with werewolf boy (can't remember his name), and then there was also this unspoken platonic thing with Xander that went over several series. Yet then zap all of a sudden she is a lesbian and shacked up. Kind of strikes me that this either: came about after some sort of viewer poll asking people what would they want to see next, or perhaps they suddenly realised they had a large gay fanbase and wanted to be more inclusive.
Worse than that however was the whole witchcraft overdevelpment. Yes her interests in that was in there almost from the start. However are the writers really suggesting that over the course of a few school years, with limited access to a few books and the internet (after all she wasn't anyones apprentice), she suddenly had the power to stand toe to toe with the god of all gods Gloria. Hmmm. And how did she end up ? Turning into some sort of supernova ? (crikey I better stick to my lingerie websites)
3) Moving on to the crime theme, and the hostile environment many kids of student age in America exist in, sure that is probably my analogy and interpretation, which I think is as good as any. Someone else may see the whole series, as a warning of the mischief teenagers can get into without proper parental supervision (who knows, don't accept the ones the makers give you, as your own ones are always more fun).
4) You can' deny however the Aaron Spelling comparisons here. There is not a lack of non-white characters here, there isn't any at all (Kendra very briefly excepted then). Kind of strange in a country where Spanish is the first language of the majority of the population and where non white (if you lump all minorities together) are greater in number than white people. Perhaps Sunnydale is really some sort of gated community. Yet goddmmit someone let them ethnics in: as I said, the vampires (look again) all tend to take on a rather darkish hue, once they are looking to bite someone. I haven't got any doubts where the makers stand on the issue of race (and by implication crime), even if they don't want the series interpreted as an analogy for present day America.
To summarise, for me Buffy was an enjoyable serie/s for once only viewing, but unless you are a Trekkie type (is a buffie the correct name for that) for me anyway, it doesn't stand up to a repeated viewing.
Posted by: Suze (accept no imposters) | March 11, 2007 at 07:17 PM
Last reply here - not going to get into a lengthy debate.
To answer about after the second time she died, the baton had already been passed, so to speak, so no third Slayer gets made.
And just to add: the person who hasn't seen it more than once says it doesn't stand up to a repeated viewing; the people who have say it definitely does. Take from that what you will.
And that's all I'm going to say on the subject.
Posted by: TheBBG | March 12, 2007 at 08:00 AM
Suze, your posts have so many holes in it you could be a writer for "Prison Break." To point out just two:
"There is not a lack of non-white characters here, there isn't any at all (Kendra very briefly excepted then)."
And what would that make that fellow who's part of the Initiative (who now plays D.L. on "Heroes"), or Principal Wood in the last season?
"Yet then zap all of a sudden she is a lesbian and shacked up. Kind of strikes me that this either: came about after some sort of viewer poll asking people what would they want to see next, or perhaps they suddenly realised they had a large gay fanbase and wanted to be more inclusive."
All of a sudden? Given that there were indications that there was more to Willow's personality than meets the eye before she came out (like when Buffy assured Willow that the vampire part of her wasn't really a reflection of herself and Angel started to say something...), it's hardly all of a sudden. And if they did want to pander to their "large gay fanbase," they wouldn't have risked pissing them off by killing off Tara (and get accused of being homophobic in the process by people who conveniently overlooked the vast amount of HETERO relationships that end unhappily on the show).
Still, what would you expect from anyone who would actually consider "Star Trek: Voyager" to be one of the great US TV shows of the past decade, regardless of rewatchability?
Posted by: Cindylover1969 | March 12, 2007 at 08:31 AM
QUOTE And what would that make that fellow who's part of the Initiative (who now plays D.L. on "Heroes"), or Principal Wood in the last season?
Answer - Is that it then ?
QUOTE Still, what would you expect from anyone who would actually consider "Star Trek: Voyager" to be one of the great US TV shows of the past decade
Answer - Well considering the rubbish competition from the rest of US TV like I dunno: LOST, SOPRANOS, CSI, and that one about the White House, then of course VOYAGER comes across as Shakespeare. If your still reading ha ha, actually I meant Trek Next Generation as one of the great shows (I included Voyager in brackets really as a footnote, to ilustrate it was better than DS9 or Enterprize).
Posted by: Suze (accept no imposters) | March 12, 2007 at 06:49 PM
QUOTE - To answer about after the second time she died, the baton had already been passed, so to speak, so no third Slayer gets made.
Answer - Who to then, and why haven't they got a series ?
QUOTE -And just to add: the person who hasn't seen it more than once says it doesn't stand up to a repeated viewing; the people who have say it definitely does.
Answer - Don't quite get your logic here. If I understand this correctly you're saying, you actually have to see something a second time, in order to know you dont want to see it a second time. Huh ?
Posted by: Suze (accept no imposters) | March 12, 2007 at 06:57 PM
Just to pick up on something The BBG mentioned in passing: Joss Whedon is currently masterminding a comic book series that will pick up the story of Buffy from after the end of the seventh and final season of the show. In fact, he's going so far as to call the comic Buffy Season 8. The first issue comes out in the US this Wednesday, March 14th, and in the UK the day after. More details here:
I wonder how many black people it'll have in it? (runs away)
Posted by: SpankTM | March 12, 2007 at 07:45 PM
There you go, there's one on page six.
Posted by: SpankTM | March 16, 2007 at 11:43 AM