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“In every generation, there is a chosen one. She alone will stand against the Vampires, the Demons, and the Forces of Darkness. She is the Slayer.”
There must be about a million films, stories and TV related content that contains one particular scene. A vulnerable young woman, running for her life, terrified of whomever, or whatever, is pursuing her. She is utterly helpless to prevent her oncoming, horrible death – and most of the time is scantly clad. The scenario ends one of two ways – she either meets a terrible fate, or ends up getting saved by a dashing, Harrison Ford look alike male hero. Rinse, lather, repeat.
It once looked like that would be all we’d get from female characters in horror related productions. That was, until, a young writer came along named Joss Whedon, who decided that enough was enough. He had an idea of a young woman who didn’t just run away from the monster. She turned round and kicked its ass.
Hence, the original idea of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was born. Joss certainly was onto something, but even he couldn’t have expected that this outlandish, crazy story would become the cult phenomenon that it is today.
After a 1992 movie that really is best left unmentioned for the purposes of this review, the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, written primarily by Whedon, premiered on March 10th, 1997 on the WB and concluded May 20th, 2003, on UPN. Throughout its seven season run, the show garnered an extensive and dedicated fan base, praised for its hilarious dialogue, gripping characters and intriguing mythology. It also birthed the, in my opinion, superior spin-off show Angel.
But what made truly made Buffy so special? How, exactly, did it develop into the show that is fondly remembered worldwide to this day? Well, let’s have go have a look. Let’s begin by going right back to the season that kicked off the entire saga – Season One.
Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Geller) was an ordinary girly girl, quite content to be the stereotypical popular, attractive young high school student. That was, until, her whole world turned upside down and she was told she was a Vampire Slayer. A sole warrior, granted special abilities to specifically fight the dark forces of the world. Being a Slayer didn’t exactly do any favours for Buffy – it drove her parents apart, got her expelled from school and lost her all of her friends. When Season One kicks off, it is approximately one year after she discovered she was a Slayer. Buffy and her mum Joyce (Kristine Sutherland) move to the small town of Sunnydale, with the hope of starting afresh and leaving the trouble of their LA past behind them.
However, the small problem with that is Sunnydale just happens to be situated on top of a Hellmouth – a dimensional portal between our world and the demon universe, better known as hell. Thus, lots of creepy stuff happens in the town, in particular at the local high school that Buffy just so happens to be attending. Vampires, along with all sorts of demonic riff raff, flock to the town like there’s no tomorrow, and what’s even worse – there’s an ancient, uber-powerful Vampire king known only as the Master (Mark Metcalf) living underground, who’s sole purpose is to, well, destroy the Earth. Thus, Buffy has no choice but to resume her Slayer duties.
The good news is, Buffy won’t be fighting alone. With the help of her Watcher Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), an expert on demon mythology sent to guide and train her, alongside her best friends Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Xander (Nicholas Brenden), Buffy and co form a sort of monster fighting mini-team, whilst keeping Buffy’s power, and linage as a Slayer, a secret. She also gets some occasional help from the school bitch Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), a person who Buffy may well have become if she’d never been called as a Slayer, the part time IT teacher, part time witch Jenny Calendar (Robia LaMorte) and uber mysterious Angel (David Boreanaz), a handsome stranger who turns up every now and again with cryptic messages. Thus, we pretty much have the plot of Season One.
In it’s early years, it’s easy to struggle to recognise the strongly written, deep and meaningful show that Buffy would later grow to be. The shortened first season contains quite a few fairly clunky episodes, corny dialogue, pretty laughable special effects and just, in general, a rather over the top level of cheese that just will not go away. Indeed, even Whedon himself has admitted that the production team at the time had a lot to learn about making a successful TV show, and this does unfortunately show itself at times.
It’s also, regretfully, a bit of a shame that the show’s first Big Bad, the Master, is a bit, well, uninteresting, especially compared to the villains introduced later on. His only motivation is to a) destroy the world and b) kill Buffy, the troublemaker who keeps getting in the way of all his plans. See, the Master got himself trapped trying to open the Hellmouth way back when, so for the majority of the season he mopes about in an underground church, sending lackeys out to do his bidding. Subsequent Buffyverse shows will explain that he’s a bit of a religious fanatic, who has spent his extremely long life entirely focused on opening the Hellmouth. An intriguing idea, but a tiny bit lost in translation within the 1997 episodes, despite the hilarious performance given by Metcalfe.
And yet, there is something quite endearing about these early episodes. Despite the corniness, despite the rather silly plot-lines and weak bad guys, a strength that shows itself straight away is the characters in the show, and the actors who play them. Geller is utterly perfect as Buffy, a fiercely strong girl who just wants to be, well, a normal girl. Buffy never sacrifices her femininity, but isn’t hampered by it. At the end of the day, she’ll get the job done – a job that is extremely dangerous and has killed every single one of her predecessors. Even when faced with certain death, Buffy puts herself on the line to save everyone else. This is a very special person indeed, and it’s an absolute joy to spend time with her. Mainly because she’s, well, pretty damn hilarious.
Buffy, especially in Season One, before Season Two comes along to mentally break her forever, doesn’t take life too seriously. In fact, she seems to try everything she can to do the exact opposite. Whether its providing a funny quip whilst staking the latest Vampire, or continually making fun of the hugely up-tight Giles, Buffy is just a fun character to focus on. A trait complemented nicely by her two best friends – Xander and Willow.
Xander is the typical nerdy high school boy who can’t get a date, isn’t particularly very bright, doesn’t have a lot of confidence in himself – and is absolutely, completely in love with Buffy. Xander, basically, is us – he says what we as an audience would say, he does what we would do in that situation. The crazy world of the Buffyverse is as new to him as it is to us, and his reactions to it ground the show, and make it feel all the more real. Plus, how many of us can relate to being hopelessly obsessed with someone who just doesn’t feel the same way? If Buffy has a quip for every situation where a bad guy gets it, Xander has a quip for, well, every situation. He may be annoying at times, but he’s also very brave, and fiercely loyal to his friends. Something that he doesn’t even realise himself.
Willow is also a bit of an outcast. A shy girl who’s very unsure of herself, happy to remain out of the limelight. She just so happens to be a bit of a genius, knowing how to operate a computer (a big deal in 1997), and hack into pretty much anything. Willow is a nice contrast to the outgoing and powerful Buffy, which, sadly, also results in her needing to be rescued quite a lot of the time. She’s also, unfortunately, hopelessly in love with Xander. Indeed, the Willow of Season One is nowhere near as interesting as the scarily strong Willow of later seasons, but the potential is definitely evident, with her brave and caring nature constantly shining through. Plus, it helps that Hannigan owns this role, downplaying the nerdy side of Willow whilst at the same time never letting us forget she is the socially awkward yet lovable girl everyone likes.
Rounding out the Core Four, as it where, is Giles. A middle-aged, very stereotypical Englishman, Giles is the exposition sprouter, banging on about the latest monster of the week through the use of his extensive knowledge and library books. At first, he and Buffy really don’t see eye to eye – she views him as an overly worrysome annoyance, whilst Giles feels Buffy is a little too immature to be dealing with. This changes as Season One goes on, with Giles beginning to appreciate just how special Buffy is, and Buffy, for her part, starting to rely on Giles more and more as a father figure. Things come to a head by the season final, where Giles is prepared to sacrifice his own life to save Buffy’s – and Buffy ends up knocking him out cold to stop him. The relationship between these two characters is a key highlight of the show as it progresses, complemented beautifully by the consistently wonderful performance given by Head.
It’s these four characters that get the most amount of screen time, and indeed it is these four that stick around right until the very last episode – well, more or less. That’s not to say they’re the total focus, with Carpenter’s Cordelia turning up now and again to either insult the main group or need rescuing, and LaMorte’s Calendar being a welcome foil, and later love interest, for the stuffy Giles. Hell, Sunnydale High also gives us the gruesome headteacher we love to hate Principal Snyder, played beautifully by comedian Armin Shimerman. There is, admittedly, a slight niggling wonder as to what purpose Cordelia actually serves that warrants her not only being in the show but actually a starring member of the cast, but Carpenter is so damn entertaining that it’s really not a big issue.
And what about the mysterious Angel, who catches Buffy’s eye from day one, turning up with his intriguing warnings about impending danger and sniffing round after a girl who’s clearly too young for him? The character who later goes on to star in his own, highly successful TV show? Well – he’s actually one of the most interesting aspects of Season One, with his dark backstory, of being a Vampire cursed with a soul so as to feel all of his past crimes, being a nice little hint at the truly wonderfully complex Season Two to come. Whilst we don’t yet see just how evil Angel was before he was cursed, a fantastic character arc that will play out beautifully in the upcoming seasons, we do get to see Buffy have an ally who is pretty much her equal in strength. And also a dangerous love interest, that even from day one just doesn’t feel quite right. These two really are smitten with each other, something that both Buffy’s mother and her friends are a tiny bit wary of.
It is a shame, however, that Angel’s appearances are let down by some, unfortunately, woeful acting from Boreanaz. Indeed, his first appearances are so badly performed that he’s barely recognisable as the Angel we will follow into his own show. Boreanaz seems a little unsure of himself here, as though he is yet to truly discover how best to play Angel. To his credit, this does not last long, and Boreanaz really does come to own this role later on.
There is a lot to like about Season One, but, unfortunately, the general quality of the episodes isn’t really one of them. Whilst there are a few that could quite easily be labelled less than great, the one that takes the prize simply has to be, I Robot, You Jane. The plot is about as ridiculous as the robot demon that turns up at the end – an ancient green dude gets uploaded onto the internet, and the usually smart Willow gets obsessed with him. Completely out of character for the smart and sensible Willow, a ridiculously boring villain, an extremely poorly done and forced point about internet safety – yep, this really isn’t that good. It’s one saving grace is the introduction of Jenny Calendar – and I suppose the green demon makeup is pretty impressive.
Season One is by no means a failure, and when it gets it right, it does so beautifully. A particular special mention can go to Prophecy Girl, the Season One final, where Buffy finally comes face to face with the Master and all hell, literally breaks loose. This prize, however, goes to an episode falling about half way through the season, Angel, where we finally get Angel’s full backstory. Not only does this feature a brilliant performance from Julie Benz as his old flame Darla, this dark level of storytelling is a nice little set up for the plot arcs to come. It helps, as well, that Boreanaz easily gives his best performance here, selling to us pretty well the tortured story of Angel, and his hopeless love for Buffy. Additionally, the final fight scene is great and it’s always a pleasure on re-watch.
Season One of Buffy is a flawed piece of television, there is no doubt about it. People could be forgiven for maybe giving it up as entertaining, but maybe just a little too silly. But the potential is there from day one. The characters are great. The world is fascinating. The acting is, on the whole, superb, and there truly is a sense that this could develop into something special, if given the chance to shine. Thankfully, Buffy did get that chance – and the rest is history.
Join me next time as I delve into the fantastic Season Two, where things really get serious.