by Rebecca Fisher
Back in August last year I wrote about Xena Warrior Princess, calling her one of the two most famous feminist icons of the nineties. The second icon is, of course, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Unlike Xena, who started out as a guest character on another show and was eventually deemed popular enough to warrant her own spin-off, Buffy had more premeditated origins. Created by writer/director Joss Whedon, the character was born out of a deliberate subversion of that old horror-movie cliché: an attractive blonde wandering down an alley at night, only to be attacked by whatever monster was lurking in the shadows.
Why, asked Whedon, did the helpless girl always have to be the victim? What if she had the ability to fight back?
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was first introduced in the 1992 movie starring Kirsty Swanson. As the name would suggest, it relied on campy comedy and horror in equal measure, revolving around the premise of a vapid Valley girl fighting off an army of vampires.
It was not a huge success, but generated enough of a cult following that Whedon was given the opportunity to revisit the concept – this time on television. As a reboot of a less-than-successful movie, the show may not have had a particularly auspicious beginning, was soon to prove itself an extremely popular hit.
Buffy Summers (now played by Sarah Michelle Gellar) has just transferred from Los Angles to Sunnydale High School. Although it’s never made clear to what extent the show is meant to be a continuation of the film, it soon becomes apparent that Buffy is already well-aware of her destiny as a Slayer. She’s one of a line of young women who have been “chosen” to fight evil forces: demons, vampires, various apocalypses – you get the idea.
Each Slayer is imbued with supernatural strength and heightened instincts – but there’s a catch: there is only ever one Slayer in the world at a time, for it’s only when one dies that another can be called. In the words of the opening narration:
“Into every generation a slayer is born: one girl in all the world, a chosen one. She alone will wield the strength and skill to fight the vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness; to stop the spread of their evil and the swell of their number. She is the Slayer.”
I bolded the word “alone”, for that’s the key word in that passage, and the reason why Buffy is so unique. Right from the first episode the show establishes that friendly, bubbly Buffy is not only uninterested in fulfilling her destiny as the Slayer, but (after being pressed into it) determined not to go it alone. Just a few days after arriving in Sunnydale, Buffy acquires what is eventually known as “the Scooby Gang” (named for the teenagers in the crime-solving cartoon): the shy and intelligent Willow and the dorky but loyal Xander, as well as school librarian Giles, whose true role is that of Buffy’s Watcher – her appointed guardian who trains and monitors the Slayer’s progress.
The show ran for seven seasons in total, featuring an extensive cast (across the show’s entire run there were twelve different actors featured in the opening credits), not to mention dozens of recurring guest stars and hundreds of monsters.
One thing each season had in common was the presence of a “Big Bad”. That is, a particular adversary for Buffy to face, whose long-term plan (usually conquering and/or destroying the world) was built up over the course of a season, interspersed with more standalone episodes.
But for the first three seasons in particular, while Buffy and her cohorts still attended school, the show revolved around a particularly clever metaphor: “high school is hell.” In this case, quite literally, as Sunnydale High is revealed to be built directly on top of a Hellmouth (a portal into Hell), explaining why so much demonic activity is centred on the town. As such, the storylines are filled with typical teenage anxieties that are given a supernatural twist: the bullies are possessed by evil spirits, the perpetually-ignored girl eventually turns invisible, a boy met in an on-line chat-room is a demon, and making sure everyone makes it safely to the Prom is just as important as preventing the end of the world.
At times the metaphor cut a little too close to home, as seen in the infamous delaying of an episode on the heels of the Colombine High School shooting, one in which Buffy is granted temporary telepathy and overhears the thoughts of someone planning to massacre the entire student body. It’s chilling, but also demonstrates just how deeply the show managed to tap into serious social issues.
But more than the ingenious premise, the real strength of the show lay with its vivid characters. The image of a petite blonde brandishing a wooden stake has become a permanent part of popular culture, but Sarah Michelle Geller’s Buffy was backed up by co-stars whose characters more than pulled their own weight.
Alyson Hannigan’s Willow starts out as a painfully shy computer nerd and grows in power as she begins to explore her magical abilities, and Nicholas Brendon’s Xander is a typical male teenager who struggles – and then accepts – his position as the only ordinary member of a group that includes slayers, witches, werewolves, ex-demons and other supernaturally gifted individuals. Other cast members came and went, but it was these three characters and their friendship that was always – deep down – the heart of the show.
Across the seven seasons we also met Anthony Head as Giles, the only adult of the initial Scooby Gang, whose exasperation with the teenagers gradually grows into paternal affection, and David Boreanaz as Angel, the original ensouled vampire in a tragic human/vampire love story. Emma Caulfield played Anya, an abrasive ex-demon whose blunt views on humanity provided a running gag that never grew old, and Seth Green was the monosyllabic band member and werewolf who helped Willow come out of her shell.
Then there was James Marsters as Spike, the bleached-blonde, leather-clad vampire whose enduring popularity almost (for better or worse) stole the entire show. Fan opinion was evenly divided between those who thought he was the best thing since sliced bread, and those who believed he took too much focus away from the other characters. I’ll let you debate the point, though the discussion still seems to be going strong ten years after the show’s conclusion. And on that note…
What can really be said about Buffy the Vampire Slayer that hasn’t been said a thousand times before? It was (and is) a television landmark, inspiring and enabling such shows as Charmed, Joan of Arcadia, Dead Like Me, and even the rebooted Doctor Who. Melding campy fun with genuine pathos, philosophical discourse, themes of acceptance and loneliness, as well as witty dialogue that spawned a million pop culture references, Buffy struck a winning formula that still resonates today: girl power meets horror clichés that are subverted to hell and back (sorry, I had to say it).
Next Time: Angel
Well, while we’re on the subject of Buffy we may as well explore its very own spin-off Angel. Departing Buffy the Vampire Slayer at the end of season three, Angel moves to Los Angeles and starts up a detective agency. A lot darker and moodier than Buffy, the spin-off revolved around its tag-line: “If it takes an eternity, he will make amends”, styling the show as Angel’s personal crusade for redemption.
About The Reviewer:
Rebecca Fisher is a graduate of the University of Canterbury with a Masters degree in English Literature, mainly, she claims, because she was able to get away with writing her thesis on C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman. She is a reviewer for FantasyLiterature.com, a large website that specializes in fantasy and science-fiction novels, as well as posting reviews to Amazon.com and her LiveJournal blog.
To read Rebecca’s detailed introduction of both herself and the series, as well as preceding reviews, click on: