Buffy: Witch


What's weird to me now about this episode is that in my memory it was *really good*. And now, looking at it, it's a mess. 

The episode centres on Amy - later a fairly significant character, so the early development here is nice - who turns out to have been mind-swapped by her mother, who wants to relive her glory days as a cheerleader and is going to use Amy's body to do it. And when Amy doesn't make it into the squad, the witch-mother casts spells to get rid of some of the competition. So far, so X-Files. 

The major problem is that it's not clear at what point, if ever, we have met the Real Amy (as opposed to her mother, in her body, pretending to be her). We meet an Amy at the start who claims to hate cheerleading - we sympathise. Cordelia's into cheerleading and Cordelia's clearly at this stage a grade-A bitch, so we like Amy. But if her mother has already possessed her by that point, why would she say she hates cheerleading? And if we've never met Real Amy (which I think from the script we're not supposed to have done) then who are we sympathising with? And if it's her mother there in her body and she's so good at faking an Amy personality then... surely she understands her daughter well enough to sympathise with her?

And if it *is* Amy's mother in Amy's body all the way through, and has been for months, why hasn't anyone noticed any change in personality? Willow would be the most obvious candidate to say something like: "yeah, Amy never used to be into cheering until a few months ago, I guess her mom got to her". Also, dramatically, this is missing a great second act where we've met "I hate cheerleading" Amy, and then we'd suddenly meet "laser-focused on the cheers" Amy, or at least one who was unable to keep the odd reference to how much she cares about it out of her mouth. A missed opportunity.

So, yeah, unfocused. I would have added in a scene of Amy suddenly seeming to, for example, care or know a lot more about cheerleading after she failed to make the squad, implying that her mother had been so enraged by her poor performance that she'd decided to take the body herself. And if cuts were needed, I'd have lost the lengthy and nonsensical scene where Cordelia is going blind but still for some reason decides to get in a car and drive. 

It is weird to me that I can see now what could have been changed to make this episode better - I definitely didn't know this when it aired, so perhaps I have got to be a better writer in the past 15 years! 

So why do I remember it as being so good? Is it just rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia? Is it because of some lovely continuity work done by bringing back Amy, and by eg making 'bad Willow's' eyes go black just like Amy's mother's do, implying that Willow probably studied the mother's books a bit too hard? 

I think it's partly that. But it's also that, although the plotting is a bit of a mess, the emotional core of this episode is rock solid. At the level of metaphor, it works absolutely perfectly. It's about mothers and daughters, the jealousy and resentment over 'lost youth' that mothers can feel when their daughters blossom into beautiful young women. It's about how and why a woman might want to steal her daughter's youth, and as such it reaches right back to myths like Snow White (I think the use of the mirror at the end of the episode signals this too). The core of this ep is so strong it's giving me a shiver down my spine right now when I think about it. And it's set off - a little clunkily, to be sure - by the grace note of Buffy's mom Joyce at the end of the episode shuddering when she thinks about having to be 16 again. 

So there we have it. First episode of "Buffy proper". They're still doing the X-Files thing of having 'mythos' episdes (like Welcome to the Hellmouth) and 'monster of the week' episodes like this one; it takes them a while to stop doing that. And the "mother is caught inside the statue" ending is also very wink-wink at the audience in an X-Files manner. And the plotting is a shambles. But the core emotion is all there. 


Because I am a geek

So I bought a Nike Fuelband. Mostly because Andrea Phillips has one and I was jealous. I liked the little fireworks display when you reach your fuel goal for the day. It's probably market-state research for Zombies, Run! or something. Yeah, no, it was basically because it looks cool. 

Anyway, because Andrea and I are geeks like this, we were comparing fuel daily usages. She had warned me in advance that, being a writer, I would find it hard to meet the ordinary fuel goals (average is 2,000 a day), because obviously if I'm not sitting *totally still* I'm not doing my work. However! To my surprise, I've found myself getting over 2,000 every day, and quite easily over 3,000. 

So, obviously we needed to investigate whether Andrea's band and mine were measuring at different rates. We needed to do it USING SCIENCE. Which is why, earlier today, had you spied on either of us (she in New York, me in London), you would have found us doing a Skype video chat while raising and lowering our arms precisely 10 times in perfect unison. We played When I'm Sixty-Four to keep us in time. 

The answer, incidentally, was that doing these identical movements produced almost identical band readings, and cannot account for me finding it easy to reach 2,000 while Andrea can have 800-fuel days. Possibly I just fidget more. 



Buffy: Welcome to the Hellmouth/The Harvest

Why does a person start watching a TV show? Why do they carry on watching even if the first few episodes aren't really that impressive (as they often aren't)? What is it in a show that can make you think there's something interesting there?

I think the first thing is: the name. I suspect that even if I hadn't heard anything about the show, I'd have been interested by the title because it sounds funny. It sounds like exactly the kind of thing I'd always liked: something that combines fantasy or SF with comedy. The same thing I love Douglas Adams for, and Terry Pratchett, and Tom Holt and Robert Rankin and Jasper Fforde. The thing that's missing from the often po-faced Star Trek, and the thing that makes the best classic Doctor Who episodes so good . 

It's an important thing to learn about titles, I think, that they need to communicate the experience you'll have while watching the show (or reading the book, or playing the game, or whatever). A show just called "Buffy" or even "The Adventures of Buffy" would make you think "Clueless". A show called "Astarte the Vampire Slayer" would make you think "fantasy, women in leather bikinis, like Xena or Witchblade". It's the juxtaposition of the Valley Girl name with the fantasy trope that makes the show sound smart and unusual and funny. Titles are hard, and important. 

So do these opening episodes live up to the promise of the title? Eh, in some ways.

I think Roger Ebert's quote is applicable almost everywhere, and especially to Buffy: "a general principle involving not only Star Trek but Star Wars and all the epic serials, especially the James Bond movies: Each film is only as good as its villain. Since the heroes and the gimmicks tend to repeat from film to film, only a great villain can transform a good try into a triumph."

This is ridiculously true here. The Master is not a great villain: he comes straight from Hammer Horror, all he wants is to do EVIL and at this point to be released from the prison where he is caught, in an overly comic image, "stuck, rather like a cork in a bottle". When one thinks of the great Buffy seasons, they uniformly have great villains, and villiains who work with the central metaphor of the show - that high school, and then life, is hell, that we're all fighting horrible demons all the time. Who are the best villains? The bad boyfriend. The best friend who turns on you. The powerful, suffocating forces of conservatism (the Mayor). The Queen Bee girl with her sycophantic followers (actually, Glory is a reprise of Cordelia in a way, which is nice). Compared to these villains, the Master has no allegorical power. He is what he is, a vampire stuck in a hole. So while he can threaten and posture and look scary, he can't get any of them where it really hurts: in the heart. 

But there are some things to love. Although the characters are only sketched in in these first two episodes, there's a sense still that there's more to them than we're seeing. Cordelia the bitch mentions that her mom has Epstein-Barr. Giles the buttoned-up librarian gets a little bit too eager when talking about the forces of darkness. If you're sharp-eyed you might come away from these episodes with a sense that there are non-cliched places to take these characters. 

If you've seen the whole of the show, of course, there are some great resonances. One I hadn't spotted before this rewatch: here in this first episode, Giles tells Buffy that she's not like her laughing, dancing teenage friends in exactly the same spot in the Bronze where Spike will eventually tell her the same thing... and then get a bit more hands-on with his demonstration. 

But even without having seen the whole thing, there's some nice patterning in the writing. Giles and Cordelia both test Buffy by asking her for arcane knowledge to prove she's 'one of them'. "Vamp nail polish? So over." "Identify a vampire. That guy." And she passes both tests, and she fits in perfectly into both groups, and she spends these two episodes trying to reject both of them. She doesn't want to be a vampire slayer. But she also doesn't want to be "Buffy", a Cordelia-follower and bitch.

She ends up with Willow and Xander because they're some kind of alternative to those two all-consuming groups which say "if you're with us you can't do anything else". And there's the central dilemma of the show. How to reconcile those two parts of the title. And that's the lovely thing about the title too: if conflict is the essence of drama, then a title which contains a conflict is a great place to start. 


Buffy and me: a year-long project

It's no secret that I have had a very intense relationship with the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I've written academic papers about it, newspaper articles about it, and in 2004, when I was a penniless writer struggling to finish my first novel while working part-time for a charity, I was so driven to find people with whom I could discuss Buffy - but really discuss it, deeply discuss it, that I somehow managed to find the cash to take a trip to Nashville to attend the international Slayage conference (an academic conference, not a fan convention with costumes, just to be clear. I wanted to talk about it, not dress up as Willow. I have some standards.). 


The show aired from 1997 to 2003 - it almost exactly covers the period of my life when I least knew who I was or what I wanted. I'd just graduated, I was working for a law firm, still an Orthodox Jew, involved in various friendships and romances that just weren't me. And through all that, I watched Buffy the way children watch TV. Not with half an eye. Not doing something else. I sat and stared at the screen. I watched each episode multiple times. Just like a child trying to figure out the world by watching Finding Nemo over and over again, I knew there was something important there, many important things, things I needed to really learn all the way down to the bottom.

Some of them were obvious. The writing is great, I wanted to be a writer, the writing is, to repeat, really really great, and if you want to be a writer and haven't seen it, you're missing a masterclass in character and storytelling. And it's a show with a strong female lead, but also other strong female cast members. This is still a rarity. Sure, there are a few shows with women in the lead, but they tend to be surrounded by men: Olivia Dunham's primary in-show relationships are with Peter, Walter and Broyles - she probably spends more time talking to Lincoln than Astrid. Buffy had Willow, the best friend, and Cordelia the nemesis-turned-friend and Miss Calendar and Tara and Anya and Dawn - Angel and Giles and Xander were important, but she had a host of women supporters too, not to mention women enemies. This stuff was important to me then, and it's only become more important as time's gone on. This is the kind of TV I want to make. 

Some of the things that made that show glimmer for me, though, are still less obvious. Something about all that doomed love, and how one makes a life where love is around, but in many forms, some more durable than others. Some of the wisdom. "Sometimes the most adult thing you can do is ask for help when you need it": which sounded like a foreign language when I first heard it, but is tremendously wise. Or Oz's speech about how being one of those people who constantly apologises is actually deeply selfish:

I'm sorry you're having a hard time with this. But I told you what I need. So I can't help feeling like the reason you want to talk is so you can feel better about yourself. 
And that's not my problem."

I think about that speech very often. It's still very wise. 

Buffy is a show which has meant a huge amount to me. It's influenced my writing practice on the deepest levels. It's altered the way I think about life. I spent my last year at the law firm mostly not working (sorry), but reading over the shooting scripts to see the tiny changes that were made between the writing and the final episode - that'll teach you a hell of a lot about how the business of writing is done.

I watched one episode (Once More with Feeling) ten times in a row, just watching and watching until the flesh of the quips and character moments fell away revealing the bones and I finally understood most of what I have ever needed to know about structure and momentum and building tension in a story. (That episode is great for really grokking that, by the way, because all the arc character stuff is done in the songs, and the spoken lines are almost all filleted-out monster-of-the-week plot skeleton.) But I've never gone back and done a full re-watch from the start. 

I was in Canada recently, and happened to turn on the TV in the middle of the afternoon, which I rarely do, and there was a Buffy rerun on - 'As You Were'. It had me crying within about 90 seconds. And I suddenly thought: "how long *has* it been since Buffy ended?" Which was when I realised that next May it will be 10 years since the end of Buffy. Ten *years*, you guys. And I feel like I want to mark this. That feels right. 

Now it is true that I am busy with one or two things. But this feels to me like a nourishment for my writing, to go back and take a careful look at what it was, and is, that makes the show so great. So. I'm going to re-watch the whole thing between now and next May*. I figure that averages out at about three episodes a week, which feels doable, and bloggable, even if only with a few notes sometimes. 

I'm already looking forward to the highs - Spike, Once More with Feeling, the whole of season five, Spike, Hush, The Pack, The Wish, Dopplegangland, Spike. And I'm dreading the lows, though I know they'll come. But I want to try to work them out too, not just talk about why The Wish works so perfectly, but also why Beer Bad really really doesn't, why collapsing "Willow is becoming power-drunk on the things she can do with magic" into "magic is a drug and Willow is an addict" is so clunky, and why Him would have worked just fine in Season 2, but is a disaster in Season 7. I want to see how the show looks to the writer I am now, what I see now that I didn't see before. And, I guess, I want to re-encounter 10-15-years-ago Naomi on the road, and see how she is too. 

So watch along with me, if you like? I am likely to spoil a bit (as I indeed just did above), so it's more of a project for re-watchers than first-timers. (Although if you've never seen Buffy, go and see Buffy.) Let's save the world. A lot. 

*I'll work out what to do about Angel when I get there. It was always the lesser show. Oh shut up, you know it was. 

Zombies, Run!

So: Zombies, Run! It’s a new iPhone app I’m making with the fantastic games studio Six to Start. We launched it on Kickstarter just five days ago and kept it low-key, just sending out a few tweets and Facebook/G+ status updates, and it’s already got $21,209 of funding. Wow. Could this have gone any better?

So I thought this would be a great time to talk about how we came up with the idea, and what our thoughts are about how to make the story work with the running and the gameplay.

Origin story

Earlier this year, on a total whim, I joined the first “Up and Running” online running training run by the lovely Shauna Reid and running coach Julia Jones. It’s great fun and I highly recommend it for anyone who’s new to running and a bit freaked out by the idea.

One of the first things they asked us was: “why do you want to run?” and one of the other participants gave an answer that made us all laugh: “to outrun the zombie horde”. And this started me thinking. That’s really why we want to be fit (or fitter), isn’t it? It’s not just a vanity thing, we want to know that if things go bad we’d be able to rely on our bodies to get us through and keep us safe. And it’s cool to imagine yourself in an action movie – I dorkily do that all the time when I’m on the treadmill.

At the same time Adrian and I had been talking about finding a project to create together. We sat down for a chat. Adrian’s a very keen runner and he’d thought about making some kind of running app. I said the words “running away from the zombie horde” and it all came from there.

Storytelling on the move

From my limited experience of running, I know it’s pretty taxing, and part of the joy is getting ‘into the zone’. So we’ve been thinking really hard about how to tell a story which is exciting and enhances your run rather than annoying you.

Our idea is that the story will come in bursts between the tracks on your own playlist. We all have those ‘workout’ playlists, right? That great song will come on, you’ll get into the groove, and then as it comes off there’ll be that burst of static and, there you are, Runner 5, out on a mission, being told what you need to do, or what’s happening around you, or what’s… coming to get you.

So this presents some interesting storytelling challenges. We figure you don’t want a burst of story that’s too long, because running with music is awesome. But you need enough to communicate what’s going on and keep you excited for the next instalment, because running with music while wondering if the zombies got runner 12 out there is even more awesome. And there’s the added challenge that we don’t know how long you’ll want to run for and we don’t think it’s really the purpose of our app to prescribe that.

Storytelling in short arcs

My conclusion, having turned this around many different ways, is that the story will have to develop in very short arcs. Let’s say no one’s going to go out for less than 20 minutes, we want each arc to be able to conclude within 20 minutes – so within let’s say four or five 60-120 second bursts of story. (Writing-craft geekery: four or five sections is how US TV dramas are often divided up, which interests me. It’s a good number. Teaser, plus three or four ‘acts’.) This means that if you run for more than 20 minutes you’ll hear more than one arc, but anytime you stop there should be a hook to make you want to go back.

I don’t want to spoil any of the surprises, but I think we’ll be able to tell some pretty great stories in those windows. There’ll be stories that happen back at base that you hear about over the radio, things that happen to you along the way, and the way you allot resources – or maybe how you respond to in-game found objects once you’re back home – will determine which stories open up for you to explore.

It’s a really exciting challenge and I’m already thrilled that it’s funded and so we know it’ll be made. I’m already brimming over with ideas and ready to get writing – if there’s interest I might even give some hints and thoughts here about how that process is going!