Entries in buffy (4)


Buffy: Teacher's Pet

So I watched three episodes: Teacher's Pet, Never Kill a Boy on a First Date and The Pack all in one go. Mostly because I knew I wanted to see The Pack again so much, and seeing it in context like this makes me realise what an amazing ep it is and how much there is to learn from it. In fact, The Pack is hands-down the best episode of Season 1, the only one really worth re-watching, and although I expect there'll be moments to enjoy in the rest of the season I feel kind of annoyed to have to slog through the rest of the season before I can get on to juicy Season 2. 

HOWEVER, a commitment's a commitment, and therefore, sigh, I have to write about Teacher's Pet first. But I suspect I'll be spending the rest of Season 1 explaining in detail what each of these episodes get wrong that The Pack gets so right. 

Teacher's Pet. First off, it is not a great name for an episode. This stuff is important: as we saw with the name Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a great name can indicate the kind of clarity a show has. It can show up an essential tension, raise a question that the show needs to answer. This is not a great name. The teacher is not a pet - she, Natalie French, femme fatale biology teacher, turns out to be a giant insect of some sort. But not the kind of insect that anyone involved in the episode keeps as a pet. And her major plan isn't to keep any of her students as pets either. She wants to mate with the male, virgin students and then bite their heads off. Xander is caused to swoon by her bodacious body, pheremones, and his desire to lose his virginity. The gang have to save him. But, going back to the name, Xander isn't *even* the teacher's pet. There's another student Blaine she likes better, captures first. So at the very best, the name "Teacher's Pet" indicates that Xander would *like* to be the teacher's pet. But only in a metaphorical way, not a literal one.

What I'm saying is, this episode title has one level of meaning *at best*. And that's pretty much the case with the episode too. 

Witch dabbled in some dark psychological territory - things we don't like to talk about - like how mothers can be murderously jealous of their daughters, and growing old can make you bitter and resentful of youth. Teacher's Pet, meanwhile, keeps things extremely light, psychologically. Boys want to have sex with beautiful women, is about the limit of it. Boys like to pretend they've lost their virginity when they haven't. Xander wants to impress Buffy by being strong, but hasn't yet realised that this is never going to work out for him. (There's also a little misogyny in the "beautiful women are out to control and eventually destroy helpless men" subtext here...)

No one's motivations in this episode are complex. There's no urgency to any of them, no dark needs - unless you count 'wants to have sex' as a dark need, which really this ep seems to do. If you'd wanted to push it with Miss French you could have done a bit of biological 'ticking clock' in which she *needs* to get some boys to mate with her before her eggs go off. Or you could have really pushed the inappropriateness of the teacher/student relationship, the 'teacher's pet' angle, by having Miss French get Xander to do one or two things which he "can't tell his friends about", feeling isolated and confused but still horny as hell. But no, instead it has a sub-plot with a vampire with a rake for a hand, who Buffy eventually uses as a sniffer dog to find Miss French when Willow's generic 'hacking' of the school computer fails to turn up the right address. There is a nice moment, though, when the teacher who Buffy had felt understood by turns up dead; it darkens *her* experience a little bit, which is nice. 

What I really want to talk about though, is the 'wink wink' ending. It's so X-Files. We've killed the insect-teacher, we've rescued Xander. And then under the desk, in the final scene, there are some of her eggs! Hatching! Dun dun dun! The End. It's very similar to the end of Witch. The mom is in the cheerleader statue! Forever! Dun dun dun! The End. 

Why are these sting endings X-Files-ey*? Because they imply that the story's not over, and no final victory has been achieved - something more could happen later, maybe something scary for us (the eggs) or just for the person involved (the statue). X-Files lived and breathed this lack of finality, the suffocating sense that however much Mulder and Scully did, it'd never be enough and the darkness would always overcome them. (In fact, it's quite Lovecraftian; the unsettling ending.) And those endings worked quite well in X-Files. Yes, you've killed the monster but one day it might come back... maybe for your successors at the FBI, maybe to terrorise some other family in rural Indiana. But they're not so great for Buffy, because Buffy is set *in the high school*. If those eggs hatch, Buffy's going to have to deal with them, and we'll have to have another boring episode about a giant insect. 

Now, The Pack has a very different sort of ending, which works so much better. Xander has been involved in some very horrible happenings. (If you haven't watched The Pack, please do. It's like £1.89 on iTunes. Go and get it and watch it now.) At the end of the episode, the monster is defeated, all seems well, Xander says he's forgotten all the things he did while under its influence. EXCEPT HE HASN'T FORGOTTEN, which is the final sting. This isn't a plot sting. It's a character sting. We've learned something about Xander which sits like a timebomb under the character: he's a liar. That timebomb will just sit there, like the mother in the statue, like the eggs under the desk. But unlike those stings, the writers can bring this back at any time without committing themselves to a whole plotline, or a recurring monster. A single line will make us remember that Xander is a liar, and that he's still got the same personal identity and memories as a much more horrible person. It deepens the character without committing the writers to anything. 

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the many many reasons that The Pack is better than Teacher's Pet. 


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. 


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.