May 24th, 2011

Buffy The Vampire Slayer - What Does The Future Hold?

Written by Bernice Watson

As any self-respecting Buffy fan should already know, this ground-breaking, gender-busting, cult hit did not end in May 2003 when the final episode aired in the US. Instead Buffy and the Scoobies packed up their stakes, holy water and books on arcane law and moved shop from our television screens to our local comic book shop. Thus a new era in the Buffyverse began. But as we face the closing chapters of Season Eight (the final collected edition is due for release on June 1st) I find myself looking back on Buffy’s journey so far and wondering what the future holds for her and the rest of the gang…

The world first met Buffy in 1992 in the film that spawned the more successful television series of the same title. Although the brainchild of series producer Joss Whedon, the film version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was directed by Fran Rubel Kazui and therefore lacked much of the ‘Wheedonesque’ style that so defined the later television series. Kristy Swanson starred in the title role alongside Luke Perry of all people. Let’s try to remember though that in 1992 Luke Perry was hot property. I know, it’s a stretch, but just cast your mind back to the days of Beverly Hills 90210. So, in a flurry of stone-washed denim, taffeta ball gowns and badly choreographed fight scenes (often seen operating in tandem) Buffy entered the cultural consciousness. Huzzah!

Five years later Buffy re-appeared on the scene and she was edgier, darker and way less camp. Whedon had been given free reign to develop his ‘high school as horror’ concept in the way he had originally intended it, not as a light Hollywood comedy but as an intelligent, and sometimes scary, exploration of the pressures of high school and horror as a genre. The original concept that had inspired Whedon was the appeal of subverting the horror cliché whereby the helpless blonde girl is cornered by a monster and either devoured or rescued by some appropriately masculine character. He wanted to turn the hunted into the hunter.

For six years the world watched as Buffy and her friends battled the forces of darkness, the social difficulties of high school and any number of genre conventions. Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Buffy was a young woman painfully isolated at times from the world around her but emotionally tethered by a core group of loyal friends (Xander, Willow and her ‘Watcher’ Giles). Her early confrontations with The Master saw Buffy face fear, powerlessness and death. In season two she struggled against lover-turned-monster Angel/Angelus in a series of events that in many ways reflected a loss of childish innocence and the ascendancy of duty over personal desires for Buffy. This is a theme that would continue throughout the series and into the comics.

In my opinion, Buffy hit its narrative highs in seasons two and five. In the former the Buffy-Angel star-crossed romance drove the show to a level of emotional intensity that, I think, it never reached again. After the climactic events of Becoming Parts 1 and 2 wherein Buffy was forced to impale Angel and send him into a hell dimension (moments after his soul and ‘good guy’ persona are reinstated by the world’s most badly timed spell) it was difficult to see how Whedon was going to maintain the same level of excitement in the third season.

Perhaps the show’s second most shocking and emotionally resonant turn comes when Buffy’s mother, Joyce, dies suddenly in season five’s The Body. The loss of her mother thrusts Buffy into the unexpected and difficult role of caregiver to little sister Dawn (a late, and not entirely welcome, addition to the cast) and ultimately into the harsh world of full adulthood. In addition, the season finale sees Buffy sacrifice herself to save the world. The almost certain knowledge that Buffy would one day perish doing her duty as the Slayer, most likely sooner rather than later, had been hanging over the show since the first episode. It is a credit to Whedon that he resisted the urge to play this trump card earlier.

In an interesting and telling piece of trivia, the show was actually supposed to end with the season five finale wherein Buffy fulfills her destiny by sacrificing herself to save the world. But the series was so popular that the studio decided to extend its run by another two seasons. Had the show finished, as planned, with Buffy’s death it would have completed the thematic journey it has started out on from the beginning.

So season seven rolled around and audiences wondered whether this was it. Would Buffy live through the last episode? Did we want her to? Rumours abounded that, after seven years of playing the character, Sarah Michelle Gellar was sick to death of the show and couldn’t wait to get away to other projects. I felt that this, somewhat understandable, fatigue could be seen in her performance. Both actress and character seemed tired. The season turned out to be a bizarre mixed bag. Buffy and the Scoobies eventually created a multiplicity of slayers who were formed into an army of evil-thwarting, pigtailed teen power, Buffy received a vote of no confidence that placed Faith in charge of the assembled slayer crew for a time and eventually Sunnydale was sucked into the Hellmouth. Things were left feeling moderately unresolved and in a state of  flux.

It was here, at the beginning of Buffy’s eighth season, that the show switched medium and became a comic. Like most Buffy fans I was thrilled to learn that the adventures of Buffy, Willow, Xander and Giles would continue and eagerly awaited the first issue (in truth I prefer to wait for the collected editions and thus parcel out the fun into painfully anticipated bi-annual Buffy-fests). The switch to print brought with it some immediately noticeable changes. Without the constraints of a television special effects budget the creators were free to pack the story with as many helicopters, castles, fancy weapons and monsters as they could draw. Suddenly slayer-central was a castle in the Scottish Highlands and the entire ensemble had turned para-military. I wanted to buy into the fun of Buffy finally being able to soar creatively with nothing to stand in its way but increasingly I felt like something integral to the story had been lost.

For me Buffy has always been, at its core, the story of one woman who sacrifices her own needs for the greater good in (almost) complete anonymity. She is, and always will be, alone in her responsibilities. The heart of Buffy is that, unlike slayers before her, Buffy does have a very small number of friends who stand with her, as much as they can, but, ultimately, she is alone. The reality that, unlike Willow or Xander, Buffy cannot live an ordinary life and that she will probably give hers at a young age provided a rock solid emotional undercurrent that anchored the show. When, in season seven, there suddenly appeared an army of slayers that grounding was abruptly taken away. Of course we all wanted Buffy to be set free, it was so unfair that she had to fight multi-dimensional evil all alone until it inevitably overwhelmed her. But once this tension was taken away, suddenly the story just felt…emptier.

Whedon and co. replaced Buffy’s ‘chosen one’ isolation with the well-worn, and less convincing, ‘loneliness of command’ as she led her legion of slayers in the fight against Twilight (season eight’s ‘big bad’). The change of pace just didn’t resonate. The fact that Whedon wasn’t always writing the comic didn’t help either. I don’t mean to disrespect the not-inconsiderable writing talent working on Season Eight but there were times when it just missed the mark.

And so, as another season of Buffy comes to a close, and it has been confirmed that the series will continue into a ninth season, one has to wonder should this be the end? At what point should a series try to finish on a high note? Has Buffy run its course? Has it wandered from its fundamental premise and lost its emotional grounding? These are questions every fan will have to ask themselves and I’m sure there will be many different answers but this fan would like to see the franchise end on a strong narrative high, not limp from the pop cultural sphere in a haze of never-ending sequels written with less and less involvement from Joss. It’s time for Buffy to finish with a bang. Make it unforgettable, earth-shattering, a fitting send off for a character that has had such a profound impact on the popular consciousness for almost two decades and deserves some dignified closure.

And on a related note...

In an interesting (and frankly a little disturbing) twist it has recently been announced that there is to be a Buffy reboot film. The new film will have no involvement from Joss and will feature a whole new cast. Rumours of the reboot have been met with cries of fury and dismay from fans and no little despair from Mr Whedon himself. In a email to E! Online Whedon said, “I always hoped that Buffy would live on even after my death. But, you know, AFTER. I don't love the idea of my creation in other hands, but I'm also well aware that many more hands than mine went into making that show what it was. And there is no legal grounds for doing anything other than sighing audibly.” The idea that Buffy is about to be hauled from its well-deserved retirement and trotted out again in a sad attempt to capitalise on the current vampire-fever makes me profoundly sad.

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