Sunday, July 12, 2009

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season One, Epsiode 10 - Nightmares

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Nightmares revolves around the concept of fear. In episode ten of Season One the students of Sunnydale High find their worst nightmares becoming reality. The cause of this nightmare-reality is revealed to be a young boy, Billy, who has been beaten into a coma and has astral-projected himself into the waking world – bringing the realm of nightmares along with him. Buffy and Co. must wake Billy up and help him face his attacker before reality and the realm of nightmares merge into one.

The idea of nightmares becoming reality is a concept which has been used in television before, however; as is the case in most Buffy episodes, it was developed in a slightly different way here, giving the concept a new dimension and making it more interesting. Nightmares is a multi-faceted episode that gives audiences a glimpse of the diversity Buffy offers. It features the supernatural thrills that Buffy viewers have come to expect; but it also gives an emotional insight into some characters, demonstrating that Buffy is a show that focuses on humans and their tumultuous relationships as well as focusing on vampires and demons.

This episode had a lot of potential for some really great character development, but unfortunately it fell a little short. Instead of focusing on some of the characters’ most emotionally damaging nightmares, the writers seemed to opt for the ones that would get a laugh out of the audience. Xander finding himself at school in his underwear and Willow having to sing in front of a room full of people are two such examples. However, that being said, the writers did develop the characters of Buffy and Giles through the representations of their nightmares, her nightmare being that she was the reason her parents divorced and discovering that her father no longer wants to see her, and his being that Buffy dies and becomes a vampire. Through this, the writers were able to humanize the characters of Buffy and Giles, something which had been done a little bit in previous episodes, but was looked at in greater detail here. We realize that Buffy may be the Slayer, but she is still a vulnerable teenager with the same doubts and fears as most teenagers, and we understand that Giles has developed a relationship with Buffy which extends beyond the Watcher/Slayer parameters, and is utterly terrified at the prospect of her dying as a result of her destiny. Nightmares would have been a more effective episode if the characters of Xander and Willow were developed in this way.

Nightmares worked very well as a standalone episode, but I think it also tied into Season One as a whole, albeit in a subtle way. The idea of facing personal fears and demons in order to live a fulfilling life was central in this episode, and was also explored in the Season finale, Prophecy Girl, where Buffy has to face her ultimate fear. The opening scene of Nightmares - which features The Master killing Buffy in one of her dreams, was a hint of what the Season finale would hold.

Overall, I thought that Nightmares was one of the best episodes of Season One. It is evident that Buffy is improving from its lousy Teacher’s Pet days, and although it misses the mark at some points, Nightmares remains one of the more original, intriguing episodes of Season One.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 1, Episode 9 - The Puppet Show

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The Puppet Show is the ninth episode in Season One of Buffy and is one of the best episodes of the first season. It, along with the final three episodes (Nightmare, Out of Sight, Out of Mind and Prophecy Girl) make up a terrific third of the season, and leave viewers wanting more Buffy.

This episode centers on the annual Sunnydale High talent(less) show, which Giles has been forced into producing by the evil new Principal, Mr. Snyder. One of the talent show contestants has her heart violently removed; leading the Scoobies to think that there may be a demon on the loose. All fingers begin to point towards the suspicious ventriloquist Morgan, and his dummy, Sid.

Although the idea of a dummy coming to life and killing people has been done many times before, it has never (to my knowledge) been done quite this way. Viewers are led to believe that it was Sid who ripped the heart out of the unfortunate student, only to find out that Sid is (or was) a demon hunter, now trapped in the body of a wooden dummy as a result of a demon’s curse. He is searching for the demon that killed the student and cursed him, so that he can kill it before it manages to kill anybody else, and so that he himself can be released from his wooden confines. This was a fresh, unexpected twist on the traditional ‘dummy goes psycho and kills everyone’ plot and did a very good job of undercutting traditional stereotypes within the horror genre.

This episode marks the introduction of Principal Snyder (Armin Shimerman), who is a better villain than many of the demons featured in the show, and who remains the principal of Sunnydale High up until he gets eaten by the mayor in the Season Three finale. Snyder is as different to the previous principal Mr. Bob Flutie (who got eaten by hyena-possessed students – anyone else seeing a pattern here?) as is possible. Snyder is the character that the audience continuously loves to hate, and he adds a new dimension to Buffy. Under the absent-minded instruction of Mr. Flutie, Buffy and the Scoobies could get away with sneaking off campus to hunt demons during school time. However, from the beginning, the audience realizes that Principal Snyder will be running things very differently. Buffy and the gang will have to go to extra lengths to make sure that Snyder doesn’t expose their little secret.
However, Snyder’s apparent ignorance of all things supernatural is broadcasted at the end of the episode, when the stage of the talent show is revealed and Buffy, Xander, Willow and Giles are caught red-handed with a freshly killed green demon stuck in a guillotine. After a bemused ‘I don’t get it. What is it? Avant Garde?’ from Snyder, the real show begins.

The character of Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) was very funny in this episode. Cordelia has been a constant presence throughout Season One and she knows that Buffy isn’t exactly a normal teenage girl; but due to her extreme vanity and selfishness, she doesn’t give much thought to the matter. In this episode, her self-absorbed nature was used to hilarious effect, providing much of the comic relief for the episode. Additionally, Cordelia becomes a more central character throughout Season Two and Three, and through episodes like these Whedon can properly introduce her character to viewers and enable the audience to understand her relationships and interactions with the other Buffy characters.

This episode didn’t really have any weak points as far as the plot or acting went; the only thing that I didn’t really like about it was the identity of the demon. The audience was aware that the demon would appear to be a student in the talent quest; we just didn’t know which student it was. I didn’t have a problem with the student who was found out to be the demon, (a boy who did magic tricks); I just thought a few subtle hints could have been put through the episode pointing to the identity of the real killer, so that on a second viewing the audience would know who the demon was, and could look out for any strange circumstances surrounding them. Apart from this, The Puppet Show had the right mixture of suspense, comedy and drama, making it one of the better episodes of the first season.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season One, Epsiode 8 - I Robot, You Jane

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One of the more ludicrous episodes of the first season, I Robot, You Jane centers around a demon (Moloch, the Corrupter), who was bound into the confines of a book in the Dark Ages, only to be unknowingly released into the Internet by Willow and 20th century computer scanning technology. Chaos ensues as Moloch begins to take advantage of the power he has access to from inside the net and begins to coerce students into doing his bidding, as well as making Willow fall in love with him.

The biggest problem with this episode was its thinly veiled metaphor, which presented the internet as one of the biggest threats to society in the late 20th century. The idea of a demon hacking into the Internet and gaining access to some of the world’s most coveted databases is a scary one, yes, and it isn’t too hard to draw the connection between Moloch and modern-day computer hackers. However, it was how this metaphor was wound into the episode, and how it was executed, that was the problem. Whedon used Giles as a vehicle through which he could launch a tirade on the evilness of the Internet, which meant that Giles was bumbling around, grunting about – well the evilness of the Internet – for majority of the episode, something which got a little tired after the first ten minutes. This was disappointing, as the idea itself was really interesting, and took Buffy in a direction that it hadn’t yet been; however it could have worked much better if it had been a little more subtle.

The introduction of the character of Jenny Callender was one of the better parts of this episode. She was introduced as a possible love interest for Giles, and the two continually had great chemistry, and produced genuinely funny, entertaining scenes together. Most of this humour came from Giles’ instant dismissal of any knowledge that came from a source other than a book, coupled with Jenny’s love of the World Wide Web and nonchalance towards books, and the arguments that often emerged from their opposing views on these topics. It was interesting to see the beginning of this romance, and to learn that there are people in the Buffyverse (such as Ms. Callender) who know about and actively practice and fight magic and the supernatural; the first half of Season One gives the impression that no-one outside of the Sunnydale Library has any idea of the sticky predicament their town is continually in.

Whedon looks at another issue that teenagers often face in this episode – the dangers of meeting people online and internet dating. As with previous episodes, he exaggerates and supernatural-ises it, so that Willow begins to fall in love with a demon who wants to take over the world, rather than a seedy old man; but the basic premise is the same. Buffy and Xander play the part of concerned friends well, and I believe that Whedon was able to send a positive (and hopefully deterring) message out to his younger audience with this episode.

A notable part of this episode was during the final scene, where Buffy, Willow and Xander are discussing the demons they have fallen for whilst in Sunnydale. Buffy comments that none of them will ever have a healthy, normal relationship and that they’re all doomed, at which point all three of them start laughing hysterically. When they realize the depressing truth to the statement though, they all stop laughing and look – well, depressed. This scene, although giving little to the episode plot-wise, was classic Whedon humour, and was a pleasant way to end a mediocre episode.

Overall, I Robot, You Jane was an entertaining, middle of the road episode. It didn’t have the clich├ęs or atrocities that were key features of Teachers Pet, but it also didn’t have the clever plot and keen dialogue of The Harvest. It was an entertaining little episode that helped fans realize that the show would improve from here on in.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 1, Episode 7 - Angel

Angel is the seventh episode in Season One of Buffy and is the episode where Buffy and Angel kiss (finally!) and is also the episode which explains Angel’s history as a vampire.

The general gist of this episode involves Buffy and Angel sharing a passionate kiss, after which she learns that he is actually a 200 year old vampire. After realizing this, Joyce gets attacked by a vampire, although she doesn’t die, thankfully. Buffy automatically assumes it was Angel and decides to hunt him down and kill him. However, upon finding Angel, she realizes that he has been cursed with a soul and has not fed off a human for over a hundred years, and it was actually Darla who bit her mother, in an effort to try and draw Angel back to the Master and herself. In an action-fuelled fight between Darla and Buffy, Angel kills Darla, saving Buffy’s life and showing his love for her.

An interesting part of this episode occurred at the beginning when Buffy was put in the position of the ‘damsel in distress’. She was outnumbered against The Three and was unable to fight them, when Angel came to her rescue. When I was watching this I initially thought it was a little odd, as Buffy often has very feminist overtones and doesn’t usually show women in peril waiting to be rescued by men (often it is Xander who is put is danger and is relying on Buffy to save him). However, as this scene continued and Buffy and Angel fought The Three, Angel was slashed in the ribs with a metal pole, weakening him. Buffy then picked him up and took him back to her house, essentially saving him. I thought that this was a very nice inversion of the typical ‘damsel in distress’ stereotype. Whedon presented the idea of a man and a woman helping each other out equally, rather than adopting a radical feminist or misogynist viewpoint, an idea which hadn’t really been explored in previous television shows. While many aspects of Buffy are clearly pro-feminism, Buffy and Angel’s relationship remains one of equality, without sexism.

One of the weaker points of Angel was the chemistry between Buffy and Angel, as well as the acting of David Boreanez (Angel). I recall that in Season 2 and 3; Buffy and Angel had really great chemistry and were really believable as a couple. However, I didn’t see that here. They seemed awkward together, and a lot of their dialogue together was jilted and unconfident. Buffy’s relationship with her mother was more believable than her blossoming romance with Angel. The acting of David Boreanez was also rather lacklustre here. It was as though Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy) had to carry some of the scenes between the two of them, he was that lifeless at times. However, both the chemistry between the pair and the acting of David improve throughout Season One, no doubt as the actors become more comfortable with one another and David becomes more aware of his character.

I found the history of Angel a very interesting part of the episode, and it gave him a back story that was desperately needed, as the audience had been left guessing his identity for six episodes. His hidden identity was a nice twist, although not altogether unpredictable – Buffy was going to need a boyfriend just as burdened by his destiny as she was sooner or later, and a hunky vampire with a conscience is a good fit with the potential for lots of drama.

One of the strongest points of this episode was the fight scene between Buffy and Darla. The introduction of guns into the Buffysphere was a novel concept, as the use of a modern day weapon contrasted well with the medieval weapons that Buffy so often uses. It’s a pity that this idea wasn’t used again in later seasons; there are very few guns shown or used throughout the rest of the show. Angel killing Darla was also a nice touch; it symbolized his choice to get go of his past (his vampire life and Darla, who was his sire) and embrace his future (Buffy and trying to bring down the Master).

As far as Season One goes, this was one of the better episodes. It was a good introduction to the love saga that becomes Buffy and Angel, and it also provided a very thought provoking history for the character of Angel. The comic relief wasn’t lost in all the drama either, as both Xander and Giles had some classic Whedon one liners. Angel marked the beginning of a relationship that was one of the most popular fictional love stories of the nineties.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 1, Episode 6 - The Pack

This episode examined the idea of animal possession – hyena possession to be precise – and what would happen if a group of Sunnydale High students (one of our favourite Scoobies included) became possessed by hyenas. Xander and four other bawdy students find themselves possessed by hyena spirits on a field trip to the zoo and inevitably start terrorizing the school, leaving it up to Buffy, Giles and Willow to de-possess them.

A lot of people have said this was one of the standout episodes of the season, and the first really good episode of the series; but I have to disagree. While the plot was more original than Never Kill a boy on the First Date and The Witch, The Pack lacked character development and didn’t have much relevance to the season as a whole.
That being said however, the concept was quite original and very well executed. Whedon was able to draw scarily accurate comparisons between high school teenagers and predatory pack animals.

One of the best things about this episode was Xander breaking out of his role as a funny, dweeby guy and becoming evil (even if it was only temporary). Nasty Xander was, well – nasty and scary and mean. It was interesting to see the character of Xander be used as more than just comic relief and some of his scenes – especially when he was degrading Willow - were truly chilling.
The most notable piece of character expansion in this episode was Buffy discussing her burgeoning like/lust for elusive mystery man Angel. Angel obviously becomes Buffy’s main love interest and remains so until Season Three, but he wasn’t featured much through the first half of Season One, other than to give Buffy warnings of impending doom. Buffy’s girly conversation with Willow about Angel at the beginning of this episode alludes to the growing part Angel will play in her life; as Buffy enthusiasts know, the next episode in Season One centers entirely around Angel and the idea of a relationship between the two of them.

Despite being an eerily accurate depiction of how malicious and demeaning teenagers can be, especially when under the influence of something (alcohol, testosterone and evil animal spirits to name a few), this episode didn’t really provide the audience with any major character revelations, or hints as to what would happen later on in the season. The ‘Anointed One’, who was such a huge part of the previous episode, and is, as the audience learnt, still alive, is not referred to at all. Likewise, The Master went unmentioned in this episode. However, all this aside, it was nice to have an episode of pure high school in all its evilness – it’s episodes like this one and The Witch that begin to be missed after the gang graduates at the end of Season 3.

In my opinion, The Pack features one of the most unsettling, yet bizarre scenes of the season, with the four hyena teenagers eating Principal Flutie. Luckily Xander was excluded from this; as he was too busy trying to rape Buffy (silly boy). The worst part about it all was Principal Flutie (although he is bumbling and old-fashioned) was actually a likeable character. The audience was genuinely distressed when he got devoured, along with Buffy, Willow and Giles. This was an effective plot point used by Whedon, as he was able to create a character that his audience liked and didn’t think anything would ever happen to (in most high school dramas the Principal is a constant force of either benevolence or evil) and then POW! he has him eaten by students who are possessed by hyenas. However this event was also quite bizarre and somewhat unbelievable; if a high school principal got ‘eaten’, surely there would be an investigation of some sort rather than the teachers’ dismissing it with a theory along the lines of ‘wild dogs got into his office’. Surely there aren’t an abundance of wild dogs running freely through the streets of California? But this is Buffy and vampires do seem to kill countless humans nightly with the authorities remaining unawares, so viewers have to learn to accept the explanations given for events like these with no questions.

On the whole The Pack was standard Season One fare; not particularly groundbreaking, but not particularly awful either. The plot was fairly original and was executed well, and while it didn’t give much to the season overall, this episode worked well on its own, letting the audience know that sometimes, high school really can be hell, in a literal sense as well as a metaphoric one.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season One, Episode 5: Never Kill a Boy on the First Date

Written by Rob Des Hotel & Dean Batali; Directed by David Semel

This was the episode everyone knew would come along sooner or later – Buffy goes on a date and it all goes horribly, awfully, vamptastically wrong. In this case the lucky guy is the nerdy Owen, and disaster strikes when Buffy has to go to a funeral home to save Giles and prevent an evil prophecy from coming true, and Owen follows her.

Overall this episode was pretty average for Season one; better than the atrocious Teacher’s Pet, but not nearly as pleasing as later episodes. It is the first episode that hints at the darker, more serious tone the show gradually embraces. Disappointingly the main plot was not one of Buffy’s original, revolutionary ideas; the idea of a date gone wrong is an age-old plot for teen-TV shows, leaving the rest of this episode fairly predictable. However, it was executed in a humourous way, which keeps the audience engaged. Also, the sub-plot, which centered around an evil prophecy concerning ‘The Anointed One’ (a vampire who has the potential to bring eternal damnation to all of humanity) was a little monotonous; I found myself wanting more ‘Buffy’s date goes wrong’ scenes and fewer scenes with the Master dictating ancient prophecies from a Bible-like tome.

In terms of the writing; this episode had some of the wittiest one-liners from the season. The dialogue between Buffy and Giles is particularly funny; the writers were able to take advantage of the characters’ opposing personalities and show the ignorance of American culture when idealizing and interpreting the behaviour of people from other countries (in this case, Giles from England).
The character of Owen was written poorly, causing him to become a one-dimensional character, which is probably the reason why he never appeared in another episode. It was clear from the beginning that the writers were using this character as a vehicle through which they could put Buffy in a ‘disastrous date’ scenario; any attempts to personify him fell short.

This episode was the first to really showcase the postmodern allusions and humour that Buffy became known for. Lines such as ‘Clark Kent had a job. I just want to go on a date’ allude to popular culture of the time, and allow the audience to respond to the show on a more personal level. Buffy was one of the first shows to pop these postmodern tidbits into its script, and while the audience responded well to this technique; it does run the risk of dating the show. This can be seen in later episodes as some of the allusions do not resonate as well with a 2009 audience as they did with a 1997 audience.

Personally, I thought the strongest element of this episode was Buffy’s complete understanding of the importance of her destiny. In previous episodes Buffy had tried to divide her time between being the Slayer and being a normal teenage girl, but in this episode she realizes that her destiny has to come first; when she refuses to be the Slayer she puts innocent people at risk. The conversation between Buffy and Giles in the final scene of the episode dictates two main themes that run through the whole series – responsibility and sacrifice. Buffy must sacrifice her emotions and desires in order to protect others. By choosing her social life over her Slayer duties, Buffy puts Giles’ life at risk; she cannot even go out on a date without it possibly having life threatening consequences for those around her. It is through this event that we, as viewers finally ‘get’ the enormity of Buffy’s destiny. As much as she wants to be a normal teenager, she has responsibilities that she can’t ignore; if she does, she risks losing the people close to her. Whedon makes a point of stating that there is no rulebook on how to be the perfect teenager, Watcher or Slayer; everyone feels alone and confused sometimes, it’s an inevitable part of life. As he says through Giles ‘we just have to feel our way as we go along’.

Overall, I thought this episode was pretty average fare for Season One. It had some touching character moments and terrific writing; but was lacking in the action department and had a fairly disappointing plot.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season One, Episode 4: Teacher's Pet

Written by David Greenwalt; Directed by Bruce Seth Green

Teacher’s Pet is the fourth episode in Season One of Buffy, and it is, in my opinion, one of the weakest episodes of the season. The plot is humdrum, the special effects are atrocious, and whilst the writing has improved from previous episodes; as season one continues the writing continues to improve, therefore making this episode unexciting compared to the rest of season one.
This episode centres around Xander who, along with the rest of the male population at Sunnydale High, seems strangely drawn to the substitute biology teacher, Ms French. Buffy suspects that there is something unnatural about Xander’s attraction to her and discovers that Ms. French is actually a ‘She-Mantis’, a giant praying mantis-like demon who assumes the form of a desirable woman in order to lure virgin boys into her home, mate with them and then, in true praying mantis form, bite their heads off. Buffy, Giles and Willow have to find the She-Mantis and kill her, before she can deflower and devour Xander.

It was interesting to have a storyline concentrating on one of the supporting characters (in this case, Xander) but the plot was predictable and tended to drag a little at times. This epsiode marks the beginning of Xander’s continuous attraction to demons (we later have a beautiful, life-force-sucking mummy in Inca Mummy Girl (Season 2, ep4), and the infamous vengeance demon, Anya (Seasons 3 through to 7) but contributes little else to the series as a whole.
A redeeming factor of this episode is the writing. In The Witch some of the dialogue seemed a little jarring, but in Teacher’s Pet it runs together very smoothly, indicating that Whedon and the other writers were beginning to gain an understanding of the characters they were writing for and how they should interact with each other inside the show. The writing continues to improve throughout Season One, as the personalities of the characters emerge and their relationships with each other shift.

Another positive aspect of this episode is the way in which Whedon created tension. There is a great deal of suspense in the last fifteen minutes of the episode, allowing the audience to be drawn into the story and keeping viewers on the edge of their seats. This suspense in this episode peaks during the final scene, when the audience sees fertilised She-Mantis egg sacs almost ready to hatch, hanging sinisterly in the cupboard of the Biology classroom; unbeknown to Buffy and co. This reinforces the idea that, although Buffy can kill countless demons, she can never eradicate evil completely, a message that Whedon repeatedly reminds his audience of throughout the series.
The worst component of this episode is definitely the special effects, especially the enormous She-Mantis shown towards the end of the episode. Admittedly it was the nineties, but the cringe worthy effects really detract from this episode, turning what was previously an episode with some decent suspense and a lacklustre plot into a comic spectacle with a demon who looked like she had stepped off the set of Star Trek. Thankfully, the creators laid to rest the idea of creating giant head chomping, bug-like demons.

Overall, this is probably an episode that most Buffy fans would rather forget. However, while the plot does drag at times, there is no doubt that this episode marks the beginning of the evolution of the writing. Also, this episode demonstrates that Whedon does not believe that evil can ever be completely eradicated from the world. Buffy can never stop evil; she can only try and hold it at bay. Sometimes good people will die in the fight against evil (such as the unfortunate biology teacher in this episode) and there is nothing Buffy can do to prevent that. This message is reiterated throughout the series, as the audience sees good people perish for no good reason. This episode, despite its flaws, is the first episode to demonstrate this message, which later becomes one of the central themes of the show.