Monday, March 23, 2009

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 1, Episode 1 - Welcome to the Hellmouth

DISCLAIMER: I am reviewing Buffy the Vampire Slayer on an episodic basis, not on the show as a whole. However, I'm writing this with the assumption that readers have seen all 7 seasons of Buffy, and there will therefore be some spoilers!!

Written by Joss Whedon; Directed by Charles Martin Smith

I unfortunately can’t approach this from a fresh-faced, first viewing perspective, as I lost my Buffy virginity many years ago. However, whilst watching this episode with the advantage of knowing what will happen with the show in the next seven years, I found the introduction to this epic show surprising yet somewhat comfortable, inasmuch as the central characters we see in ‘Welcome to the Hellmouth are in some ways very different to their future selves in ‘Chosen’ (S7, ep.22), but in others, they remain all too familiar. It is a testament to the writers that they have managed to maintain the core substance of each character, whilst adapting their ideologies in order to keep up to date with the changing values of popular culture.

For a pilot, ‘Welcome to the Hellmouth’ sets up the premise of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ especially well, putting forward a strong mission statement, and letting the viewers know that this is a show that will not be tied down to one genre, rather it will incorporate elements of drama comedy and horror. This episode centers around Buffy moving to Sunnydale to escape her Slayer past, only to realise that there is potentially more evil there than she had faced before, that the town may in fact be ‘a centre of mystical energy’ as her watcher/librarian Rupert Giles states.

One of the best things about this episode, and about the show as a whole, is the unique approach Whedon has taken in creating his hero, Buffy. She is a slight, blonde, teenage girl, the type that normally gets killed off first in horror movies. Whedon wanted to subvert this idea; instead of the blonde girl getting lured into an alley and killed by a vampire, he has created a character that lures vampires into alleys to kill them. His blonde teenager has the power to fight back against her oppressors, an idea which made Buffy original and innovative for its time, as well as putting forth an idea for future shows (shows such as Charmed and Alias may not have been created if Whedon hadn’t instigated this idea).
The language is one of the drawbacks of this episode; Whedon tends to use slang that is specific to Californian teenagers, therefore making it slightly inaccessible for some viewers. However, Whedon and his team of writers quickly realised that the public were not responding to this language, and removed most of it from later episodes. This indicates that Whedon was responsive to the demands of his viewers even at the beginning of the show, something that helped Buffy succeed.

This episode looks at the traditional portrayal of vampires throughout history. An example is Giles, the high-school librarian/watcher, who is almost always seen exclusively in the library. He wears tweedy suits and wire-rimmed glasses, and spends his time pulling out mammoth, leather-bound volumes entitled “Vampyr” and blurting out ancient prophecies. Alongside him we have Luke, the ancient vampire who spends his days carrying out rituals that have a suspiciously religious ring to them; ‘on the third day of the newest light would come the Harvest’ and resurrecting the god-like character that is The Master. These characters serve to support the historical myths and ideologies surrounding vampires, ideologies which Whedon promptly subverts with the introduction of characters such as the sassy Darla; a vampire who cares more about eating cute boys in a Catholic schoolgirl getup than upholding the traditional vamp value system, the moronic yet kindhearted Xander; who assumed Buffy was going to build a ‘really little fence’ with her stake, and even Buffy herself; who is more keen to don a cheerleading outfit and pom poms than battle the forces of darkness. Through subverting the traditional vampire archetype, as well as dismissing the stereotypical idea of what a vampire slayer is (there’s no Bon Jovi running around with a spear in this show) Whedon is able to leave his viewers with a very real feeling of ‘What will happen next?’ From the first scene of the pilot, (where a seemingly innocent blonde girl morphs into a fanged monster) to the last scene in ‘Chosen’, where the ‘Welcome to Sunnydale’ sign falls into the bottomless pit of rubble that was previously a Hellmouth, Buffy fans are aware that nothing is as it seems.

In the world of Buffy and the Scooby gang, evil vampire lords can be resurrected in underground churches, your boyfriend might want to kill you after you sleep with him, the Mayor of town might want to eat your graduating class when he turns into a giant snake, your college professor might create a Frankenstein-y monster who is hell bent on dissecting people to see how they ‘work’; a God from the underworld might want to use your little sister’s blood to cause an apocalypse, your best friend might try to kill you before killing the world, and the Source of all Evil might decide to end the world once and for all.
However it’s also a place where friendships are often more effective than superpowers when fighting evil, a place where people make mistakes and have to deal with the consequences – be they supernatural or all too natural – in order to find redemption, and above all it is a place where ordinary teenagers choose to sacrifice everything in order to ward off the forces of evil and maintain the existence of humanity – whilst passing chemistry, of course.

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