In this series of articles we look at thematic links between Doctor Who and other television series, and influences that often run both ways. As always, let’s start by looking at the most superficial of links: actors who crossed over:
Anthony Stewart Head (Giles) is the first to spring to mind, memorably playing our Big Bad in School Reunion. He is the first to spring to mind because as far as I am aware he is the only actor to date to appear in both series. If you widen things out a bit then you find James Masters (Spike) who appeared in Torchwood, as did Robin Sachs (Ethan Rayne). Widening things out further to Big Finish, the third incarnation of Romana was played by Juliet Landau (Drusilla) for their Gallifrey series. And that’s about it. Slim pickings for a couple of genre series that share a whole lot thematically…
At the heart of both Doctor Who and Buffy is the struggle between good and evil. Both series show us battles against monsters, it is just that Doctor Who chooses to dress that up in a veil of sci-fi. Typically the monsters in Doctor Who are aliens, but not always. Occasionally, like in Buffy, they come from below (Silurians) and often that sci-fi-veil is extremely thin. Doctor Who has shown us vampires, ghosts and werewolves, but shies away from acknowledging it with a bit of technobabble. They exist in both worlds nonetheless.
Fighting these monsters in Buffy the Vampire Slayer we have Buffy herself. She is far from being the most interesting character when making a comparison with Doctor Who, but she does share one important feature. Like the Doctor, the slayer regenerates. It is done in a different way, with one slayer dying and another being “called”, but the end result is the same thing. Had the series been called “The Vampire Slayer” instead of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” it would have had an infinite shelf life like Doctor Who. Along with past and potential future slayers, we see the next incarnation with Faith, and she’s our Sixth Doctor (at the outset) – the incarnation who’s not quite right. Like Buffy, the Doctor has superpowers. He can survive in the vacuum of space for a limited time, he can put himself into a trance so he doesn’t need to breathe. He can cheat death… but we’ll come back to that.
Because a lot of that is not what Doctor Who is all about. More often it is about the Doctor being the kind of man who solves problems with intelligence rather than his fists and to find the parallels with Buffy we need to look beyond the lead character. In fact, we need to look beyond any of the characters with superpowers. Buffy, Faith, Willow, Tara, Anya, Angel, Spike: they are all part of the fantasy landscape of the series because they are able to fight the monsters with their own superpowers, but there are characters that lack that.
Giles is really our Doctor figure. He doesn’t (at least until later series when he suddenly becomes a powerful magician) have any superpowers, and has to solve problems using his brains. Wesley is his mini-me, fulfilling the same function and a useful crossover into Angel where he continues to do the same. Xander is my favourite character in Buffy and not just because he is brilliantly funny. He plays the Doctor Who companion role. He brings nothing in the way of special abilities to the group, and simply has to learn how to be magnificent, charting the same course that many Doctor Who companions have followed.
Like the Doctor, every so often a threat comes along that is so great that it costs Buffy her life. And like the Doctor she comes back. This breaks the normal rules of fiction in both series, and in both series it is shown to have a cost. In Doctor Who he comes back to life, but he is not quite the same person. We have to get used to a different version of him. In Buffy the same happens. She comes back from the dead but she isn’t quite right. She has been changed by being ripped out of heaven.
And that brings us to a fundamental difference between the two series. Buffy inhabits a world where religion and faith gets it right. She dies and goes to heaven. It is quite explicit in the programme, which never shies away from giving a clear indication of the existence of heaven and hell. For a series build on the premise of a hellmouth, that really has to be the case, but Whedon could have shied away from it and left things vague and up to our interpretations. But no, he sets his cards firmly on the table. Heaven exists. And boy, is that a brave move, and one that I admire hugely. Because Doctor Who just won’t go there. Occasionally it goes so far as to ask the question and challenge the Doctor’s beliefs (e.g. The Impossible Planet), but virtually always the Doctor stands aloof from committing to an opinion one way or the other. Only Torchwood gives us an opinion on the subject with its bleak nothing-after-death episode A Day in the Death. This comes across as a bit bizarre for a series that borrows from Buffy far more than Doctor Who. The rift is performing an identical function to the Hellmouth, and the monsters in Torchwood are far more Buffy-esque, particularly the Weevils. But this is simply a case of the writer’s own agenda bleeding through, which is why it clashes so horribly with the wider themes of the series. As an episode it is completely incompatible thematically with Small Worlds from the series before. They don’t feel like they exist in the same world.
Going from memory, I believe it was Russell T Davies who most often cited Buffy the Vampire Slayer as an influence. However, it is Steven Moffat who gets much closer to making an homage to Buffy. His children’s fantasy fiction version of Doctor Who moves much closer to the world that Buffy inhabits, and his monsters veer much more towards the fairy tale than the alien. The Weeping Angels and The Silence are both good examples, which hail much more from the fictional worlds of magical creatures rather than little green men. In fact, the Silence is something of an homage to the Gentlemen from the Buffy episode Hush, and if you only ever watch one Buffy episode, make it that one.
There is such a shared appeal between Doctor Who and Buffy that I can’t quite conceive of a Doctor Who fan who would not also enjoy Buffy. Maybe if you prefer The Leisure Hive to State of Decay then this won’t be your cup of tea. But if like me you enjoy the Doctor Who stories that draw inspiration from the fantasy and horror genres, then you can’t fail to enjoy Buffy the Vampire Slayer. RP