The first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer has one of the most iconic opening scenes of any television series. A couple of teenagers are sneaking around, the girl hears a noise and she looks nervous. Once she is satisfied that there is nobody else around, she attacks her boyfriend. It turns out she was only worried about the noise because she just wanted to make sure nobody was going to disturb her snack.
This sets out Joss Whedon’s purpose behind the concept straight away, the subversion of the cliché of “the little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed in every horror movie.” In the world of Buffy, power is not linked to gender. It was 1997, and television was finally starting to grow up. A generation of teenage fans was ready to grow up with it, and I was one of those fans. I’ve since rewatched the whole series about five times. Something keeps bringing me back to Sunnydale.
That thing is not the monsters. Each season has a big bad, and for me they are often the weakest part of the show. There had to be some way to build towards a finale, but the nature of the enemy is generally the least interesting thing about this show. Instead, it’s all about the main characters and their relationship dynamics.
Just look how effectively the main characters are established here, with such an economy of storytelling. The easy bit is establishing Buffy as the main character, because she’s in almost every scene, but within a few minutes we understand exactly what Willow, Xander, Cordelia and Giles represent as characters. Willow is the bookish girl with low self-esteem. Xander is the one who jokes around, but there’s clearly something more to his nature from the way he confronts Buffy with the information he overheard. Cordelia is a bitch. Giles is British.
As for Buffy, the cleverest thing Whedon does here is making her supremely uninterested in Cordelia’s world of popularity. She has an inner strength that does not demand to be fed with popularity. When Cordelia is being nice to her she’s happy to be her friend, but as soon as she sees her being mean to Willow she is no longer interested in being a part of Cordelia’s group of friends. This makes Buffy an instantly likeable character: she is not just going to protect the underdogs. She’s going to make friends with them too.
Just as clever is the amount of screen time Jesse gets, equal to Willow, Xander or Cordelia. He comes alive just as strongly as any of them and is just as much of a fun character… and then he gets bitten. So this world is not only fun, but it’s dangerous, and nobody is safe.
There is also a lot of information that has to be packed into this episode, especially for those who hadn’t seen the film (I hadn’t, and still haven’t). Not only do we get to know the main characters, by the end of the episode we have a clear idea of Buffy’s background and powers, and what makes her special. We also know that she’s not infallible. Already people are dying, and she seems to be struggling with an enemy who just takes her punches and seems completely unconcerned about fighting the slayer. Luke is a great character, with a relaxed confidence about him.
… and at this stage, that’s more than we can say about the Master, who is a very traditional, monstrous portrayal of an ancient vampire, and therefore fairly boring, although to be fair we haven’t seen much of him as yet.
This show first aired back to back with the second episode, but has generally been treated as a separate episode since then, including on my DVD set, so we’ll save the continuation until next week. In the meantime, take a look at Mike’s thoughts about the episode below. Just to explain what the system is here, for newcomers to the Junkyard, we write about television series together, and we often pick something one of us is a fan of, while the other is a newcomer to the series. That’s the case with Buffy, which is one of my favourite television shows of all time, while Mike gave it a try once and gave up after a few episodes. I have assured him that it’s worth sticking with because it improves massively after the relatively weak first season, but I will expect him to have at least as much patience as I had with his beloved Babylon 5, which took 50% of its entire run to get to a point I actually wanted to keep going. We tend to order our reviews geographically, with mine following on from Mike’s for the American shows, but in this instance it seems more appropriate for the newbie view to follow on from the fan view, like we do with anime. That’s my excuse anyway, and I’m pulling rank as the Buffy devotee. So we will be looking at one episode a week, and as always we will avoid spoilers for future episodes but will freely discuss any aspect of the episode in question. Why not join us on our viewing marathon?
So we will leave Buffy trapped in a tomb, with a powerful vampire about to suck her blood, and find out what happens next week. In the meantime, let’s see what Mike has to say about this fascinating opening episode… RP
The view from the Sunnydale Press…
A friend of mine made a comment about a movie recently: he called it a product of its time. While he was referring to The Princess Bride, which I believe has held up remarkably well over the years, I can’t say the same for episode 1 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Now, let me start by saying I’ve seen season 1 but so many moons ago that I didn’t remember it. It was all new to me! And the first thing that I noticed was just how much of the time it really was, but someone once told me I should push through season 1 because “if I’d ever seen Babylon 5” I knew sometimes first seasons are weak. Now, that was a selling point for me and the person who told me that did not know of my love of B5. So the bottom line here is that I might be at this for a while before I start loving the show but I can totally accept the fact that this show will improve as we go deeper into it!
Welcome to the Hellmouth is clearly going to be an introduction. One thing I will say is that Buffy herself is a stunningly attractive not-16 year old. Sarah Michelle Gellar looks young, sure, and she is beautiful but 16 she is not. That’s not a big deal though. I actually was really impressed with a few elements of the storytelling and considering everyone knows Josh Whedon’s reputation for storytelling, I was not surprised. Buffy has a history (presumably from the events of the 1992 Kristy Swanson movie) and her own powers are already known to her. In other words, we’re not getting an origin episode. It’s an important distinction: we don’t need to know where the powers came from so we can get on with it. Instead, it’s an introduction and if it’s going to be the origin of anything, it’ll be the friendships with Willow, Xander, Giles and Cordelia. And the episode does a great job establishing the characters. Willow is the beautiful, brainy nerd. Cordelia is the ditzy popular girl who gets by on her astounding looks but lacks any of the social niceties. Xander is the doofus comic relief who will likely spend the series pining after Buffy. Giles is the ultra-soft spoken mentor who knows all there is to know to help Buffy, coming complete with his library of arcane knowledge. He’s the Mr. Miyagi of the Vampire world. Wax on with stake, wax off with garlic! We are also introduced to Jesse the Jock but my money says he’s written out before the season is over. (Probably because I remember all the others!)
What I really appreciated right away was the look of the vampires. These are not sparkly glitter-bombs. They are ugly, Nosferatu looking creatures… and they look AWESOME. Brian Thompson plays Luke, the chief baddy of the piece and he always seems to play fun bad guys. Darla, played by Julie Benz who I loved in Dexter, is both adorable and terrifying all at once. I loved the early subversion of expectation as she is brought into a school by a guy who we think is going to attack her, only for her to turn out to be the vampire! Mark Metcalfe plays the Master who ironically sounded like Eric Roberts as the Master in the 1996 Doctor Who movie. My issue with the Master is that unlike the one from the more modern vampire series, The Strain, he wasn’t anything special, resembling nothing more than the other vampires wearing a particularly awkward leather jacket. I was also bummed at watching him rise from the blood completely clean. It would have had so much more impact if he were covered in gore. I will admit I was especially excited by “the sleeper will awake” but had hoped for a slightly scarier thing than The Master. (“Be ready for the Harvest!” It really sounded like someone had been reading Lovecraft!)
“Sorry to interrupt your downward mobility!” There are a lot of great lines but Cordelia seems to get the lion’s share. Sadly Buffy gets some of the worst moments like when she hangs upside down waiting to gymnastic kick Angel to the back. (Oh, that was a surprise – I didn’t remember them introducing Angel so early on! Evidently he will be the one Buffy goes after while Xander gets to feel left out…) But one of the biggest reasons why I feel this series is of its time was the lack of logical continuity. Logical storytelling is a more recent “invention” for television. For instance, when a guy is found dead in a locker, wouldn’t the school close for the day? Send people home? Make a PA announcement? Call the police???? Instead they leave the dead guy in the locker room in the hopes that no one will notice? Buffy wanders in to examine it so they didn’t even think to put a moderator at the door? Yeah, the principal (Bob) is another putz, but surely he had the wherewithal to close the school and make that announcement. I hope he at least lets the girl who found the corpse go home early! (“What is your childhood trauma”… that suddenly takes on new meaning!)
Buffy’s first day in a new school is, if nothing more, eventful and we are introduced to a likable (and damned good looking) class. I didn’t expect a two-parter to open the series but this bodes well. Often openers are just a way to set the stage, which this does effectively. I don’t expect a lot to change in part two but I am looking forward to the third episode. And hey, if this series ends up being an earthbound series that I can equate to B5, I’m in for a very happy run. But so far, the opener was very much of its time! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Harvest