Sometimes rewatching Buffy makes me feel old, but never more so than I, Robot… You Jane. It’s not just that the technology seems so out-of-date that it looks prehistoric now, it’s the outdated attitudes on display that really seem alien, just two decades later.
“I met him online.”
“On line for what?”
Buffy not only doesn’t understand the world of computers, referring to e-mail as “e letters”, she represents the views of the average teenager at the time, when using a computer instead of pen, paper and books seemed the province of nerds. Note Buffy’s slip of the tongue, “computer geek”, a phrase which has now become virtually meaningless. The writers offer us two sides of the tradition/tech debate in the characters of Giles and Jenny, and their argument seems finely balanced. Nowadays Giles’ opinions are those of a dinosaur, and yet he gets something right:
“A society in which human interaction is all but obsolete, in which people can be completely manipulated by technology.”
The second bit in particular is hauntingly prescient. Just look what social media does to people. So the tech might seem ancient, but the fears are not entirely obsolete. We have just learned to live with the technology to the extent that we don’t generally bother to think about those fears too much any more. But when Willow starts an online relationship with a man she has never met, her friends’ worries that it could be anyone are a valid risk factor to this day.
A demon who preys on impressionable minds, and is cultish in the way he demands loyalty and love, is a good fit for the fear of technology being somehow insidious. But it’s really not the tech that’s the danger; it’s the manipulation of people via classic techniques used by cult leaders, for example undermining the victim’s pre-existing relationships and seeking to separate her from the safety net of her friends and/or family. That happens here when “Malcolm” tries to undermine Willow’s friendship with Buffy, and mercifully she figures out what he is doing. So this episode actually works a lot better if you view it as a metaphor for the dangers of cults rather than the dangers of computers. Fritz is a classic example of a person who is easily manipulated into being a loyal follower of an evil leader. He’s one of those irritating nerdy types who give nerds a bad name, unwavering in his obsession, and earnest in his sermonising about his hobby to a point where he fails to understand what an idiot he sounds like.
“If you’re not jacked in, you’re not alive.”
Dave, on the other hand, is much more the normal teen who happens to like computers, not completely a stranger to empathy like sociopathic Fritz, so Moloch can never quite win over his heart and soul. The moment where Dave’s suicide note starts writing itself is sinister and disturbing, the stand-out moment of the episode for me. Willow’s computer turning itself back on is also classic horror movie fare.
There are a few groan-inducing aspects of this story, such as the robot version of Moloch and Jenny describing herself as a “technopagan”, but by and large I was able to look past the occasional silliness and enjoy the examination of fears that have never quite left us. Whether or not the world of online social interaction is a good or bad thing is still an unanswered question to a certain extent, but like most technological developments it depends on how we use it. As somebody who owes my marriage and my best friendships to “e letters” and social media, I think the fears expressed in this episode of Buffy are ones we simply have to live with. RP
The view from the Sunnydale Press…
I AM SO FRUSTRATED!! This dopey show has more things wrong with it than I can count and yet I still enjoy watching it. Why??? I grant you, the opening in Italy of 1418 was a nice touch and not having more of the Master’s half-wit vampires gave me hope but why was there a demon in Italy? Isn’t the hellmouth in California? It sees the questions start coming up early so let’s discuss the plot first: a demon is bound in a book which Giles orders off Amazon or something. The book gets scanned into the computer giving the demon access to the whole world wide web, so obviously he targets Willow as his love interest and California for his stomping grounds. It all makes complete sense.
If you think I’m being sarcastic, you’ve nailed it. Let us look at how many ways this episode got under my skin. When Moloch gets into the computer, he does a little digging to see who Buffy is. Her record shows her birthday and it’s 10/24/80. The date stood out to me. The scene cuts and the her record appears in front of Fritz. Her birthday is listed: 5/6/79. Even if we accept that the demon is trying to mess with data, what value would there be in that?!?! No, there’s no reason for such bad editing. I’m sorry, but season one is extremely sophomoric. (Or should that be Freshman? Guess it depend on when Buffy was born!) Shortly thereafter, Buffy is in the locker room with Willow, walks out to go talk to Dave, and is wearing an entirely different outfit. Did she change in the hallway?? Later she changes again into a “trench coat and sunglasses” (which is a fur coat; and I’m sure all the kids in Sunnydale California have them in their lockers!) She tails Dave to his hideout, but… Dave drove. What did she do, run? In her fur coat?? How did she get to where he is that quickly? Meanwhile, Willow texts with “Malcolm” and speaks everything she types. Sometimes, the words appear before she says them. (Malcolm was probably so tuned in to her, he was anticipating!) And we get another of Giles infinite wisdom moments with, “unless I’m mistaken, this is Moloch the Corrupter!” This dude should not be working at a school. How does he know that? Did he recently memorize the Who’s Who of Demon Lore? And what did he base that on anyway?? Lastly, the most obnoxious moment is when Buffy goes looking for Dave who appears to have committed suicide. Maybe her name is “Buffy McGoo” but she walks into the room and slowly looks around until she bumps into the hanging corpse (which no one seems to care about anyway; and school will be in session tomorrow so what’s another dead kid or two in Sunnydale?) The problem is, we see the room from dead Dave’s perspective and his corpse would have been visible the moment she walked into the room! What was it with the production values here? It was a shot for the scare factor that fails in the any-way-even-slightly-believable sense! I can’t believe no one thought to review this and say, “Hey Joss, maybe we need to rethink this scene!” All they had to do was have his body in the adjacent room; she walks in and boom! But no! Instead we have another of those attempted jump-scares that ends up ruining the credibility of the story. (Well… I guess under the circumstances, that was a bit of a leap anyway!)
Now, having said that, there’s a lot that makes this a product of its time and it’s fun hearing the anxiety about computers that I have no memory of from the late 90’s. Buffy is confused by Willow meeting someone “online”, asking her “on line for what”, as if they were standing in a queue. She even refers to email as an e-letter. Giles exemplifies the voice of the naysayer but it actually diminishes him as a character because it shows he is unwilling to adapt to new things. He’s not wrong about books; they do smell and that’s wonderful, but technology should be embraced too. Which brings me to Ms. Calendar (aptly named for so beautiful a woman), who ends up subverting expectations with her knowledge of demons and acceptance of what is going on. She could make a fun ally and I really hope she sticks around for a while. Ergo, I’m guessing we’ll never see her again and she’ll never be mentioned either. I did enjoy seeing a little of Willow’s home, and she had a great line this episode with, “he doesn’t talk like someone who would have a hairy back!” I want to know what that sounds like! Between that and Xander falling off the fence, I did get a few good belly-laughs. (At the start of the episode, I also laughed at the witty dialogue between Giles and Calendar when he says “I’ll be back in the middle ages” (referring to the section of the library) to which she replies, “Did you ever leave?”)
In my own personal quest to try to understand this series, I keep asking myself: why did Roger tell me it reminded him of Babylon 5. This seems like it might be a subsection of my reviews at this point, though I suspect it won’t last long. When I saw Moloch for the first time, I actually hit the trivia section of Amazon Prime to see if that was a Drakh mask, but nothing came up. Then when Moloch looked like a robot later in the episode, I was reminded of the Icaran creature from the B5 episode Infection. That creature sounded better, though. Moloch’s voice was horrifically out of place for the character. But the best B5 connection was that Ms. Calendar telling Giles that she is a Technopagan. In 200 years, when Elric talks to Sheridan about Technomages, there’s undoubtedly a cutscene where he explains his grandmother lived in California and once defended a hellmouth, I’m sure of it!
I don’t know what to say about this show. It’s stumbling all over itself, yet I still tune in for more because something about it has me hooked. I can’t stop, in fact. I feel like a puppet and this series is pulling my strings from one episode to the next… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Puppet Show
To clarify, my B5 comment was only to the extent of intricate plotting, and you simply can’t see that reflected at the beginning of something. You don’t see worldbuilding when it’s being built; only when it starts paying off. For example, a recurring character isn’t a recurring character in their first episode.
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Even if outdated in certain ways, one dramatic teen issue that still persists in our television is how dangerously teens may look for what they need in all the wrong places. Where computers may be most concerned, that much obviously holds up even if treated much more seriously now since the days of Buffy. Giles’ inability to adapt to new things may be sympathetic in this regard. He has of course been a heartwarmingly old-fashioned character who can remind us how the simpler times may have felt somewhat safer without the obvious dangers of most contemporary advancements. That made his often clashing relationship with Buffy, who quite openly prefers to live in the now, one of the most interestingly dramatic dichotomies for television in the 90s.
Thank you both for your reviews.
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