SFX historical notes: The first ever Buffy cover in Britain, and our first ever Buffy review.
A potent blend of horror and comedy, this is what the film should’ve been like...
Executive producer: Joss Whedon
Starring: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Anthony Stewart Head, Charisma Carpenter
Showing: Sky One, Saturdays, 8pm
Reviewer: Anthony Brown
Take one so-so film, remove the big name star who made it something out of the ordinary, and convert into a TV series. It’s a familiar process, but the telly version of Buffy The Vampire Slayer bucks the trend by being a lot better than the movie. True, Anthony Head’s no Donald Sutherland, but he’s not supposed to be, and that’s the sort of trick which makes the TV series work.
The PR hyperbole might imply it’s an airhead high school comedy with a dose of fantasy – sort of Clueless meets Saved By The Bell meets The X-Files – but the actual episodes are relentlessly serious, with the humour emerging from the way the characters attempt to deal with the doubly weird life they live. Most of the usual clichés are avoided, with Buffy’s school chums being dragged into her nocturnal activities as the champion of good against evil right from the start – none of this “Lois Lane, the stupidest woman in history” stuff. And then there’s the shameless plot device of Buffy’s new home town being founded on the Hellmouth, which explains why every ancient evil imaginable, from the regular villainy of the Master to the occasional villain of the week, flocks to Summerdale and its high school. This is a series which understands when you can ask the audience to give you a little lee-way, and just as importantly when you have to work for your money and make the plotting watertight.
If only Brannon Braga and the plot-reset-machine over on Voyager understood the same. The whole thing smacks of a series where an ambitious writer-producer has been given the room to do it his own thing, and show the movie studio execs what he can achieve if they just leave him alone. Even the run-of-the-mill filler episodes such as “I Robot, You Jane” and “Invisible Girl” are impressive.
The cast have caught the style well enough to realise they don’t have to emphasise the contrast between high school dating antics and vampire-staking mayhem. It’s simply there, and brought to the fore by the way Sarah Michelle Gellar is utterly air-headed in the corridor lockers, business-like as soon as the supernatural raises its head, and even thoughtful when left to consider the oddities of her life (“I Robot, You Jane” includes the classic moment when she comforts Willow – not unnaturally distressed that the only boy ever to take an interest in her has proved to be a medieval demon – by reminding her that Buffy’s own boyfriend happens to be a vampire). Similarly, the other teenagers balance the outwardly clichéd bases of their characters – wallflower swot, pleasant nerd, bitchy prom queen – with something a little deeper.
In contrast to the screwball comedy of the film, Buffy ’s TV incarnation is an effective piece of understated horror, with some intrigue for the future, some great fantasy ideas and enough fun to keep anyone watching week after week.