Friday, March 16, 2007

Buffy the Vampire Slayer #1: 'The Long Way Home: Part 1'

I’ve talked a lot on this blog about how The Invisibles caused major changes in my life, and set me on the path I am now, but no journey is static, and shortly after starting down that path, I experienced another work that caused major changes in the way I view fiction. That work was Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I began watching in August 2003. I’d heard a lot about the series, and wanted to pick up the first season on DVD when it came out, but just never got around to it. Seeing the rabid online fanbase, I figured this was something I’d enjoy, but it wasn’t until then that I actually got the first season and began to watch.

I wasn’t a huge fan initially. Coming from The X-Files, I was really happy to see a show that prided itself on strong continuity, but the first season left me wondering what all the fuss was about. It took me a while to go through things, and by the time of season two, I was starting to get into it. Everything changed when I watched ‘Surprise’/’Innocence,’ I was totally hooked and continued on from there. The next major turning point was ‘Restless,’ which was the first time I realized this show was a fantastic work of art, as well as being enormously entertaining. From there, it just kept getting better, with season six being the culmination of my love of the series. Never before or since had I been so addicted to a show, to the point that even when I wasn’t going to watch another episode, I’d have to see the first five minutes, just to resolve any cliffhangers.

What made the show so special was the characters. Never before had I cared so much about the exploits of a fictional bunch, I was so engaged in their relationships and their journeys, by the end, it really did feel like seven years of change and growth, compressed into four months or so of viewing. I’ve seen a lot of great shows since, but nothing as good as Buffy.

But, I’ve never been a big fan of season seven. The potential slayers drew focus away from the character conflict, sapping the show’s major strength. For me, the slaying was always secondary to the personal tumult, and that balance was upset in year seven. But, I was still hooked, and after the show ended, I would have given almost anything for just one more episode to wrap things up for Willow, Buffy and Xander. The ending was so abrupt, we really needed a denouement. Little did I know that some years later, I’d get that and more, with the new Buffy comic book series.

Just picking up this book and experiencing new Buffy was fantastic. It had been a long time since I’d spent time with these characters, and the same attachment that drove Joss to write the book drove me to read it. It is great to see Buffy and Xander again, to think that there could be new developments in their story after four years of stasis. It’s great to see.

Unfortunately, the end of season seven left us in not exactly the best place to continue the story. Buffy’s arc in the show was dealing with her role as the slayer, one girl chosen to combat evil. She could never reconcile that with having a meaningful personal life, however, in the end, she created many new slayers, thus granting herself freedom from the burden of being the one.

The elegance of this ending is undone by having her continuing to burden herself with the work of being a slayer, even more so now that she’s running a massive supernatural combat organization. The worst part of season seven was the idea of Buffy as a general, and unfortunately we get a lot of that here. Her work with Xander’s mission control is more reminiscent of Alias than the Buffy we once knew. A lot of the show’s charm was in the fact that they were making world shaping decisions in a library or a magic shop. A high tech headquarters was never what they were about. The question also arises, where is the money for this stuff coming from? Old Watcher’s Council funds perhaps? That’s not a huge issue, but to go from not being able to repair a pipe in season six to having a helicopter in year eight is a big jump.

At the end of the issue, Buffy reflects on the fact that she misses home, she misses just being a person, not the leader of this group of slayers. By giving her this new conflict, Joss is able to preserve the central issue of the series. Her concerns are my basic concerns, but it’s a risky storytelling move to try and use the inherent flaws of your premise as character issues. It worked well when the boringness of Riley turned into an exploration of why Buffy could never love an ordinary man. But, denying your reader the central pleasure of the series and trying to use that as a plot point is a bit riskier.

The joy of Buffy was always that it was relatable. That was most emphasized in the high school years, and I found their troubles in years five and six even more understandable. Feeling disconnected from the world is relatable even for people who haven’t come back from the dead, struggling to run a multinational paramilitary organization, not so much. I fear the direction Joss has chosen to take the story will prevent us from being able to just spend time with the characters, always the greatest joy of the series.

Now, I don’t want to knock the whole issue. While there are flaws, it’s still an absolute joy to be back in this universe. Some of the dialogue is a bit over done with the Buffyspeak, but it mostly works, I particularly like Xander’s Nick Fury reference. It’s great to hear what’s going on with Willow and Andrew, to understand that they have lives that are still moving forward, despite the series ending. That said, I do think the comic will be hurt by the fact that a lot of the best characters are off limits. Spike is on Angel season five at this time, so he can’t meet Buffy, and Anya’s dead. The core four are still there, and Dawn, but that’s pretty much it.

Bringing the military back as villains is tricky. Season four’s The Initiative didn’t work out so well, but perhaps with the unlimited visual budget of a comic, this will work better. The revelation of Amy at the end of the issue was a great surprise, and indicates that the series will be tightly tied to continuity. I’m not sure who she’s working with, but I’m sure it will be another great surprise for the fans.

After a whole series of objectivity, it feels a bit odd to be given access to Buffy’s thoughts. I’m glad Whedon chose to use those captions, as it is the issue feels a bit light compared to a TV episode, and this at least gives us an efficient recap of her mental state. Still, it hurts to pay three dollars for something that gives us only a third or so of what an episode would.

Ultimately, I’ll forgive all the flaws because we’re back in the Buffyverse, and it’s been way too long since we got new stuff with these characters. It baffles me that Joss couldn’t get his direct to DVD movies set up somewhere. I feel like there must be something going on behind the scenes we didn’t hear about because the studios are all about creating sustainable franchises they can keep going back to. If nothing else, Serenity shows that Whedon’s got a devoted fanbase, and anything he puts out is guaranteed to make some money. If Babylon 5, a ten year old series that had never had the media heat or fanbase of Buffy, can come back with new DVD movies, shouldn’t Joss have been able to get some money together for his own movies?

There are a couple of potential answers I’ve considered. One is that it was simply a question of money. In a recent article, he said that the studio thought the actors would do it for virtually nothing because they were his friends, and I’m guessing Joss himself also wanted a bigger budget than they thought appropriate. JMS seems like the kind of guy who prides himself on doing stuff cheap, so he’ll take whatever they’ll give him for the Babylon 5 movies. Joss likely tried to push the budget, leading to a stalemate.

My guess is the studio wanted to do things on the cheap because they weren’t sure how successful these movies would be without Buffy herself. They might not understand the fanbase’s devotion to pretty much all the characters in the series. You could put out an Andrew movie and still get sales. And, there’s likely some lingering tension from the cancellation of Angel. This confluence of events lead to the canceling of that project, a real shame because I would have loved so much to see just a little more Illyria or Spike. It’s absolutely ridiculous that they couldn’t get things together, and we probably won’t know the whole story for a while.

But, this comic is more than I would have expected to get, and it’s a nice addition to the ‘verse. In the long term though, I think Joss needs to get another movie or show out there quick. He’s lost a lot of heat in Hollywood since Buffy ended, and particularly after leaving the Wonder Woman film, he needs to get a new project going quick. Otherwise he could slip into Chris Carter territory, once the hottest thing around, then forgotten a few years later. An original film is a good idea, but I’d really like to see Joss back on TV. His storytelling talent lies there, and Serenity shows that his writing just isn’t as special when compressed into the constraints of a three act feature film. But, really, get something going or else he’s going to be writing a lot more comics in the future.


eddie said...

Im currently watching Season 3 of Buffy and its a blast. I enjoyed both Angel and Buffy, but a bit more of Angel because of the lead. I felt that the others characters in Buffy really made the show great, not taking anything away from Sarah who held the show tight but in Angel, i felt a stronger presence and David acting chops greatly increased as the seasons progressed. I have not watched Serenity or Firefly or read his current comics so i cant judge JW on his new works but His Buffyverse/Angelverse are pure genius and you are dead on about how you fall in love/take personally interest in these fictional characters such as Xander, Willow, Cordelia, Wesley, Gunn, Fred, etc. You can hardly find a show where you invest so much emotional interest in characters in TV these days.

Patrick said...

Investment in the characters is exactly what makes Whedon's work so special. I've watched a lot of good shows since Buffy went off the air, but never have I cared so much about fictional characters, before or since. I really hope he gets the chance to do another show down the line because his talent is suited to these extended personal arcs, not the restraints of a two hour film or 22 page comic.