So with all the current discussion going on about Supergirl and Imperator Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road, I was feeling nostalgic about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Here was a character who was strong and yet girly at times, who worried about boys and being liked and also about vampires and saving the world from the forces of darkness. She was a superhero in all but name (and costume) and a complex and kickass female character. But was I perhaps looking with rose-tinted glasses? Was it really as good as I remembered? Only one way to find out: let’s revisit the pilot!
The episodes “Welcome to the Hellmouth” and “The Harvest” were aired in one two hour block on the WB on March 10, 1997. This wasn’t a traditional pilot: for one thing, it was a show that spun-off from a movie that had aired five years ago. With none of the original cast from that movie. Made by Joss Whedon, a man at that time best known for being a script doctor.
In fact, to even get on the air, Whedon made a completely different pilot that was twelve and a half minutes, had abysmal special effects, and a completely different actress playing Willow. You can find this pilot on YouTube sometimes, but Joss has been adamant that it will never be released on DVD. “It sucks on ass” were his exact words.
To go from a twelve-and-a-half-minute pilot to a full two hour episode is pretty interesting. Even more interesting is the episode itself which manages to set up all the characters and the rest of the season and still provide an interesting story.
It begins with two young people breaking into Sunnydale High School at night. The girl, Darla, is scared. So far, an average opening to any horror film, right? Except, whoops, the guy isn’t the monster, the girl is. Darla vamps out and chomps on that dude’s neck.
Some salient points here: this scene presents us with three things in quick succession. One: Sunnydale High School as a setting. Two: when vampires feed, their faces “vamp out” and turn bumpy. Three: this ain’t your average horror story.
After that, we meet Buffy Summers, our protagonist. She’s having some bad dreams. Very bad dreams. Dreams about monsters and vampires. In fact, all of the dreams she is having are from later episodes this season — a neat trick they were able to do since the entire first season was filmed before the first episode was aired.
At Sunnydale High, she encounters Xander Harris, Cordelia Chase, Willow Rosenberg, and Mr. Giles. The funny thing is, aside from Cordelia, the audience soon sees that none of these characters fit into well-defined character roles.
Xander is set up as the “funny” one, but he soon turns serious when the situation calls for it. At first, the audience is led to believe that Buffy will have to hide her activities from the people around her...but then Xander overhears her talking about vampires and the entire secret is out.
Willow is set up as the “smart” one, the nerd with low self esteem, but her confidence quickly picks up after she meets Buffy. She even gets in a nice sting to Cordelia, telling her to hit “deliver” (del) in a computer project (on the one hand, would Cordy really be dumb enough not to know about the delete button? but on the other hand: yes, yes she would). And she provides good information through hacking, a skill she will continue to use again and again. Felicity Smoak and Skye? They are all descendents of Willow Rosenberg.
Mr. Giles is set up as the “teacher,” the mysterious librarian who pulls out a “Vampyr” book to show Buffy, but whom Buffy quickly rejects. He is her Watcher, the person who guides and trains her. But even though his character isn’t fully expanded on in this episode, hints are shown: he shows concern and worry not just about Buffy, but others. He goes to help, even though he has no real fighting skills (well, at least not until the second season).
Cordelia Chase is set up as the “mean” one. And she is. That’s all. (Her character won’t be expanded until late in this season.)
And then we have Jesse. He is set up as the “one who will quickly die.” I’m sorry, Joss, but everyone knew it. He wasn’t particularly interesting or funny. As soon as I saw him with Darla, I knew he was a dead man.
Sunnydale seems to rest on a Hellmouth, a portal between dimensions. And the Master, a powerful vampire, tried to open this Hellmouth, but an earthquake ensued and he was stuck “like a cork in a bottle.” If he gets out, bang, Hellmouth opens and world ends.
The Master is waiting for the Harvest, when he will send out one of his minions to feed for him and give him power to escape his underground prison. This vessel is Luke, who is very big and brawny and also likes to say “Amen” a lot.
Oh and there’s a mysterious guy named Angel hanging around giving cryptic clues to Buffy.
Of course, all of this story is just window dressing for the super cool moments that happen:
- Buffy nonchalantly walks into a crypt and then stakes a vampire behind her back. The special effects are shoddy (they were 1997 effects, after all), but seeing it explode into dust is still pretty cool.
- Buffy beheading a vampire with a cymbal. (Xander’s quip afterwards, “Heads up,” is okay, too.)
- Buffy doing a flip to get across the school’s gate and then another flip at the Bronze to drop down on a pool table. (She also stabs a vampire with a pool cue, but he doesn’t seem to turn to dust, so I’m assuming she missed the heart and just really hurt that guy.)
- Buffy knows that she can’t beat Luke in a fair fight, so she doesn’t fight fair. She tricks him into thinking it’s morning and then stakes him in the back. “It’s in about nine hours, moron,” was one of the coolest quotes I heard back when I first watched this episode.
- Buffy. Just...Buffy. The other characters have their moments, but Buffy pretty much shines in every scene: she is both strong and scared, tough and vulnerable. It’s hard to stress how important this is. Even today, characters like Buffy are rare.
Dear god, this show is funny.
Giles: Something’s coming, something, something, something is - is gonna happen here. Soon!
Buffy: Gee, can you vague that up for me?
Giles: I’d much rather be at home with a cup of Bovril and a good book.
Buffy: You need a personality, stat!
Willow: Oh, I, I need to sit down.
Buffy: You are sitting down.
Willow: Oh. Good for me.
And for those complaining about scenes like Supergirl standing in front of a mirror wondering what to wear? Buffy did the exact same this in the first episode:
Buffy: (holding up a sparkly outfit in front of the mirror) “Hi, I’m an enormous slut!” (holding up a more conservative outfit) “Hello, would you like a copy of The Watchtower?” (puts both outfits down) “I used to be so good at this.”
The show also undercuts a lot of seriousness with jokes (a long running theme with Joss Whedon). When Giles starts telling Buffy about not just vampires, but demons, incubi, and succubi, she asks him if he sent about for the “Time-Life” books. He, in fact, did. And got a calendar.
Well, the big theme is pretty much explicitly pointed out in the scene where Buffy’s mom Joyce grounds her from going out. She says, “I know. If you don’t go out it’ll be the end of the world. Everything is life or death when you’re a sixteen-year-old girl.”
And that’s it: this is a show that externalizes the troubles faced by sixteen-year-olds (and seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds and eventually college-aged people). What are those problems? Well, “high school is hell” is the main one.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the first show I ever saw that turned metaphor into reality.
The first episodes are still a little rough around the edges. The special effects aren’t really up to par. The vampire faces look weird, especially in light of how much better they look later on.
And the fashion. Boy, the ‘90s fashion does not age well. From Xander’s little wallet chain to Cordelia’s weird mesh top? Yeesh. It is really fun to watch them, though. And also to try and figure out the pop culture references that are still around (James Spader, yep) and have been assigned to obscurity (DeBarge? I had to look them up).
All in all, the first two episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer are incredibly enjoyable even after 18 years. Go watch it again or for the first time.