Thursday, 20 February 2014

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, 5.1 & 5.2 – 'Buffy vs. Dracula' & 'Real Me'

Thursday, 20 February 2014
DRACULA: Do you know why you cannot resist?
BUFFY: 'Cause you're famous?

Whenever a US TV show reaches its fifth season, it's a worrying time for the audience. This is often the moment when a good show (that found its identity and an appreciative audience), turning in consistently strong episodes, begins a downward spiral. There are only so many years anything can stay at the top of its game, before the writers grapple with the fact they've used their best ideas and are embroiled in a professional obligation to keep their golden goose laying eggs. How many of those eggs will be inedible, going forward? Okay, moving on from the egg analogy...

As premiers go, "BUFFY VS. DRACULA" was a let-down; not least because throwing Bram Stoker's Prince of Darkness into Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the sort of obvious idea you expect to read in fan-fiction. There were times when Marti Noxon's script showed some interesting angles, such as how Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is starting to realise she's at her happiest when hunting vampires through cemeteries at night, instead of snuggling with boyfriend Riley (Marc Blucas). The arrival of Count Dracula (Rudolf Martin) only deepened feelings that her power as The Slayer has its root in the same Evil that gave rise to the creatures she slays, and by the end it felt clear this season's going to explore the Chosen One's origin—thus giving Giles (Anthony Head) back his Watcher title to assist in Buffy's journey of self-discovery. It's great to feel Giles has a clearer purpose on the show again, having played "retired librarian" all season 4.

What of the the arrival of Dracula himself? Well, he was a complete cliché in all respects—transforming into bats and wolves, pouring into bedrooms as mist through ajar windows, and managing to make hears flutter in the town's women. Dracula was so old-fashioned in his demeanour and lore that it was clearly intentional, as a means of creating comedy from how the modern-day "Scooby Gang" reacted to an aristocratic demon straight from a classic Hammer Horror.

In some respects this actually worked quite nicely, but I would have preferred to see a Dracula who was less "poncey" (as Spike described him) and more outright threatening and frightening. Xander (Nicholas Brendan) hardly broke sweat when confronted by Dracula in the street, despite being unarmed and with no backup! The events of the episode also didn't warrant the inciting "versus" title, which suggested a tougher mano-a-mano battle, and I was genuinely surprised Dracula was staked (twice) by the end of this hour. He is dead now, right?

Overall, "Buffy vs. Dracula" was an average episode that could have been a lot stronger given the potential of the idea (no matter how desperate it felt to include literature's most famous vampire). I think more could have been done regarding how Buffy's drawn to darkness (explaining her Angel romance, too?), but this will probably be something the season's going to explore now Dracula's planted the seed in her mind.

Of course, the real talking point is the final scene where Buffy's hitherto unmentioned younger sister, Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg), made an unexpected appearance in the Summers household...

HARMONY: I'm not gonna make the same mistakes you did. I've been doing my homework, reading books 'n stuff.
SPIKE: What, 'Evil for Dummies?'

Which leads me nicely onto "REAL ME", where we learn about the mystifying presence of Dawn—or, rather, that it isn't so mystifying for any of the show's characters, who are behaving as if Buff's kid sister's been around from the beginning. It's a cool little mystery, but tempered by the fact BtVS did pretty much the same thing with Jonathan in last season's "Superstar". I'm sure the cause of Dawn's existence won't involve the same "reality-altering demon" concept that turned loser Jonathan into an alpha male, but it still feels like a trick we've seen before—although it helped that the final line in "Real Me" suggests Dawn's aware she's "unreal" in some way, and savouring the moment when her older sister's becomes aware of this fact.

The episode itself was something of a meet-and-greet for Dawn, told through voice-over representing her diary entries. It was a good way to short-cut a lot of back-story, and I already quite like the extra complication giving Buffy a sibling achieves. It now feels odd the show was devised with Buffy as an only child of a divorcee, as it naturally creates more dynamics and interest otherwise. Dawn is jealous of her sister's superpowers and sex life, loves hanging out with Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Tara (Amber Benson), and has a crush on Xander. Most importantly, she feels belittled and ignored when it comes to Buffy's extracurricular actives slaying vampires—forever being ushered away from gruesome murder scenes, and kept on the periphery of what the Scoobies get up to.

Who knows what the future holds, but for now it seems Dracula was little more than a marketing ploy to drum up viewers for the premiere, as there's no suggestion he could come back. This leaves the season without a Big Bad, which isn't unusual for the show—as it can often take half a season before the main threat reveals itself. I have my doubts that arch-nemesis is going to be Harmony (Mercedes McNab), the Valley Girl who dates Spike (James Marsters) last season, who has now gathered together a gang of "minions" and has big ambitions to defeat the Slayer and exact her revenge on all the people who've treated her poorly.

There was a nice parallel between Harmony's world-view and that of Dawn, whom she kidnapped, but time will tell if this character's going to work beyond the narrative embroidery she was last season. I have my doubts, but it's always fun to have a character who in some way is a twist on Buffy—with Harmony being a blonder, dumber, more demanding version, who's also the leader of her own clique.

It was also appreciated to see further rehabilitation of Giles after the fourth season, who's now back to training Buffy (in the art of standing on one arm) and has bought an abandoned magic shop down-town, which will no doubt become the group's base of operations.

written by Marti Noxon (5.1) & David Fury (5.2) | directed by David Solomon (5.1) & David Grossman (5.2) | 26 September & 3 October 2000
Here begins my catchups of Angel (season 2) and Buffy (season 5), sticking to this recommended 'watching guide' so the Buffyverse's overarching narrative flows and crossover episodes appear in the correct order. Unlike last time, this won't be a simple back-and-forth between the two shows, which is why the Angel season 2 catch-ups will have to wait awhile longer...