1.8 I Robot, You Jane
1.9 The Puppet Show
(As always, if you're here to talk spoilers read this post first, then go to the next one for more spoilery goodness and a forum where you can post openly.)
This week I have a personal anecdote to share with you that actually blends into next week’s episode, “Nightmares.” See, when I was a kid I had this recurring nightmare (and daymare, in a way... I thought about it in the daytime, too) of this tiny African warrior chasing me through the halls. He was holding a knife in his hand and looked hideous. At night, if I woke up and had to go to the bathroom I'd call out for my parents to come and take me, rather than go to the bathroom, because I was convinced this thing lived under my bed and he was going to cut my ankles with his little knife. I had no idea where I’d gotten the idea from, and it haunted me for years. (I even had this image of a woman in a nightgown holding a knife and banging the floor with it. She had big teeth.)
Years later I was reading an interview with Joss Whedon and he was asked what had terrified him the most as a kid. He answered, “The African Zuni doll from Trilogy of Terror.” I will never forget the ice-cold feeling that washed over me as I read that line. African Zuni doll? Oh my god... was this thing I imagined all the time actually REAL?? He began talking about this doll chasing a woman played by Karen Black through an apartment. I tentatively googled what he’d just said. “African Zuni Doll Trilogy of Terror.” And then closed one eye as I hit ‘Enter.’ The image that suddenly popped up on my screen actually made my heart leap, and I covered my eyes with one hand as I desperately tried to close the browser. I was in my 20s, and the sight of the thing that had been the star of my nightmares for so many years was absolutely horrifying. I called my mom on the phone and asked if she ever remembered seeing a movie like this. I mean, how the hell would I have known about this? She said it sounded vaguely familiar. I checked on IMDb. It was a TV movie that aired in 1975, and now I’m thinking I was two years old at the time and my mom probably thought there was no way this toddler was taking in anything on the television, and she watched it with me in the room. And it became the stuff of my creepiest nightmares. (As a result, my kids are not allowed to watch anything not meant for kids... I don’t want African Zuni dolls living under THEIR beds at night!)
So no WONDER, I thought to myself, that the scene where Sid the ventriloquist dummy is quickly running around Buffy’s room gave me such a serious case of the wiggins the first time I saw it... Joss Whedon was probably going for the same effect as that doll! Later, he said in the DVD commentary for “Hush” that he wanted the Gentlemen in that episode to have the same effect on a generation as that Zuni doll. Thanks, Joss. Thanks a lot. ;)
(In preparing for this blog, by the way, I decided to steel myself and check it on YouTube... with the sound turned off. I watched it with one eye open and it was rather ridiculous, but ended with the female victim being taken over by the spirit of the doll, and she was sitting on the floor in a white nightgown banging the floor with a knife and had big teeth. :::shudder::: Even though I've made this giant leap to actually watch it, I couldn't bring myself to cut and paste it here... just google it and you'll see what I mean.)
OK! This week’s episodes are “Angel,” which is what *I* consider to be the first great episode of the series (I mentioned last week that many people point to “The Pack” as that ep, but I always loved the ones that go back and touch on the vampire history, and this one is brilliant); “I Robot, You Jane” (not so great), and “The Puppet Show.” I know a lot of people thought “The Puppet Show” was goofy, but I’ve always adored this episode, and thought Sid was awesome. “I Robot, You Jane,” on the other hand, is actually the very first episode I watched. My sister-in-law, who also got me into Xena, told me I had to watch BtVS. So I watched this ep, thought the show was crap, and stopped watching again. Then, when the show was in the middle of season 2, I went back and watched the first episode and was instantly hooked. Mental note: do NOT show new Buffy fans “I Robot, You Jane” as the entry episode.
As with last week’s blog post, my comments will follow those of this week’s guest post, and please stick around and read both before jumping down to the spoiler post below, which will simply contain my spoilery observations. For those rewatchers who don't care about spoilers, just highlight the parts of the guest's write-up to see the spoilery bits.
Our guest this week is none other than Matthew Pateman. I jokingly said in my original post about the contributors that I had no idea who he was, which was an inside joke for those who follow my blog and know about the joke rivalry between us. In fact, Prof P happens to be a very dear friend of mine. I first met him at the Arkansas Slayage conference in 2008, where we were both keynotes. He gave the opening keynote of the conference, in which he referred to my Buffy book, Bite Me, as seminal. And therefore I immediately knew he was the smartest person in the room. But then he gave this absolutely brilliant talk, and I suddenly didn’t like him anymore, because I had to follow him mere hours later. Thanks for raising the bar, my friend. He got a microphone for his talk... I had to deliver mine to a large banquet hall with no mike, over some cream pie. But I think we both did OK. We were put up in the same place and got to know each other, and continued chatting after leaving Arkansas, enough so that we managed to put together a half-hour banquet keynote for the 2010 conference. (My favourite part of that talk is here. Watch it and you'll see the source of our insults directed at each other.)
Despite all my ribbing (which I do here on the blog, whereas he does his in private and he is MUCH MEANER THAN I AM), I think he’s one of the most brilliant minds I’ve ever met, and I encourage all of you to pick up his book, The Aesthetics of Culture in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, especially if you’re a fan of the episode “Restless,” which he dissects over about 150 pages. (And yes, he’ll be handling our “Restless” rewatch week!) When he’s not writing up rewatch posts for my blog, Matthew is Professor of Contemporary Popular Aesthetics at Kingston University, London, UK. His publications and conference papers cover a range of topics including pop music, pornography and postmodernism; Julian Barnes, David Bowie and Buffy. A contemporary literature scholar, cultural theorist and TV and pop culture academic, he is currently writing articles about Firefly, Angel, and Jean Francois Lyotard, and is working on his book, Joss Whedon, due out with Manchester University Press before too much longer. He can be unbearably pompous. (I totally did not write that last line... he beat me to the punch! — Nik)
"This Crazy Whirligig of Fun":
Perhaps the most noticeable thing about these early episodes is the quality of film stock. I had forgotten what the 16 mm film looked like but its grainy darkness oddly helps to set an aesthetic standard which is quite glorious. This, of course, is largely due to Michael Gershman’s astounding role as Director of Photography, and the way he produces depth in the frame from his use of coloured lighting. This, along with the directional light that is so prevalent means that Buffy is instantly recognisable and has a ‘look’ that is definitely a contributing aspect of its appeal. It is easy to forget this (and indeed, we ought to in some senses and just let the story do its thing), but part of season 1’s story-telling appeal is clearly a result of this need to find visual depth from an unforgiving medium. Added to this, the exceptional use of costume to denote mood / attitude / belonging is very neatly done.
Other visually noticeable elements are the thinness of the boys (Angel is one gaunt-looking young handsome chap), and the relative curvyness of Buffy: the reversal of these body images as the seasons unfold is a question for sociology and politics — but worth noting.
Anyway, enough general ramble. The episodes.
‘Angel’ remains a great hour of TV. Obviously, the purpose of this episode in narrative terms is to reveal that the mysterious handsome older guy on whom Buffy is crushing, is in fact a vampire whose soul has been reinstated as punishment by a Gipsy curse. The consequences of this are many and varied, but perhaps the most important in the immediacy of season one is that it translates a potentially unsettling ‘real’ relationship between a young teen and a clearly older man into a mythically dense and distancing one. We are less in the land of Humbert and Delores, and more with Dido and Aeneas — and this is vital in order for us to maintain any sympathy with Angel. An age difference of 10 years is yucky and disquieting; an age gap of a hundred is powerful myth and supernaturally romantic.
The episode draws gorgeous and brave attention to the age-gap aspect of the relationship via Darla and her Catholic schoolgirl outfit and overt self-sexualisation as a young girl. This is brilliant — and it is the first time the show has really engaged strongly with the darker worlds of sexuality that will come so to the fore in later seasons. The fetishy Darla is mirrored by the pain-play Darla, who encourages Angel to hurt with a wicked smile and glee in her eyes.
This level of kink is made even more problematic (in the most positive sense of that term) by the other great theme of this episode, which is family. This is not the emergent family of the Scooby gang, however, but the family of vampires where the Master is Father and his acolytes are his children. He mentions on three occasions how his ‘family’ is important. And this not only makes Angel and Darla worryingly incestuous as well as fetishistic and sadomasochistic, it expands the emotional universe of vampires beyond mere killing machines. This aspect is always slightly scruffy at the edges, but in general terms Buffy’s major vampires have personality and emotion. The importance of this is that it cuts to the heart of my earlier claim about Angel and Buffy. While the mythical element of their relationship slightly dampens our concern at its age-oriented implications, it does not allow for the attendant moral simplification that often myth presents.
Xander wants the morally simplified universe of myth to be true: Buffy kills vampires; Angel is a vampire; Buffy should kill him. But this simply hides his jealousy, erotic desires and inability to woo Buffy behind the carapace of ethical absolutes that myth may be thought to provide — but this show does not. Vampires (even un-ensouled ones) have feelings, exist as families, exhibit grief and loss. (Seasons later, Principal Wood hides behind the same mythic simplification; and Buffy herself nearly succumbs to it — ‘I am the Law’)
Vampires, too, also kill in cold blood and stage emotionally devastating scenes of death. Darla comes into Joyce’s house, bites her, places Joyce’s limp body in Angel’s grasp just as Buffy comes in. It is brilliant — slightly over-staged, but brilliant. And, in that great Buffy manner, almost the exact set-up is used 60 episodes later but to wonderful comic effect as a staggeringly unlikely set of incidents lead Xander to believe that Spike has attacked Anya in ‘Hush’. Two scenes, separated by three seasons, which act as emotional, generic and structural inversions of each other. Glorious. Also, of course, Darla’s set-up is itself a demonstration of her own rage, upset and sense of betrayal at Angel’s desertion. We may not sympathise with Darla, but it is hard to deny her her feelings. Nor is it easy to deny Buffy hers as she plaintively says ‘mum, mum’ down the phone in a chilling foreshadow of her heart-break in season five.
‘Angel’ is a great episode. As the kiss becomes the catalyst for Angel morphing into vamp face, and Buffy screams and screams, a whole history of thwarted love is being opened to us. But when Buffy tells her mother it was nothing, ‘I saw a shadow’, we also have the metaphysics of being, and questions of identity that will continue to be posed for the next seven seasons. It allows for the most one of the most important character and plot revelations in season 1, and does so in a fashion that deepens and strengthens the ethical and emotional sophistication of a show which has already (as Nikki and David Lavery have so excellently described) shown itself to be an fantastic home for great dialogue and acting.
No less good in terms of dialogue and thematic subtlety, but rather less well preserved in terms of age is ‘I Robot’. Far too heavy-handed in its predatory internet stalker metaphor; far too heavy-handed in its ‘boyfriends ruin friendship’ story; far too craven in its characterisation of the ‘jacked in’ borderline psycho Fritz; and just plain dated in terms of its explanations of ‘going binary on us’ and things happening ‘by modem’ there is still much to recommend this episode.
Most of what is good here comes from Jenny and Giles, and the writers’ willingness to provide us with a grown up sexual (or incipiently sexual) relationship that is . . . grown up. More than this though, is the way in which this relationship with its excellently delineated characters (acted to perfection by Head and LaMorte), create the platform from which genuinely important and continuingly prescient debates about knowledge, technology and modernity can be articulated.
The general theme about the ownership, control and dissemination of information is covered largely through the attempt to get the demon Moloch out of the internet, but it also occurs elsewhere most notably when Xander is able to identify the likely location of Moloch’s operations. He opines, ‘What, I can’t have information sometimes?’ to which Giles replies, ‘It’s somewhat unprecedented’. This tiny exchange acts as a warning to the viewer to remember that traditional sites of information may not always be the only source of gaining knowledge and this theme is amplified by Jenny’s and Giles’s debates.
Importantly, the debates are borne of character and personality. When Giles dismisses technology at one point, Jenny does not offer a reasoned counter-argument, she speaks as the person she is to the person he is, ‘Wrong and wrong, Snobby!’ She mocks his myopic view of modernity, ‘Bad old science made the magic go away?’, and she utterly flummoxes him when she announces she is a techno-pagan. His rigidly defined hierarchies of experience, knowledge, understanding and control are challenged deeply; yet his own arguments are powerful. Among the most powerful of all is his assertion that computers don’t smell and knowledge should be ‘smelly’ – the bodily, somatic aspect of knowledge; its textures, smells and feelings are important to Giles.
Moloch himself becomes interesting in this regard. A creature of the ‘ancient’ world beloved by Giles, let loose in the technology of the present. His desire is to ‘feel’ the knowledge in the fashion described by Giles. It is not that Jenny or Giles is right; what is wonderful, again, is that the argument is shown to be complex, on-going, open to dispute and likely to change.
The deeply un-subtle story does allow for great debates to take place, and gives us the beginnings of a great romance with a mismatched couple whose ultimate expression of difference must be Jenny’s retort to the uncomprehending Giles that her ear is not where she dangles her jewellery from.
One of the difficulties with season 1 is obviously trying to fit all the stories and characters together in a fashion that allows for development and progression, but also lets new viewers in without needing too much pre-knowledge. Perhaps it’s for this reason that Angel is absent from ‘I Robot’ and ‘The Puppet Show’, and Jenny disappears again for a while. But it’s a shame — really interesting relationships are left to flounder.
Luckily, different aspects can still keep us thrilled and happy, and ‘The Puppet Show’ does give us an opportunity to see a slightly different version of our heroes. And this change in perspective is brilliantly introduced in the opening shot, and the camera’s peculiar position. Located at roughly knee height, and moved as though hand-held, this is a unique shot in season 1 of Buffy (indeed any season, I think) and it serves to disorient and confuse. It is, it would seem, a point of view shot, but we do not know whose point of view, and the uncertainty persists for much of the episode. It is what allows the strong element of suspicion to fall on Sid the dummy, whose diminutive frame, smutty asides, and suspicious actions (to say nothing of being an animate dummy!) mark him out as a probable wrong ’un.
The narrative unfolding disabuses us of this initial set of assumptions and in so doing makes the literalisation of the puppet metaphor a thing of beauty. A puppet is, by definition, controlled by someone else. This idea is wonderfully presented in Angel’s season 5 episode ‘Smile Time’, but even here the sense of people being only puppets of fate (especially Buffy – subject to a prophecy she cannot control; embroiled in a relationship beyond her history) is excellently engaged with. Sid’s seeming autonomy is, in fact, simply the expression of a desire to fulfil a destiny and achieve the peace that death will bring (‘death is his gift,’ anyone?). The puppet seems to act as a barrier against fatalistic predetermination only to reintroduce it at the end of the episode. The ongoing struggle between self determination and fate is one of Buffy’s great dialogues (like that between modernity and myth; science and the supernatural; absolute and relative moralities) — and this is an excellent early example of how these ideas are so deftly engaged with.
The little cameo at the end, where Buffy, Xander and Willow present a small scene from Oedipus also — obviously — acts as coda to this theme of fate, as well as suggesting the cultural stretch of the show’s ambitions, and giving our crew a chance to show off their multi-valenced acting skills.
In addition, the episode offers us the new principal in all his hostile, pent-up, repressed glory and it gives us one of the first examples of the series self-reflexive delight. From episode one, Giles has necessarily, been exposition guy — telling us and the gang what’s going on and how to stop it. Here, the exposition scene falls to Sid in the first of many moments of expositional brilliance that find their high points (I would argue) in Giles’s singing in ‘Restless’ and the OHP gore-fest of ‘Hush’ — but even here the writers are aware of playing with the show’s own developing conventions.
These three episodes have little in common in terms of story, main character focus or even theme but they all, in different ways, deepen the Buffy format — film stock, lighting decisions, characterisation, debates about complicated, culturally significant issues that emanate from character interaction.
If ever I’d forgotten why I became so fanatical about this show so early on, this rewatch has amply reminded me. Thank you, Nikki!
And thank YOU, Matthew! And now, just to make this post even longer... my own thoughts.
• The Xander dance!! Oh how I love it.
• Xander to Cordy: “I don’t know what everyone’s talking about... that outfit doesn’t make you look like a hooker!” LOL!
• That Giles and Buffy fight scene always makes me laugh out loud: “I’m not fighting Friar Tuck.” Between Buffy being enamoured of the crossbow and Giles’s ridiculous pads, that scene is just brilliant.
• “Reconstruction began after construction... which was... shoddy, so they had to had to reconstruct.”
• Jenny vs. Giles is some of the best banter of season 1. Giles: “I’ll be back in the Middle Ages.” Jenny: “Did you ever leave?”
• Xander saying he could pose as an elderly Dutch woman and hang out in elderly Dutch chatrooms.
• “Right now a man in Beijing is transferring money into a Swiss bank account to take out a hit on the life of his mother. Good for him!”
• Pretty much every Snyder line in Puppet Show: “My predecessor, Mr. Flutie, may have gone in for all that touchy-feely stuff, but he was eaten.” “There are things that I will not tolerate: students loitering on campus, horrible murders with hearts being removed. And also smoking.” “I don’t get it... is it avant-garde?”
• Giles asking Cordy if there’s something wrong with her hair.
• Sid: “Look at you, you’re strong, athletic... limber... nuuuubile......... I’m back!”
Did You Notice?
• Buffy will always sense when Angel’s behind her...
• I love the dichotomy between Buffy’s complete lack of history knowledge and the fact that Angel lived through so much of it.
• It’s so strange to watch Willow with that ancient little hand-scanner. Also, I remember those, and they did NOT scan things as neatly as the show suggests they do. Talk about wonky pictures.
• The outdated references to the internet and computers in this episode always makes me laugh.
• I never understood what was with all the Nazi references in this episode – the kid’s name is Fritz, there’s another kid who loses his paper on the Third Reich, Moloch is this evil dictator... it was a strange underlying theme in the episode. And speaking of the kid losing his paper... holy ancient laptop, Batman!!
• Did you notice that no one gives a rat’s about Dave? Buffy finds him hanging there, goes back to the library and says, “So, this student we’ve all grown up with is dead. Anyway, anyone find anything in the research??” Does no one call the cops around here?
• Ugh, that background music is so cheeseball. Thank god for Christophe Beck, coming soon to save a soundtrack near you.
• Years ago, during the Earshot fiasco (more on that later), someone who worked on Buffy sent me a videotape of the dailies for this episode, and you can see how they would film the scenes over and over and over again from different angles. One of the scenes on the tape was the one of the three kids by the fountain talking at the end. Every time they’d cut, Alyson Hannigan would make these googly eyes or snort while the others would stay super-serious. (Have I mentioned how much I love her?)
Next week: We finish off season 1 with "Nightmares," "Out of Mind, Out of Sight," and "Prophecy Girl" with special guest commentators Jennifer K. Stuller and David Kociemba! Also, starting next week I'm going to have an archive post that I'll link to off the side of the page where I will archive all of these posts, so you'll have a one-click stop to find all of them.