Tuesday, 30 April 2013
This story in a nutshell: The Doctor and friends discover the lost city of Atlantis…
Lovely Lashes & Able Seaman: Trust Polly to go wandering off at the beginning of this adventure and follow her nose for danger right to where the adventure is. Mind you at least she is using her intelligence, trying to guess where they are with the evidence of her own eyes. Turns out she can turn a phrase in French, Spanish and German. As absurd as the idea of turning her into a fish might be, the realisation that dawns on Polly when they approach her with a tranquilizer is actually pretty frightening. Polly needs a massive slap in the last episode when she starts shrieking and moaning ‘I can’t!’ over and over – it’s a moment of hysteria that I wouldn't expect from the woman who criticised Kirsty for such behaviour in the last story. Ben is such a lovely bit of rough, even when he gets little to do he still makes me smile (mostly for aesthetic reasons). I love it when he calls the Doctor a berk! ‘Blimey look at ‘im! He aint normal, is ‘ee?’ It is painfully clear that with three companions on board the TARDIS the dialogue is stretched pretty thin and I wished they could have found a way of dealing with that problem (nobody dealt with the Doctor and three companions set up better than the first two TARDIS line ups) because this is a highly engaging team.
Who’s the Yahoos: So let me get this straight Jamie has been wrenched from his own time by a device that he cannot comprehend and thrown into a situation which even to somebody who is a dab hand at this lark finds baffling and he takes the whole lot in his stride? We never really got to get to grips with Jamie’s culture shock. Once Ben and Polly leave he has seen enough to make anything the rest of his time in the TARDIS throws at him a pretty shoulder-shrugging experience. Ben tells Jamie that the TARDIS has taken him away from Scotland forever and understandably he is terrified of the prospect. It's rather easy to mock Jamie at this point as Ben does telling him that people will mistake him for a bird in his kilt!
'You are a fool!': Of course the madly OTT Zaroff deserves his own section and I am sure the great man himself would expect no less of me. After all he is the greatest scientist since Leonardo! He admits that he does have a sense of humour and proves it by giggling maniacally throughout the story even when he is in the greatest of danger. It must be the thought of feeding people to his deadly giant octopus that keeps him so amused. His ego know no bounds, raising people like Damon in status just so he can have the pleasing of breaking them just as dramatically. He is such a genius he has turned the dreams of the Atlantians to his own means, in his own way exploiting them just as the Daleks exploited the colonists in Troughton's debut. Zaroff is not above having psychotic little tantrums when his loyalty is questioned – ‘Have I not sworn to you that Atlantis will once again rise from the sea! Haven’t I, haven’t I?’ Nobody is above his disdain, he tosses the High Priest aside when he informs them that the ‘little Doctor’ has disappeared and he even makes fatuous comments about the Great Amdo himself! Once kidnapped, Zaroff is full of bluster and lies that the Doctor can see right through, he knows that whatever he says to the contrary the madcap Professor would have to be the one to set off the explosion that brings down the world. His fake heart attack is so awful it is astonishing that anybody could ever fall for it. ‘Let me stand at your side so that I may feel the aura of your goodness!’ – frankly Ramo deserves a painful death for falling for Zaroff’s hyperbole! His lunacy bursts free as he fights with Jamie, brandishes a sword and tosses Polly into a load of men before fleeing down the tunnel and laughing insanely. How can you not love this guy? ‘Your people?’ he spits at Thous, ‘Your people? They are my people now!’ ‘You are a fool! You are a fool! Now I will send you to your beloved Goddess Amdo!’ – don’t cross this guy, he’s completely wicker basket! He’s one of the few villains that can get away with laughing his head off as the whole world crumbles around him – the tremors are almost a metaphor for his cracking personality! His death scene as the waters close over his head is so deliciously grandiose it is the only way he could satisfactorily be written out. What a guy.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘It would take a great gift of the gab to win over the Fish People!’ ‘But you are Irish…’
‘Nothing in ze world can stop me now!’
The Good and the Bad: The Underwater Menace is another of those shows which is absolutely dreadful when looked at objectively but I happen to love for its kookiness and melodrama in the same way as The Chase and Time and the Rani. As such it has its positives and its negatives thrown into one mixing bowl of lunacy. The opening scenes with the regulars’ thoughts being fed directly to the audience is a good indication of the kind of adventure this is going to be – comic strip, and not to be taken too seriously. The TARDIS looks gorgeous nestled in a little cove by the seaside – being a seaside boy it would be the biggest thrill to discover that battered blue box on my travels. The ideas are so outrageously camp you can’t help but fall in love with them totally - a lift that descends into an extinct volcano that leads to the lost city of Atlantis! With the campest high priest on record, a soundtrack that sounds like monks trying not to burst out laughing, hyper dramatic electronic music and threat of deadly sharks in the temple, this might be the most enchantingly outré Doctor Who opening episode ever. At least it doesn’t try and pretend otherwise. The designers have clearly decided to go a bit nuts with the marine theme and decked Ramo out in a hilarious head gear exploding with flora and fauna and arm him with a giant fish on a stick to wave about! The theme continues on through to the guard with their plastic tridents and Lolem who sports a glorious headdress that when placed upon his head makes him look like a giant grinning trout. To be fair to Julia Smith she does no how to set up her shots and the high camera angle of the four travellers bound at compass points and being dropped into shark infested waters is very impressive. Although it is absolute madness the first cliffhanger manages to generate some suspense as the screaming face of the Fish Person fills the porthole whilst Polly is menaced by a surgeon wielding a needle! For all it's campery, The Underwater Menace does manage to generate these moments of tension sometimes despite itself. Like a Bond villain before his time, Zaroff's great scheme is to make a drain so big that he will reduce the ocean to such an extent that Atlantis will rise. You can't accuse him of not being ambitious. Doctor Who has often exploited stereotypes (for good or for ill) but Jacko and Sean are something else, literal embodiments of their nationalities and displaying little else of what could be called character. Isn’t it hilarious how the story feels the need to explain everything to the audience in such childish detail – the whopping great close up on Thous' face when he finally realises that Zaroff is a complete fruitloop and the Doctor’s comment ‘I know that voice’ as a cockney accent comes booming out of the Amdo’s mouth at the point of its execution. It is a story that doesn't trust us to work out the simplest of things for ourselves. This really is a naive civilisation, Thous admitting that he never guessed Amdo's secret simply because he never bothered to take a look round behind the idol. Smith tries to make the market scenes as vibrant as possible by filling the set with shell clad extras and shooting through the stalls – it’s a brave effort to try and suggest that there is a civilisation in Atlantis that is let down by an ailing budget. The Fish People have come in for some flack over the years but the design is no worse than any other monster from this period and the scenes featuring them are filmed expensively at Ealing with great vats of water for them to splash about in. The ballet of the Fish People looks pretty good considering the sort of money the show had to play with. Yes, you can see the odd wire holding an actor up but if you are willing to suspend your belief these scenes are clearly the most impressive looking of the whole production. Although what somebody is doing fanning themselves in the ocean is a mystery to me. I always laugh my head off when Zaroff stabs Ramo with the spear and you can see it wobbling precariously in front of the camera – for what threatened to be a nasty moment once against descends into farce. Water gushes through the statue of Amdo as it fills the temple – much like The Myth Makers this story takes a sudden turn towards high drama at the climax. It's a shame that Zaroff couldn't have survived to fight another day (with a parting riposte, of course) but if he had to go, it is at least a memorably nasty death.
The Shallow Bit: Don’t get me started on the sight of Ben and Jamie dressed up in skin tight wet suits or this review might take a turn towards the x rated. Polly decked out in little more than shells will probably please a large portion of the audience too. Jamie in the wet suit in the last episode is one of the horniest things in Doctor Who over its fifty year life span. If you happen to be me.
Result: What can you say about The Underwater Menace? It's bollocks, isn’t it? But it's our bollocks and it refuses to take itself seriously and provides four episodes of ridiculous high jinks and camp madness. If you were going to be particularly vicious you could take every aspect of this production (except, oddly, how expensive it looks on occasion) and rip it to shreds but that would be to deprive yourself of the giddy insanity and giggles to be had. Professor Zaroff is up there with the Great Soldeed and the Rani as the campest, nuttiest villain of all time and there are no depths of cliché and melodrama he wont sink to. I love him to pieces because every line he utters makes me grin from ear to ear. Joseph Furst delivers one of the most stratospheric performances ever seen on television, so deranged that he even succeeds in turning Troughton into the straight man as a consequence. Where else can you see deadly sharks, a Fish Person ballet, Jamie is rubber and Atlantis fall? Oddly it is amongst the madness of The Underwater Menace that Troughton delivers his most commanding performance to date and he is backed up by the horniest trio of companions in living memory. Long considered one of Doctor Who’s greatest embarrassments by those who take the show far too seriously, The Underwater Menace is firecracker fun from beginning to end and I find it easier to go with the tide rather than fight against it: 7/10
Sunday, 28 April 2013
Oh My Giddy Aunt: Thinking back it was at this point that the Doctor was at his most fascinating because the transformation that has occurred had simply never happened before and the idea of a new actor stepping into the role was so exciting and dangerous. What's interesting is how much the Daleks have become embedded in the public's psyche because all it takes is for the Doctor to defeat them for the audience at large to embrace and accept him as the same man. Certainly as far as Ben and Polly are concerned there is no question of his identity come the beginning of The Highlanders. Wouldn't it have been glorious if at some early stage that this had all turned out to be a lie and Hartnell steps out of the shadows and revealed that the new Doctor was a decoy? The audience is initially as unconvinced as Ben and Polly as he does some extremely un-Doctorish things (or at least things that you could never see Hartnell indulging in) like dancing a jig, playing an instrument and apparently walking out into a mercury swamp without checking the readings first. He feels at his face as if he is discovering himself and when he looks into the mirror he sees his old self appear. If nothing else this powerful visual should convince the audience of the truth of his identity but the truth of the matter is that rather than easing them into the idea, both David Whitaker and Patrick Troughton have fun being evasive in asking the question 'Doctor Who?' There's none of the gentle hand holding that would be offered to a brand new child audience in The Parting of the Ways as Eccleston turned into Tennant. The writer and actor seem to go out of their way to suggest that this might not be the Doctor, that he might be an imposter. It must have felt exciting and unpredictable at the time. There probably isn't this uncertain a tone around the new Doctor until Colin Baker's Doctor arrives on the scene and attempts to murder his companion. We do get a slight explanation that life depends on change and renewal and that is metamorphosis is part of the TARDIS and without it he wouldn’t have survived. There’s a very telling still that sees the Doctor, Ben and Polly putting their heads together to conspire, suggesting an intimacy which perhaps wasn't there with Hartnell. His first moment of gravity comes when he spots the Daleks and questions Lesterson furiously at his lack of surprise at finding them in there. He orders them broken up or melted down, showing a surprising menacing streak. ‘Fools, stupid fools’ he agonizes as they take no heed of his words and continue with the Dalek project. Whereas Hartnell was such an external performer and throws all of his weight behind the scenes where the Doctor confronts his opponents, Troughton is a much more internal character, his Doctor always thinking, always observing. Ben describes him as a right little delinquent which does sum him up rather nicely. I love the sequence where the Doctor charms Lesterson into letting him get close to the Dalek in order to sabotage it because this is far more devious and underhanded than the first Doctor would have ever been. I'm quite pleased that 'I would like a hat like that!' was filtered out quite quickly, it's one of the few tics that feels quite forced. He’s very modest about his abilities and shrugs ‘did I do all that?’ once he has defeated the Daleks. Hartnell would be clutching his lapels and basking in the praise. Troughton is clearly initially uncertain in the role but this proves to be a helpful because his uncertainty mirrors our own but at the end of six episodes of Doctor Who magic full of excitement and suspense I was completely convinced that he was the Doctor. Just a very different sort of Doctor.
Able Seaman & Lovely Lashes: I could forgive Michael Craze anything because I fancy the arse off him! Ben is almost violently suspicious of the Doctor in the opening scenes, wanting to know how these new developments will affect them. When he was a kid he used to leave opposite to a brewery where you could go for a walk and have a drink at the same time! He’s furious, almost obstinately so with the Doctor’s playful attitude during a crisis. Showing that he is still a newbie at all this he thinks the Daleks are ‘not very lively’ but soon learns otherwise. I like how Whitaker has Ben using genuine cockney rhyming slang. Ben votes they go back to the TARDIS because he has had enough of this dump! Whilst Anneke Wills has a two week holiday it is down to Troughton and Craze to hold up the show and what is interesting is to see Troughton acting against a male who isn’t Hines and there is a very different (and not entirely unwelcome) chemistry between them. Polly isn’t quite as distinctive as Ben in this story but when they are all together there is no denying certain chemistry between the three actors. Polly is almost instantly convinced that this is the Doctor and you can tell how much Will is getting off on the introduction of Troughton to the show. I love how rude she is to Janley, Polly is always at her most intolerant when she is clashing with other women (see also Kirsty in The Highlanders). In the later episode when Polly emerges and Ben is written out (this time it's Michael Craze's turn to head to the Bahamas) she expresses genuine disgust for the horror that the Daleks spread around the colony. Writing out both characters for a handful of episodes each gives them both a chance to show how successful they would have been as solo companions but this is one pair that work at their absolute best when they are together. That this isn't the case for the most part is another unique point in this story's favour.
‘I am your ser-vant!’
‘We will get our power!’
‘Why do human beings kill human beings?’
‘Yes, you gave us life’ says a Dalek as it murders Lesterson.
The Good Stuff: What a great way to get us involved with the new Doctor, stepping out of the TARDIS to face murder and mistaken identity, Whitaker not wasting a second by dragging us straight into a gripping story. The fearsome looking capsule which is spent 200 years in a mercury swamp is a great mystery to hook the audience and the opening of it, suggesting ominous dangers within helps to work up some early tension. All of the characters are instantly defined from resistance stirrer Janley, power hungry Bragen and desperate for a break Lesterson. Whilst everybody has secrets, their personalities are instantly recognisable thanks to the well expertly chosen guest cast. The Daleks draped in cobwebs hidden in the shadows of the capsule is a really chilling and a memorable image to close the first episode on. Whitaker is thinking outside the box, not relying on Terry Nation's usual shock tactics of a Dalek emerging from the ground/sea/air but thinking of a genuinely fresh and chilling way to re-introduce the creatures. Who doesn't have that morbid curiosity to see what resides inside a Dalek? The Doctor's assertion that it would only take one Dalek to bring down the entire colony is very exciting, it astonishes me that when you take away their firepower and their strength in numbers (basically all the things that made them such an instant hit) and they become something even scarier because suddenly they are an alien intelligence relying on their wits. Not just robots with twitchy guns but something dark and menacing plotting away inside that stifling shell. Another thing I love about this story is how David Whitaker takes the ridiculous looking creatures and gives them some real credibility, having Lesterson trying to understand what the various arms and lens are for. When they started talking about rolling out the Daleks on Earth for manual labour I actually said ‘you fucking idiots’ out loud. The hubris and over confidence of this colony is unbelievable and as early as episode two you can see a rude awakening built into the script that the leaders are going to face, and by extension their people. Anybody who thinks they can exploit the Daleks has got a world of pain coming to them. Whitaker reminds you what a great character writer he is and the power games between Bragen, Quinn, Hensell and Janley create a fascinating backdrop of internal politics to the tale. Everybody is so busy trying to be top dog that nobody can see the revolution that is taking place under their very noses. ‘This could win us the revolution!’ says Janley of the Daleks and it is a perfect demonstration of how everybody is trying to exploit the creatures whilst quietly they are beautifully exploiting them, building their forces and waiting to make their move. ‘We understand the human mind’ one Dalek intones and it’s terrifying. It's isn't often that the Daleks are shown to be masters of human psychology (or at least this perceptibly) but on the few occasions that they look into our minds and see something of kindred spirits I find it utterly chilling. Janley does not conform to any of the cliches that I have come to expect from female characters that appear in sixties stories (think Carol, Dyoni, Cassandra, Kitty) - she's always plotting, always thinking how she can twist the situation to her advantage and not above using her feminine wiles to exploit the stupid men that run the colony. I loved the scene where she asked them to try the Dalek gun on her to prove that it was safe, whether she believed it was or not is a moot point, it shows that she is willing to risk the possibility of death to further enhance her takeover of the colony. Bragen turning out to be the rebel leader is a great surprise, although given his apparent hatred of their cause should have been an obvious pointer in that direction. There are few sequences that excite the mind more than the Dalek production line - we've been teased for four episodes with the knowledge that they are up to something behind the scenes but the idea that they have stolen enough materials to create a new race of Daleks is absolutely terrifying. Once again Whitaker has looked at the absurd design of these creatures and given it some credibility but actually showing them being assembled. Lesterson's horror matches out own, never in his wildest dreams did he ever imagine his slaves would have exploit him to this degree to build their own army and takeover the colony. The sound designers deserve a round of a applause because the Dalek voices have rarely been deployed as effectively as they are in this tale. In the early episodes they sound like children learning to speak, slurred and tentative but as each episode progresses they regain their confidence and reveal their dark intelligence. Come the final episode there is a Dalek army ready to be deployed, chanting their violent mantras in an hypnotic soundscape. It is rare to be this frightened of the Daleks but seeing them built up from a powerless shells to a merciless army has been a step by step process to elevate them back to claim the status of biggest badasses in the universe. It's such a terrifying process of evolution it almost makes Lesterson's violently psychotic reaction the only reasonable one. Bragen is so drunk on power that when the governor returns and he utilizes one of the creatures to remove his political opponent he still thinks that he has some control of them. He fingers a gun twitchily as though he is a Dalek himself waiting to see what side Janley will take before he decides whether he will murder her or not. His journey has perhaps been even more satisfying than Lesterson's breakdown, a lesson in hubris that we could all do with learning as he adopts the mindset of a Dalek to gain power. The scene where he screams over the intercom to the dead citizens of the colony, proving that his allegiance with them has been an entirely exploitative affair, is very powerful. He's governor of nobody and he was never going to be as soon as he decided to get in bed with the Daleks and try and murder his way into power. The five-episode build up of tension is so effectively achieved that when the Daleks swarm from the capsule and massacre the colonists it is disturbingly quite satisfying because that tension is finally set loose, the breath is finally released. The Daleks murder their way through the colonists, the rebels and the guards, it is an indiscriminate slaughterhouse of dread and fear. Whitaker has effectively taken these creations and handed them their formidable representation.
The Bad: My only complaint are a few aesthetics that don't quite come off (lava lamps, fake backdrops and an army of Daleks represented in cardboard) but looking back on sixties television from the 21st Century is always going to judgmental affair because the standards television now are so masterful.
The Shallow Bit: Polly and Ben. I'll say it again and again and again. Add Jamie to mix in the next tale and I don't know if I can take much more.
Result: Astonishingly good, The Power of the Daleks is my personal favourite Dalek story. If you were going to kick start the show and give it a new lease of life with a spanking new lead actor then couldn't do much better than handing him a story as gripping as this one to prove what he is made of. The Power of the Daleks is another lost classic, a masterpiece of character drama and suspense building from David Whitaker, one of the master craftsmen of Doctor Who. He takes Terry Nation’s creations and breathes new life into them. No longer are they just an army of killers but instead formidable tacticians and psychological manipulators and they prey on the weaknesses of this colony until they have enough strength to burst from the capsule and slaughter the lot of them. Less is somehow more and relying on their intelligence rather than their usual habit of strength in numbers and kill first, think later is far more effective expression of their tenacity. By the end of the story there is an argument to be made that the colonists have killed themselves, important figures all planning to utilise the Daleks in different ways and having their wishes granted and then twisted upon themselves. You can't make a bargain with these creatures because they will always demand payment and there is only one reward they seek. The way the story is structured with each episode raising the stakes is superb; the Daleks are revealed in a decrepit state, they are broken into service, they gather resources, they kick start their own production line, they build up an impressive fighting force and finally they break free of the capsule and set off to massacre the people that have made their resurrection possible. The Daleks hold their fire for five episodes so when they are finally let off the leash they are relentless. Tension grips from episode one, builds exponentially and climaxes in an unforgettable bloodbath in the final installment. This is all a powerful backdrop for the new Doctor to establish himself against, Patrick Troughton emerging from this drama as a impish, awkward, intelligent and modest version of the hero we have adjusted to. He gets some time alone with Polly and Ben (both Wills and Craze taking a holiday) and they both get the chance to evaluate the man and arrive at the same decision come the conclusion. This is the Doctor, but an exciting, fresh version of the man. Memorable guest performances abound, the direction is top notch (the telesnaps and few seconds of footage we can watch make this look mouth-wateringly tense) and as a opening to a new era the bar has been set impossibly high. My number one 'I wish this could be discovered' story: 10/10
Artwork by Simon Hodges @ http://hisi79.deviantart.com/
Friday, 26 April 2013
Hmm: Regardless of his health or imminent departure William Hartnell is on top throughout this adventure and seems to relish the chance to take one last journey into history and hobnob it with pirates! The chemistry between the three leads is quite addictive and had his health not prevented him continuing in the show I could have foreseen many adventures ahead for this trio. We can leave all of his heavy handed moralising for his finale (‘have you no emotion, sir?’) as this is our last chance to see Hartnell truly enjoying himself in the role, taking to the seas and employing his gentlemanly charm. This is a time when all and sundry weren’t allowed to traipse into the TARDIS and the Doctor is livid that Polly and Ben have used to Dodo’s key to get inside. With the Ship in flight it feels like a rerun of the first episode with the Doctor taking a couple away from London and unable to get them back. He complains about the distractions and states he really thought he was going to be alone again – he can foresee oodles of trouble with this pair! Because Ben is so obstinate in his refusal to believe that the TARDIS can travel in time the Doctor is really enjoys making a wager that he knows the young sailor is going to lose. The Doctor charms his way into a room, food and a warm fire from Kewper the Innkeeper and refers to his friends as ‘the boys.’ I want to see this story just on the basis of seeing the first Doctor thrown over someone’s shoulder like a rag doll. The indignity of it. Go and listen to his scenes with Pike in episode two and hear how well Hartnell can turn on the charm with him appealing to the pirates sophisticated tastes and treating him in a gentlemanly fashion. ‘Let us talk like men of the world! Be elegant! With dignity!’ He’s such a cheeky rogue the way he uses the cards to aid their escape from the pirate Jamaica, like Ben he preys on the superstitions of the time. The Doctor faces off to Cherub with all the authority at his disposal, refusing to bargain with a man who would so easily end a mans life. It all comes down to the Doctor in the crypt solving the dead mans riddle just as it should be. He wont leave the Squire to die even though they have the perfect opportunity to escape, a far cry from the man who look as though he might bash the brains out of a caveman in An Unearthly Child and a wonderful example of how far he has come. Enjoy The Smugglers as the last hurrah for a phenomenal actor in the part because The Tenth Planet really doesn't exploit either Hartnell or the Doctor (due to health reasons) at his best.
Lovely Lashes & Able Seaman: A lot of people forget (including me) how vital Ben and Polly were during the last stages of the Hartnell era. Without them the transition between the two lead actors would have been a lot harder to swallow. They held our hands whilst the show took its first major gamble and saw us to the other side. It helps that they are both such engaging and fun characters and warmly (sometimes flirtatiously) played by Michael Craze and Anneke Wills. When thinking over the long list of companions they often get left out because so much of their material is missing but frankly I cannot imagine a pair it would be a greater pleasure to travel the universe with. Between them they mention that the Doctor has an uncanny knack of landed himself in it (Ben) but also jolly crafty at getting himself out trouble (Polly). They’ve got the measure of him alright.
Polly is delighted to find herself on a beach and starts whopping with joy. They genuinely believe they are still in their own time and start looking for a train to take them back to London. Once banged up Polly declares she is finding this life on the run rather exciting. Ben enjoys winding up Polly by suggesting the murderer might come back and find them. She’s a pretty brave lass the way she spits accusations in the face of a throat slitting pirate and the corrupt Squire. Oh and she can let rip one hell of an ear splitter too.
Ben plays along with the Doctor for a while but is stiffly informed it will be a long time before he sees his ship again. He asks Polly to pinch him to test whether the Doctor is some kind of hypnotist. I find it charming the way that Ben, who has barely known the Doctor more than a few days, will step in a protect the old goat from roughnecks that threaten him. He takes the piss out of Polly when she spies a rat in their cell just as she took the piss out him for whinging that he cannot report to a 17th Century Navy. Has there ever been a pair in the TARDIS that should just thrown off the pretence of friendship and get it on more than these two? I love the scene where he hysterically demands that Tom lets them both go in case Polly puts a witches curse on him. Ben is clearly enjoying the chance to play act and sadistically plays on the boys fears to help them in their escape. Some have commented that this behaviour is cruel but really it is just using a superstition somebody already has to their advantage. Although it has to be said that he takes things quite far, the kid sounds like the kid is going crap himself by the end of the scene. Whilst at times Ben might vie for power he admits in moments of crisis that the Doctor is ‘the guv’nor’
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘What would they say to a maiden in trousers, hmm?’
‘I’ll have the words spilling out of him like blubber from a whale!’
The Good: I can understand why Hartnell might feel that this isn’t the show that he agreed to be a part of because there is a definite feel that it has left him behind a tad and been swept away by the swinging sixties. Everything seems to be a little bit gorgeous; the TARDIS landing on a glorious stretch of beach (lovely location work courtesy of Julia Smith) and out steps two of the sexiest companions the Doctor will ever travel with. For the first time the show is starting to feel with it in a time when it was probably starting to feel past it. Doctor Who’s long history never ceases to amaze me and Captain Avery (‘the sharpest skipper that ever sailed out of Bristol port!’) the pirate is alluded to in the first episode, the very same man that the Doctor would end up meeting in his eleventh incarnation! Clearly Avery relieved himself of Pike and his men’s services and his disappearance ties in beautifully with the story that plays out in series six. This was a time when the Doctor could land and stumble on a pirate plot without it being woven into some grand masterplan or plot, just a simple adventure for the sheer pleasure of it. Forget the comic strip pirates we were introduced to in The Curse of the Black Spot for these are the real deal – knife wielding, throat slitting nutters that will fill you full of lead and stab you in the back as soon as look at you. The telesnaps show lovely snugly scenes of the Doctor, Ben and Polly drinking in the atmosphere of the local tavern. You can hardly say this moves glacially since by the end of the first episode the Doctor has been kidnapped and taken on board a pirate ship, Ben beaten up and the pair of them arrested and thrown in prison! Unusually for Doctor Who there is no incidental music at all which took me a while to notice and it didn’t detract from the story one bit. Actually I found it enhanced the period atmosphere (instead we get to hear the seagulls screaming, thunder rumbling, decks creaking and the sea rolling). It's easy to buy into a man like Pike who is living the life of a pirate but under the pretence of being a gentleman, enjoying the finery that comes with both roles. The one man who looked as though he might be able to aid the Doctor and his friends turns out to be the most corrupt of the lot – the Squire is deviously using the pirates to smuggle in all manner of expensive goods. Like The Myth Makers the year before, The Smugglers has the ability to suddenly turn extremely serious in a heartbeat and the sudden death of Jamaica at the hands of Pike (especially with him wiping the blood on his sleeve) is like a quick slap around the face to remind us these cutthroats mean business. However it never forgets to entertain as we engagingly follow the Doctor, Ben and Polly as they fit the clues together that lead them close to the treasure.
It pleased me that the Squire saw the errors of his ways and that Cherub turned on his Captain, both might be cliches in their own right but this is a story that is working to the conventions of a classic pirate story and it would have been sorrier without them. Cherub being run through by Pike’s sword is a punch the air end for a thoroughly hissable villain. All the location work in the last episode really does lend this the look of a feature film, the beach setting is captured in some expensive looking long shots. There is an awful lot of fighting in the last episode and it looks (via the telesnaps) and sounds (via the soundtrack) like a vicious brawl with even Polly and Ben entering the fray and kicking some pirate ass. With a string of corpses left behind it just goes to show that the desperate accumulation of wealth through nefarious means can only lead to a sorry end. Lesson learnt.
The Bad: None of the cliff-hangers are particularly special but there aren’t any really surprising turns a tale like this can take because it runs along conventional piratical lines. The best they can do is shock moments of violence or the sudden death of a character and those are the rare the glimpses that we get of this story, censored by the Australians.
The Shallow Bit: Ben and Polly, naturally. He’s wearing a tight black cotton shirt and shows off his chest and she is dressed up in a stripy top and peaked cap, a truly sexy tomboy. So much so she is mistaken for a lad as is they way when these young girls travel back into history.
Result: The Smugglers is one final hurrah for William Hartnell before his health robbed him of the show that really put his name on the map and he gives one of his most lively and pleasurable turns as the Doctor. In fact all of the performances are bewitching in this swashbuckling tale of lost treasure and piracy with the show attracting names like Micheal Godfrey and Paul Whitsun-Jones to bring its colourful characters to life. From the telesnaps you can see this is a handsomely produced tale with some gorgeous location work (still unusual for this stage of the series), rich and detailed sets and attractive period costumes. The BBC always go all out when producing historical drama and this is no exception. I cannot finish this summary without mentioning Ben and Polly once more who have given the series a shot of adrenalin and they help to make this charming piece even more engaging. Clearly all involved are having a whale of a time which is damn infectious and my one regret is that it is one of a handful of stories of which we have no complete episodes to judge it by visually. The Smugglers has no ambitions beyond providing you with four episodes of top quality entertainment and it fulfills that function admirably: 8/10
Artwork by Simon Hodges @ http://hisi79.deviantart.com/
Thursday, 25 April 2013
Bargaining Parts I & II written by Marti Noxon & David Fury and directed by David Grossman
The Chosen One: Amusingly Willow has tried to programme the Buffybot with Buffy-style puns but it has all gone terribly wrong and she ends up dusting and then serving up a convoluted word salad. I understand the reasoning behind the attempt to fool the world that Buffy is still alive (to keep Dawn out of custody) but it is playing something of a dangerous game with the authorities (not to mention Dawn’s father) and a constant reminder of what they have all lost. Buffybot is like an uber-Anya, hyper logical, straight to the point and unable to tell if what she has said is appropriate or not. I can’t imagine an extended run with this character around but for a couple of episodes she is fun diversion from all the very dark material going on elsewhere. Naturally (although there is anything natural about it) the first thing that Buffy sees when she crawls out of her grave is her headstone and the full impact of what has happened dawns on her. I love scenes where she explores the demolished streets of Sunnydale because it looks as though she has woken up in some twisted hellish version of her home. Clawing her way out of the ground, having misty visions of a battered and broken neighbourhood and then watching herself being torn to pieces, it’s no wonder she thinks that the world has gone mad. Buffy is dirty, bloody and almost feral, a far cry from the kick ass blonde we usually hang with.
Ripper: Even Xander is marvelling at the immaturity of Giles and Anya’s bitch fight over the possessions in the magic shop. I wish he hadn’t interrupted because I was laughing my head off.
Sexy Blond: I don’t want to say that the rest of the Scoobies hold Spike back when he is out patrolling (Willow is certainly a powerful presence) but there could be an argument made for the hilarious way he lights up a cigarette as one vampire chokes Giles to death since his companions have been little but a hindrance. Strange what a fight to the death with a demi-God can do to a team of heroes, now everybody accepts Spike’s presence in their lives to the point that he is left looking after Dawn when the shit hits the fan. When Spike arranged for the Buffybot to be built it was to stand in for the person he thought would never look at him in the way he desired in a million years. What was supposed to soothe that pain has turned into something of a curse, especially since Willow can’t quite programme out the lusty thoughts that she has for him. He can’t help but smile at the carnage the demons are wrecking on Sunnydale whilst constantly keeping an eye on Dawn and ensuring her safety. Not completely neutered then.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Did your life flash before your eyes? Cup of tea, cup of tea, almost got a shag, cup of tea?’
‘And how long have you known your girlfriend is Tinkerbell?’
‘Plus we have a Slayer here who might actually be looking to eat some brains…’
Dreadful Dialogue: Buffy: ‘Is this Hell?’ Dawn: ‘No. You’re here. With me’ – this isn’t bad dialogue per se, but it is unintentionally hilarious.
Moment to Watch Out For: The graveside resurrection spell is one of the most haunting set pieces this show ever attempted. The concept of what they are doing chills the blood from the outset but by the time Willow’s face is smeared with blood, her arms are hacked open, insects writhe under her skin and she vomits a snake over the graveside I was ready to cuddle up to my other half. It’s nasty. Even more spine tingling is the awesome effect of Buffy’s skeleton being reanimated and the sudden realisation that she is going to have to claw her way out of her grave. If you wanted to make an impact with Buffy’s return to the show I cannot imagine a more horrific way to go about it. I was literally holding my breath as Buffy attempted to claw her way out of her grave, the scene is unrelentingly claustrophobic.
Orchestra: Naughty Thomas Wanker. He’s using all of the same musical themes as last year. It was very distracting at times, I kept expecting Glory to pop out of the woodwork. It’s his heavy metal, industrial soundtrack for the biker demons where he scores his most original and exciting moments. It’s no compliment to Wanker to say that the best scene musically is atop the tower where he apes Christophe Beck’s music from The Gift. Whenever Trachtenberg gets the chance, she proves herself to be fine little actress and she is a dominating presence in the conclusion, clawing Buffy back to reality.
Foreboding: Oh boy is there a lot to deal with in the aftermath of this two part blockbuster…
After Life written by Jane Espenson and directed by David Solomon
What’s it about: Did Buffy return from the dead with something on her back?
The Chosen One: There are so many questions to be answered about where Buffy has been, what she has seen and what her feelings are about being back. After Life slowly addresses all three of them but not before convincing the viewer (and Willow) that she has been suffering in some kind of hell dimension and that she has been returned to life in a dangerous state of mind. Buffy is numb with shock and can barely react to anything and really cannot face a barrage of questions from her friends for the time being. It’s really disquieting to see the usually smart and peppy (and not to mention overly emotional) Buffy so detached from her surroundings. Although there have been changes, Buffy walks around her own house like a complete stranger who doesn’t recognise a thing. She looks at photographs of her friends and sees spectres of death staring back at her. By the end of the episode Buffy is putting on a mask of normality, making lunch for Dawn and giving her friends the thanks that they need to hear. Her conversation with Spike in the alley proves the fallacy of her gratitude and that she has long way to go before she comes to terms with what she has lost out on.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘The thing about magic is there’s always consequences. Always.’
‘And I think I actually heard him clean his glasses.’
‘I could drive faster than you and I can’t drive!’
‘Did they even give you a choice?’
‘Wherever I was I was happy. At peace. I knew that everyone I cared about was alright. I knew it. Time didn’t mean anything. Nothing had form, but I was still me, you know? And I was warm. And I was loved. And I was finished. Complete. I don’t understand theology and dimensions, any of it really but I think I was in heaven. And now I’m not. I was torn out of there, pulled out by my friends.’
The Bad: The show is far less interested in branching out the series with original storytelling ideas these days and far more obsessed with the internal workings of its characters. I’m lucky that I have come to care about as strongly about this cast as I have and that their traumas perpetuate interesting narratives that I can invest in. Less effective is the solid visualisation of the creature which looks a little like an actor draped in muslin.
Orchestra: A quiet, creepy, discordant score this week, perfectly in keeping with the disquieting atmosphere.
Foreboding: Buffy’s friends will discover her secret in spectacular fashion in Once More With Feeling.
Result: ‘There’s something in the house…’ That was creepy. Like Bargaining, this is reaching for a mature tone with a chilling central idea (Buffy has returned from the dead with a price) but the execution is much more confident, the script is sharper and the character development sets up the rest of the season quite vividly. I can understand why some people resisted this direction because it is about as far from the colourful and exciting show we have grown to love as you can get. Buffy returns from the grave and it isn’t back to business but with a complete absence of emotion, an extended pause of numbness of which nobody knows how to react. It’s a challenging state of affairs for the audience as well as the characters but disquieting played by all concerned and with some spectacular pay off in the final scene when we come to understand why Buffy rejects her old life so much. Buffy has taken us through the ups and downs of High School, the excitement of college, the joys of having your family around you…this year is all about plunging the characters into a very dark, adult world, the one most of us experience when you realise that growing up isn’t much fun. It’s a cold, depressing place where you look back at your childhood and realise how much simpler things were back then and when you make some really stupid mistakes to try and feel anything. That’s what season six is about, it isn’t interested in giving you what you’ve had before, and whilst it can be unwelcoming, it also has some very profound things to say about the characters. After Life is indicative of the year to come; slow, brooding, introspective and quite chilling. It wont always be handled this well but when it is there is something stark, vulnerable and penetrating about it and that just about sums up this episode very well. It might not be Buffy at it’s most populist but it represents the show at its bravest. It’s bloody scary in parts too: 8/10
Flooded written by Jane Espenson & Doug Petrie and directed by Doug Petrie
The Chosen One: I said in my last review that season six of Buffy is the point in life when dreams are squandered and the reality of life as an adult hits you. You’re no longer being cared for but the one who is doing the caring and paying the bills. It might not be the most pleasant of subject matter (who wants to see their favourite TV stars struggling to pay the bills? That’s what we watch TV to avoid thinking about!) but it does continue Buffy’s honest obsession with showing life how it actually is rather than how we would like it to be (albeit with a little supernatural twist on occasion). With the Glory issue dealt with Buffy now has to face up to the fact that she is Dawn’s guardian, the bread winner and her academic hopes have to put on hold while real life issues such as keeping a roof over their heads becomes a priority. I can really empathise with Buffy in this situation, especially when she is made to feel about the size of a bug when she has no clue how to apply for a loan. I would be exactly the same in her situation as I also have somebody who takes care of all that business. Saying all that, it is a relief to see Gellar playing the part with some humour again because I couldn’t imagine an entire season with the vacuous Buffy we have tolerated since she clawed her way out of her grave.
Witchy Willow & Tasty Tara: There’s a very awkward moment between Willow, Buffy and a punch bag which telling shows the two characters trying to assert themselves.
Gorgeous Geek: Xander has truly run out of excuses not to tell the gang about his engagement to Anya. Where I thought her whiny rants were inappropriate in the first three episodes, things have settle down now and everybody could do with some good news.
Vengeance Demon: ‘This tone of my voice. I hate it more than you and I’m closer to it!’ Whilst Anya’s suggestion to cash in on slaying vampires is an amusing one, it isn’t one that should ever be taken seriously. Unlike when Cordelia makes the suggestion on Angel and they become a money spinning exercise in saving lives. Buffy’s caustic reply of ‘that’s an idea…you would have’ skips over that idea. Still when Buffy is pissing and moaning about another shift at the Doublemeat Palace Anya can smugly point out that she did think of a financial way out of this rut.
‘Tell me about the spell you performed’ ‘First of all – so scary! Like, the Blair Witch would have had to have watched like this…’
‘I trashed this house so many times. How did mom pay for all this?’
The Good: Finally some authentic visual comedy of the sort that Buffy usually excels at. It might be the simplest of ideas but the burst pipe that turns into a torrent in the basement and sends Dawn screaming for the hills is really chucklesome. Trust the hospitals to suck up all the insurance money and leave Buffy with a house which is haemorrhaging in value that she may lose. You would think that saving his life from a spiny headed demon and slashing her skirt right in his face would be enough to convince the bank clerk that she deserves some kind of temporary loan. You can’t say she hasn’t thrown all of her assets at him. Buffy’s house gets torn to pieces once again. This happens at least once a year but over the next two season it goes beyond a joke. I don’t why they even bother to fix it up again it happens with such startling frequency.
Moment to Watch Out For: ‘You were lucky!’ ‘I wasn’t lucky, I was amazing, and how would you know you weren’t even there!’ ‘If I had been I’d have bloody well stopped you. The magic you channelled are more ferocious and primal than anything you could hope to understand and you are lucky to be alive you rank, arrogant amateur!’ ‘You’re right. The magicks I used are very powerful. I’m very powerful and maybe it’s not such a good idea for you to piss me off…’ Oh wow, that really made me sit up and pay attention. Lines are well and truly being crossed and Willow is slowly emerging as one of the most frightening characters this show has ever produced. More like this please.
Result: A little comedy, the ‘villains’ of the season revealed and a couple of astonishingly raw moments but mostly Flooded is pretty average fare coming from two of the strongest writers of this show. There’s a disturbing amount of inactivity in the early stages of season six that suggests the show might have run out of steam a little. Giles’ return is given appropriate celebration and he shares an unforgettable moment with Willow that stands head and shoulders above the rest of what this episode has to offer. The Trio are introduced but they can only be considered a partial success at this point because they really don’t do anything worthwhile beyond remind us what spectacular geeks they are. I’m pleased to see Sarah Michelle Gellar lightening up a little but there is only surface characterisation on offer this week, especially compared to last weeks revelations. I just don’t know what to say about Flooded – it’s okay but at the this stage of the game I expect much more than that. The epitome of average: 5/10
The Good: Nick Marck is one of the more imaginative directors to come on board the show in the final two years and he has great fun putting together the various tests that Buffy faces in Life Serial. There’s a wonderful shot of Buffy standing confused amongst the milling throng of the university campus which has sped up to dangerous levels around her. There’s also plenty to love about the fight at the construction site from Buffy’s bar swinging high kicks, the unusual effect of the demons turning to slime as they perish and grotesque sight of one of them being crushed inside a mechanical ladder. Buffy gets given a name badge with the tag line ‘Ask Me About Curses!’ Gambling for kitties is stupid currency…but they’re just so damn cute! Plus this story introduces Clem who is a joy to be around and I wish had taken on a much greater role than the series offered him.
Life Serial written by David Fury & Jane Espenson and directed by Nick Marck
The Chosen One: ‘Look at me! Look at stupid Buffy, too dumb for college! And freak Buffy, too strong for construction work! And my job at the Magic Shop…I was bored to tears even before the hour that wouldn’t end!’ Buffy’s head is so full of money problems that she hasn’t even considered what she is going to do with her life. A choice which this episode examines in some depth. With her moms funeral handled, the threat to Dawn’s life defeated and even her own death overcome she now has to look to the future and forge a path ahead. It goes to show how furiously paced and packed full of incident this show usually is that we haven’t had the time to consider these questions until now. The look on Buffy’s face when she attends a university discussion group suggests that they are speaking in another language to the one that she understands. I guess she has been out of the educational loop for too long. Her next stop is looking for work and she calls in a favour from Xander to secure a gig at his current building sight. Few things in life are cuter than Buffy donning a hard hat and effortlessly picking up heavyweight girders like one of the Seven Dwarfs off to work. The trouble is here that she is too good at the job (thus proving that construction workers always over estimate because they get paid by the hour) and gives her fellow workers a bad name, and that’s before Andrew sends a gang of horrible swamp demons down to tear up the site. Completely desperate, she turns to retail and a job at the Magic Shop with Giles and Anya. I remember when I was working in retail and pretty much every single day that I was there was exactly like I was stuck inside a Groundhog Day style loop and Buffy’s experiences with the mummy hand sale that goes on forever brought back the repetitive banality of it all with painful sharpness. The Trio are observing Buffy throughout her many attempts at securing a life path and declare that she is completely without purpose. When all else fails, Buffy turns to a night of drunken gambling with Spike. Well I suppose it’s a life choice of sorts. There is a sense that these two are kindred spirits now, both having died and returned to life in a world that no longer feels right for them. Gellar and Marsters share a very easy chemistry that feels real, very different from the daytime soap operatics that Buffy and Angel often practised. Spike can see precisely what Buffy is all about – not a schoolgirl or a shop girl but a creature of the darkness like him. I get why Giles waited until this point to give Buffy the money she so desperately needs because he can see that she has at least tried to do it on her own.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Maybe I should ease back in with some non-taxing classes like Introduction to Pies or Advance Walking.’
‘Retail? I’d rather be dead. Again.’
‘I like Timothy Dalton’ ‘Don’t make me pull over’ and ‘Timothy Dalton should win an Oscar and beat Sean Connery over the head with it!’
Result: Witty, sunny and packed full of pop culture references, Life Serial is one of the few season six episodes of Buffy that resembles something that could have taken place in previous seasons. In the way that it uses comedic villains to provides some amusing obstacles for Buffy to overcome it harkens back to the early days of seasons one and two but by seaguing these tests into Buffy’s limitless life choices it earns its place squarely in season six. Gellar is on top form throughout, whether Buffy is baffled by university speak, wrestling demons at Xander’s building site, trapped in the time loop from hell or off out on a pub crawl with Spike I was perfectly convinced that Gellar was having the time of her life. It’s so nice to see Buffy smiling this much, even when her life is at a crossroads and she doesn’t know which path to take. We haven’t seen the character this loose (down boys) since way back in season four. If the Trio were nothing but an awkward diversion in the last episode, they more than make up for that here as they attempt to trash Buffy’s life with a series of daft but very amusing tests. I can’t see how these three social outcasts could hold up an entire season but as a way of holding up a mirror to the worst excesses of genre fandom they do make me laugh a lot. It doesn’t all work; there is an element of juvenile humour that would have been rejected even in the first season and occasionally the direction is a little stilted (a common problem in the first half of season six) but taken as a whole Life Serial taps into a frothy amiability that makes this ideal comfort viewing and might just be one of the most outright entertaining episodes of the year: 8/10
All the Way written by Stephen S. DeKnight and directed by David Solomon
What’s it about: It’s Halloween which can only mean bad business for Dawn…
The Chosen One: At the point where she has to make decision about Dawn, Buffy asks Giles for his opinion rather than laying down the law herself. She’s watching everybody enjoying their lives but can’t seem t engage with people in the same way. At the climax she walks away from punishing Dawn and leaves Giles to carry out the deed.
The Key: Let’s see, what great insights do we learn about Dawn in this episode? She’s stealing (but we knew that already) and she’s attracted to bad boys (just like her sister). That was sure worth wasting an entire episode on. Michelle Trachtenberg is a fine little actress but she has to be given something to do beyond this kind of indulgent Saved by the Bell style teen soap opera. She’s trying her best to invest the material with some kind of meaning (she succeeds most during the car scene with Justin as she enjoys her first kiss) but it’s all mostly all surface characterisation. If I’m honest there hasn’t been the strength of material this season for Dawn that has clarified the reason for continuing her character beyond her storyline last year. Compared to the genuine drama that was built around her character in season five, this is small scale stuff.
Witchy Willow & Tasty Tara: Willow’s first reaction to the mess that the customers have left behind in the Magic Shop is to whisk up a cleaning spell. She’s becoming far too reliant on her powers when anything takes a little effort. Tara is starting to notice too and when she tries to confront her about it her stutter returns in the way it does whenever she enters an uncomfortable conversation.
Gorgeous Geek: Like Xander with Anya here, I get those moments all the time when I look at Simon and remember precisely why I fell in love with him in the first place. It feels like the perfect time to reveal that they are planning on getting married.
Vengeance Demon: It’s Anya who is really on form this week, comparing her accumulation of money to night in the sack with Xander and revelling in the dance of capitalist superiority. She’s basking in being the centre of attention now Xander has finally told his friends that they are going to get married.
‘Mist…cemetery…Halloween…should end well’ – All the Way is so desperate it resorts to a pratfall from Giles for a laugh but it did make me laugh so let’s consider that a success.
‘Didn’t anyone come here just to make out?’ (Hands raise) Oh that’s sweet. You run.’
Dreadful Dialogue: ‘Don’t make me go all kung-fu on you man!’
The Good: The early scenes in the Magic Shop with everybody helping out during the Halloween sale is full of energy and laughs (I especially like Willow’s consternation in the face of witchy stereotypes which melt away when she sees a cutie wittle girl dressed up like the Wicked Witch of the West). The twist that Justin turns out to be a vampire (it must be a Summers thing) comes out the blue despite some nice foreshadowing (‘are you going to go all the way?’).
Moment to Watch Out For: For the first time ever I don’t think I can think of a particularly memorable moment, for good or for ill. Naughty Willow performs has started to manipulate Tara, making her forget arguments that they are having. I suppose that is as shocking as it gets.
Result: Just because it is about Dawn that doesn’t automatically make it bad. Unfortunately in this case, it does. There’s no nice way of putting this but All the Way is barely tolerable filler to pass the time whilst the majority of the regulars work on the musical extravaganza next week. Dawn’s misadventures with her friends are passable enough but there is nothing here that screams of a story that needed to be told. Indeed it is the background scenes of Xander and Anya’s engagement that impact the most but that is only because they have finally come out of the woodwork and told the rest of the gang after much fannying around. Giving Dawn a Scooby gang of her own is not a bad at idea (its certainly preferable to having her mope about at home) and perhaps would have provided some much needed levity in season six but this bunch are pretty forgettable, so much so that I didn’t notice that we never see them again. Beyond Dawn enjoying her first kiss and dusting (of the same boy appropriately) this is an exercise in running on the spot. For a much, much better example of how this should have been done check out season seven’s Potential. I struggled to find much to say about this because there is very little of substance to examine. Tara and Willow fight over her overuse of magic and Buffy leans too much on Giles but both of these elements are handled with far more aplomb in Once More, with Feeling. Like Flooded before it and Smashed ahead, this is the middle of three season six episodes that don’t seem to be about much of anything: 4/10
Once More, With Feeling written and directed by Joss Whedon
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You’ll never guess what happened today at school’ ‘You all started singing and dancing?’ ‘I gave birth to pterodactyl’ ‘Oh my God did it sing?’
Overture/Going Through the Motions: Pure Disney, this is a superb opening number that sets the scene perfectly. Everybody is doing exactly what the title says, going through the motions of their lives at this point – Willow and Tara are researching, Buffy is training and patrolling and Xander and Anya are looking at wedding magazines and planning their big day. As far as anybody can see everybody is happy and relaxed. The first sign that this was really going to be something unique was when the three demons started jigging across the screen and providing a hilarious chorus even whilst they were being slaughtered. There’s a superb crane shot that is pure theatre, Buffy belting out her final note through a cloud of vampire dust. Sarah Michelle Gellar perhaps doesn’t have the strongest voice in the world but she’s more than adequate for the sort of songs that this episode requires of her. Buffy admits that she is putting a brave face on things but nothing in her life feels right anymore. She’s training, patrolling, forcing a smile on her face but she doesn’t feel anything anymore. She just wants to feel alive again but whilst she regrets what she has lost in death and keeps her secret from her friends she cannot move beyond this moment in her life.
The Mustard: Not just wonderful songs, but the choreography is marvellous too. If you can turn a ten second interlude about a shirt free of stains into a delight on the eye featuring coloured shirts whipping through the air…well you’re doing something very right indeed.
The Parking Ticket: Not just a decent writer, Marti Noxon has got a marvellous set of lungs on her too.
Dawn’s Lament/Dawn’s Ballet: ‘Does anybody even notice?/Does anybody even care?’ …considering there is nobody at the house when she is abducted by the creepy men in smiling masks, I would say no. More than her voice, Michelle Trachtenberg’s dancing experience comes to the fore and blended with Beck’s enchanting soundtrack they create a magical mixture of mime and dance around the Bronze. We’ve never had the chance to take a look at the refurbished night spot whilst it is this empty before.
Standing: ‘The cries around you you don’t hear at all/Because you know I’m here to take that call/So you just lie there when you should be standing tall…’ Of all the secrets laid bare in Once More, with Feeling, I found Giles’ confession to be the most touching because it sets up a heartbreaking turn of events in the next episode where he leaves town for good. He’s been observing Buffy’s growing dependence on him for some time now and the camera has lingered uncomfortably on his silent reactions. It’s significant that Buffy doesn’t even hear his confession, she’s so wrapped up in her own world that he reveals his fears that she wont stand on her own two feet and she is blissfully unaware of what he is planning. I think my mum always had a bit of a thing for Anthony Head (stretching back to his Gold Blend days) but after she heard him perform this number she was absolutely besotted. The whole thing plays out like a 80s exercise montage (albeit a very good one) and some of the stunts are very good indeed.
Where Do We Go From Here: Whedon is a naughty boy. He has burst the seasons secrets and lies open and then poses the question of consequences without having to deal with them himself. Spike’s ‘bugger this…’ is a delight.
Result: ‘All those secrets you’ve been concealing/Say you’re happy now/Once more, with feeling…’ In pure Buffy style nobody even pretends that this is a normal sort of a day. Buffy walks into the Magic Shop and asks if anybody else burst into song last night as though that is a normal sort of a question to pose. The confidence that this show expresses at times astounds me. It was such an ingenious device to have a demon summoned who forces our characters to break into song and reveal their innermost secrets against their will just at the point where everybody is hiding something and the show was becoming perhaps a little too subtle and introspected for it’s own good. Through the medium of song our characters can no longer hide from their inner demons, they are forced out into the open and laid bare for everybody to know. This must have been the most anticipated episode of the year and somehow, somehow it doesn’t disappoint. Right from the camp as Christmas opening credits to the show stopping final tune, this is a roller coaster ride of fun, laughter, beautiful character drama, arc development and great songs. It helps that I am a massive fan of musicals but even if you’re not you have to appreciate the amount of time and effort that has gone into making this spectacular piece of entertainment work. Most of the cast reveal themselves to have surprising vocal talent (Amber Benson, Emma Caulfield, James Marsters and Anthony Head in particular) but everybody throws themselves into this potentially ropey idea with real gusto and the ensuing product is probably the greatest ensemble effort from either Buffy or Angel. If Becoming, Hush and The Body still haven’t proven to detractors that Whedon can turn his hand to any genre and come up trumps this masterpiece of music surely has to convince any stragglers. The reception to Once More, with Feeling was overwhelmingly positive and I cannot think of single person that I know that wasn’t buzzing about it when it first aired in the UK. To this date the soundtrack still resides on my computer and I know all of the songs off by heart. Beyond the detailed production, it’s placing in the season is vital and if anybody was starting to wonder if the show had lost it’s magic this showstopper turned up to prove that Buffy still has it and with some abundance. It’s interesting that the next episode is similarly excellent, this episode forcing the series to up its game. How the writers deal with the revelations that this episode exposed is still to be determined but suddenly I am very excited with where the show is going again. Nestled in middle of the most inconsistent year of Buffy resides my favourite episode: 10/10
Tabula Rasa written by Rebecca Rand Kirshner and directed by David Grossman
What’s it about: Willow does a spell that goes horribly wrong…
The Chosen One: Buffy reacts very badly to the news that Giles is skipping town and can typically only see how his absence is going to affect her. It’s a tough road ahead for sure but ultimately Buffy emerges from season six a stronger individual, one who can genuinely look after herself. It is the right choice but given the timing and what she has recently been through I can see why she feels as though she is being dumped like some kind of problem child. Buffy’s default reaction to hard times seems to be to fall into Spike’s arms but then he always seems to be there when she is at her most vulnerable.
Sexy Blond: Buffy admits that if she stopped saving Spike’s life it would make her life so much simpler, especially in the aftermath of her kiss with him in Once More, with Feeling. It was a watershed moment for both characters and would have been unconceivable a few years ago (indeed Something Blue took the time to rip the piss out of the idea) but the show has evolved in such a way that this feels like the most natural, and bizarrely, most satisfying course for Buffy and Spike. How the season deals with their twisted relationship is without a doubt one of its high points.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Welcome to the nancy tribe.’
‘Randy Giles? Why not just call be horny Giles or desperate for a shag Giles?’
‘I must be a noble vampire. A good guy. On a mission of redemption. I help the helpless. I’m a vampire with a soul’ ‘A vampire with a soul? Oh my God, how lame is that?’ – I’m saying nothing…
‘Then stay up there and keep making bunnies!’
Dreadful Dialogue: ‘You don’t want to miss the low down on the latest creature feature.’
Foreboding: As far as the characters are concerned this show is more serialised than ever. Every episodes seems to explore the consequences of the last and throw up more problems to be dealt with in the next.
Result: ‘Are you saying you’re gonna leave me?’ A genuinely fantastic episode of Buffy that exposes the many facets of the show. It is perhaps not a screaming endorsement of the direction the show has taken in season six that the chance for the entire cast to shrug of their characters for an episode and have the chance to loosen up and play some broad comedy is the ultimate refreshment. There’s real energy and a sense of fun to the middle section of Tabula Rasa and you better enjoy them because things are about to get very dark indeed. The cast are having a ball unshackled by the heavy developments of late and Gellar in particular seems to relish the chance to throw off the dark Buffy of late and play superhero unheeded by depression (her reaction to her first dusting is a delight). However the frolics come at a cost and the final scenes are what truly make this episode stand out. We’ve been promised developments for quite some time now and finally the character arcs are starting to pay off. Accompanied by Michelle Branch’s stunning song Goodbye To You, Giles and Tara make tough choices to leave their loved ones for their own good and the stunned reactions of Buffy and Willow left me heartbroken. By the end of this episode I had laughed and cried and it was a welcome reminder that once all the tricks are over (and Once More with Feeling and Tabula Rasa both indulge in some distracting trickery) it is the characters that make this show worth watching for. In that respect, Buffy will always be on top: 9/10
Result: I think season six might just be the best and the worst season of Buffy and nowhere is that more exemplified than in Smashed. Like the very first episode of the season it mirrors the year as a whole. They both have extended moments of inactivity, they both push the limits of how far this show can go into soap opera territory, they both enjoy shoving the audiences face into the harsh realities of life and they both come together in the latter stages and produce material that is truly remarkable. For much of running time Smashed is extremely average sabotaged by some truly uninteresting direction and a cast that looks to be going through the motions. Willow and Amy’s exploits at the Bronze are duller than dishwater (this might just be the dreariest attempt to act out that I have ever seen) and the rest of the Scoobies seem paralysed by the fact that there is no narrative for them to engage with. Then in the final few scenes it comes alive in a very unexpected fashion with the Spike/Buffy relationship turning darker than ever and reaching an hauntingly dramatic crescendo. Say what you will about this season of Buffy (and people sure say a lot, for good or for ill) but this was the year that had people talking about it the most. From Buffy’s resurrection to Willow’s drug allegory to Xander and Anya’s wedding drama to the aftermath of Tara’s death, it was a year that pushed the characters into some very dramatic situations that caught the audiences attention. And after the violent, destructive, pornographic explosion at the end of this episode all I can remember for the next day was everybody talking about the ending where Spike and Buffy did the wild thing. For me this is one of the weaker episodes of the year (but then I’m a big fan of Wrecked and Doublemeat Palace so perhaps I’m not the most reliable of commentators) but it salvages a great deal in those moments where it shines: 5/10
Smashed written by Drew Z. Greenberg and directed by Turi Meyer
The Chosen One: Buffy is a tease and she’s the only one who cannot see it. Whilst she is perfectly within her rights to say no to Spike (this would become dangerously relevant in Seeing Red later in the year) she is sending out all manner of mixed signals. Like her life, like her career path, like everything in this wilderness period for Buffy she doesn’t know what she wants. She’s conflicted about everything and is trying everything and nothing seems to be sticking. Except that when she is feeling vulnerable it she enjoys taking solace in Spike’s arms. It’s once she has pulled herself together that there is a problem, he wants more and she can’t believe what her pain has brought her to. It’s a destructive relationship that will play out over the middle section of season six with some turbulence.
The Key: Dawn is having some serious abandonment issues this season. Understandable considering Buffy never seems to be around and Willow and Tara have just broken up.
Sexy Blond: The turns this story takes with Spike are by far the most interesting. In their usually caustic manner he and Buffy start hitting on each other and the chip fails to react as a result. Spike therefore thinks that he is cured and that he can enjoy himself a feast for his prolonged patience without a kill. Spike might have been a brutal killer in his early years but since the series switched channels he has proven to be the most reliable character on the show (in the first story of the season he was Dawn’s protector and he has been there for Buffy time and again when she has needed him). It’s a testament to his incredible evolution as a character that his sudden homicidal tastes in Smashed are as shocking as they are. During their fight to the death (that leads to their first bout of love making) Buffy asserts that Spike is attracted to her because he likes getting beaten down, that he doesn’t consider himself worthy of love and should be punished as a result. Wow, that is bleak. Gripping, but bleak.
Vengeance Demon: You can count on Anya to cut through all the awkward silences and pretence and get straight to the point about Willow’s split with Tara. Every show needs a character like that or nothing ever gets said.
The Trio: They’re still one with the insanely childish masterplans, stealing giant diamonds from Sunnydale museum to power their freeze ray like some cut price Bond villains. Looking at the season as a whole its easy to see what the idea was behind these three guys (beyond being a mouthpiece for writers like Joss Whedon), providing us with some silly diversions sure. But the real intent was to make Buffy questions every aspect of her life, to ask herself if this is how low she has fallen if these three losers are her current arch nemesis’. These early episodes are vital to lull you into a false sense of security around these guys so when things turn dark in Dead Things and Villains they hit home even harder. Wonderfully the Trio would rather be hurt themselves than Spike destroy one of their limited addition action figures.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘How have you been?’ ‘Rat. You?’ ‘Dead.’
‘I’ve seen every episode of Doctor Who…’ Not a great line but for a fanboy like me…
‘You came back wrong…’
‘I’m in love with you’ ‘You’re in love with pain.’
The Good: I still can’t believe they actually went to the effort to freeze a guy. I should be appalled at the show stooping so low but actually it is pretty cool. A show with such longevity can afford to look back at its past and toss in some mentions that will make a fanboy squeal – Amy’s hope that Larry will ask her to the Prom. I always used to find the scenes of Willow and Amy exploiting the patrons of the Bronze a little underwhelming but there is actually something quite creepy about it. Why would you need magic to play snooker?
The Bad: It feels as though the writers have completely forgotten how to structure a season of this show. This is the point where all the all early hints and subplots should be starting to cohere and the show should be ramping up the interest levels. Instead there seems to be absolutely nothing happening aside from the morose character material. Plot wise there is so little going on this year that Xander, Anya and Buffy spend the majority of this episode poring over books to figure out why the diamond that powers the freeze ray is relevant. It has nothing to do with anything in the grand scheme of things. It feels like a waste of a hour. Cutting back and forth between Buffy and Spike’s fight to the death and Willow and Amy’s magic tricks in the Bronze sees the show swing from it’s most adult to it’s most childish. That’s very season six too.
Wrecked written by Marti Noxon and directed by David Solomon
The Chosen One: ‘Nothing’s changed. It was a mistake’ ‘Bollocks! It was a bloody revelation!’ That’s the trouble with letting yourself go and falling in bed with a bad boy, you have to deal with the morning after. We’ve been there, Buffy. The early scenes between Buffy and Spike where she is simultaneously fighting him off and losing herself in his grip are brilliantly played by both actors. Unlike the fairytale love of Buffy and Angel which was achingly romantic but hardly realistic, this is a primal, instinctive kind of love making which feels much more real. It feels like in terms of looking at the act of love and how dangerous it can be, the show has truly grown up a bit. They are like two animals devouring each other, indulging in the most exciting kind of sex. Ultimately she rejects him (as I always knew she would) and he tells her in no uncertain terms that things have changed, that she cannot simply treat him like a piece of shit and then come running when she has an itch that she cannot scratch. In a very defensive reaction to Willow’s overuse of magic, Buffy tells her friends that she is going through something that they cannot understand and that she shouldn’t be judged. There is so little subtext that I’m surprised that Xander and Anya didn’t realise there and then that Buffy and Spike were up to something naughty. It’s fascinating to see Buffy come to the same decision as Willow at the climax, that no matter how good something feels, if it’s bad for you you need to give it up.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I might be dirt but you’re the one who likes to roll in it, Slayer.’
The Good: Another episode that follows on directly from the previous one, directly dealing with it’s consequences. In that respect season six often feels like it takes place over a short period of time rather than being spread over a year as usual. Whilst the metaphor for drug use might be so unsubtle that they might as well have just come out and said it, the way this episode handles how out of control Willow becomes under the thrall of substances is very disturbing and quite gripping. Wrack is precisely what the season has needed for some time now, a nasty who could happily step into the role of this seasons Big Bad if the writers chose (the Trio for all their irritating schemes are hardly a powerful presence). Hidden away down a back alley with sick, miserable, depressed looking customers waiting for their fix – this is the darkest this show has been since the prostitution metaphor in season five’s Into the Woods. Jeff Kober is intimidating company, playing the intense dealer as somebody who gets off on his customers addiction to the magicks he can provide. He’s an emotional vampire, leeching off Willow whilst taking her to places magically that she should never be exploring (‘you’ve got to give a little to get a little…’). I have rarely felt as uncomfortable watching this show as I did during the sequence where Willow laughs her head off driving away from the demon that is pursuing them. She’s lost control, Dawn is terrified and I had no way of predicting how this was going to pan out. It’s disturbing viewing and yet utterly compelling. The sinewy, hairy demon that nearly takes out Dawn is one of the most horrible examples we’ve seen and the action sequence where Buffy intervenes is very nicely staged.
Moment to Watch Out For: Willow’s magic trip under Wrack’s tutorage is out and out one of the most frightening things Buffy has ever depicted. Hypnotically directed and scored with some seriously trippy effects and a committed performance by Alyson Hannigan, Willow is completely consumed by the dark magic as she lies on the ceiling and watches as the room starts blooming. Suddenly she is transporting herself around Sunnydale, a black eyed beauty. Watching a character that you care about being seduced so completely by evil is heartbreaking. I can understand why a portion of the audience rejected this but there is a powerful beauty to these scenes.
Result: ‘You taste like strawberries…’ Whilst taking Willow in a direction of self-destruction, Wrecked is powerful stuff and contained scenes that lingered in the mind long after I finished watching. Whilst some have commentated that the route this pushes Willow in is the nadir for the show and the character, I pretty much found the opposite to be true. Suddenly the direction and performances are really trying again and Wrecked offers some startlingly dramatic and frightening moments where the drug metaphor is so blatant I wondered why they were even bothering to hide it behind magic. Slapped by a beaten and bloody Dawn, rejected by Buffy and left in a mess of tears and hysterics on the floor, Willow has hit rock bottom. Surely it cannot get any worse than this for her? The thing that stops this from being a character assassination is Alyson Hannigan who is so phenomenal an actress that she can make you feel for the character even when taking her to dark and uncomfortable places. Her tears as she falls into Buffy’s arms at the climax left me feeling drained. I wasn’t sure whether to hate her or sympathise with her but there simple fact is I felt both where so many TV characters leave me unmoved. In the hands of a lesser this actress this could have been abominable but Hannigan ensures that, despite Willow’s terrifying addiction to magicks, I still empathise with her. The Buffy/Spike material isn’t quite as strong but we still have a long way to go with this pair and much of this is set up for the startling payoff that comes in Dead Things, Seeing Red and Grave. I can completely understand why people would reject this episode because it does stray into discomforting territory but that is precisely the sort of thing I like every now and again to stop me from feeling complacent about a show. More like this please: 8/10
Gone written and directed by David Fury
The Chosen One: The neat parallels between Willow and Buffy’s addictions continue to be made with Buffy clearing out all the magic junk and coming across Spike’s lighter down the side of the couch.
The Key: I’m still undecided on whether it was a wise idea to continue Dawn’s story beyond season five at this point (whereas in season seven they completely bring me around to the idea with a much more positive portrayal of the character). With both Buffy and Willow going through tough times it is a bit much to add Dawn’s emerging kleptomania and abandonment issues to the mix and as a result of both her ‘parents’ busy indulging in the dark she sinks into a greater mire of depression as the season continues. Michelle Trachtenberg tries her damdest to make the character likable but she is faces an almost impossible task when the writers continue to mould her into the role of the irritating teen as seen here.
Witchy Willow & Tasty Tara: Xander thinking that Willow might be responsible for Buffy’s disappearance is not so wide of the mark given her recent compulsion and that she is still struggling to keep it under control despite recent events. The best thing to come out of Gone is witnessing Willow’s struggle with resisting the urge to use magic and seeing her back to her old investigating ways. In that respect this is another throwback to season one, but a pleasing one.
Dreadful Dialogue: ‘Rhymes with blinvisible…’ Are they even trying to be witty this year? I can’t think of a single season where so many episodes get lines allocated to this section of the review.
Fashion Statement: Considering she has such a gorgeous haircut in this episode, is Sarah Michelle Gellar wearing a wig during the early scenes?
Orchestra: One of the major weaknesses of season six is the complete lack of any new music from Thomas Wanker. I genuinely believe that a stronger score throughout would have resolved a fair few of this years problems. The last third of the season sees Wanker trying his hand at something a little new and the result is an instantly more interesting show to watch. The majority of the year is taken up with a whole bunch of cues and themes from season five and whilst it felt like a fresh direction for the show then, its just repeated motifs and in weaker material now.
Result: What is going on this season? Wrecked took us to a very dark place and is followed up with Gone which is the lightest of light entertainment, a switch of tone that is so completely different it’s actually quite jarring. There’s nothing especially wrong with this episode despite being a throwback to the worst excesses of season one but it’s all a bit obvious and unchallenging at a time when the season should be delivering some substance and development. Buffy reverts to childhood as soon as she is turned invisible and starts playing irritating party tricks on people that don’t deserve it and the physical effects are only just what I call acceptable for this kind of episode without ever threatening to stray into anything imaginative or clever. It’s annoying because this is the sort episode that Buffy usually excels at but when hampered by so little ambition it can only provide an hour of light relief rather than anything more significant. Saying that it is nice to take a break from the unrelenting misery of season six and the direction is just effervescent enough to prove distracting for the most part. But I can’t help but think this should have been funnier, shaper paced and have greater consequences than it does and that Buffy should have been punished for her behaviour. Bringing the Trio out into the open and the ‘first steps’ scene between Buffy and Willow aside, this is almost entirely filler in a season that has already been plagued by the stuff: 5/10
Doublemeat Palace written by Jane Espenson and directed by Nick Marck
The Chosen One: Continuing this years theme of ‘life sucks’, Buffy is forced into the workplace in order to make ends meet. I prefer to think of her term at the Doublemeat Palace as a punishment for her appalling behaviour last week and can’t help but burst into laughter every time I see that ridiculous hat jammed on her head. I said earlier in the season that it was a little weird to force the viewers through all this mundane life stuff when that is the sort of thing that they are watching the show to get away from but there is something so pathetic about a superhero having to get a job at a burger in order to pay her bills that really makes me empathise with Buffy here. Who hasn’t taken a really terrible job to try and stay afloat in difficult times? Least year Buffy was tackling Gods and monsters, this year she is flipping burgers. Season six continues the shows obsession with taking these characters through realistic stages of life in supernatural drama, the trouble is we have reached the ‘life isn’t fair’ stage of the game that hits you before you embrace the more satisfying aspects of maturity once you have discovered who you are (which will come in season seven). Rather absurdly Buffy admits that the reason she wanted a job at a fast food outlet is because she didn’t want to go through a lengthly interview process. Think it, Buffy, don’t say it. When she shags Spike up against the wall outside the burger joint the character might have hit a brand new low but I can recall heading to Brighton every weekend to shag my mundane week at the restaurant out of my system too at that age. It’s ugly, but there is something real about it too.
Witchy Willow & Tasty Tara: What a bitch Amy is. Willow is trying her damdest to keep her magic addiction under control and has struggled through the early stages of withdrawal and along comes Amy to dose her up again and set her right back to the beginning. There is a point here about having friends around you that aren’t good for you that is well worth taking on board. I think we’ve all fallen in with the wrong sort at one stage or another and found ourselves in a bad place as a result. She proves that she can be strong and that she doesn’t need magic in order to intimidate as she warns Amy away.
Vengeance Demon: Halfrek can’t take her vengeance demon mask off and points out to Anya all the lovable quirks that she has that Xander takes the piss out of.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘What about the cherry pie?’
The Good: The look on Buffy’s face when she is forced to watch a video of chickens and cows being slaughtered and turned into Doublemeat burgers is worth the admission price of this episode alone. Director Nick Marck wants to shove the distasteful idea of people being turned into burgers right down your throat and the camera lingers uncomfortably over slices of white meat, greasy burgers and oily surfaces. The idea is to make this place look and feels as disgusting as possible. When I worked a stint in a restaurant in my late teens I remember going through the exact same moment when a customer ordered the most complex mix of choices from the menu and I was left staring at the till in astonishment just as Buffy experiences here. Bugs in the fat fryer, fat plugging the ears, fingers in the grinder…this might just be the most distasteful episode of Buffer ever but Doublemeat Palace needed it if it was going to really drive home the potency of its scathing criticism of fast food. I love Sarah Michelle Gellar’s performance when she rushes about the Doublemeat Palace in a frenzy, afraid that the customers are chowing down on fried people parts. She’s really started to find the fun again. Xander eating the burger and his subsequent reaction to the ‘secret ingredient’ is pure season one. With the last couple of episodes it really does feel as if we have been zapped through a time warp. The idea of the high turn over of staff at fast food joints being that they are ground down and used to made the food is just vomit inducing enough to work. No wonder it got the advertisers all itchy. How unsubtle is Buffy finding Manny’s bloody stump of a foot lying around? This is a show that isn’t afraid to state the obvious at times but it is pretty humorous regardless (it reminds me of the Sontaran that is killed three ways in Doctor Who’s The Two Doctors – grotesque, obvious but very funny). Oh come one…in the face of some pretty bland demons on display this season the sight of an old dear with a giant phallic snake writhing out of her head and spitting paralysing fluid at least stands out as being pretty memorable. It’s all so deliciously b-movie (as is the solution of shoving the demon in the grinder) that I couldn’t help but get a little carried away with it. I don’t know what I love more – the godawful shot of the tentacle gnawing on Buffy’s shoulder, Willow slicing it from the old dears head, the vomit inducing shot of pus oozing from her bony stump, Buffy stabbing the creature with a scalpel, Willow shoving it in the grinder and its subsequent last minute bid for freedom or their reaction as it turns into mince. I couldn’t tell you if this is really good or really bad but by golly it’s entertaining. The twist that the Doublemeat burgers are made out of processed vegetables made me chuckle, somehow that would probably cause more of stir than had it actually been cheap demon meat.
Moment to Watch Out For: Halfrek is a fabulous new character and by far the most promising new introduction this year. I love the rich comic tone of her appearance in Xander and Anya’s apartment, threatening to flay him alive and then realising that she has been summoned as a guest to the wedding instead.
Orchestra: Oh great, way to make me look like an idiot, Wanker. After accusing him of not writing anything original in season six along comes an episode that is pleasingly score with some fresh music. Although to go with the early season feel of this installment I swear the scenes of Buffy investigating the Doublemeat Palace at the 30 minute mark had music that was ripped straight out of season one.
Result: Things to like about Doublemeat Palace; the cutting satire on fast food, the crushing awfulness of Buffy having to find a dead end job, the introduction of Halfrek, the continuation of Willow’s redemption, the insanely realised b-movie creature that turns out to be responsible and the enjoyable mixture of the grotesque and the light-hearted that harkens back to the early days of Buffy. I don’t get the problem that people have with this episode and certainly don’t find it the ‘worst episode ever’ that certain portions of the audience have claimed. The sad truth is that I can empathise with what Buffy goes through in this episode because I had a similar job at exactly the same age and experienced much of the mundane horror that she does here. I enjoyed the return to a good old fashioned mystery with Buffy at the heart of it and the way the episode uses horror motifs to scrape itself a pass. In all respects this is a reject from season one but unlike Gone it feels much more confident with what it is trying to achieve. Don’t misunderstand me, this isn’t a classic episode of Buffy but there is something very engaging about the unpretentiousness of the material and it’s mixture of humour and ickiness really appealed to me. It’s no compensation for the lack of arc material this year but there is enough here to divert me until it finally shows up. This has only gained enjoyment in the wake of the recent horsemeat scandal: 7/10
Dead Things written by Stephen S. DeKnight and directed by James A. Contner
The Chosen One: Interestingly it was this episode that Sarah Michelle Gellar objected to when it came to the dazzling array of mistakes that Buffy makes in season six when I felt this was one of the best examples of convincing me of where the character is at the moment. Buffy is confused with where she is in life, she loathes being back in a cold, harsh world the has seemingly rejected her and she self harms by allowing herself to indulge in some seriously dirty sex with Spike. Both Buffy and Spike know that whatever they have is wrong, it’s purely animalistic and yet they cannot seem to be able to give each other up regardless of the pain it causes. Again mirroring my life, I have been with guys in the past that were bad news, that I knew would cause more pain than joy but somehow I couldn’t be objective when I was with them. The good moments felt so good. There’s something about a bad boy that attracts a certain sort of person. Buffy’s fears that she has come back wrong are understandable, she has hardly been behaving in character of late and it would give her an excuse for some pretty poor life choices. Something is stopping her from simply enjoying the time with her friends, she would rather stand apart and wallow in the murk that is Spike’s touch. Gellar might have had a problem with the scene on the balcony but it doesn’t show in her performance, this is simultaneously filthy and very horny and for a moment Buffy transcends genre television and feels like a moment of genuine lust. I would question whether kids should be watching this show anymore (considering this all but shows you Spike giving Buffy the finger) but it’s a startlingly mature piece of acting that quite took my breath away with its rawness. In the midst of her mid-life crisis Buffy now thinks that she is responsible for killing an innocent. Whilst her decision to hand herself in might seem a little rash some part of thinks that she just wants to tuck herself away, a poisonous individual who has lost her way. Buffy reaction to Tara’s news that she is still the same old Buffy is one of complete devastation. Now she has nobody but herself to blame for her affair with Spike, her abandonment of Dawn and her treatment of her friends. It’s the most vital step of her recovery from this emotional quagmire she has been stuck in. Now she has to mend her ways and try and make things better.
Tara continues to show terrific growth in this episode. It is lovely to see her and Buffy spending time together away from the group, it’s not a pairing I have given much consideration to before (because it was always about Willow and Tara) and it give this episode a unique feel. I like how Tara immediately leaps to the conclusion that Willow must have done something wrong in order for Buffy to seek her out privately when that isn’t the case at all. It shows that Tara isn’t perfect and a little too judgemental for her own good.
Tara continues to show terrific growth in this episode. It is lovely to see her and Buffy spending time together away from the group, it’s not a pairing I have given much consideration to before (because it was always about Willow and Tara) and it give this episode a unique feel. I like how Tara immediately leaps to the conclusion that Willow must have done something wrong in order for Buffy to seek her out privately when that isn’t the case at all. It shows that Tara isn’t perfect and a little too judgemental for her own good.
The Trio: This starts out like any other episode of Buffy featuring the Trio with the three of them squabbling over the most infantile of things but it soon develops into something much more dangerous. Warren has been the morally corrupt element since day one (when we first encountered him he was making robots into sex slaves) and he has somehow convinced the others that brainwashing women into sex slavery is a neat idea. What they’re talking about is rape and it takes Katarina to spell that out to them in no uncertain terms. What I found interesting was my reaction to their recent activities because initially I was shaking my head with despair at their childishness and smirking at the idea of them kitting Katrina up as a French maid and it wasn’t until she broke free of their conditioning and bold facedly told them what they were actually doing that I suddenly realised how serious this was. I had been so programmed into thinking of the Trio as this rather pathetic, childish bunch that the horror of what they were doing bypassed me until the tone of the piece changed. Frighteningly this exploitation doesn’t seem to bother Warren in the slightest but for Jonathan and Warren this is the wake up call they needed and provokes a crisis of conscience. Not only is the idea of Warren casing a joint for prospective totty to brainwash and drag back to their lair spectacularly creepy but the idea of wanting their first victim to be the ex-girlfriend who rejected him takes this to a very uncomfortable messy area. Warren is the ultimate misogynist, he doesn’t like the idea of a woman saying no to him and he is going to punish her for the effrontery. His line ‘you can play with her all you want, after I’m done with her’ chills my blood. Katrina pointing out that they are little boys playing at being men is right on the nail.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You try to be with them but you always end up in the dark…with me.’
The Good: Katrina’s murder is so shocking and convincingly handled that I completely forgot that I was watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. How the episode shifts from something completely juvenile to something morbidly serious left me reeling. Dead Things cuts through the childishness of Jonathan and Warren fighting with light sabres with Warren’s scratched and bloody face and the blood curdling moment when he cracks open Katrina’s skull with a champagne bottle. Although they have already crossed a line with their attempted rape games, this is the point where they are truly beyond redemption. It was long past time they were afforded material this serious…I just never thought that the writers would dare to push them into territory this quite this dark. Suddenly the Trio are worth watching because all bets are off for what they are capable of. Almost as if to make up for some very flat direction earlier in the season the editing during the time jumping fight with the demons is razor sharp. It’s a compellingly handled set piece where you have to try and piece together the fight as it is told completely out of sequence.
The Bad: It’s a shame that the sequence with Dawn should irritate me so much (at this point she is just too whiny for her own good) because otherwise this might have scored full marks.
Moment to Watch Out For: ‘You always hurt the one you love, pet…’ We’ve seen Buffy lay into Spike before but this is something else. Buffy’s abusive relationship with Spike reaches its zenith as she beats the shit out of him outside the police station in a conflicted of violent emotions. She loves him, she hates him, she’s angry, she’s disgusted and as she tears away at the only person who has always been there for her she assassinates her own character. It’s one of the most brutal expressions of self hate I have ever seen committed to film. For a show like Buffy to so unflinchingly cast its central character in such an ugly light one of the bravest things they have ever done. Tough viewing but utterly compelling. Where do we go from here?
Fashion Statement: I’m really starting to get used to see Buffy and Spike in the buff together and I have to admit that as presented at the top of this episode they are just about the hottest couple this series has ever seen.
Result: Wow, for the Whedonverse this is about as stark, brutal and adult as it comes. Much of Dead Things is extremely uncomfortable to watch but it provides a healthy reminder of how potent the series can be that it plunges into darkness and results in the most compelling drama of the year to date. Katrina’s murder is so shocking in its implications that it pushes the characters of Warren, Jonathan and Andrew into a much darker genre that they simply aren’t capable of coping with. Suddenly they are fascinating to watch as the desperately try and cover up the murder and start to come apart at the seams. It is interesting that Sarah Michelle Gellar took issue with how this episode portrayed Buffy when I consider it one of her very best performances in the role. Taking Buffy to some very dark, very probing places it illicits a performance so raw and devastating that I was mesmerised throughout. She is at her most unlikable and brutal but at the same time at her most vulnerable. It reminds me of Willow’s portrayal in Wrecked, perversely pushing the character into psychologically dangerous areas but highlighting this seasons willingness to take risks and explore its characters at their most exposed. I definitely wouldn’t want Buffy to be this uncomfortable to watch every week but by shoving the characters down in the dirt the writers have managed to tap into something extraordinarily vivid and powerful: 9/10
Older and Far Away written by Drew Z. Greenberg and directed by Michael Gershman
The Key: I was probably a little unfair on Dawn in the last episode. This is the nadir of her character. Actually that is probably a little unfair too. There’s no point of this episode that you could point at and say that her reaction is unrealistic it is just that I am pre-disposed to hate any material featuring angst ridden children who express their hatred through tears and hysterics. After being abandoned by Buffy for the umpteenth time this year she reaches out to the rest of the group but they all ignore her pleas. Cue another round of ‘getoutgetoutGETOUT’ as everybody turns to Dawn to accuse her of the hex that doesn’t let them leave the house. No wonder nobody wants to spend any time with this whiny teen, she never seems satisfied even when entire crowds have spent the night with her.
Sexy Blond: Spike’s raised eyebrow at the cute piece of ass that Anya and Xander are trying to set Buffy up with is priceless. I’m glad that Spike is still battered and bruised, a not-so gentle reminder of Buffy’s violent emotions last week.
Vengeance Demon: Anya’s claustrophobia reveals an uncomfortable side to her character that we’ve never really seen before. It makes perfect sense in retrospect because ever since she was cast out of the demon world the one thing that has haunted her is the idea of mortality. To be confronted with a situation where they are trapped and one of their number is bleeding to death it was bound to provoke strong emotions.
Moment to Watch Out For: Love the moment when Anya calls Halfrek to account for herself and she gets stabbed by the demon. It’s a quality shock and the sort of twist that the whole episode should have been made up of.
Result: ‘So d’you ever think of not celebrating your birthday?’ I am starting to notice a pattern with season six of Buffy. When it attempts to do things that the show has done before and invites comparison, it pretty much blows (the Halloween episode, the ‘invisible girl episode, the Buffy birthday & wish episode) but when it tries its hard at something truly original, forging its own path creatively it is pretty much excellent (Once More with Feeling, Tabula Rasa, Wrecked, Dead Things). Fortunately as we hit the homestretch we are about to completely abandon the former and embrace the latter in what I consider to be one of the most effective runs of Buffy episodes. This isn’t a patch on Surprise, Helpless or A New Man and it is the last point in the season where the show needed to express the inactivity of a cast stuck in one location. That’s all they have done all year! Saying that this is far from being a complete washout with some pleasing, claustrophobic direction and some terrific characterisation of Willow, Tara and Anya. What Older and Far Away proves is that season six is character, character, character all the way and when it comes to any kind of narrative flow it has abandoned the usual tightly structured arc for something much more disparate and patience straining. The whole purpose of this episode seems to be to reveal Dawn’s kleptomania but considering that was never the most enthralling of ideas in the first place it once again feels like a waste of an episode. This season needs so consistency and some focus, a constant barrage of standalone episodes of inconsistent quality is starting to wear a little thin. Older and Far Away is adequate, but only scrapes an above average pass on account of the amusing and revealing final ten minutes: 6/10
As You Were written and directed by Doug Petrie
The Chosen One: The one I seem to be saying an awful lot whilst I have been reviewing season six of Buffy (aside from the inconsistent ‘I love this one’/’I hate this one’ of each subsequent release) is that it taps into something that I can recognise that I have experiences at one point in my life. The theme of the year is ‘life sucks’ and whilst there have been hard moments for the characters to face, most have them have felt painfully, authentically real. And we’re not over with yet. Friends thinking they are doing the right the things but getting it spectacularly wrong (Bargaining), feeling disconnected from the world (After Life), having to pay bills (Flooded), trying to find a path to steer your life in (Life Serial), having to cope with the mistakes of siblings (All the Way), having to let go of people who move out of your life (Tabula Rasa), being addicted to something that is bad for you (Wrecked), having to work in a dead end job to make ends meet (Doublemeat Palace), lashing out at the ones you love when things get too tough (Dead Things)…these are all things that I not only recognise as being part of life but I have personally experienced myself. It is one of the reasons that even though season six is one of the darkest, bleakest years of the show, it is also the one that I can buy into the most. I’m not saying my life has been one miserable moment after the next because for all these tougher life moments there are a dozen wonderful memories but something about the approach to focussing on the hardship of being an adult after the wonderful freshness and frivolity of adolescent really does strike home. As You Were is focuses on another unfortunate element that many people will have faced – the ex-love who stumbles back into your life when things are at their absolute worst. I’ve experienced this on both sides – being both Buffy and Riley and let me tell you it is much more fun being the Riley character in this scenario. There is a real sense of Buffy’s adult life having caught up with her in the early scenes of As You Were (running after the trash men with bin bags, piles of washing up in the sink, letters bearing bad news) whilst Dawn, fresh faced and with her whole life ahead of her, heads off to school leaving all those worries behind her. I think Buffy’s most tragic moment in season six comes in this episode; when faced with the idyllic existence of Riley and Sam, Buffy turns to Spike and forces him to say that he loves her and needs her just to make herself feel better. Although it takes her a little longer to realise it is painfully clear to the audience that she is just using the vampire to make herself feel better and that is where she has been going wrong this year. Rather than facing up to her problems, she is falling into the arms of a man she loathes to distract herself and is hating herself as a result. It’s why she battered him so badly in Dead Things, all she could see was the hideous way she was treating him reflected back at her. She needs to put her tawdry affair with him to bed so she can take control of her life and make something of it. If she is going to have any kind of future with Spike it has to be on equal terms, out in the open and when her life is somewhere she is happy with. There is something very unlikable about the way she treats Spike in Riley’s presence, beating on him and mocking him when he tries to tell her the way she treats him is wrong. I like the realisation that she makes at the episodes conclusion, that she has to stop seeing Spike not for her sake but for his. Far more than the sex, it is the kindest act she has made towards him yet.
Gorgeous Geek: The wedding of Xander and Anya is fast approaching and preparations are starting to get on top of the happy couple. They have agreed to let Anya’s friends (who are demons) and Xander’s family (who are monsters) crash at their place and it looks like it is going to be clash of the hideous acquaintances.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘My head has a cow…’ is about as much sense as Buffy can make in the face of Riley’s return.
‘Did you die?’ ‘No’ ‘I’m going to win…’
‘Just so you know, I’m prepared to hate this woman any way you want’ and ‘What a bitch…’
‘The wheel never stops turning, Buffy. You’re up, you’re down…it doesn’t change who you are. And you’re a hell of a woman.’
The Bad: I could have sworn that Gellar and Blucas had more chemistry than this last year? Is this the same couple that shagged their way through an entire episode? Perhaps it was a deliberate move, to show how much both characters have changed since he skipped town. The whole Spike/Doctor element of the story is half baked and disappointing – there’s never any indication that it could be anyone else so it doesn’t exactly come as a surprise when it is revealed.
Fashion Statement: Anya makes a fair comment about Xander chowing down on chips. Nicholas Brendon sure seems to be piling on the pounds at this point, especially compared to the beanpole he was in season one. More Spike nakedness, of course.
Orchestra: What this episode is lacking in a very big way is the sort of score that Christophe Beck could provide during the high octane James Bond obsessed season four. In the hands of Thomas Wanker, the soundtrack lacks the pace and excitement that As You Were desperately craves. I’m pleased that the upcoming final season is going to be put in the hands of a fresh musician because the show really needs a shot in the arm in that respect, but not before Wanker offers up his final work in the run up to the end of the season.
Result: ‘Did you wait until your life was absolutely perfect…?’ The slow beginning of the crawl out of the mire that Buffy has fallen into this year, the return of Riley forces her to take a look at her life and make some important decisions about the future. As You Were is another almost-great episode that doesn’t quite kick into high gear but shows the series regaining its confidence and trying new things. Riley’s return might not be what people were calling out for but I for one enjoyed the chance to catch up with him and to be given the chance to see how well he has done for himself since leaving Sunnydale. It adds a whole new dimension to his ignominious departure from the series last year. We’re supposed to hate Sam but she’s actually a promising new character played by a likable actress and the effects work surrounding the Svelte demon is top notch. The areas where this falls down is where a lot of season six episodes bomb; its pacing, energy levels and musical score. There are a spate of episodes this year that have a disastrously flat atmosphere where previous years they would have scored a victory just by increasing the energy levels and giggles (Flooded, Smashed and Gone are the worst examples). Fortunately this is about the point where the production team seem to realise this and the show suddenly gets a shot of adrenalin and gets its mojo back. As You Were wants to be a high octane James Bond thriller as well as a reunion between Buffy and Riley and it gets all the ingredients right (gadgets, stunts, monsters) but forgets to add the pace that would have secured its success. Still there are some fun moments, the final set piece with the Svelte babies kicks some ass and the realisation that Buffy comes to regarding Spike makes this more than worth your time. This is a far less dramatic but far more satisfying departure for Riley from the show. Above average Buffy, but no classic: 7/10
Result: For the record I hated this episode when it was first broadcast because after the tedious build up to the wedding throughout season six that kept Xander and Anya from doing anything relevant this was the last place I wanted them to be taken. I was appalled. However time has healed many of those wounds (especially since the aftermath of the dramatic conclusion of Hell’s Bells reaps some gorgeous character rewards and gets the series heart pumping again) and looking at it objectively it is a satisfying performance piece with lots of cute touches, some lovely comedy and a real heartbreaker of an ending. The weak moments are few and far between but mostly involve the tensionless scenes between the hideous (emotionally) Harris family and the hideous (physically) demons who has teleported in on Anya’s side. There’s a massive difference between where I want these characters to be (happy and contented) and what is dramatically satisfying and perpetuates storytelling (which would be tearing them apart horrifically) and the fact that I am painfully torn between the two in this episode proves that the show is getting something right. The reason it feels so unsatisfying at this point is that there has been so much misery is season that (with more on the way) that some relief would have been welcome but then I can think of a whole bunch of shows that allowed their characters a happy union and as a result lost their ability to do anything interesting with them (the inactivity of a happy Xander and Anya this year is a great example). As a way of highlighting what superb performers Nicky Brendon and Emma Caulfield can be, Hell’s Bells is to be applauded and they might just break your heart before the end. Again this isn’t quite vintage Buffy because for all it’s mixture of lightness and drama the direction is a bit off in places. Fortunately this is the last time I will have to say that about an episode for a long, long time as we enter the superb final stretch of season six. Entertaining for the most part, this would have scraped a high 6 but scores one better because the last scene promises so much: 7/10
Hell’s Bells written by Rebecca Rand Kirshner and directed by David Solomon
What’s it about: It’s the wedding day of Xander and Anya…
The Chosen One: The scenes between Buffy and Xander as she helps him get dressed for the wedding are rather lovely and recapture that sense of friendship and closeness that has been (deliberately) missing this year. It really feels like Buffy is crawling her way out of a hole and re-discovering what makes her life so worthwhile. Xander and Anya are proof there is light at the end of this very long, depressing tunnel she has been lost down for a while. We’ve not seen Sarah Michelle Gellar smile as much as she does in this episode all year and it is very refreshing to see.
Sexy Blond: Spike tries to make Buffy jealous by bringing the skankiest date he could possibly find to the shindig. Can anyone say desperate?
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Cousin Carol, your earrings are my cufflinks!’
‘If this is a mistake it’s forever…’
‘Oh Anyanka, I’m sorry. But you let him domesticate you. When you were a Vengeance Demon you were powerful. At the top of your game you crushed men like him. It’s time you got back to what you do best, don’t you think?’
The Bad: The scene between Willow and Xander (as gorgeous as it is, especially the reference back to Homecoming) is oddly placed after Xander’s vision when it would make much more sense for it to take place before. My reaction to the fight that breaks out pretty much mirrors Buffy’s. This is the most obvious thing that they could have done, although it does result in the pleasing sight of Willow and Tara falling into each others arms which is a bonus. It is a shame that the demon reveal is such a disappointment because it could have helped to save the fight scenes which had dissolved away all my earlier goodwill. It’s certainly the tallest demon, but perhaps not the most impressive design.
Fashion Statement: Whilst I don’t object to the colour, those bridesmaids outfits really are in a league of their own hideousness. Dawn’s sleeveless version is by far the most fetching.
Orchestra: Another episode that needed a much more interesting score. Think Christophe Beck’s soundtrack for Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered or The Zeppo. What do we get? The same old cues that have been doing the rounds this year.
Normal Again written by Diego Gutierrez and directed by Rick Rosenthal
The Chosen One: Sarah Michelle Gellar has been afforded material this season that is far above and beyond the usual comic and dramatic shtick she is asked to play and she has risen to the challenge with some aplomb. Normal Again features one of her finest performances in the seven seasons of the show, probing the depths of Buffy’s potential madness and making some very disturbing observations about her character. There is a very moving moment in Normal Again where Buffy and Willow greet Xander with a big hug and it is the closest we have seen the three characters since two years back at the conclusion of season four. It would seem that you have to get rid of all of their partners in order to give these characters this sense of intimacy (Riley is long gone, Tara left Willow for her own good and Xander left Anya standing at the altar) and it stands as a touching indictment of the strength of this core friendship at the heart of the show. She’s confiding in them again, revealing how detached from reality she has felt of late and admits that the idea that she is a frightened and disturbed girl in an asylum actually makes more sense to her than life in Sunnydale as it is now. Her teary fears that she never left the clinic feel so real as played by Gellar. Spike’s suggestion that Buffy is addicted to misery does seem to have a grain of truth to it. There are plenty of decisions that she could have made to make her life easier this year but she failed to do so. Certainly if she has been open about her relationship with Spike from the off she might have avoided the drama that is to come in the next episode.
Witchy Willow & Tasty Tara: Over the past five or six episodes the show has managed to recapture that sweet, inoffensive, lovable Willow from the early seasons and it genuinely feels as though her and Tara are on the right trajectory for a happy ending. I guess I should know better by now than to get used to these characters finding themselves in a positive place since the typical Whedon reaction to it is to yank it away from them and see how they cope. The difference this time is that it has been such a slow burn development (and Willows suffering was so agonising) it seems that this time we are being handed exactly what we are after – a little contentment. In Normal Again Willow spots Tara greeting another woman with a kiss and gets completely the wrong idea.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Oh come on, that’s ridiculous! What, you think this isn’t real because of all the vampires and demons and ex-vengeance demons and the sister that used to be a big ball of universe destroying energy?’ – when Xander points it out like that, it is easy to buy into the idea that Buffy has invented a fantasy world.
‘You used to create these grand villains to battle against and now what is it? Just ordinary students you went to high school with. No Gods or monsters. Just three pathetic little men who like playing with toys’ – this is some ingenious self referencing dialogue.
‘Last summer when you had a momentary awakening, it was them that pulled you back in…’ – referencing Buffy’s sacrifice at the end of The Gift and her subsequent return to Sunnydale in Bargaining. The way this has been made to fit into the shows continuity is gorgeous. Some real thought has gone into this.
‘Because what’s more real? A sick girl in an institution or some kind of Supergirl chosen to fight demons and save the world? That’s ridiculous.’
Moment to Watch Out For: The moment when this goes from being a great episode to a classic one is when Buffy makes a choice to reject the path this season has taken her character, toss away the antidote and murder her friends. Her decision is that the asylum reality is the preferable one and that’s a startling verdict for the central character of a show to make about her own series. It almost feels as though the season has been taking its characters down a path of destruction specifically to build to this moment. Suddenly Buffy is revealed as the ‘Big Bad’ and the way she calmly walks around the house taking out all of her friends is terrifying. Or if you want to look at it from the flip side Buffy’s friends are revealed to the ultimate ‘Big Bad’ and now she is finally disposing of them. Fantastic stuff.
Orchestra: Love the overly dramatic psycho Buffy music at the climax as she searches the house for Dawn.
Foreboding: The Trio are starting to come apart at the seams in the aftermath of Dead Things. Jonathan’s conscience has emerged since he helped to cover up a murder and Warren and Andrew are now plotting behind his back.
Result: ‘You’re going downstairs with the others…’ Normal Again is the best episode of season six to date (Once More, with Feeling aside) and it is written and directed by two new contributors to the series. Whilst I might make this sort of observation about other series and genuinely be screwing in the point that the writing staff have been around for too long, the writers/ directors of the Buffyverse are generally pretty strong but this is proof that bringing in fresh blood does shake things up in a positive way. This psychological drama is one of the most arresting pieces of the year and tellingly it proves to be the point where the season as a whole ups its game and the produces consistently excellent results for the rest of its run. This is my favourite of the horror genres and it reveals how fiendishly clever and unsettling it can be when done right. You might start Normal Again thinking that the previous six season are reality and the Buffy’s asylum visions are the delusion but somewhere along the line the lines are blurred and right up until the final scene the writer holds his nerve and refuses to commit either way. The fact that Normal Again reviews the previous six seasons of Buffy in its self referencing dialogue is inspired, but how it casts a critical eye over the past season in particular displays a confidence that the show has been missing for some time. Buffy manages to convincingly be cast in the role of the tragic hero and the sinister villain and Sarah Michelle Gellar ups her game considerably and delivers a powerhouse performance. I like that this is such a strong standalone episode but continues to evolve all the character arcs and offers some critical discussion of them at the same time. One of my favourite Buffy episodes for its clever writing, powerful ideas and unforgettable conclusion and brilliantly an episode that could only be told in the darkest of Buffy seasons: 10/10
Entropy written by Drew Z. Greenberg and directed by James A. Contner
What’s it about: It’s the most Dawson’s Creek episode of season six…except its really rather good.
The Chosen One: The writers are finally having some fun with the Buffy and Spike relationship again whilst continuing the idea of secrecy that has run through this season like a stick of rock. I love the notion of Spike holding a vampire at bay and trying to use that as leverage for Buffy to tell her friends that she has been sleeping with him. Like that was ever going to work. She’s already told Tara who hasn’t batted an eyelid and given that she tried to murder all of her friends and family last week and they somehow found it in their hearts to forgive her I don’t see any real problem with the news that she has been shacking up with the undead.
Witchy Willow & Tasty Tara: Ooh, colour me butterflies at all the flirty smiles and cute exchanges between Willow and Tara. After their nightmarish split earlier in the year it is so enjoyable to see these two falling for each other again. It’s prove conclusive that no matter how much I might like Oz and to a lesser extent Kennedy, there was only ever one person for Willow.
Gorgeous Geek: Isn’t it strange that misery brings out the best in characters? Xander and Anya have been agonisingly inactive throughout most of the year in their whirlwind of domestic bliss and I have barely given a crap about them but the second they were dramatically ripped apart they are suddenly an attention grabbing pair again. The scene where they are reunited is played superbly by Brendon and Caulfield, so restrained and full of tension that I just wanted them to follow Willow and Tara’s example and fall into each others arms. Xander still wants to be with Anya but he stands by his decision not get married, which is precisely what Anya doesn’t want to hear. The venom that ejects from her is pure spite and she tries to drag all the curses from Hell upon him.
Vengeance Demon: Anya pretty much sums up the entire path of a relationship that has a finite life during her drunken rant at Spike, from honeymoon period to jealousy to caring about what they think to kicking them to the dirt. This angry, vulnerable, tragic Anya is more likable than ever. Emma Caulfield aces the moment where she breaks down and ponders whether Xander never wanted her, effectively tearing my heart in two.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘So there was no child support in like eleven years, not a single cheque, so now every time he touches a piece of paper that isn’t a cheque for the child…paper cuts!’
The Good: I really appreciated the scene between Willow and Tara where the former tries to make the latter jealous by recounting all their adventures since they split up. I remain unconvinced that it was the period of excitement that Willow makes it out to be but I welcome the effort all the same. How delightful is that sequence where Anya attempts to get Xander’s friends to exact terrible torture on him? It reminds me of the cross cutting of interrogations in Checkpoint but this time it is even more penetrating because we are closer to all of these characters now, especially Anya who is hurting so much all she desires is to make Xander suffer in the same way. All the tricks she attempts are sneaky but ineffective and she has to go back to the drawing board. Suddenly drawing attention to the simmering tension between Xander and Spike in Normal Again makes a lot more sense as Anya tries to use his least favourite person to curse him. The criticisms that Spike and Anya make about the Scoobies (that they are uptight, dishonest and false in their profuse niceness) when under the influence of a bottle of Whiskey prove to be startlingly accurate for the most part. The episode manages to generate a surprising amount of tension as the audience becomes more aware of where the unveiling of the Trio’s cameras is eventually going to lead them. As Spike and Anya relax into each others company and Willow works her magic with the computer I was screaming at the three of them to look away as Buffy and Xander witness their ex-lovers seeking solace in each others arms. This is such dramatic gold it suddenly makes this seasons character paths make a lot more sense in retrospect. Suddenly there is an explosion of drama, Xander out for Spike’s head, Buffy wanting answers and Spike revealing his relationship with the Slayer in a moment of spite when Xander is at his absolute weakest. The convergence of all these character arcs in one extremely potent scene quite took my breath away. Finally something is happening in season six…and it’s really powerful viewing too! The apologetic look that passes between Anya and Spike after they have made love, recognising that it was a moment of weakness…oh boy did I have a few moments like that in my late teens.
The Bad: It is another almost entirely plotless season six episode but it is constructed out of character material so strong it leaves episodes like Smashed and Gone in the dust.
Fashion Statement: How smoking hot does Anya look with her new hairdo and flaming red dress? This is the very image of a wronged woman who wants to look good to show how over her ex she is. The drink fuelled, table top sexploits of Spike and Anya might be questionable morally but regardless it is one of the hottest love scenes the show ever presented, revelling in how naughty it is and being observed voyeuristically by all and sundry.
Result: After a run of very bleak stories this was the last thing I was expecting from an episode called Entropy. For much of it’s running time this is light, breezy, funny and highly enjoyable to watch with the interaction between the regulars more effervescent than it has been in ages. What starts as a farcical attempt to exact vengeance on Xander becomes a much more dramatic affair as two of the character arcs collide in a moment of ill conceived passion and explodes with powerful consequences for all involved. The moment when Buffy, Spike, Xander and Anya all confront each other in front of the Magic Shop is so full of honesty and cutting remarks you might come away with a paper cut or two. For a season that has been this reserved it is great to see things finally spilling out into the open and the result of holding back as long as they have only serves to make the fireworks even more satisfying. Cutting through all this drama is some fine work being done with Dawn and Willow too, especially the latter in a final scene that reaches out from the TV and gives you a massive hug. There isn’t much plot here but there is oodles of character and I know which one Buffy excels in more. Extremely enjoyable and lots more to tie up in the final run of episodes: 8/10
Seeing Red written by Stephen S. DeKnight and directed by Michael Gershman
What’s it about: Warren is on the war path and Willow is about to lose control…
The Chosen One: In a story that is loaded with discomforting sexism, Buffy states pleasingly that she wont have to hold back when giving Warren a beating because of his newfound super powers.
The Key: Dawn’s screaming fit when she realises that Willow and Tara pretty much matched my own. When did she become my identification figure? Whilst she hasn’t seen the appalling way that Buffy has been treating Spike this year, her condemnation of his behaviour with Anya to hurt her sister is pretty much on the money. Sometimes it takes somebody who is completely out of the loop to look at a situation to see how it really is. Buffy and Spike are lashing out at each other because they have strong feelings for one another, it isn’t a healthy relationship and slowly all three of them are coming to realise that.
Sexy Blond: After the bathroom attack Spike is in a very dangerous place. He asks himself what he has done, why he didn’t rape her and questions where his relationship with Buffy has taken him. I knew this pairing was going to produce some startling results but I never knew it was going to be quite this dramatic. The question is can this character ever be redeemed after pushing things this far?
Gorgeous Geek: Finally there is some degree of honesty between Xander and Buffy. He denounces her relationship with Spike and she admits how she has been feeling since she crawled out of her grave and the resulting frankness brings them closer than ever. I really appreciated the moment when Buffy told him that what she does with her personal life is her business and nobody else’s because I have never known a group of friends who are so involved in each others lives. I’m glad the Xander as a manic depressive drunk angle is wrapped up pretty quickly (there’s some big stuff to deal with after the events of this episode) because although they are successfully milking the calamity of his split with Anya it would get old very quickly (and couldn’t touch the Willow addicted to magic angle).
Vengeance Demon: Anya is attempting to get her vengeance demon career back on track but every time she tries to punish men who have wronged women she winds up ranting on about Xander and putting them off the wishing.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘She’s fat. He cheated on me with my fat, ugly sister!’
‘You’ll each get a whirl, once I’m done playing with them…’
‘Ask me again why I could never love you.’
‘He’s Picard, you’re Deanna Troi. Get with the feeling, Betazoid.’
‘It wont le me be a monster, and I can’t be a man. I’m nothing.’
The Bad: If I was churlish, I could point out that the stray bullet was extremely lucky to fund its mark.
Result: With shades of light and dark more compulsive than this show has ever been, Seeing Red is an attention grabbing commencement to a powerhouse run of episodes that close season six. Season six has had some riveting things to say about the potentially destructive relationships between men and women and it is in Seeing Red where it reaches its zenith. Spike and Buffy’s relationship has always been abusive, just a few weeks back she took away his choice to fight back and in a startling rape scene in this episode he pushes Buffy into her worst nightmare. With dialogue like ‘I’m the guy that beat you’ from Warren and ‘that means I wont have to hold back’ from Buffy, there is much more going on beneath the surface of Seeing Red than initially meets the eye. There was only ever going to be one conclusion to this battle of the sexes – death – and it is Tara that suffers the consequences for everybody else’s lack of control. I’m making this sound like a real drag, aren’t I? The truth is that this episode blends drama and comedy better than practically any episode this year, features some excellent action sequences, a chance for practically all of the main cast to show what they are capable of and as an overall package it is another extremely confident example of a show that has regain its mojo. Micheal Gershman’s direction is phenomenal, he is as concerned with emotive lighting as much as he is pace and performance and the net result is a gorgeous looking drama. Amongst all this exceptional material, a stray bullet steals the episode and claims an innocent victim. It’s the very meaning of the word cliffhanger as we have to wait to see how the series handles Willow’s reaction to Tara’s death: 10/10
Villains written by Marti Noxon and directed by David Solomon
Villains written by Marti Noxon and directed by David Solomon
The Chosen One: When Dawn states that she would kill Warren herself if she had the chance (‘out of the mouth of babes’), it provokes an interesting response from Buffy who finally admits where she stands on the killing of humans. She might be the Slayer but she defers to the authorities when it comes to murder in the human world.
The Key: ‘You’ve been through enough for more than one…ever!’ I’m starting to wonder if Dawn is going to be scarred for life after the traumatic events of season six. We’ve already seen the devastating effect of returning home and finding one of your loved ones dead in The Body but Villains taps into that nightmare again as Dawn discovers Tara’s body where Willow left it. We cut away at just the right time so we can imagine her panicked reaction and when we eventually cut back to Dawn later in the episode we discover her sitting quietly by Tara’s corpse, mute and unable to process what has happened.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘It is a human death by human means. You raised one killed by mystical forces, this is not the same. She is taken by natural order.’
‘What’s up with the make over of the damned?’
‘You never felt you had the power with her, not until you killed her. You get off on it. That’s why you had a mad on for the Slayer. She was your big-o wasn’t she, Warren?’ ‘Are you done yet? Or shall we talk some more about our feelings?’ – Noxon cuts right to the chase about what this series has been about and starkly highlights Warren’s misogyny.
Moment to Watch Out For: ‘Now the one person who should be here is gone and waste like you gets to live…’ Willow capturing Warren and subjecting him to all manner of horrors is an extended torture sequence, plain and simple. It is also one of the most deftly performed and protracted periods of discomfort I have ever sat through. I’m not sure if Alyson Hannigan was ever better than what she delivers here; Dark Willow is a cool, effortlessly frightening presence who is getting off on punishing the man who killed her girlfriend. Warren is a nasty piece of work for sure but I’m not sure even he deserves to have a bullet bust into his chest in slow motion whilst his mouth is sown up. She doesn’t just want to kill him, she wants to hurt him first and hear him suffer. I’m not surprised that the censors get itchy whenever this episode is due to be screened because the effect of Willow tearing the skin from Warren’s body and leaving him a flayed corpse is stomach churning. Noxon waits until Buffy, Xander and Anya have caught up with Willow before allowing her to kill so everybody can see that she has crossed a line. I’ve never really thought of Buffy as a horror show but this is probably the furthest they indulged in the genre.
Result: It is only when you get to this blistering final run of shows featuring the biggest badass the series has ever presented in episodes full of action, excitement, scares and great effects that you realise how lacking in these elements the majority of the year has been. Villains is another heart-stopping number, one which starts running and just gets better and better until it climaxes on a memorable and horrific final set piece. The dramatic tension in Villains come from Buffy and her friends trying to catch up with and stop Willow before she commits murder and takes a step too far over the brink. Buffy’s shooting ultimately proves to be a bit of a time waster but delivered this powerfully I am not complaining. All eyes are on Alyson Hannigan and it is no exaggeration to say that she has stolen the show from Sarah Michelle Gellar this season, and no she sets out to become the most commanding foe the show has ever presented. Whether she is sucking dark knowledge from books, drawing bullets out of Buffy’s chest, squeezing the life out of Warren’s decoys or flaying men alive, Dark Willow is an awesomely powerful presence. It feels as though season six has retained its strengths (dark drama, emotional consequences, the willingness to push the show in some disturbing areas) and jettisoned all of its weaknesses (indolence, juvenile humour) and is providing material the likes of which we have never seen before. The final five minutes prove to be the highlight although there really isn’t any part of Villains that isn’t firing on all cylinders. I haven’t clenched my butt as much for an age as I did during the tense climax which catalogues Willow’s first kill and finally sees Warren get his comeuppance in vomit inducingly raw fashion. Top dollar Buffy: 10/10
Two to Go written by Doug Petrie and directed by Bill L. Norton
The Chosen One: ‘Please. This is your pitch? Buffy, you hate it here as much as I do. I’m just more honest about it. You’re trying to sell me on the world? The one where you lie to your friends when you’re not trying to kill them? Or you screw a vampire just to feel and insane asylums are the comfy alternative? This world? Buffy, this is me. I know you were happier when you were in the ground. The only time you were at peace in your whole life is when you were dead…’ Wow, what a character assassination by Willow. The trouble is although Buffy has started to crawl out of this hole this is an accurate summation of her path in life this season. Buffy categorically points out that she is not trying to protect Jonathan or Andrew but that she wants to pull Willow back from the brink because she doesn’t want to lose a friend. They’ve been thorns in her side for too long now for her to give a crap what happens to them.
Witchy Willow & Tasty Tara: ‘Let me tell you something about Willow. She’s a loser and she always has been. People picked on Willow in junior High School, High School, up until college. With her stupid mousy ways. The only thing Willow was ever good for, the only thing I had going for me were the moments, just moments, when Tara would look at me and I was wonderful…’ Joss Whedon is a clever bastard. Slowly allowing us to see how addicted to the magic Willow has become through her cracking relationship with Tara and taking her to what we thought was an all time low in Wrecked. Then kicking off her slow rehabilitation (Amy’s intervention in Doublemeat Palace was especially clever because it was proof at what a difficult process this is for Willow) and allowing us (and Tara) to fall in love with her all over again. It has been a long, agonising process but it felt like we knew where it was heading. To suddenly wrench Tara away from Willow and have her turn nastier than ever as a result is the last direction I expected her to be taken at the time but dramatically it is very satisfying and surprising. Suddenly it has become Willow versus her friends as they try and stand in her way and stop her exacting vengeance on those responsible for killing her girlfriend. What incredible development for this character, not only just in this year but who would have ever have expected that shy, geeky mousy young lady from Welcome to the Hellmouth to evolve into the most frightening foe that Buffy and friends have ever faced. Jonathan actually comments on her development when they are on the run, reminding me that he has been with the show from the start and has seen her progress with us. We’ve been heading towards this moment for the past six years, a fight to the death between Buffy and Willow. No seriously. Whilst this has always been Sarah Michelle Gellar’s show I would say without a doubt that Alyson Hannigan is the reason that a lot of people keep watching. As good as Gellar can be, Hannigan is the superior actress and manages to steal most scenes without even trying. In season six the focus has shifted between Buffy and Willow alarmingly, their dual addiction storylines taking the largest share of the year (Wrecked/Dead Things saw both at their zenith). With the emergence of Dark Willow, Hannigan has finally wrestled the show away from Gellar and become the focal performer and now is the time for the pair to wrestle to the death to see who will emerge victorious. ‘Come on, this is a huge deal for me. Six years as the side man…now I get to be the Slayer.’
Vengeance Demon: Clearly Xander has had some kind of effect on Anya because rather than skip town at the first opportunity of Dark Willow’s path of destruction, she actually wants to help Jonathan and Andrew out instead. Her newfound teleportation skills are a lovely bonus of her being back in the vengeance fold. Clearly splitting her and Xander up was the best move for all concerned, she hasn’t had this much action for ages. She cares whether Xander lives or dies but she can’t quite make up her mind which one she wants. It is Anya’s fear at the climax that gave me the shivers the most, her hysterical cry for help as Willow attacks her is horrifying.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Why doesn’t Willow just wave her arms and make us dead?’ ‘Because she doesn’t want you dead, she wants to kill you.’
‘You’re back on the magicks’ ‘No honey, I am the magicks.’
‘You saw her, she’s a truck driving magic mama!’
‘Now I’m pretty sure I’m strong enough to beat you to death.’
‘And there’s nobody in the world who has the power to stop me now’ ‘I’d like to test that theory…’
Dreadful Dialogue: ‘Get off super bitch!’ – not even Hannigan can make that line work.
Moment to Watch Out For: Of all the thrilling sequences that this episode sports my favourite has to be road chase between Xander in his pathetic little roadster as Willow stands atop an enormous truck and drives into the back her friends. When I first watched this episode I can remember bouncing up and down with excitement as Willow stands tall like a spectre of death and tries to score her second and third murders. It is the point where Willow stops caring that her friends are in the way and is perfectly willing to take them out too if they are going to get in her way. Dynamically shot in glistening moonlight, its an unforgettable action set piece. Whilst Wanker’s score is good, I wish it had been a bit more adrenaline pumping. Even Andrew, whose life has been in danger the whole time, has to admit this is cool.
Oh, and the cliffhanger. Which sees the return of Giles in spectacular style. Is he the one who can bring down Dark Willow?
Orchestra: What is up with that Wanker? Now he’s out the door he’s finally delivering the sort of music I would have liked to have heard all year! Especially good is the foreboding score when Willow first visits Rack and the rising excitement at the climax when it becomes clear that Buffy and Willow are going to have to thrash this one out.
Result: Another knockout episode. From the stomach turning reaction of Buffy’s friends to Willow’s first kill to the incredible can’t-it-be-next-week? cliffhanger, Two to Go is non-stop excitement from beginning to end. Few episodes of this show have this kind of forward momentum and it is both agonising and gripping to watch Willow as she sinks deeper and deeper into her psychosis and loses any kind of grip on reality. A black eyed, veiny sorceress tearing apart a police station, striding atop a truck, threatening to turn Dawn back into a mystical ball of energy and giving Buffy the thrashing that she thinks she deserves to bring her down a peg or two – Dark Willow is just awesome. It feels as though the creators of Buffy have been saving up all their dosh, imagination and most exciting ideas for the tail end of the season because the last four or five episodes have been so much more edge of the seat viewing than the rest of the year that it doesn’t really bear much comparison. On first transmission I was practically pissing my pants with excitement and this recent rewatch has re-awakened all those gleeful feelings again. You might point at this and say it is melodramatic, overblown and unrealistic in the direction it pushes one of the main characters but I suggest you go and bury your heads in the sand. This is pure adrenalin fuelled television, dark and bewitching, featuring some of the most enjoyable characters on television. The dialogue is scathingly critical and revealing and the production values very easy on the eye. It’s my personal favourite run of Buffy episodes following a disappointing year and its not even over yet: 10/10
Grave written by David Fury and directed by James A. Contner
Grave written by David Fury and directed by James A. Contner
The Chosen One: There is some much needed discussion about Buffy’s stance on life and her development since she crawled out of the grave. Season six has taken her to some very dark places as she went through a feeling of terrible displacement, feeling as though she returned from the dead with something missing. It would seem that through her friends’ misery she has discovered who she is again, why she wants to be here and that her aim in life is to help. She knows that when she died it was her time and somebody would have taken her place, although how that would have figured in the First’s gambit next season is anybody’s guess. It was her destiny to be brought back from the brink, to fight the good fight and to ensure that the series changing development from next seasons Chosen took place. There’s a certain symmetry to Buffy winding back beneath the ground for the season finale and having to fight her way back to the surface again, but this time with an entirely different outlook on life.
Ripper: ‘Remember that little spat we had before you left? When you were under the delusion that you were still relevant here…’ It is easy to mirror the reactions of Buffy and Anya and bask in the return of Giles, since he has left a massive hole in the series since he left. He’s never looked more commanding, forcing Dark Willow to the floor and trying to reason with the human side of whatever she has become. It is weird how a reunion of all the regulars can be made to feel like such a triumphant moment (when we spent all of last season with this bunch) but things have turned so sour this year and a commanding adult presence has been desperately needed. When Buffy and Anya cuddle up to Giles it is a moment of welcome relief and familiarity amongst all the fireworks elsewhere in this run of episodes. Laughter aside at this years insane developments, Giles is right to apologise for leaving Buffy when she clearly wasn’t mature enough to handle her situation on her own.
Vengeance Demon: Even Anya, still boiling with rage, is impressed by Xander’s actions at the end of the this story.
‘It was me that took you out of the Earth. Well now, the Earth wants you back…’
‘Is this the Master Plan? You’re going to stop me by telling me you love me?’
Result: There are some that will say that Grave doesn’t reach the lofty heights of previous season finales, although I have a feeling that that is a reaction to not seeing Joss Whedon’s name on the writer/director credits. It is actually an extremely fine episode; full of wit, danger, excitement and character development. I might be biased when it comes to Dark Willow (my personal favourite Buffy baddie) but everything about the way she is handled is exceptional. It’s such a personal antagonist because she knows the Scoobies so well and can scrutinize their characters whilst inflicting blinding torment on them. However, despite the fact that there are a number of superb set pieces (the destruction of the Magic Box is unforgettable) it is the character work that shines the brightest. The return of Giles is triumphant and he brings with him a sense of stability that the show has lacked for quite some time and I really enjoyed the not-so-subtle piss take of the character development this season. Buffy gets to claw her way out of the ground again but with a brand new outlook on life (and regarding Dawn), there is a glimmer of hope that things might resolve between Xander and Anya, Spike has made a surprising sacrifice in penance for his recent behaviour and most importantly of all the core friendship between Xander and Willow shines brighter than ever in the heartbreaking conclusion. It has been an incredible run of episodes towards this finale and if Grave doesn’t quite match up to it’s predecessors (my one major gripe is the sudden world-threatening disaster that springs from nowhere), it is only heartbeat or so behind. It strikes me as odd that season five was superb for its first two thirds before stumbling a little at the last hurdle (although salvaging itself in its breathtaking finale) and season six completely reverses that trend, offering a mixed bag of a season and triumphing with the finishing line in sight. It has been a patience straining year and yet it remains one of my favourites because it really pushed the show into new, uncomfortable areas and eventually reaped incredible rewards for doing so. Unlike previous seasons there are plenty of threads left hanging (Buffy’s promises to Dawn, the return of Spike’s soul, the aftermath of Willow’s rage) but there is an uplifting sense that things are about to get much brighter next season, year seven taking away the emotional substance that season six has brewed up but packaging it into much more optimistic fare. Personally, I can’t wait: 9/10