Tony raises the stakes.
Without Buffy The Vampire Slayer, there would be no Harry Potter.
No Hunger Games.
No Twilight. No Vampire Diaries. No Supernatural, no Once Upon A Time, no Grimm, no Divergent, probably no New Who, and in fact, practically no Young Adult fantasy book market or TV audience. It’s also pretty unlikely the Marvel movie universe would look anything like as healthy as it does.
Geek World as we know it today would be a very, very different place without Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and it’s no exaggeration to say that geek entertainment can be split into two epochs – Pre-Buffy and Post-Buffy.
Now, before you all throw calendars at me and burn me in effigy, let me clear something up. Of course, Harry Potter would have existed – believe it or not, the first Harry Potter novel, like Buffy, launched in 1997. But crucially, the quite nice but quintessentially parochial idea of the teenage wizard in a twee British boarding school didn’t get a US launch until three years later, by which time Sarah Michelle Gellar and her teenage Scooby Gang had been kicking demonic and vampire ass all over American geek-TV, bringing the focus way down the age-range of traditional heroes, and signalling a fundamental shift in what geekery was all about. Sure, Harry Potter would still have been a thing – but in terms of the wide-scale American and worldwide audiences, the Slayer more than softened them up for him.
Still think it’s too strong a claim?
Come back with us. Before Buffy arrived on the scene in 1997, the trend in geeky TV and movie entertainment was still more or less geared towards sci-fi, and more or less geared towards mostly adult leads. Star Trek was almost everywhere – Next Generation had run its TV course in 1994 and graduated to the big screen, Deep Space Nine was deep into trouble with Klingons and Changelings, Voyager had just set off for the Delta Quadrant, all of them with their sensible, grown-up crews exhibiting sensible grown-up, highly evolved behaviour, such as might be a good example for sober, hard-working, stick-to-it American teens to emulate. Babylon 5 was surprising us all with its slightly naff look but getting its hardcore emotionally complex writing on, again extending the dominance of space diplomacy in the geek worldview. Stargate SG1 opened its portal in 1997 too, revamping the premise of a not-bad-but-nothing-too-special movie, and (believe it or not, o my young padawans), excitement levels were beginning to ramp up for the first new Star Wars movie in over fifteen years, with its rumours that it would show Darth Vader as a child! (No, really, we squee’d pretty hard at that!).
Space, space, space, all of it space, and most of it run by adults, albeit adults with an occasional reckless or childish streak.
Buffy, when it arrived in 1997, should never have worked in an environment like that. Like Stargate, it was a revamp of an older movie, but in Buffy’s case, the movie, starring Kristy Swanson as Buffy and Donald Sutherland as her Watcher, hadn’t been handled well bar the script.
The script, it should be noted, written by Joss Whedon. In some respects, the movie was too punchy, too funny, and too oddball to really be understood by moviegoers in 1992.
Whedon brought the nugget of his idea to television, but came on board as an Executive Producer, setting the show in the wake of the movie’s events, with Buffy and her mother moving to a new town after Buffy burned down her previous school. Having Whedon as an Exec Producer allowed the pace, the punch and the wit of the movie to be boiled right down, while expanding the scope of the storyline to whole season-arcs, with individual monster-of-the-week stories building to something far larger (as, later, would be the case in the Harry Potter book and movie series). The set-up was also significantly expanded, so that far from Buffy and her Watcher being alone in a world of vampires, the notion of the ‘Scooby Gang’ was born. If that seems a trivial and obvious thing, it really shouldn’t – this wasn’t grown-ups exploring the galaxy, this was teenagers saving the world, week on week, season by season, from fantasy evils within their own mythology – demons, vampires, eventually goddesses, and humans that either colluded with or fought these forces on a more official basis.
Perhaps more importantly, the Scooby Gang took the initial comedy concept of the world being saved by a cheerleader and broadened it out in a way that spoke more truthfully to the experience of American teens, taking the cheerleader out of her comfort zone, making her the new kid in town, pitting her against the existing cool kid power structures, and putting her into the world of freaks and geeks, so the heroes of the TV show wasn’t so much the popular girl of the movie, but the geeks and nerds that would make up the core audience for a fantasy ass-kicking show.
That broadening also meant that the story of Buffy the Vampire Slayer the show could be a truly ensemble, character-based one, as much as it was about slaying vampires and vanquishing demons. In fact, it allowed the additional complications of teenage emotions, attractions, relationships and power-plays to be crucial to the drama and the comedy, engaging with its audience where they lived. Recasting of some of the main characters, and casting some new ones, allowed the balance to be dialled down to realism too – Sarah Michelle Gellar was able to deliver the ass-kicking Slayer in spades, but could also deliver the fish-out-of-water quality that made Buffy the series work. Nicholas Grace as likeable doofus Xander Harris, Alyson Hannigan as book-nerd Willow Rosenberg, Charisma Carpenter as the archetypal ‘pre-Slayer Buffy,’ Cordelia Chase, and not insignificantly, Anthony Stewart Head as new Watcher and original super-Brit Rupert Giles, brought the scripts to life and gave this new gang of originally mostly non-Super Friends a dynamic that a geeky audience could appreciate – you didn’t need to be ‘the chosen one’ to play a significant role in saving the world. Being a friend of the chosen one was quite enough. For Slayer Buffy Summers, substitute Boy-Who-Lived Harry Potter. For eventual ultimate witch Willow, substitute powerful witch Hermione. And for loveable loyal doofus Xander, substitute perennial runner-up Ron. For Watcher Giles, read Headmaster Dumbledore…
One other way in which Buffy utterly changed geek TV was the pace and the zing of its dialogue. Sure, it made its heroes geeky kids, but it also made them witty, inventing words and phrases and putting them together in ways that had more in common with Friends than it did with Star Trek or Babylon 5. But it also allowed the teenagers at its core to deal with real issues, real emotions, and to make tough choices for what seemed like the greater good. It took teenagers and made them into epic moral heroes without ever sacrificing their attainability, their teenagehood. If you were a teenager watching Buffy, you too could aspire to cleverness, to quirky wit, to saving the world in your own way, and to making the right decisions when it came to the hard choices that life threw at you.
Shifting the balance in the geek world from adults to teens; season-long story arcs; putting the heroes outside the forces of authority and power, and making them geeky; richly nuanced characters written with both ordinariness and fantastic wit; positive moral philosophy – Buffy paved the way for a fundamental redefining of what the face of geekery looked like, from the eternal Trek to a new teenage-centric world, rich in characterisation, wit and story complexity, which never treated its audience or its characters as less intelligent or less complex than the grown-up space-based captains and commanders, and allowed those characters to do everything that classic heroes had done, while being entirely relatable teens, and outcasts and geeks to boot.
The first Harry Potter novels would always have existed. But if you’re looking for a reason they were taken up so massively by the American, and ultimately the world market, unlocking teen fantasy for generations of geek-mainstreaming to come, you’re not looking for a literary progenitor. You’re looking at the TV adventures of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and her evolving Scooby Gang. It’s Buffy, as much as Harry, that paved the way to the Young Adult fantasy genre in books, and the return of fantasy concepts – vampires, zombies, werewolves, superheroes, time travellers – to at first the teen geek, and ultimately to the mainstream audience.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk