From the moment Xander nearly falls off his skateboard ogling Buffy at Sunnydale High School, creator Joss Whedon set Buffy the Vampire Slayer up to become the most important television show until that point. It was 20 years ago, on the 10th of March, 1997, that the first episode – "Welcome to the Hellmouth" – aired, and a show about a teenage girl whose destiny it is to kill vampires (or whatever the latest "big bad" was that season) started to gather what remains one of the most dedicated fandoms going.
The show was more daring than anything TV had done before. Case in point: creator Joss Whedon made – with no warning – a musical episode, and then an episode conducted mostly in silence. Neither of these decisions seem dramatically revolutionary today, but that's only because Buffy took the risks first. The show made history by showing the first lesbian kiss on network TV in the US. It had the innovative spirit of something like Twin Peaks and the grand, sweeping sci-fi story arcs of The X-Files, squishing them together to make something more. The show effortlessly jumped from being witty, clever and ironic to urgent, thoughtful and touching. For all the scholarly study and debate it ignited, it was thanks to Buffy and the Scoobies that TV started getting taken seriously as an art form when it did.
For its landmark anniversary, I asked Buffy actors and Buffy Studies scholars about the episode that means the most to them.
Anthony Head, Giles – "Restless"
"One of my favourites is 'Restless'. I was going to Giles' apartment set, and Joss [Whedon] was in there. I went, 'Hello, what are you up to?' He said, 'I'm just seeing what will happen if I go through this set to Giles' kitchen, because it backs onto the dormitory set, and then if I build a tunnel that then goes into Xander's basement…' I said, 'What the hell are you trying to do?' He told me he was doing an episode about dreams and nightmares, and it occurred to him that dreams had no limits to where they could go, so he just thought he'd see what would happen. How cool?
"Cut to a few days later and he asked me up to his office. I was a bit apprehensive, although we used to chat and hang out, because it seemed like official business. He had good news and bad news. I asked for the bad news and he said, 'As you know, I'm doing a dreams episode, and each act is going to be one of your dreams – you, Willow, Xander and Buffy. Your episode is going to be the exposition.' I thought – no! We always joked that when it came down to it Giles did all the expositions because he had an English accent so he sounded very much more learned when explaining the evil. Needless to say, I was not thrilled about my dream being the one that explained everything. I asked for the good news – that I could sing it. Initially he said I'd have a white piano. I said, 'What! That's not Giles!' And he let me be a rockstar. We recorded it and then did it, and it was a quite extraordinary episode, which came about, as usual, from Joss saying, 'Let's see what we can do.'"
James Marsters, Spike – "Once More, with Feeling", AKA The Musical Episode
"I actually hate most musicals. There was so much gnashing of teeth and worry before we started filming; the general consensus was that Joss Whedon was flushing a perfectly good television show down the drain. Tony Head [Giles] and I were comfortable singing publicly because we already were with our own musical side projects; I was in a band and still am. So we were OK with doing a musical episode. The rest of the cast were not. I remember one person going to Joss and saying, 'You hired me to be a one-camera dramatic-comedic actor. That's my wheelhouse. The world knows me as that, and now you're asking me to do something that I'm not prepared for at all. Can I please juggle chainsaws? Real chainsaws? Cutting my arm off would probably be less detrimental to my career.' There was a lot of 'poor us, what the hell is going on?' and we really didn't have faith in Joss.
"It became apparent very quickly that Joss was not going to be deterred at all and that we were gonna do this whether we liked it or not. As a company we stopped complaining and got to work hiring our own vocal coaches and dance instructors. As a company we decided, in the face of certain failure, guaranteed doom, we were going to go out swinging and try our best. I was proud of us. It was a huge risk. I think the only one that thought it wasn't was Joss, because he knew he could pull it off. He actually rolled out a television on the soundstage because he needed to do a quick edit on the first scene that he shot, which was the Xander and Anya dance. He showed that to us to allay our fears. After that we knew it was going to be brilliant; we went from the depth of depression to the height of fun during that episode.
"We were having a blast and thinking we were really wonderful, until Hinton Battle – a Tony award-winning musical actor from Broadway, who played the villain, Sweet – turned up. The last day was his scene at The Bronze, and he just killed it in one or two takes. We were standing below, looking up at him, like, 'Holy shit. That's how you do it. We're screwed. We're not doing that.' Of course, the episode as a whole didn't suck – that was the greatest icing on the cake. We thought Joss was a genius; we just didn't realise how much.
"The next episode was Tabula Rasa, where we all wake up and forget who we are. We were like, 'This is boring! Where's the music!' God, it was a letdown after the musical."
Meghan Winchell, Buffy Studies scholar – "Surprise" and "Innocence"
"In this pair of episodes, Buffy and Angel have sex. I just think that it rings so true: here we have this couple, and they're young and they're in love, and there's this high school girl and she ends up having her first time with the man that she loves, and then he literally turns into a blood sucking monster the next day and treats her horribly. As a college professor who teaches Buffy to women and men who are in that age group, that episode really resonates with them. It's always a turning point in the course where they feel like, 'Okay, this isn't just a show about vampires. This is really about something deeper.'
"Then I love the fact that, at the end of "Innocence", Buffy does what she has to do, and at least momentarily she gives it this fight and defeats Angel, and just to rise up and to have that strength when he has really crushed her spirit. It's just so meaningful."
Doug Jones, the lead Gentleman – "Hush"
"We knew we were doing something very special in series television with 'Hush', because when the creator comes out of his office to direct that episode and has written that episode, that's a big deal. The other thing was the daring step that he took to write most of that episode in complete silence with no dialogue. I was the tall lead Gentleman, and once I stole the entire town of Sunnydale's voice and put it into a box. The network at the time was worried and fought Joss Whedon on this, saying you can't take audio out of the show – we're going to lose viewers. Their feeling was, 'Stimulate, stimulate, stimulate' to keep the viewer.
"Camden Toy [the other lead Gentleman] and I were the only two of The Gentlemen who had facial appliances – the prosthetics redesigned to actually be glued down to our own mouths so that we would manipulate our own smiles. Everyone else had masks. Then they put those metallic-looking dentures over our own teeth so that we could have, like, a gross smile. My face started to ache and get twitchy because our muscles are sore every day of our seven-day shoot. We didn't walk, we hovered, about six inches off the ground. When you saw us floating down the middle of the street or a hallway they would have us in a hip harness with wires that came up from our hips to our back and up to a T-bar that was then being drawn along a track.
"I think the Gentlemen weren't trying to be evil; they need seven hearts to collect and there's a reason for that, and the whole folklore behind them is exposed in that episode. I don't remember how often we showed up to do this, but it was just a necessity, like going on a hunting trip for food so our species didn't die off. We gotta do what we gotta do, and we're very polite and happy about it so we nod into each other when we're about to cut some college kid's heart out. What's wrong with that?"
Trisha Pender, Buffy Studies scholar and author of I'm Buffy, You're History: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Contemporary Feminism – "Storyteller"
"As a critic, but also as a fan, my favourite episode would have to be 'Storyteller'. Andrew the uber nerd, classic geek fanboy, decides to make a documentary called Buffy, Slayer of the Vampyres. It's one of those clever things in television where it comments on television as a medium, so it's a Buffy episode that is self-reflexive about being a Buffy episode. I also think it's Joss Whedon's homage to fandom and to Buffy geeks in particular. It's about loving something so much you want to make art of out it, but it's also about how embarrassing and pretentious that can sometimes be, and how self-incriminating.
"There's a darker side to 'Storyteller' as well. Andrew has killed one of his best friends, albeit under the influence of an evil demon. 'Storyteller' follows the arc of his denial and eventual repentance. It's really light and dark, really meta. There's something quite defeated and despairing about it, even in the face of beautiful humour. It's so funny, too. At one point, Andrew is talking into his camera, but he's doing it on the loo. Anya says, 'Andrew! Get out of there! What are you doing?' He says, 'Educating and entertaining.' And she says, 'Why can't you just masturbate like the rest of us?' I think that says a lot about fandom, about writing, about producing, about art."
Musetta Vander, Miss French – "Teacher's Pet"
"I loved the movie, so I was very happy to do the TV show. As far as special effects go, at the time Buffy – and 'Teacher's Pet' in particular – was doing some pretty cool and unusual things. I play a teacher who can turn into a praying mantis, and there's that horrible moment when my head turns all the way around and another time when my hands turn into claws. When I eat that bug sandwich they actually had real bugs – little crickets, or something they use for fishing, I believe. They were kept in little boxes which they sprinkled onto the bread. I remember having a really hard time with trying to do that because I did not want to feel the little wings. They said, 'Well, they're gonna be bait for fish anyway.' But I did not want to hurt an animal. They didn't die – they were fine – they were just sprinkled onto the bread and then when I go to eat it they're not there. The scene with Xander was hilarious, too. The crew couldn't keep a straight face because his reaction was so funny. Xander was so innocent that you really just watch him squirm. But what's funny about it is how much older Nicholas [Brendon] who plays him was in real life – not a schoolboy this bug teacher is trying to seduce.
"At the end of the episode there's that egg that was left behind, and it was implied that she'd keep breeding and wasn't dead forever after all. People always asked me, 'Why did Miss French never come back?' My god, I was hoping she would."
Lorna Jowett, Buffy Studies scholar and author of Sex and the Slayer: A Gender Studies Primer for the Buffy fan – "Becoming" Part One and Two
"I always say these two episodes because they're probably the most fantastic season finale ever, and they prove that Buffy can be a hero – a real hero. There are awful consequences but she is continually stepping up. She had to see Kendra die; not physically die, but Kendra has had to die to make this series. There's the whole fight with Angelus that she wins, but she wins it at such a cost that she has killed her boyfriend for the sake of the world. She has that massive fight with Joyce, her mum, which a lot of people see as a 'coming out' allegory. Joyce tells Buffy that if she leaves she's not coming back, and she then does leave Sunnydale.
"Importantly, it shows that it's not OK that she had to do that. Up until this point, Buffy was always funny, and from this point Joss Whedon does these brilliant tonal shifts from comedy to something that's deadly serious. Thankfully, they also rehabilitate Joyce as a character, from her not recognising the strength in her own daughter to being an ally to Buffy in the later seasons. I have to say, the more I watch episodes with Joyce and Buffy, and the older I get, the more I identify with Joyce."
Camden Toy, Uber vamp, a lead Gentleman and Gnarl – "Same Time, Same Place"
"Gnarl was a really rich, story book-ish character, and very scary. By the time I walked into audition for it I was having way too much fun, playing with the voice in that sing-song way – 'No one's going to save you.' I remember getting fitted for his teeth, and they hadn't rounded the edges yet so were really sharp. I lightly touched round the edges with my lips and I was bleeding. I had finger extensions to make my fingers look an extra three or four inches longer than they are, and at the end there's these claws. The first day of shooting I was in that body suit for over 12 hours. I couldn't go to the bathroom for 12 hours because I just knew it would take them too much time to get me in and out of that suit. It was pretty excruciating. I did all my own stunts, too, on a wire where they were pulling me up a chain.
"After I've paralysed Alyson Hannigan [who plays Willow], I'm sitting on her and stripping her flesh away and telling her how delicious she is. She and I had so much fun with that scene because she had such a good sense of humour and we really bonded. I'm sitting on her for literally most of the day, so I had to work out a way to do that without crushing her. I love the scene where she gets closed in on and I'm talking to her off camera and the cameras can't see me, but you can hear my voice so you're leaving him up to your imagination. It's very much like the scene with the shark in Jaws. You know he's there but you don't see him until towards the end of the film. And then, when I paralyse her, she kind of slumps to the ground, but all you see is my shadow. God, he is creepy."
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