Television Review

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AS A CHILD, I was scared of vampires. I don't know why this was. So far as I recall, I was too young at the time for repressed eroticism to have come into the equation. I was desperately fond of imported American comics which featured acts of extreme and, one would have thought, terrifying violence, and I was never much bothered by ghost stories. But an issue of a Marvel comic called Tomb of Dracula gave me what I think was the only genuine nightmare of my life.

The thing that most unnerved me was the information that once you have invited a vampire into your house, he can come and go as he pleases, and there's not a thing you can do about it. But the other scary point about vampires was the sheer mathematics of it all: I worked out that if a vampire fed once a night, and every one of his victims became a vampire, and all these new vampires fed every night, and so on, then it wouldn't be long before the entire world had been turned into vampires. (It's a Fibonacci sequence - don't ever let anybody tell you that the maths you do at school has nothing to do with the real world.)

Perhaps it's worth saying that I never actually believed in vampires, and now I'm all grown up they hardly bother me at all. But I still can't be altogether rational about them. I suppose this is why, despite knowing on one level that it is dreadful tosh, I am a complete sucker for Buffy the Vampire Slayer (BBC2).

Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is an ordinary Californian high-school student, who also happens to be the descendant of a long line of vampire slayers and fairly talented in that direction herself. Every week Buffy sorts out the evil, mainly fanged beings that besiege her home town, which, owing to slack planning regulations, is built on the site of "a centre of mystical convergence" - a portal for demons to enter our world. To help her, she has her devoted, airhead male friend Xander, egghead Willow, and the school librarian Giles (himself a hereditary watcher, fated to advise and protect a slayer).

The central joke is the discrepancy between Buffy's world-historical mission and her Valley Girl language and values. Last night, Buffy fell for the new boy at school with an attractively antisocial manner - "He can brood for 40 minutes straight," somebody gasps - only to have their first date ruined by the appearance of the Anointed Warrior awaited by the local vampires. She has constant homework troubles, and a habit of spotting fiends by the way they dress. ("Her fashion-sense screams predator." "It's the shoulder pads.") It is perhaps not much of a joke, but it is mercifully underplayed, and the whole thing is wrapped up in about nine layers of insulating irony.

Once you've got through all those, though, the core of Buffy's attraction is that it offers a basic, uncomplicated battle between cute, nicely dressed good and ugly, unstylish evil - and good always wins. Buffy's triumph is to present itself as knowing, smart and ironic, when really what it offers is reassurance: the vampires won't get you - they'll be culled before they swamp the world.

Combined with its tight internal logic, it is the way that Buffy always sticks to the rules of the genre which makes it more winning than The X-Files (BBC1). Last week was fun, with Mulder and Scully on ironic form, running up against trailer-trash vampires with false fangs. At one point, Mulder tried to defend himself from a mob of glowing-eyed nosferatu by feebly brandishing a pair of baguettes in the form of a cross. Last night, though, we were back in the territory of black oil, neck implants and the grand alien conspiracy theory (don't worry if you don't grasp the references: understanding The X-Files is the sign of a misspent youth).

The best fantasies are the ones which follow through their own reasoning. The readiness of The X-Files to give house room to any brand of the supernatural can get tiresome, and when it is in its conspiracy mode, enjoying it becomes a matter of suspending not simply disbelief but all critical faculties. In that sense, it is a fundamentally cynical programme. Buffy may try to smell like a dank gust from a newly opened tomb, but, next to this, it's a breath of fresh air.