This year sees the tenth anniversary of Joss Whedon’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer first staking its claim to cult status on British TV.
Meanwhile, this week sees Whedon’s latest export, Dollhouse, starring Buffy alumni Eliza Dushku, debuting to UK viewers on the SciFi channel. Back in the US the future of Dollhouse beyond the first season is still uncertain, a predicament that has historical echoes for Buffy, a show that, despite becoming a classic of the small screen, had precarious beginnings.
Buffy was the unlikely child of an average 1992 feature film starring Kirsty Swanson and Donald Sutherland as the young high school girl destined to fight vampires and her watcher. Though the film was based on Joss Whedon’s script his input was highly compromised and even when the project got a new lease of life on TV from 1997 it was never taken for granted. Speaking to me on the eve of Dollhouse’s UK release Whedon explained how uncertainty afflicted him then as now: “We are still yet to hear about Dollhouse but, while we haven’t assumed anything, emotionally I have adopted the same mindset we had with Buffy where every year we thought it would be cancelled and so we wrapped everything up but left just enough doors open to do another season.”
While Dollhouse has to wait on fate Buffy literally and metaphorically ‘kicked ass’ for seven seasons, blurring the fight between good and evil, building enduring characters up beyond teen angst and doing both with a nod and a wink. In its wake it left many a TV executive on both sides of the Atlantic girding their loins looking for “the new Buffy”. In the UK, Torchwood (in which James Marsters, who plays Spike in Buffy, has appeared), Demons starring Phillip Glenister, and Being Human, are some examples of the attempts made to let creatures of the night roam free and build alternate Scooby gangs (as the hardcore of Buffy, Willow and Xander were known) while another ‘demonic’ Brit project worthy of note was the computer-animated BBC series Ghosts of Albion written by Amber Benson, who played Tara, Willow’s love interest and ‘honourary Scoob’.
While both British and American TV execs could both agree on their hunger for a similar hit show, I ask Whedon, given his regular exposure to fans of the show at conventions and otherwise, if the appeal of the show was interpreted differently on each side of the Atlantic. He maintains that the core of the show, the “uncertainty, pain and excitement” of teenage years has universal appeal, whether you were at an archetypal high school or not, adding: “I didn’t actually go to a traditional high school in America, I went to all male boarding school in England (Whedon spent three years Winchester College making him an Old Wykehamist along with colourful alumni like Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas and Jack the Ripper suspect, Montague John Druitt) but I had enough experiences in my years beforehand and seen enough John Hughes movies to know what happens in high school.”
The Brit factor in Buffy is unmistakeable and given Whedon’s upbringing, hardly surprising. The characters of fatherly slayer mentor Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) and Billy Idolesque vampire Spike infused the show with a very British sense of humour and the heady mix of glamour, martial arts and irreverence echoed that quintessentially English hit show The Avengers. “I watched an enormous amount of British TV growing up including The Avengers” acknowledges Whedon, “but I would say that Emma Peel was less representative of the show than John Steed was, because for me he was the very essence of cool - manifested in Buffy by Giles, though I didn’t give him a sword cane like he wanted. The reason for Giles being British was to evoke a traditional sense of horror and contrast it with the American response of ‘I just want to kick it in the face’ which at that time we could still do because it was before the Bush administration.”
Buffy’s appeal was in part due to crossing so many genres, as well as crossing the Atlantic for inspiration, experimenting with ideas like a silent episode and Broadway musical-style episode, but without the whole ever being less than the sum of its borrowed parts: “I incorporate everything” says Whedon, “the thing about Buffy is that it is a hotch-potch, it’s a quilt, I can’t not use a scrap of something I have seen, I just want to use all of it, get excited by all of it, shove all of it in the same place.”
The devotion to the patchwork quilt that is Buffy still holds strong as was evident at, what will now looks like a never-to-be-repeated event, the get together at 2008’s Paleyfest convention where a significant number of cast and writers gathered to reminisce with fans. Watching it on youtube I witness some of the younger aficionados make “I couldn’t have got through my teens without you” speeches that could be dismissed as typically American in their gushiness if it weren’t for the genuine note they strike, at least to the sympathetic ear.
There were some notable absences from Paleyfest; Alyson Hannigan (Willow), Anthony Stewart Head (Giles) and David Boreanaz (Angel) but that Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy), Nicholas Brendon (Xander), James Marsters (Spike), Michelle Trachtenberg (Dawn), Seth Green (Oz), Emma Caulfield (Anya), Charisma Caprenter (Cordelia), and Amber Benson (Tara) made it to celebrate a show that ended on US TV six years ago was sufficient testimony to its importance and familial vibe. Many cast members do their bit at other conventions both in the US and in the UK, as Whedon acknowledges enviously: “My actors are always doing cons in the UK because they don’t have to write all their dialogue like I do, so they have more time than I do. I am constantly whingeing at them because they get to go to them I have to stay home. As for getting that many of us together that were at Paleyfest, honestly, I doubt it will ever happen again.”
It’s not just convention appearances en masse that Whedon draws a line under. Occasions such as Paleyfest add fuel to the fire of still-burning questions about a Buffy movie, and a quick glance at the internet shows that speculation is still rife. When asked about the issue Whedon matter-of-factly pours holy water on the eternal flame: “I think it’s not going to happen, a reunion movie is extremely far fetched at this point given where everybody is. I think its time to stop the rumours.”
It’s important to stress however that Whedon does not take a ‘that was then, this is now’ attitude to his creation, he’s just sanguine in the face of the commitments of his busy cast. Otherwise, Buffy has never been off the table and still continues in comic book form: “The comics were really ultimately an admission that the story wasn’t going to be told again with the actors. If I thought there was some chance that I would want to do more and we could get it together I wouldn’t have put it in a comic, I would save it for the screen. Although, I have to say with George Jeanty drawing the comic I might as well be putting on the screen as he has got them down so well.”
The chance of Buffy coming back from off the page was has been lent some credibility, however, as Whedon, a huge fan of musicals, has spoken of putting her on the stage: “The idea of a musical I think is interesting because it is a different way of structuring the story and it could be a lot of fun, but that would be going back to the beginning, an alternate Buffy if you will.”
Whedon, who successfully spun off Angel from the mother ship of Buffy admits that he’s “not good at letting go of a story that is still worth telling” adding: “I am good at moving on from things that are finished but if there is juice in a story then I am curious about it. I am a fan of sequels even though they are inevitably awful.”
Whether that would have applied to the prequel project of Ripper, titled after Giles’ nickname from his troubled youth, still remains to be seen. The project has been bandied about since Buffy was still in production but has never come to pass for a number of reasons as Whedon outlines to me: “The reason Ripper became problematic besides poor timing, coinciding with other projects, was that it was contractually difficult because the character was part of one company and we wanted to do something with another one. We were discussing doing something in a similar vein and, well, I just want to work with Tony [Head] and shoot in England. It’s question of time and Tony isn’t exactly sitting by the phone, but we both want to do something together, we enjoy each other enormously and if it was that character it would be great but if it wasn’t, well, there’s still a lot to be done.”
Doors, it seems, are as open to Whedon’s circling projects as they were for characters to return to his shows and age was a barrier that was always put in suspension. As Charisma Carpenter’s Cordelia proved, you could be ten to fifteen years late for math but not get a detention, so perhaps Anthony Stewart Head’s chances of being an errant youth might not be dead in the water, though they look rather more shallow ten years on with him aged 55.
Of course Whedon hasn’t had to rely on Buffy spin-offs for work since and built up another nuclear family with Firefly, that came from his feature film Serenity. Firefly never made it past 14 episodes, though, and now doubt has been cast over the future of Dollhouse it proves that there is no such thing as a track record in TV, something which Whedon has been quoted as saying recently as well as admitting how frustrating that is. A lot of “grrr…arrgh” you might say, to quote the end credits of Buffy.
Nonetheless, Whedon has not gone all 'evil Willow' on the networks maintaining that there is hope for Dollhouse and it would be a surprise, if, in ten years time, someone wasn’t writing a piece about a long-running Whedon project. In the meantime, when Whedon finds himself at an impasse it’s tempting to wonder if he ever thinks like his fanbase and asks himself: What would Buffy do?