Farewell Buffy, and fangs for the memories

How did a small, blonde cheerleader with a nice line in kung-fu kicks win the hearts of a generation of writers, philosophers and academics? On behalf of the world's intellectuals, Boyd Tonkin bids adieu to Buffy
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The Independent Online

In the early hours of this morning, the most original, witty and provocative television show of the past two decades was laid to rest. Or so it seems. Given the profusion of resurrections and revivals that have studded Buffy the Vampire Slayer since its birth in 1997, one can never be too sure. "Chosen" - officially, the concluding part of the seventh and final series - aired in prime-time on the east coast of America. RIP Buffy - or hasta la vista, perhaps.

Our blonde Southern Californian ex-cheerleader, inspired and burdened over 154 episodes by her solemn mission to save the world from the forces of darkness, may never again break off from zapping some fanged or warty creature of the night to trade sassy epigrams with her ill-assorted gaggle of terrestrial, and infernal, pals. Played as alternately feisty and frail by Sarah Michelle Gellar, Buffy matured into a demon-kicking, philosophy-discussing icon of "girl power". She also became the dramatic focus of the most sophisticated ambiguities - artistic as much as moral - to address a young-ish audience in the recent history of American television.

Whenever acolytes of Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, Friends (Hades help us) or Frasier bore us rigid with gushing praise for the maturity and subtlety of American TV, I smile and think of Buffy. For I learnt to relish Buffy when I realised that its roots went deeper and its tendrils spread further. Drawing on ancient as well as modern fable and myth, it leapfrogged the conventions of realism and broke through into a place where any branch of metaphysics or morality could be named and framed. This teen romp sounds as old as the hills.

In Buffy's wise-cracking but doom-laden corner of Los Angeles suburbia, viewers learnt to expect encounters with virtuous lesbian witches, conscience-stricken on-off vampires, demonic high-school principals and charismatic English librarians. The tight collegiate team who wrote and produced the show couldn't touch on a personality or plot without marinading it in their own tart mixture of mischief and paradox. With astonishing bravura, Buffy the Vampire Slayer has succeeded in blending the conventions of teenage soap-opera with smart, dialogue-driven comedy, a phantasmagoria of supernatural motifs - and even knotty theological debate.

Its impact and influence have always outpaced the viewing figures. Never much more more than six million in the US, these sometimes dropped to four million. Yet about 1,200 dedicated websites testify to the show's hold on near-obsessive fans, who range from the cult-hungry teens of the first target audience to hopelessly ensnared writers and academics, including the leading Oriental scholar and novelist Robert Irwin, assorted American and European philosophers, heavyweight columnists - and myself. I doubt that Joss Whedon, Buffy's inventor, producer and occasional screenwriter, intended literary editors to be his target audience; yet one of my favourite websites explains the presiding themes of Western philosophy through the twists of Buffy's plot and the foibles of its characters.

More than any previous TV cult, Buffy sparked a state of creative synergy with the internet generation. Whedon (who had previously won an Oscar nomination for his Toy Story screenplay), regularly posted messages and responded to viewers on noticeboards. Last week, in a press interview, he said that Buffy "was designed to be a pop-culture icon. She became that, and so she exists beyond her ratings".

Yet when Whedon's property changed hands from Warner Brothers to UPN in 2001, the asking price was about $2.3m (£1.4m) per episode. DVD and video packages of the various series - each boasting an impressively coherent multi-episode storyline - become bestsellers. Rather like the heroine's role as the one-in-a-generation protector of the human world from malignant beings, Buffy's presence and powers exist as a sort of open secret.

Like many adepts beyond the core teen audience, I stumbled across Buffy by chance, solely because I watch too much late-night TV. (Although Sky One - the first channel to show every series in Britain - treats Buffy with respect, the BBC habitually buries it in an apt but annoying graveyard slot.) Initially, it seemed like easy, campy fun: the high-kicking Valley girl, her nerdy or sultry schoolmates, the fastidious, tweedy librarian (Anthony Stewart Head), the comic-grotesque creatures of the abyss surging through the Hellmouth that divided the upper and lower worlds and lay, conveniently, just beneath the library of Sunnydale High.

Then, rapidly, came a somewhat shocking revelation. As the cast might say, Buffy didn't suck; in fact, it rocked. The dialogue was sharp, bantering, allusive, drenched in all the quick, knowing irony that Americans allegedly don't do. The acting looked slick, the stunts inventive and the plotting - especially the complex shifts between the "undead" characters' tangled past and present - made genuine demands. It took considerable alertness to work out whether (say) Angel - once an 18th-century Galway gent, now a deeply troubled vampire and Buffy's enduring passion - did or did not possess his soul at any particular moment.

Above all, the ostensibly silly fantasy elements - demons, monsters, bloodsuckers - offered a beguilingly fresh way to explore adolescent anguish about identity, sexuality and authority. Far from trivialising everyday experience, the supernatural backdrop lent it an extra dimension. Think the witches in Macbeth. In some sense, every 17-year-old yearns to get out of the house in order to save the world, and despairs that any parent could ever understand. Yet Buffy's occult tasks also raised intractable questions of love, faith, responsibility and suffering that go way beyond the standard teenage peaks and troughs. "The ultimately adult nature of these teenage shows," wrote Roz Kaveney, the editor of the critical companion Reading the Vampire Slayer, "derives from this completeness of emotional range."

The supernatural structure also triggered metaphysical discussion on a level that left British telly's God slots in the shade. Buffy borrows and customises the entire repertoire of Gothic and uncanny fiction, with its abiding theme of the blurred borderlines between reason and unreason, life and death, good and evil, the human and inhuman. Some classic Gothic figures crop up in familiar forms: Count Dracula takes a bow in one episode, while the cyborg laboratory of the sinister Initiative recalls the meddling hubris of Dr Frankenstein.

More common, though, is the writers' funny, resourceful mapping of Californian reality on to their ghoulish archetypes. Buffy's demonic villains were a perennial comic joy, from the jive-talking, computer-wizard homeboy Mr Trick to the superbly corrupt mayor of Sunnydale, Richard P Wilkins III, and the geeky sociopaths of the evil trio who plague Buffy through the sixth series. Figures of fantasy, these spectres still talked and acted in a way that made perfect sense for their time and place. As much as Aristotle, Buffy's creators grasped that the deployment of convincing impossibilities depends on rules and a respect for limits. In Sunnydale, the laws of nature and morality apply in all non-occult contexts.

"Being a Slayer doesn't mean I have a licence to kill," Buffy maintains. In short, to enjoy this show proved no more a mindless indulgence than reading the tales of Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson or Jorge Luis Borges. And none of that trinity ever created a cockney-punk vampire and former poet (Spike), once known in Victorian London as William the Bloody - on account of his bloody awful verse.

Not every one of Buffy's 154 episodes hit quite the right vein. Many fans will tell you that they preferred the early, funny ones. Some of the rule-busting exuberance of the first three series faded when college replaced school for the central "Scooby gang" of Buffy's friends. With early adulthood, the dilemmas of Buffy, Angel and the lesbian sorceress Willow dredged ever-darker emotions into the scripts.

In the fifth series, Buffy's mother died, with no supernatural intervention. Then Buffy sacrificed herself in order to protect her "sister" Dawn (in fact, an embodiment of redemptive cosmic forces) from the scarlet-frocked, siren-like Hellgod, Glory. The disconsolately resurrected Buffy of the sixth series (currently on BBC2) worked uneasily with, and against, an out-of-control Willow who grew dangerously obsessed with her own magical prowess. This splendidly moody pair (with Alyson Hannigan mesmerising as Willow) imported more than a touch of Bergmanesque gloom.

Buffy's finest episodes made the jaws of jaded viewers drop. Some celebrated show-stoppers came from the pen, and directorial hand, of Joss Whedon himself. In "Hush", a demonic curse meant that almost the entire episode unfolded in silence. In "The Body", the sudden demise of Buffy's Mom ousted all thoughts of fantasy with a raw portrayal of the mechanics, and dynamics, of death and grief. In "Once More, With Feeling", a brilliant sequence of song-and-dance numbers orchestrated the "Buffyverse" to the musical styles of Porter, Rodgers and Sondheim. "Normal Again" took off from the Pirandello-like premise that Buffy had been, in "reality", a deluded schizophrenic in hospital who hallucinated her friends, her powers and her exploits, to the bewilderment of her distraught parents. Dennis Potter once dared to stage such narrative coups on British TV. No writer does now. These days, we're encouraged to treat hammy drivel such as Cambridge Spies as the benchmark of our "quality" drama. Could that be a sepulchral laugh I hear through the Hellmouth?

Reports of the final few episodes suggest a deepening mood of imminent apocalypse. That option has always lurked in the background for Buffy. The show's pesky minor demons do the bidding of a few older, fiercer vampires - above all, the "Master" - who crave nothing less than the end of the world. It has always struck me that the terrors of Sunnydale - where a thin membrane divides a suburban idyll from outbreaks of infernal violence - mimic the earthquake anxieties of the actual Southern California. Often, the characters' fretful anticipation of a terminal catastrophe sound just like the fears of the "Big One" that haunt a state developed on the systematic denial of menacing geology. Jane Espenson, one of the show's most thoughtful writers and producers, has talked of the Buffy demons as dramatic symbols of the entropy that pulls all systems towards inertia and breakdown. "Disorder became demonised," she has said, "as if it were an actual entity against which we struggle. Entropy as demon."

By the time you read this, American viewers will know whether the Sunnydale "portal" between the human and demonic worlds has cracked open, and with what entropic consequences. The show may not survive; but the talents that refined it surely will. Angel, the spin-off starring David Boreanaz as the guilt-ridden ex-vampire who operates as a supernatural Los Angeles sleuth, has generated four series already, with a fifth almost commissioned. Channel 5 recently bought Angel from Channel 4 (which tended to inter it at obscure hours), and promises a mid-evening slot from June. Rumours are now circulating about a new show, True Calling, which will supposedly star the renegade Slayer, Faith (Eliza Dushku), Buffy's intermittent rival and helper. As for Sarah Michelle Gellar herself, she has so far shown an un-Buffyish clumsiness in her choice of movie roles (two kiddie Scooby- Doo films?), but it's still early days.

Above all, Joss Whedon and his ever-fertile band of collaborators (such as Espenson, Marti Noxon and David Greenwalt) need to discover large- or small-screen projects that will allow their irreverent wit and ingenuity to flourish without too much studio-enforced compromise. In Hollywood, that will probably take a magical degree of luck as well as skill. The Buffy team's entanglement with fanged and warty monsters may have only just begun.

The final episode of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' is shown in the UK at 8pm on Sky One on 12 June

The beginner's guide to Buffy

In the beginning

The first TV series aired in 1997, but the premise of a stake-wielding cheerleader first saw the light of day - or the dark of night - in a scarily bad 1992 film that Buffy buffs prefer to forget.

Scooby dos

Buffy is surrounded by a gang of trusty helpers, dubbed "The Scooby Gang" by internet fans. The core team is Willow Rosenberg (computer nerd turned lesbian witch), Xander Harris (class clown turned dependable builder) and Rupert Giles (librarian, mentor and once-upon-a-time star of the Gold Blend coffee ads). Spooky coincidence: Sarah Michelle Gellar played Daphne in the recent live-action version of Scooby-Doo.

Kiss me deadly

The love of Buffy's life (or undeath) is Angel, a good vampire: unfortunately, sex with Buffy turned him back into a bad vampire who got his own spin-off series. She's also been entangled with a demon-fighting commando, and Spike, a punk vampire with a chip in his head. This isn't a woman who makes good boyfriend choices.

Key quote

"Into each generation a Slayer is born. One girl in all the world, a Chosen One." As stated, sonorously, at the start of each episode. The "to boldly go" of the Nineties, but without the split infinitive.

Robert Hanks