Review for Buffy Complete Season 1-7 - 20th Anniversary Edition
Like I was going to watch a show by the name of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”! I had my pride back then. I was a sci-fi/fantasy veteran; I’d be watching shows like Star Trek, or Quantum Leap, War of the Worlds or the X-Files. I wouldn’t be seen dead watching a show with the word Buffy in the title. It was bound to be some sort of camp goofiness, like Cleopatra 2525. Then one day, I was disgruntled to find that my best friend was a fan; he dropped whatever he was doing to watch an episode of the second season as was being broadcast on the BBC at that time. I joined him in front of the TV, just to be polite, and by the end of that episode, I was a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan as well. I was so enthused that I even went as far as looking up the 1992 movie at a video rental store; remember those? That could have been the shortest fandom ever after watching that movie, but I stuck with it, went back to revisit the first season, and watched it through all seven years. 15 years later, I get the urge to revisit this classic show and take advantage of a relatively recent complete series re-release. 39 discs worth of Buffy the Vampire Slayer lie before me...
You get a big, fat, card box, which contains a couple of plastic cases, each with an album of disc holders that you can page through (much like the TNG Blu-ray collection. The first has seasons 1-4, 21 discs, and the other 18 discs, seasons 5-7 are in the other box.
Buffy Summers was a vampire slayer, briefly in Los Angeles, an evil fighting career that came to an ignominious end when she burned down the school gym. Now she and her mother have moved to the small town of Sunnydale to start over. She’s retired as a Slayer, back to being a normal girl, where the most she has to worry about is navigating high school life, making new friends like Xander Harris and Willow Rosenberg, tightrope walking around the in-crowd led by wannabe socialite Cordelia Chase, hanging out at the hottest (read only) nightspot in town, The Bronze. Sure, the weird British school librarian Rupert Giles is a little too friendly, and has a weird collection of books, and kids from town tend to go missing a lot, and there’s the fact that Sunnydale is built over the Hellmouth. When a corpse falls out of a gym locker, puncture holes in the neck, all exsanguinated, Buffy’s retired no more. And let’s not mention her guardian Angel, all tall, pale and handsome...
The Master, an ancient vampire came to the Hellmouth 60 years ago to end the human world and restore the dominion of demons over the world. But an earthquake and a collapsing church has left him trapped underground ever since; but now he wants out, and to finish what he started. Meanwhile, Buffy’s falling for the wrong guy...
The Master may be gone, but the threat of prophesy remains in the form of the Anointed One... until Spike comes to Sunnydale and gets bored with the little vampire brat. William the Bloody has brought his beloved Drusilla with him, looking for the cure for her mystical ailment, a cure that lies in the texts of Giles’ Watcher library, and in the blood of Drusilla’s sire, the vampire that originally turned her, Angelus, better known as Angel, Buffy’s 240 year old boyfriend.
Buffy’s back, which is to be expected in a show bearing her name, but Angel’s back too, which demands some explanation. There’s also a new Slayer in town, Faith whose approach to her calling raises a few eyebrows. And Mayor Richard Wilkins has big plans for Sunnydale.
They survived high school, barely, but now college beckons. Angel has left for Los Angeles and his own series, leaving Buffy feeling out of her depth as she starts her new life at UC Sunnydale. But there are still vampires to stake, and Spike’s back, so not everything has changed, and there’s something brewing under the campus.
Buffy suddenly has a brand new sister, Dawn, who has been her sister all her life. If it sounds weird, it’s because it is, reality has been changed, memories have been altered, all in the name of some grand, apocalyptic scheme. There is a mystically powerful, nameless being from the dawn of time in town, and she’s looking for The Key. But Buffy has bigger problems. Her mother, Joyce is ill...
Buffy’s been brought back from the great beyond, and she’s feeling out of sorts; and she’s spending more time with Spike of all people. Anya and Xander are engaged, and Xander is terrified. Willow and Tara are happily in love; only Willow seems to love magic more. Dawn’s a kleptomaniac, and the three biggest geeks in Sunnydale are plotting to take over the world. It’s all a bit of a song and dance, really.
The original, the First Evil, evil that transcends time and predates the universe itself, has got tired of Buffy saving the world on a regular basis. This time it’s personal, and The First will do what it takes to defeat Buffy and her friends, and end the world once and for all. But, at least Sunnydale High School has been rebuilt in time for Dawn to go to school, although with the Hellmouth open for business, it’s not a good time to be academic. And Spike is back, with his soul, and he’s insane in the basement.
Seasons 1-3 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer are presented in 4:3 regular format. Seasons 4-7 are in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. For its original TV broadcast, all but the season 6 episode Once More With Feeling were transmitted in 4:3, so not all of it was shot as widescreen safe. There’s one scene in the season 6 episode Where the Wild Things Are where you get a frame of blue screen in the background as the stock footage matted in plays out early, which you wouldn’t see in 4:3. But generally this set gets away with it. But Buffy is in need of a proper HD restoration.
I say proper, as it has received an HD upgrade for its online streams, albeit one where the film footage is HD, the effects remain SD, and all seven seasons are presented in widescreen. There are some notoriously bad shots of the show, where you can see the edges of the set and crew members at the sides of some of the first three season episodes.
This DVD set is fine though, except in very rare instances. The image quality is typical for the turn of the millennium US TV, a little soft and video-tapey, dark detail not all that great, which in a show where most of the action happens at night isn’t ideal. It’s comparable to the X Files DVDs in that regard. Earlier seasons are a little more problematic when it comes to clarity and compression, but they get the hang of things by the time the show goes widescreen, and the last few seasons are almost filmic in quality. The effects get better too as the years pass, and the production values continue to get stronger.
You can be certain of Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround English with English subtitles on all 7 seasons, but there is some variety with the rest of the language options. Seasons 1 and 2 have French audio with French and Dutch subtitles, while Seasons 4, 5 and 6 have Danish, Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish subtitles. The dialogue is clear, and the action comes across well, with the show getting a nice surround presence. One of the things that really stands out with Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the music. So many shows from the late nineties and early 2000s have made their debuts on DVD without the music rights, and a whole lot of track replacement. It’s all the more telling when a classic pop tune is replaced with muzak. Buffy the Vampire Slayer has as one of its key locations The Bronze nightclub, where acts usually perform live on stage. You can’t simply swap the music out in that situation, and I guess with that kind of expenditure it made sense to keep the rest of the show’s music as well. And of course there is the Once More With Feeling musical episode.
One thing to note is that episodes with commentaries have locked subtitles in the first couple of seasons, you can’t change them on the fly, you have to escape to the main menu.
The discs present their content with static menus with animated transitions, and plenty of copyright warnings. Depending on the season, you might find the extras listed with the episode, or on a separate listing on the main menu screen.
And as for episode listings, they are a complete pain on some of these discs depending on the season. You get one episode title in each corner of the menu page, they’re not numbered, you just have to hope that you get the right one, and for the first three seasons, it is pretty straightforward. They are organised horizontally, top left, top right, bottom left, bottom right. Then along comes season 4, and they switch vertically. The first disc of season 4, I wound up watching the third episode before the second, which causes a fair bit of confusion in a serialised story. It goes back to the original way around for Season 6, while they’re simply listed for Season 7.
Click here for a listing of episodes and extra features.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer hasn’t dated! So many of my favourite shows from yesteryear start to strain the seams of credulity after a while; acting styles change, the way shows are filmed change, societies change, that there is a level of cringe revisiting shows that you never would have got the first time around. When it comes to US TV, thirty year old dramas and sci-fi are particularly bad, while 20 year old sitcoms are nigh on unwatchable. You have to watch them with a level of irony that says more about you than it does about the programme.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is timeless, and it seems like it was born that way. You might expect the opposite, given that it’s a show about teenagers in high school (at least it started off that way), but Joss Whedon and the writers created a way of speaking for the characters that was original and unique to the show, didn’t reflect high school life in the nineties, rather influenced it instead. The writing is so good, the characters so well defined, and the themes in the show so relevant and engaging, that Buffy the Vampire Slayer continues to speak to audiences today, 20 years after it was first broadcast. What’s important is that it never talks down to, or preaches to audiences, it has a sense of realism to what its characters go through, despite the fantastical world of vampires, demons and magic that is its lifeblood.
Here’s the odd thing. There is no episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that I do not like. Sure, some are better than others, and the production values change over the seven years, but I can happily watch them all. I can’t say that about other shows that I like even more than Buffy. There are episodes of The X Files that make me cringe. There are Star Trek episodes that make me ask just what the writers were smoking, but there is a level of consistent high quality in Buffy the Vampire Slayer that few shows have achieved.
There is a bit of a curve to the show. The first season, with its focus on monsters of the week, and the shorter run is certainly the weakest.12-odd episodes for a show to find its feet is a fair deal, but getting to know these characters, revelling in the setting and the stories is a lot of fun. It’s the switch in the second season to developing character arcs and more of a soap opera storyline that really defines the show. You still get the weekly villains, and you still have the over arching storylines, but now the lives of the characters, their relationship issues really ground the show with a sense of reality that contrasts well with the unreality.
The second season is where the show’s identity is established, what with Buffy’s relationship with Angel, and the arrival of Spike and Drusilla in Sunnydale. Most of the vampires that Buffy dealt with were mostly ambulatory fangs, but suddenly the vampires were charismatic, stylish, and had character. I have to admit that Spike is a favourite character, and I love his arc over the seven years. The third year is where the show hit a peak, with the final year of high school coinciding with the machinations of the town’s Mayor, and the advent of Faith, also a vampire slayer, but one from the wrong side of the tracks. Following the brief appearance of Kendra in the second season, with her wayward accent, Faith was a big improvement.
While the characters might have graduated high school, education hadn’t loosened its grip just yet, as college beckoned, and a secret military installation under the campus made for another memorable villain, if not quite as memorable as Mayor Wilkins. Although Glory in Season 5 did match the third season in satisfying narrative and character.
It’s around this time that the edge of Buffy the Vampire Slayer started to dull, although I’d be hard pressed to pin down a reason. The obvious thing is that with the high school setting lost, that immediacy of teenage angst kind of got dialled back. The characters were growing up, and were now facing grown up problems of getting a job, finding a place to live, contemplating marriage and raising families. Xander and Anya’s romance was certainly a rollercoaster, while Buffy found an unorthodox way indeed of getting a sister. But growing up means facing the real world, and suddenly slaying wasn’t as much fun anymore. For the sixth season, things got dark for the characters, so much so that it was the villains that provided the comic relief, and this sense of futility carried over into the final season as well. The thing is that it all feels natural and expected for the characters to be going through these feelings and issues, but it’s not quite as much fun to watch.
Yet even after all this time, I can only think of one misstep in the whole seven years of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and that’s the character of Kennedy in season 7. She seems like she’s given the undue and undeserved prominence that she is because of an aborted attempt to set up a Vampire Slayer spin-off series. But she is so annoying and glaring an insertion that we’re lucky there was never a Kennedy spin-off series. But that does mean that we still have to put up with her in season seven. But as I said, I wouldn’t turn off a single episode of the show, not even with Kennedy.
But when I think of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Kennedy isn’t who or what springs to mind. What I do consider is just how revolutionary the show was in television drama, just how much it was blazing a trail back in the early 2000s. It took Star Trek until last year to portray a gay relationship on television (even then it wasn’t real television, it was streaming), Buffy did it almost twenty years before. And with shows like Hush, The Body, and Once More With Feeling, it was always pushing the boundaries of what audiences could expect from the little square box in the corner.
It was a surprise just how much I enjoyed Buffy the Vampire Slayer. After all this time, it hasn’t dated one iota. The only thing that might raise an eyebrow might be just how this NTSC sourced show looks on PAL discs scaled up to an HD panel. But old TV shows is why I bought a 32” panel as a second TV back when my old CRT finally died. With a small enough screen these shows look perfectly watchable, certainly better than the online “HD” streams. There is a little BBFC action in a couple of episodes, and a bit of self-censorship in another, but it’s certainly not enough to dampen the experience. If you’ve left it as long as I have, now would be a perfect time to revisit this show. Onwards to Angel!