Joss Whedon 101: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

The story of Buffy the Vampire Slayer becoming a television series is an improbable one. Joss Whedon, in fact, was not the instigator. Gail Berman was in the mid-1990s looking for new projects to develop for television. In 1992 the film Buffy the Vampire Slayer had been released, based on Joss Whedon’s original screenplay. Exasperated with changes being made to his script during filming, Whedon eventually left the set and avoided the set during the later stages of filming. He had, in fact, put Buffy behind him and had gone on to a highly remunerative career as script doctor. Berman, however, presciently thought that the movie would provide the basis for an excellent series and approached Whedon about the idea. Although Berman would later be mercilessly castigated for pulling the plug on Firefly when she was head of programming at FOX, the fact is that without her initiative, neither Buffy nor Firefly would ever have been produced.

Berman and Whedon took the idea of Buffy to all of the major networks but were rejected by each one. The fledgling WB network, however, agreed to a pilot, and while they did not place it on their schedule for the fall of 1996, they did order it to series as a mid-season replacement in the winter of 1997. While a number of major TV critics were immediately taken with its clever dialogue and meshing of comedy and drama with fighting vampires and demons (Matt Roush of TV Guide was perhaps the show’s first high profile fan), the ratings through its first season were never strong and renewal was uncertain. The WB finally decided to give the show another chance and during its second season, with greatly improved writing and a larger budget that provided higher production values, the show became a hit.

The TV series picks up with Buffy Summers relocating to a new school in Sunnydale, California, having been kicked out of her former high school in Los Angeles after burning down the high school gym, an event planned in the original screenplay for the movie but eliminated due to budgetary concerns. The series in terms of the actual narrative is therefore not strictly speaking a sequel to the movie, but to the screenplay that Joss wrote that the movie was based on. [Those wishing to see something like what he had in mind in writing the screenplay should see “Buffy: The Origin” in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer Omnibus: Volume 1, a comic that was “Adapted from Joss Whedon’s original screenplay” by Dan Brereton & Christopher Golden.]

In the film Buffy learned that she was the Chosen One; the formulation receives sharpening in the TV series: “Into every generation a Slayer is born: one girl in all the world, a chosen one. She alone will wield the strength and skill to fight the vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness; to stop the spread of their evil and the swell of their numbers. She is The Slayer.” The WB actually wanted to lose the movie title and simply call the series The Slayer, something that can be seen in the original previews run on the WB and also in the intro to each episode of Season One and the early episodes of Season Two. The WB, however, was never able to eliminate Buffy from the title.

As Joss Whedon has pointed out, as silly as the name of the show is, it hints at several of the major aspects of the series. “Buffy” is intrinsically comical and leads the viewer to expect humor; “Vampire” indicates that the viewer can anticipate scary and supernatural elements; while “slayer” gestures towards action, with the expectation that the action will feature a female hero.

One of the major differences in the film and series is that in the movie Buffy, though with some help from her love interest Pike, fights more or less on her own; in the series she instantly acquires a group of friends who form a team to aid her in her struggle against the demons and vampires. Willow and Xander, along with Giles, become the core of the Scooby Gang, helping Buffy both as friends and sidekicks, as well as engaging in the ceaseless research that backgrounds all their activity. The normal paradigm of the hero—such as Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name—is of a loner, someone who can neither afford nor desire friends or companions…

Dear reader:

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