Kiersten White, Slayer (2019)

The thing about changing the world… Once you do it, the world’s all different. So begins Season 8, the comic book continuation of television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) that launched in 2007. While the comic book series came to an end last year with Season 11, 2019 sees the launch of a new, young adult series of novels by Kiersten White set after the events of Season 8 and contemporary with the following comic book series.

I don’t read a lot of young adult literature, partially because as a thirty-something adult I feel that it’s not my place to be judging what teenagers want or need to read. But as a thirty-something adult that means that I was a young adult when Buffy the Vampire Slayer was first on the air, and I do feel like I have an investment in the expansion of that universe. I’ve read Season 8 a couple of times, although I didn’t get far into Season 9 back when I was an impoverished student and comic books trade paperbacks cost more money than I wanted to spend on something I was pretty lukewarm about.

I received an advanced reader’s copy (ARC) of Slayer via Netgalley, and reviewed it on Goodreads last year too. But as it hits the shelves I wanted to discuss it in more detail.

Backstory

At the end of the seventh and final season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the eponymous heroine (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and her friends saved the world one last time and changed it forever. For millennia, there had been one Slayer, one girl with the strength and power to fight the vampires, demons, and forces of darkness – alone. But no more – using a mysterious scythe, Buffy had her best friend/witch Willow (Alyson Hannigan) unlock the potential in an untold number of girls and women and made them all Slayers.

Except that the Slayer was never quite alone. From the beginning, they were guided by the Watchers, a group of patriarchal figures who taught the Slayer how to slay but lacked the strength to do so themselves. In the first episode of the television series Buffy was introduced to Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), her new Watcher. Her original Watcher, Merrick (Donald Sutherland in the original, non-canon movie, Richard Riehle in later episodes of the television show), was killed by vampires when she lived in Los Angeles.

Buffy’s relationship with the Watchers’ Council was always tense, although usually at a distance. Her relationship with Giles, however, grew ever closer and more paternal – such that he was fired from the Watcher’s Council in the episode “Helpless” (3X12). Later that season, in “Graduation Day (Part 1)” (3X21) Buffy quits the Watchers’ Council herself, leading to her replacement Watcher, Wesley Wyndam-Pryce (Alexis Denisof) being fired and becoming a rogue demon hunter (as revealed in spin-off series Angel 1X10, “Parting Gifts”).

A year-and-a-half later Buffy renegotiated her position with the Watchers’ Council (“Checkpoint”, 5X10); but in the seventh season Caleb (Nathan Fillion), agent of the First Evil, destroys their headquarters in Russel Square, London, England, killing most of the Watchers (shown in “Never Leave Me”, 7X09, although the culprit is not revealed until “Dirty Girls”, 7X18). Among the survivors are Wesley’s parents (revealed in the Angel episode “Lineage”, 5X07).

This is a substantial amount of backstory. Slayer relies on the reader knowing most, if not all, of it, as well as several other elements from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the ending of Season 8.

Slayer

The new novel is set in the fictional town of Shancoom, Ireland (presumably the Republic of, although at one point in the ARC a character mentions pound notes). In the middle of the nearby woods are the remains of the Watchers’ Council; those who survived the destruction of their headquarters because they were on a field trip to a castle somewhere in England, which was subsequently teleported to Ireland for safety.

The heroine is Nina, who doesn’t realise at first that she is a Slayer. No one told her of her potential, and the event that activated her powers also involved her becoming soaked in demon goo, so she was never quite sure what had happened. It’s not the only secret that’s being kept in the castle, as many of the Watchers have secret plans and agendas. Oh, and Nina’s father was Buffy’s first Watcher, Merrick, so she also hates Slayers, especially that one.

The story weaves its way through some of these secrets (though others remain at the end); it goes to an underground demon-fighting ring in Dublin, through Slayers in the pay of criminal organizations and demons who aren’t all that they seem. There’s beautiful young Watcher-in-training Leo who takes Nina on as his Slayer and Nina’s twin sister Artemis who really ought to have been the Slayer in the first place.

After a slow start Slayer does build up to a pretty satisfactory ending; or rather, beginning of a series with at least one more novel to come. By the end I was interested in Nina and where her story was going to go, her friends were perhaps a little less fleshed out, but there was potential there. The story could perhaps have been more fun, but there were good moments and I was entertained, for the most part.

She Alone

The problem I have is that it’s unclear to me whom Slayer is really targeted towards. On the one hand, streaming services like Netflix mean that Buffy and Angel are available to any and all who subscribe and chose to watch them (although its move to Facebook Watch in the USA seems to have seen it drop off other services, at least in North America). On the other, the core fans of Buffy will have been those who watched it in the ’90s and ’00s, when there weren’t many if any other shows quite like it, and they will be at least in their thirties and forties.

Nevertheless, Buffy was a young adult show. It seems probable that many of its fans will be willing to read a novel that sticks to the show’s young adult roots. As stated above, I’m not much of a young adult reader but I do think Slayer works fairly well as a young adult book. It’s a first-person narrative inside the head of an awkward young girl, struggling to find her place in the world; there’s adults who can and can’t be trusted. Mistakes are made. Plus a few bonus queer characters.

But then we get to all that background. Slayer’s place in the on-going Buffyverse chronology means that the reader needs to know not only the television show, or aspects of it, but also the events of the Season 8 comic book – or at the very least, be happy to have them spoiled. I can’t help wonder if it wouldn’t have been better to get some distance from these events, set the story in the near-present, and not worry so much about the immediate consequences of two other storylines in different media, both of which are more than a decade old.

And it’s not just the background, but the fact that Nina doesn’t seem quite distanced enough from the concerns of Buffy herself. The Watchers’ Council came under a lot of scrutiny in the show for its shady practices and its unwillingness to trust Slayers with the information they so desperately need to stay alive; but Nina is a Watcher, or near enough, so she trusts them completely.

The thing is, in the television series the Watchers’ Council was not so much a benignly frustrating bureaucracy as an archaic and brutal organization. When Giles is fired for loving Buffy too much like a father, it follows a horrific ritual called the Cruciamentum in which the Slayer on her eighteenth birthday is unknowingly deprived of her powers and then sent to fight a vampire without them.

In subsequent seasons, the Council send a hit-squad to kill rogue Slayer Faith (4X16, “Who Are You?”; Angel 1X18 “Five by Five”); they also withhold vital information from Buffy regarding Glory (5X10, “Checkpoint”) and the First Evil. The episode “Get It Done” (7X15) reveals the Watcher’s origins in the Shadow Men, who are too afraid to fight demons themselves and instead chose a young girl to do it for them. Finally, there’s the abusive relationship the Watchers have with their own families as revealed by the entire backstory of Wesley Wyndham-Pryce.

Now, Slayer does admit to many of these problems, but viewers of the show already knew them. One of the reasons why this system needed breaking was because of the influence the Watchers’ Council had over past Slayers, and their failure to come to their aid in times of need. There’s virtually nothing redeeming about the Council in the show, and it just makes Nina look ignorant to pretend that we don’t already know that.

Then there’s the fact that Nina hates Buffy. This aspect of the novel was one that really frustrated me, because after all, I was mostly reading the novel because I loved Buffy, as I suspect most of the audience of the novel would. It’s not necessarily bad that we get a new character with a different approach; the problem is that it’s an approach that we were shown in the series and is bad.

Most of all, though, I think I’m just disappointed with the approach taken to the ending of the television series. Nina complains that Buffy “broke” the rules that she thinks had always worked – despite all the evidence to the contrary throughout the television series – by activating all of the potential Slayers. Some of the consequences of this action in Season 8 and Slayer are feasible, I’ll admit. But the overarching issue is pretty disturbing.

According to this subsequent media, the decision to activate all of the Slayers has thrown the balance of good and evil out of whack. In the metaphor of the show, Buffy empowered an army of women against the system that oppressed them; by suggesting that this action “unbalanced” good and evil the continuation media suggests that progress not only needs a reactionary response but that it is also responsible for it. That’s a terrible message.

The Buffy continuation media that I’d like to see wouldn’t focus on these big-picture, internal mythology issues. It would take those bonus queer characters, or the women of colour that almost never appeared even in the background of the show, and see what happens when their Slayer powers get activated in this new paradigm. Buffy’s original premise was “high school is literally hell”; how does this play out for other characters? That’s more interesting to me than the show’s mythology.

Alternative to new Buffy

Given that Buffy the Vampire Slayer ended sixteen years ago this year – and original spin-off Angel just one year after that – there have been plenty of opportunities for new Buffy-like shows to spring up in its wake and try out these kinds of ideas.

Immediately following the end of Buffy saw the premier of two shows similar in theme but wholly unlike one another. I’ve not watched more than an episode or two of Supernatural, but its approximately a million seasons presumably fulfil any longing you might have for supernatural mythology.

The other, Veronica Mars, was more similar in tone: a sardonic, petite blonde heroine who solved mysteries of a less paranormal nature, the show followed Buffy in the creation of a teen heroine for the viewer to root for. If nothing else, the show’s boost (maintenance?) of Kristen Bell’s career has paid off dividends in more recent years.

Something Veronica Mars seems more astute at, though, is that its sporadic revivals accept that its core viewing audience have matured too. While neither the Kickstarter-funded film nor the novels that followed it were perfect, they offered us a mature adult version of Veronica astute to the issues of the present. Veronica was allowed to grow up in a way that Buffy spin-off media doesn’t seem willing to do with its eponymous heroine.

But as the audience of these teen supernatural shows has grown up there are also shows marketed toward them as adults. Veronica Mars was also an early career stepping stone of Krysten Ritter, star of Marvel’s Jessica Jones, although the character of party-girl Gia Goodman is perhaps not the most obvious step towards becoming the angry, alcoholic, PI with PTSD Jessica Jones (although there are superficial similarities between Jess and Veronica). Being part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or whatever adjacent universe the decimated Netflix shows occupy) Jessica Jones has supernatural elements and uses metaphor to make many of its points; furthermore, like Veronica Mars it deals with mature themes that Buffy never approached, particularly sexual violence and familial trauma.

Jessica Jones also diverges from Buffy in that its protagonist has a lot more in common with bad slayer Faith than with our eponymous hero. So too Wynonna Earp, although both of these should come with the caveat that Faith herself was never hard-drinking like Jess and Wynonna. Rather than focusing on protagonists that generally do the right thing, Jessica Jones and Wynonna Earp have leads that have done bad things – and to whom bad things have been done – but who are striving to be better, to put things right. This is essentially where we left Faith at the end of Buffy, and why that character always seemed the more interesting protagonist for a spin-off series/continuation, at least to me.

Wynonna Earp embraces its debt to Buffy more openly than any other recent television show of which I am aware. It certainly embraces the inherent humour in the premise, the fact that paranormal television can fall flat by appearing too po-faced about its supernatural elements. And yet, like Jessica Jones, it doesn’t shy away from more adult themes that would have seemed out-of-place in a late ‘90s teen show. Most notable of these is Wynonna’s pregnancy, and the decisions the character has to make based on her lifestyle and her family’s curse. Nor does the show shy away from the trauma of giving up a child, which resonates throughout the third season of the show despite the universal support for Wynonna’s decision.

It’s worth noting that the best moment in Buffy continuation media (insofar as I have read) also concerns the eponymous hero discovering that she is pregnant. In the second volume of season 9, On Your Own, Buffy spends an entire issue trying to figure out who the father of her child might be (she doesn’t remember having sex) and what to do about the pregnancy. As the storyline didn’t arise from an actor’s pregnancy, which would need to be addressed for approximately nine months of filming, Buffy could seriously consider abortion as an option and quite reasonably comes to this decision. However, the meaningful storyline is somewhat undermined by the reveal that Buffy is not, in fact, pregnant, but a robot.

If you’re looking for more direct alternatives to Slayer – i.e. supernatural books for adults – I recommend Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning (2018: Saga Press). Like Faith, Wynonna, and Jess, Roanhorse’s Maggie Hoskie has a traumatic backstory and embraces her superpowers as a way to try to put things right in the world. Furthermore, as the novel is set in a post-apocalyptic Dinétah (formerly the Navajo reservation), it’s a story that may well expand your horizons rather than focusing on the inevitably white heroines of all the television shows discussed above (although, it’s worth noting that Roanhorse’s use of Navajo culture has not gone without criticism).

What these shows and novel have in common is that they use a similar concept to Buffy to explore new and different areas of life – adulthood and other experiences – to offer a wider perspective. Meanwhile, Slayer feels to me like it’s focusing on the same old thing.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer reboot enthusiasm

What I’m not concerned about is the idea that Buffy maintain its focus on the young adult market. While I’m cautious about remakes and reboots in general, if a Buffy reboot has to happen I’m more interested in it being one that focuses on some of the areas in which the original series was particularly weak, most notably race/racism, and embracing the more progressive attitudes society (or the better parts of it, anyway) and television have towards LGBTQ+ issues that the show stretched back in the ‘90s.

A reboot feels to me a much better way to do this than an expanded universe. Slayer, like the Season 8 comics before it, seems stuck in time somewhat, focusing closely on the years after the show came to and end in the mid ‘00s rather than showing us how that world has progressed over a decade and a half. A reboot can take the show’s basic original premise – high school is hell – and reconfigure that for the third decade of the twenty-first century, for an age of social media and an ever-looming climate apocalypse that today’s teenagers may actually have to fight.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer had a fantastic, challenging ending. It changed the world of its characters, and offered hope for change to its viewers. Focusing too much on the consequences, especially negative ones, of that change requires a nuance that I’m unconvinced the spin-off media has been adept at handling. For my Buffy continuation, I’d rather stick with other universes – and hope that the next generation of young adults gets a reboot they deserve.

2018 retrospective: film

I saw seven films in the cinema this year, which is above-average for me these days. Two of them were Marvel movies, which were probably above the standard for most Marvel movies, but still largely unmemorable beyond being lightly entertained at the time. Chris Hemsworth was funny in one of them.

Then there was the Star Wars movie, which I don’t think was very good, but which I still enjoyed rather a lot. The most memorable thing for me was the introduction of Enfys Nest, who for me is probably the character from the Disney Star Wars films that most captures for thirty-something me what Boba Fett did for (pre-)teen me: the character whose backstory seems the most interesting and thus will inevitably be disappointing.

I feel compelled to clarify that Enfys isn’t my favourite character from the new films, a position held currently by Rose Tico with Cassian Andor somewhere close behind. Most of the cast of Rogue One falls into the Fett/Nest spectrum of people who might have interesting backstories; but knowing some of the details as they’re actually fleshed out means that they can’t take the prize – Chirrut and Baze aren’t actually married to one another? I’ll stick with my headcanon, thanks.

Still, for a film about Han Solo, a character whose background never seemed particularly interesting, I thought Solo: A Star Wars Story (dir. Ron Howard) was far better than it might’ve been.

Three of the films I watched this year were adapted from novels. I can’t really comment on A Wrinkle in Time (dir. Ava DuVernay) as an adaptation, having not read Madeleine L’Engle’s novel, nor can I particularly remember the film beyond it being a mildly entertaining if not brilliant film, but I was a thirty-something person seeing it without a child, so my perspective hardly matters.

I was more personally affected by the disappointment of Mortal Engines (dir. Christian Rivers), based on the first of Philip Reeve’s quartet of novels known by various names. (My favourite is probably the Hungry Cities Quartet for its silliness; if I’m being serious I would probably go for Predator Cities Quartet; if practical, the Mortal Engines Quartet.)

The story, which focuses on a mobile London in a time of traction cities following a planet-destroying war, should have been visually stunning and memorable for its cinematic presence if nothing else. The failure was probably in allowing the team behind The Lord of the Rings movies to adapt it rather than someone inspired by Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. George Miller, 2015); the novels are often described as Steampunk, but Petrolpunk would suit an adaptation just as well.

I find myself most comparing this film to The Golden Compass (dir. Chris Weitz, 2007), in that it utterly fails to adapt the story for a different medium, despite a pretty good cast. I think The Golden Compass probably did better in terms of cast and visuals, although Mortal Engines was a more fun film (or rather, I didn’t let my cynicism about the whole thing completely sour me against it as I did with The Golden Compass).

Even before I saw the film my enthusiasm for Mortal Engines was largely sapped by Rivers’ comments on the decision to make Hester Shaw’s scar less disfiguring than it is described in the book. While the significance of Hester to those with facial scars, and the necessity of challenging Hollywood’s warped sense of how human bodies should look, are important, the comments also revealed that Rivers just didn’t seem to get the character of Hester and her relationship with Tom, and why that matters to the story. Throughout the film, we largely just have characters that do things because that’s what they do, not because their actions make sense to them as characters. It’s a solid symptom of a film that’s been badly adapted from the source material.

The best film I saw in the cinema this year was also an adaptation of a science fiction novel. Annihilation (dir. Alex Garland) had its flaws as an adaptation, and certainly its differences to the book can be cause for complaint, but for me personally it worked as a film separate from the source material. VanderMeer’s comment that he “never expected or wanted a faithful adaptation from Garland – just a good one”, cited in the Hollywood Reporter article linked to above, seems to me a perfect attitude to take to adaptations; the problem being that if an adaptation is unfaithful and bad the most obvious cause for complaint will be the faithlessness (or the absence of faithlessness, to go back to The Golden Compass for a moment).

Garland understands that a film has different requirements to a novel, and emphasises the visual aspects of the Shimmer rather than the questions of subjectivity and reliability that are emphasised in Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel. I believe that Annihilation is one of those rare cases where the novel and film complement one another in their alternative approaches to the subject matter.

Adapting a novel is one thing; adapting the life of a novelist is another. In September my local cinema was screening the 2017 film Mary Shelley (dir. Haifaa al-Mansour), which depicts the relationship between Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (née Godwin) and Percy Bysshe Shelley up until the point at which the former publishes Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. I enjoyed the film and its melodrama, but was trying to remember what I knew of Mary Shelley’s life and its accuracy throughout (the absence of Fanny Imlay was glaring).

I also couldn’t help comparing it to the play Mary Shelley by Helen Edmundson, which I saw in Oxford in 2012. Edmundson’s play focuses on Mary’s relationship with her father, William Godwin, and how Frankenstein was a reaction to how he raised her. And of course, my favourite adaptation of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s life remains a book – Charlotte Gordon’s Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley (2015: Random House).

In addition to the films mentioned above I also watched Tomb Raider (dir. Roar Uthaug), Deadpool 2 (dir. David Leitch), and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (dir. Jake Kasdan) on planes. It’s probably not fair to judge these films based on that experience, but two of them were both fun and not Tomb Raider.

2018 retrospective: television

I tend to think that I don’t watch a lot of new television, but it turns out I just don’t remember a lot of it. There was a whole new series of The X-Files in 2018 that I just kind of forgot about, even though it was much better than the last one that I seethed over for two whole years. I can remember the episode that was mostly silent, some things about William, and an episode that was about Skinner.

But the standout episode was definitely Darrin Morgan’s “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” (11X04), which critically examined the place of a show like The X-Files in an age of (acknowledged) fake news and conspiracy theories. Bizarrely, the episode makes a good case for the existence of a show like The X-Files, but not in the incarnation that Chris Carter decided to actually make in which the show’s incomprehensible mythology is rehashed, over-explained, and becomes not only still incomprehensible, but definitely much worse than we left it in 2002. (Or rather, 2015 if you’re me and your parents wouldn’t let you stay up to watch it in the mid-nineties so you only ended up binge-watching it when you eventually got Netflix nearly twenty years later.)

We should hardly be surprised that Chris Carter is incapable of seeing what would make The X-Files even better, given that he still doesn’t quite seem to realise that the show’s real treasure was Gillian Anderson’s Special Agent Dana Scully. Except that, of course he did – even as early as the second season he was insisting that she not be re-cast when the show’s producers discovered that she was pregnant. Given how long television and pregnancy have been going on, it should really be surprising that science fiction seems only capable of dealing with it through the “mystical pregnancy” trope. Still, there are good ways and bad ways of doing this.

The second season of Wynonna Earp coped admirably with star Melanie Scrofano’s pregnancy, and you can judge for yourself how far we’ve come based on the network’s reaction to the news. The third season deals somewhat with the fallout from this pregnancy, as Wynonna and her baby daddy come to terms with the fate of their child and the tensions it creates between them. But this season focused on other parents, flipping the traditional narrative by giving us a hero whose father is dead and whose mother is mysteriously absent. As the story surrounding Michelle Earp (née Gibson) developed, I had the sense that the show was playing a longer game that it’s previously been able, as the following season had already been greenlit for the first time in the show’s history. There’s more of mama Earp to come.

One of the things that Wynonna Earp gets very right is knowing what to take seriously and when to make jokes. There’s one scene when Wynonna is crouched, hiding behind a pool table from the firefighter she ghosted, and when she stands up Peacemaker gets caught in the pocket and she stumbles. Is this intentional, or an accident while filming? It doesn’t matter, because it so completely fits Wynonna’s character to be that clumsy and the show understands that silly little jokes like that only add to its appeal (behind-the-scenes footage reveals that Scrofano had many such on-set mishaps that wind up on-screen). Yet it never uses this humour to undermine its core premise – that the heir of Wyatt Earp must hunt down and kill with Peacemaker the seventy-seven people he killed in his lifetime, resurrected as demon Revanants – because if the show doesn’t take its concept seriously, it would fall apart.

I’m not quite certain that it’s a failure to know what to take seriously and what to joke about that makes Chilling Adventures of Sabrina so much less good than Wynonna Earp, but it certainly seems to be part of it. Another aspect is that half the dialogue is exposition, and that many of the scenes seem to go: [INT: a location that for some reason Sabrina has gone to, although it’s unclear why]; Any Random Character: “Hello Sabrina! Here’s some plot/backstory for you” [End scene]. Then there’s the fact that the show doesn’t seem to have any interest in any of its mortal characters, with the occasional exception of Harvey, the one I as a viewer find least interesting.

And yet, I’ve watched all of it and definitely enjoy it more than Riverdale, of which I managed all of nine episodes. I think part of that is because I can cope more with the nonsense if I’m watching a show rapidly – the ninth episode of Riverdale was when I caught up to its release on Netflix and had to wait a week between each episode, which definitely wasn’t worth it. But there’s also the fact that Sabrina’s style just makes more sense than that of Riverdale: this otherworldly, Catholic/Satanic setting can be timeless (and by “timeless” I think I mean “set in the 1980s’ obsession with the 1950s”) and it makes sense. I’m not sure that the creators of Sabrina quite know what they’re doing with this setting and this story, and it can be excruciating to listen to Aunt Hilda explain things to Sabrina about rituals she’s apparently been celebrating for fifteen years (the most common form of expository dialogue), but the show is quite pleasing to look at.

I fell behind on Netflix’s Marvel shows in 2018, and then almost every one I didn’t get around to was cancelled (sorry if this ends up happening to you, too, The Punisher, but I just haven’t managed to steel myself for your ridiculous, straight-faced violence yet). Because I will apparently only stick with a show if it has a woman’s name in the title, I did watch season 2 of Jessica Jones.

When I try to recall it now, the first thing that springs to mind is that one episode is called “The Octopus”, but at no point does anyone struggle to decide which plural of “octopus” they’re going to use (I like “octopodes”). But Jess, too, has a dead father and a mysteriously not-dead mother; and Trish’s abusive mother makes her reappearance here, too. Do these characters get to interact with their mothers because they’re women? Is that what it takes to get a mother to survive in a science fictional universe? (Dana Scully, of course, lost her father in the first episode in which he appeared, “Beyond the Sea”, and her sister about a year later; her mother made it to 2016, but is still dead.)

As a general rule, I’ve found Marvel’s Netflix shows more interesting than their movies, in that actions seem to have consequences and characters get more fleshed out. And yet, there were still so many of them, and so similar in their grimdark violence, that I struggled to keep up with them. I’ll miss Luke Cage’s cheesy jokes, and the contempt Jess got to hurl at Danny Rand in 2017’s The Defenders, but to be honest, I’m struggling to feel like I’ve lost something in these shows. The main reasons I enjoyed the ones that weren’t Jessica Jones was for their minor cameos in one another.

As, I assume, is the nature of television in the age of streaming, the most significant shows I watched in 2018 were old. Chief among these was Star Trek: Voyager, which I watched in its entirety with my spouse, following on from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in 2017. I didn’t enjoy Voyager as much as DS9, my preference being for overarching narratives and grand plots with much foreshadowing, something that I think Voyager lacked for the most part, although characters like Captain Janeway and Lieutenant B’Elanna Torres were fantastic additions to the Star Trek canon of characters.

My interest in overarching storylines has a limit, though. 2018 saw the continuation of season one of Star Trek: Discovery, with the crew of the USS Discovery stranded in a (the?) mirror universe and trying to get home. I found its plot twists both increasingly ridiculous and yet still completely predictable; its plot lacking in any substantive meaning or insight into what might drive the powerful to do despicable things. There’s a sense, in the mirror universe seen throughout Star Trek series past, that characters we know to be good and noble, existing in a universe in which the paths of least resistance encourage greed and violence, become bad people – but it’s an interpretation that even in the best of Star Treks is something that I bring to it rather than it brings to me. Discovery had no such nuance, implied or otherwise, and couldn’t even use the mirror universe as a comedy romp the way DS9 tended to do towards the end.

I also finished watching Gilmore Girls, including the 2016 miniseries Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life. While the only science-fictional premsise in the show is that Lorelai and Rory Gilmore could eat the way they do and continue to look like Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel, A Year in the Life did lead me to reflect on the point of revivals in television series so many years later. I think A Year in the Life is much better than The X-Files revivals – both seasons 10 and 11 and the 2008 film The X-Files: I Want to Believe – because much of what it does serves largelty as what I’ve come to think of as a “victory lap”, looking back on these characters and saying, nearly a decade later, “yeah, they’re doing alright.”

Looking forward to 2019, I wonder if, in the current incarnation of Star Trek on television, it’s possible that the proposed Picard series can be as good as I found A Year in the Life (and I’m led to understand that my view is far more positive than average) rather than just ruining everything, the way The X-Files seems intent on doing sometimes.

Apocalypse, yawn

Midway through season one of CBS’s Star Trek: Discovery, the crew of the USS Discovery find themselves trapped in a Mirror Universe. This universe, common to several Star Trek series, includes alternate versions of many of the main cast of characters whose actions typically lack the moral compass of the prime universe heroes.

In Discovery’s version of the Mirror Universe, Lieutenant Commander Paul Stamets has used the mycelial network through which the Discovery travels to create a super-mycelial reactor. Unlike the spore drive used by Prime-Discovery, this reactor pulls energy out of the network and poisons it, leading to the deterioration of the network across the entire multiverse. Ultimately, this would lead to the death of all life across all known universes – unless they crew of the Prime-Discovery could stop it.

When this plotline was introduced, briefly, in the episode “What’s Past is Prologue” (1X13), I found myself rolling my eyes. Of course, all life across all possible universes wasn’t going to be destroyed – not only were there still two episodes left of the season, but Discovery is a prequel series and life exists across whatever universes in which the subsequent four series of Star Trek are set. As a way of racking up the tension, this claim fell flat: there was no apocalypse, and largely no meaningful consequences to Mirror Stamets’ actions. It’s a plot device used often in science fiction and adjacent genres: threaten the universe, raise the stakes to a ridiculous level. But these threats have no meaningful consequences, no emotional impact, and ultimately fall flat.

I feel fine

Discovery isn’t alone in this casual escalation of drama beyond a meaningful scope. I didn’t get around to watching Thor: The Dark World, partially because in the trailer Jane Foster (played by Natalie Portman) declares that “The very fabric of reality will be torn apart” – which would have made the then-forthcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron a much less action-heavy film.

Similarly, the apocalyptic ending to Avengers: Infinity War was somewhat undermined by the fact that half of the people ‘killed’ by Thanos had sequels to their solo movies already confirmed by Marvel/Disney. Nevertheless, the modern obsession with the apocalypse is such that it didn’t even occur to me that Thanos could, presumably, have doubled the universe’s resources just as easily as he killed half of its population until someone Tweeted it last week. We’ve come to expect the apocalypse.

Apocalypses also regularly crop up in Doctor Who, usually threatening “The End of Time,” even though a new Doctor has been promised already. Of course, the new Doctor does deliver an emotional consequence – this will be it for the current Doctor, whom you probably love or hate. Now you’ll have to get used to a new one.

Apocalypses have even made their way into the storyline of my beloved Wynonna Earp with demons threatening to destroy Earth. For all of these series, however, it is likely that their apocalypses have a single source. The showrunner of Wynonna Earp and revivor of Doctor Who have both listed Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a source of inspiration for their work. Meanwhile, the Marvel movies were once directed by disgraced Buffy creator Joss Whedon, whose influence is clear throughout those early films. Now Buffy was full of apocalypses, at least once a year. What made it different?

Straight through the heart

The first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer finds its eponymous protagonist fresh from something like the events of the 1992 movie of the same name, moving to a new town and trying to start a new life. But she can’t avoid vampire slayage – within a couple of nights, it’s the Harvest, one night a century which allows the vampire known as the Master to break out of the Hellmouth and unleash hell on Earth – i.e. the apocalypse. Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar), of course, stops it – it’s the show’s second episode. But she learns that she can’t leave vampire slaying behind after all.

By episode five, “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date”, the Master is moving on with his next plan to break free and Buffy is trying to date a cute boy. But already the apocalypse is recognised as a barely meaningful threat: heading out on her date, Buffy presents her Watcher, Giles, with her pager: “If the apocalypse comes, beep me.” The boy doesn’t last, as Buffy fails to make her work and her life balance. Therein lies the drama: Buffy’s life and wants, not the apocalypse.

In the season one finale, “Prophecy Girl” (1X12), Angel, the vampire with a soul, and Giles discover a prophecy that the Master will kill Buffy. When she overhears them discussing this, Buffy once again rejects her slayer heritage – violently, tearfully – before realising that she has to do her duty to save her friends (and the world). The drama doesn’t come from the world ending, but from Buffy’s sacrifice: “I’m sixteen years old. I… I don’t wanna die.” It turns out that she dies from drowning and is revived by CPR; but it’s still an emotional performance.

When the apocalypse comes around again in season 2 finale “Becoming” (2X21, 2X22) it’s Angel that’s bringing it about. Having lost his soul when he experienced a moment of perfect happiness with Buffy (generally said to be when they had sex, but actually in the post-coital sleepy glow), Angel plans to raise the demon Acathla who will swallow the world whole. To stop him, Buffy has to kill Angel – but just before she does, her best friend Willow, a witch, completes the spell to restore his soul. Buffy still has to kill Angel, though. You can’t save the world without consequence.

Angel, soul intact, came back the next season – his spin-off series had already been announced – but there were still consequences. He and Buffy couldn’t risk sex, and there was that century-and-a-half age-gap. He eventually decides to leave Sunnydale, and Buffy, for Los Angles, and brooding.

The apocalypses in seasons 3 and 4 aren’t even the season finale. In “The Zeppo” (3X13), Buffy is worried that her friend Xander is too much at risk of getting hurt while they stop another attempt to open the Hellmouth – instead of following that action, the episode follows the benched Xander’s scuffle with an undead gang that want to blow up Sunnydale High School. The drama of the apocalypse is a background joke: we’ve seen this drama before, obviously they’ll save the world. What matters is Xander’s masculinity (I didn’t say it was a good episode).

Next year, in “Doomed” (4X11), Buffy has discovered that her grad student boyfriend Riley is actually part of a government demon-fighting Initiative and decides to break off the relationship because it’s – wait for it – doomed. When they work together to stop yet another attempt to open the Hellmouth, she comes to realise that maybe the relationship could work (it doesn’t). Once again, the apocalypse is a metaphor: Buffy’s concerns aren’t the end of the world. It’s in the following episode that Riley comments, “When I saw you stop the world from, you know, ending, I just assumed that was a big week for you. It turns out I suddenly find myself needing to know the plural of apocalypse.”

The final three apocalypses get back to gut-wrenching seriousness and meaningful consequences. In “The Gift” (5X22), Buffy has to sacrifice herself (again) to save her sister and the world (again). Originally conceived as a series finale, when the show was picked up by the now defunct UPN Buffy had to come back to life, so her friends used magic to free her from whatever hell dimension in which she was trapped.

But having sacrificed herself to save the world, Buffy had been in heaven – and her friends had dragged her out. Season 6 deals relentlessly with these consequences, Buffy’s depression, and Willow’s addiction to magic; it ends with Willow, grief-stricken by the murder of her girlfriend Tara, planning to destroy the world herself (she doesn’t). It was a divisive, dark season of television but it can’t be argued that, after her resurrection, Buffy’s death was without emotional consequences.

Season seven took a different track, one which I will discuss further next year in relation to the forthcoming Buffy expanded universe novel Slayer by Kiersten White (2019). Needless to say, the proposed apocalypse is once again metaphorical and it’s not the end of the world but the structural inequalities that prevent Buffy and friends from fighting back that matter.

The comic book continuation of Buffy begins with the line: “The thing about changing the world… Once you do it, the world’s all different.” In Buffy, even saving the world has meaningful consequences. In Discovery, and others, the apocalypse threatens the status quo and has to be stopped so that things can remain the same. The apocalypses in Buffy, especially season seven, recognize that how the world is leads to the crises, the apocalypses that they face. It’s only by changing the system that we stop the cycle.

Alternative apocalypses

Buffy spin-off Angel largely avoided the possibility of an apocalypse, with a few exceptions. “Happy Anniversary” (2X13) deals with a man who tries to freeze time rather than allow his girlfriend to break up with him; a metaphor for the consequences of male entitlement. Throughout the series, however, the apocalypse is usually framed as the long-term project of main antagonists Wolfram and Hart, an evil multidimensional law firm. But once again, it’s a plot device to represent their lust for power and control: the apocalypse is the systematic power that needs fighting.

The attitude that the apocalypse itself is not what is important is also apparent elsewhere in recent science fiction. In Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014), the end of the world occurs because of a flu virus, but the novel is less concerned with the whys and wherefores than with the society that emerges from the ruins, and how it does so. The drama doesn’t come from the threat, but from the lives lived through that event.

Alternatively, you can side-line the end of the world completely. In the podcast Welcome to Night Vale the town of Night Vale seems to face total destruction nearly every other week, but typically only a few dozen citizens end up killed, taken, or vanish to an unknown fate in some other world. Every version of Douglas Adams’ Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy from the radio show in 1978 to the 2005 movie has begun with the demolition of the planet Earth to make way for a hyperspace bypass. This is, largely, incidental. The Earth was harmless, anyway. Well, mostly.