Crisis on N Earths: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

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There are a handful of shows pointed to as the beginning of a shift in American television, and especially science fiction and fantasy, from being mostly or entirely episodic to the “arc” structure ubiquitous today. Lost is often cited, and certainly coincides with the point at which long-running plots became ubiquitous. At the other end of the 90s, Twin Peaks is sometimes credited, but that misses that Twin Peaks was pitched and structured as a prime time soap opera, which is to say as part of a genre in which such plotting was a long-established element. Where explicit science fiction is concerned, Babylon 5 is also frequently pointed to. But it and Lost share the same counter-indicator: they aren’t actually structured much like most modern serialized television. Neither is Twin Peaks, for that matter.

Twin Peaks is, like most soap operas and, for that matter, superhero comics, a true serial: a sequence of overlapping stories that don’t collectively move to a shared end so much as coming to a stop with cancellation. Babylon 5 is structured as a single story, with its own arc, containing multiple smaller stories, including the individual episodes. (An overarching story which was, by the end, unrecognizable as the originally planned story, but an overarching story nonetheless.) Lost is an attempt to achieve the latter, or at least the appearance of the latter, while actually doing the former. None of these shows share the structure on display in most modern, serialized science fiction and fantasy television, in which most or all episodes in a given season follow contain some reference to an ongoing, overarching story; some episodes advance that story significantly; and the season finale concludes the story, with the next season starting a new story where the first left off. We’ve seen where that structure really arrives on American television, with Sailor Moon; what we have not seen is where it entered the mainstream.

Until now. In 1998, Buffy the Vampire Slayer aired the end of the second season and beginning of the third, arguably its strongest run of episodes, with only the fifth season really challenging them. It was a huge hit for the still quite young WB network, and, for better (post-2005 Doctor Who) or worse (TVTropes), had a profound influence on television and how we talk about television in the early 21st century.

And it shows extremely clear similarities to Sailor Moon: a blonde teen girl, the titular Buffy, who is chosen to inherit the power to fight evil, gathers a group of friends who aide her, explicitly cites their friendship as the reason for her success, and frequently faces monsters as metaphors for common teen problems, all structured as season-long arcs peppered with monster-of-the-week standalones. There does not appear to be any evidence that Joss Whedon ever actually saw Sailor Moon, and it is almost certainly a coincidence that Firefly also shows strong similarities to anime that aired on American television around the time it would have been in initial development, namely Outlaw Star and Cowboy Bebop. Nonetheless, the similarity stands; in ideaspace, Sailor Moon and Buffy have a lengthy border.

The ending of the second season is a prime example of the Buffy/Sailor Moon approach in action. Angel, Buffy’s vampiric boyfriend, has struggled all season to retain his morality, and the whole cast has had to deal with elements from his evil past returning to haunt them. Then Buffy sleeps with him; diegetically, this causes him the “moment of perfect happiness” that breaks the curse that restored his soul to his body, causing him to revert to the soulless, evil vampire that he was. Extradiegetically, however, this is fairly obviously the old story of a teen girl thinking she’s fallen in love with an older man, who turns abusive the moment he’s successfully gotten her into bed. It’s exactly the kind of thing Sailor Moon did with, for example, an evil gym that sucks the life-force from the young girls who obsessively work out there.

The key thing is that this structure works. Using the fantastic to reify genuine emotional realities is long-established in the genre. Meanwhile, the season-long arc peppered with standalones has the increased room for complex plotting and characterization that a full season affords over a single episode, without committing an entire season’s worth of episodes to furthering one story. On top of that, because every season concludes with the climax to an ongoing story, any season can more or less function as the last; unlike Babylon 5, Buffy never had to scramble to deal with possibly being cut short by the network declining to pick it up for another season. (Indeed, it had the opposite problem: it wasn’t picked up after the fifth season, brought the show to a satisfying and extremely final conclusion, and then got picked up for two more seasons on another network.)

It is precisely this structure that the DCAU would eventually pick up, adopting it for Justice League and even more so Justice League Unlimited. But a more direct result looms closer. On the strength of shows like Buffy and Dawson’s Creek, the WB was developing, and deliberately courting, a reputation as a “young people’s network.” Buffy demonstrated that a high-school superhero was a draw, and the WB wanted more. And where better to turn for superheroes than their own superhero “universe”? The decision to have a show about Batman in high school descended from on high, an instruction from the network to the producers of The New Batman Adventures and Superman: The Animated Series. TNBA would end, and the young Batman show would take its place.

But as we already observed, the atmosphere of the 90s, the grayness of near-apocalypse, and the darkness of Batman: The Animated Series, made it natural for any such show to incorporate cyberpunk. This show couldn’t be young Bruce Wayne; we’d already seen him in Mask of the Phantasm. It had to be someone new: someone different, with new villains, and a futuristic setting that made Gotham into the Dark City, which it always basically was anyway. This show wouldn’t reach back into Batman’s past, but into his future, past the point at which he could no longer continue. By extension, it would be someone who could face, and do, what the familiar Batman could not. It would be the Batman beyond Batman.

In less than a year, and less than 20 chapters, Batman Beyond begins.

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