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.
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.