Pod Bay One

Apocalypse, yawn

Fans of modern science fiction may find themselves wondering what the plural of “apocalypse” is (it’s “apocalypses”). Is there any way to raise the stakes without losing the heart?

Written by Matthew Lloyd on 13 December 2018

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.