Pod Bay One

Kiersten White, Slayer (2019)

New Young Adult Buffy the Vampire Slayer spin-off Slayer, by Kiersten White, is fine. But it leaves this Buffy fan wondering whether that universe needed expanding.

Written by Matthew Lloyd on 17 January 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.