Doctor Who, Essays, Movies

A Slayer Reborn: Buffy and the Reboot Question

Every July weekend at San Diego Comic Con, the biggest geek showcase on the planet where all the major studios and productions roll up to drop exclusives and surprises, you always get one announcement which courts a level of controversy and/or deep analysis. This year it wasn’t even the debut of a trailer for the Jodie Whittaker-fronted, Chris Chibnall-era new series of Doctor Who—which is going to almost certainly lead to a Star Wars-esque online tirade from grown man children at the idea of a woman playing the Doctor. 2018 had another major female figure from popular culture waiting in the wings get people talking: Buffy, she of the vampire slaying.

More specifically, the fact that Joss Whedon is overseeing, though likely not directly show running, a modern reboot of his legendary 20th Century Fox series which remains one of the bastions of 90’s pop culture, female empowerment, and genre storytelling. Note the word here that is crucial: reboot. Not revival. Not continuation. A reboot.

Naturally, opinion has been divided online at the news, to say the least. Not only for the fact we are likely to see a new version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer but also that the title role of Buffy Summers, immortalised for a generation by Sarah Michelle Geller, will be played by a black actress. The intended show runner, Monica Owusu-Breen, worked with Whedon on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and is deemed to be the best fit for the material. Details that have been given include references to the show being ‘contemporary’ and ‘building on the mythology of the original series’. It also looks set to serve, as Whedon’s original show did, as a giant metaphor, in this case for ‘issues currently facing society’. That in itself is certainly different from how Whedon reflected the difficult teenage, growing up experience through a world of vampires, demons and slayers.

What interests me is not that Buffy is being rebooted, but quite what this means in context. As someone who only watched Buffy (and its spin off show Angel) around five years ago, I don’t consider myself part of its fandom. I didn’t grow up with it. It doesn’t mean much of anything to me, besides the fact I respect it as a well made, occasionally brilliant TV series. Honestly, from an outside perspective, I have my doubts about whether remaking Buffy will work, given how Whedon’s series was so personal to the pre-millennial, grunge generation who embraced it, and how much like most series made in the 1990’s it remains very much of its time. But I just do not know. None of us can say for certain. Maybe Whedon & Breen have a new approach which will chime with the climate and zeitgeist like the original show did. All that is to come.

Anyone who reads my blog or any of my writing, or listens to my podcast endeavours, likely knows that The X-Files is both my show and my fandom. Where many grew up with Buffy as their favourite show which meant the world to them, I had that experience with The X-Files. It too, across the 90’s, shaped popular culture, television and acutely reflected aspects of government, politics and Americana which touched a nerve. It had a broader scope than Buffy but both series struck a chord and stuck with people. The X-Files came out in 1993 and lasted a few seasons longer than Buffy, but both Whedon and Chris Carter’s shows ended roughly around the same era of television – between 2002 and 2004. They came to a close precisely at the point the TV landscape in America was changing forever.

For years, fans wondered what it would be like to see these shows revisited, and while Whedon carried on the Buffy saga in the comic-book world (quite successfully too, by all accounts) and flirted with spin-off shows for characters such as Giles (which sadly never came to be), the dream actually came true for The X-Files. Between 2016 and 2018, it returned for two revival series. It wasn’t rebooted but returned with original actors David Duchovny & Gillian Anderson, plus many supporting players, intact – plus with the same showrunner in Carter, and many of the same writers. Nobody was recast. Few new faces were brought in. The whole production, for better or worse, sought to recapture the tone and feel of the 1990’s heyday while tapping into the modern anxieties of the 21st century.

So the question is this… why did Fox, the same production company, revive The X-Files but are *rebooting* Buffy the Vampire Slayer?

We have to consider, in answering this question, two things: audiences and branding. The X-Files was not the only show to be ‘revived’ over the past year, as Twin Peaks came back for an unprecedented and wildly divisive third season under original show runners David Lynch & Mark Frost, after a break of over a quarter of a century. Like The X-Files, it did not recast anyone, had the same actors and writers, and continued the narratives in play which were left open ended at the climax of the movie conclusion, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. The audience who likely tuned in for Twin Peaks Season 3 almost certainly were those around during the original series or who have picked it up along the way, and much the same can be said for The X-Files. Would they have swept up new viewers? Some, but probably not many.

Now you can say the same about Buffy, in that a revival would absolutely gain huge viewing figures thanks to the original audience of fans, but the concept and branding of Buffy is much easier to launch as a reboot for a whole new generation than either the occult and eccentric Twin Peaks, or the more adult and niche The X-Files. While Buffy was always thematically and creatively accessible for an older generation, it is a show which both has the branding of a series which has resonated across popular culture for two decades *and* can be reimagined to appeal to the youthful, even teenage audiences who were not even born when Buffy began, and some even by the time it ended. Indeed, Fox are likely to gain more of a wider audience share by starting Buffy over than limiting themselves to bringing back a cast who are now middle-aged, and consequently could not reflect the same issues and metaphors as they did when they were in their twenties. They would pull in the original audience members who themselves are now almost middle aged, but would it really appeal to the generation after them?

While rebooting Twin Peaks would be almost impossible because of how quirky and precise the concept is, many have speculated that The X-Files could end up rebooted eventually. In the same way fans have broiled at the prospect of anyone else playing Buffy other than Geller, fans of The X-Files cannot conceive of a world where Duchovny isn’t Mulder or Anderson, particularly, isn’t Scully. The actors involved have become so personally associated with their characters–and some aspects of the fandom even struggle to separate the two at times–that the idea of a new Mulder or new Scully in a version of The X-Files geared towards audiences with a modern sensibility, and divested from continuity or canon, is considered anathema. There is, in many fans eyes, only *one* Mulder, only *one* Scully, and only *one* Buffy.

Cast your minds back fifteen years to the Star Trek franchise, however, and many people would have said the same about Captain Kirk and his loyal second in command Spock. Iconic characters who helped define the 60’s in the same manner Mulder, Scully & Buffy defined the 90’s in terms of storytelling pop culture, they *were* William Shatner and especially Leonard Nimoy. For decades. It took JJ Abrams’ movie in 2009, Star Trek, to show that Kirk & Spock could be reimagined without losing the essence of the characters or the original actors. Now, admittedly, Abrams cheated a little by having Chris Pine & Zachary Quinto’s incarnations serve as more of a direct impersonation rather than creating new versions of the characters, and his rebooted universe branched directly off the original, thereby satiating the continuity obsessives in Star Trek incensed by the idea of a new universe. Hardcore fans will never be entirely happy, but Abrams proved there was room for the old and the new.

Doctor Who is yet another franchise which essentially reboots itself between every five and ten years, certainly the modern incarnation which has ran since 2005. The rules are oddly different with Who given the actual concept has outlived and outgrown original creators Sydney Newman, C.E. Webber & Donald Wilson. When Russell T. Davies took over, he placed his own urban, earthy slant on the idea, before Steven Moffat replaced him and steered almost a decade of storytelling which mythologised two versions of the Doctor in different ways, broadening the universe. Chibnall is about to preside over the biggest ‘reboot’ of the franchise since 2005, introducing the first female Doctor and multiple companions, harking back if anything to the 60’s and the early days of the series. Yet, much like Trek’s reboot, Who still holds true to continuity. The Doctor may change, and the showrunning style may alter and evolve, but this is still the *same* character with the backstory in 2018 as he/she had in 1978.

Crucially, the series has never proven to be reliant on one actor in the role. Granted, fans have their favourites – Tom Baker, Peter Davison, David Tennant, to name three of the most popular – but Doctor Who has never lived or died on the presence of actors who *are* the Doctor, and no one else in between. Perhaps the very idea that the Doctor ‘regenerates’ every few years (once said actor chooses to move on, usually) thereby facilitates the show not being directly associated with the original actors, in perhaps the way Duchovny & Anderson are to The X-Files. Doctor Who can soft reboot every few years without the fear of fans refusing to watch the series because the actor has changed; indeed they’re more likely to boycott Doctor Who depending on who the show runner is, such is the unique show runner celebrity of the BBC’s series. It’s almost as a big a deal who’s in charge of Doctor Who than who plays the Doctor him/herself.

The keenest example of a reboot which does not hold to this need for continuity comes from the James Bond franchise, and 2006’s Casino Royale. While the series had never kept continuity between the various incarnations of Bond since Sean Connery’s original 1960’s (and 70’s and, err, 80’s) portrayal, it remained relatively consistent in terms of an escapist, over the top, stunt and gadget strewn tone from 1964 all the way through to 2002. It took a revisionist, hard edged, bolder take on Ian Fleming’s first Bond tome, with a grittier, colder 007 in Daniel Craig, to really transform what we considered Bond to be. Unlike Star Trek, which rebooted in glossier and more action packed fashion, or Doctor Who which did much the same on a smaller scale, Bond’s reboot was directly linked to the post-9/11 need for heroes to reflect the darkening sign of our times.

Much has been written about how Bond’s mid-2000’s reboot very much aped the Jason Bourne franchise, which revolutionised action cinema in the early 2000’s by stripping away the super heroics and getting down in the dirt of scrappy, grim, murky espionage. Nolan’s Batman undoubtedly took a cue from it, as in some ways did Favreau’s Iron Man before it launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which arguably has sent things spiralling the opposite way. Bond, over most of Craig’s tenure which will end in 2019, has avoided super villains with camp, earth-shattering schemes in favour of mercurial bad guys tainted by corruption, stock markets, land seizures or cyber terrorism. For the first time, even retroactively, it tried to cleve to some level of continuity between Craig’s films, humanised the character more so than any other incarnation, and deepened his relationships with the fixed, established parts of Bond’s world – Judi Dench’s M in particular.

One franchise which may end up facing the reboot dilemma over the next decade or more is the Indiana Jones series. Steven Spielberg has repeatedly refused to countenance making an Indiana Jones film without Harrison Ford in the iconic role – though he did you sense rather flippantly wonder if the role could end up being handed to a woman one day. Admittedly, it *is* hard to imagine anyone else but Ford as Indy, but people would have said the same about Connery as Bond in 1968. By the time Roger Moore cemented himself in the part, people knew Bond as a character was bigger than one actor.

While the Indy films aren’t exactly the same, and would likely suffer without their period 1930-1950’s setting, Spielberg and George Lucas embedded a level of Bond DNA into their take on 30’s adventure serials, and Indy is a big enough action hero in American popular culture to survive a reboot with a new actor, when Ford either is too physically incapable to play him, or passes on. Plus, as much as Spielberg doesn’t like the idea, Disney own Indiana Jones. The chances of them letting him rest, post-Ford, Spielberg and Lucas, are slim to none. One day, a reboot *will* happen. It will all depend on the formula as to whether it works.

This brings us circling back to the issue of Buffy, because the same very much is true about Breen’s version of Whedon’s show. There is one key point with reboots that fandoms, whatever they are, often forget: just because the show or film you love the most in the world gets rebooted, it doesn’t mean the original goes away.

Many Star Trek fans do not enjoy the ‘Kelvin timeline’ of the Abrams movies, and not even just the die-hard purists or continuity nerds. Tonally and texturally, some just prefer the more poised, reflective morality plays of the earlier series and some of the original movies (such as the environmentalist adventure of The Voyage Home). The presence, however, of Kirk and Spock played by new actors in a timeline which branches off the original, does not make the ‘Prime’ universe (as it’s referred to) invalid. Indeed, when Star Trek returned to TV in 2017 after a twelve year absence with CBS All Access’ Discovery, that show was set *in* the Prime timeline, not the Kelvin timeline. It borrows stylistically from the newer movies, evolving as it does for a modern audience, but it serves the canon of the earlier series as opposed to ignoring it.

If Buffy the Vampire Slayer is remade, it won’t be for my generation. The thirty/fortysomethings who grew up relating to Willow’s struggle to accept her sexuality, or Buffy’s tortured, angsty love triangle with Angel and Spike, or Xander’s crippling inability to find a girlfriend. There is no reason the rebooted Willow would not face a similar existential quandary but there is every chance she might be more directly part of the LGBTQ community. She could even be trans. Television of the 1990’s simply did not reflect these issues, not because they didn’t exist, but because they were not part of the cultural consciousness in the same way. If Buffy is played by a black character, the show could reasonably tap into all kinds of commentary on race and subjugation in a modern America being corrupted by regressive politics. The possibilities for Buffy as a social, and even political, piece of commentary—while still being about an empowering, kick ass young woman fighting monsters—are ripe.

Perhaps Whedon and Breen know this. Perhaps they have recognised the value in rebooting a franchise which can appeal to a demographic which is vastly different from the demographic who Buffy appealed to twenty years ago, in terms of the world they live in, their influences, heroes and dangers. Perhaps from a cynical point of view, Fox know they can capture viewers old *and* new by giving Buffy a renewed lease of life. It wouldn’t even be the first time this has happened, given Whedon turned the original, Kristy Swanson-starring 1992 Buffy movie into a TV series, punching up the teenage society commentary a notch in doing so. 

Revivals can tap into, with mixed success, the nostalgia of not letting go of characters *and* the actors you grew up admiring, plus the narratives you may have been attached to, in some cases, for decades. Reboots are something more. Reboots can be for your children or your children’s children, in the way those iconic characters and their shows or movies made your childhood’s, or said something to you as adults. Maybe it’s time to let go of our Buffy, our X-Files, our Star Trek, our Doctor Who, our Bond, even our Indy, and give it to the next generation.

Maybe, one day, they can then do the same.

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