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Buffy The Vampire Slayer

Why "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" will be the next Star Trek

Saturday 2 August 2003, by Webmaster

JHM columnist Aaron Gordon Michael returns with an intriguing look at why Paramount’s "Star Trek" franchise is currently floundering while Joss Whedon’s "Buffy" is perhaps poised for a back-from-the-dead revival.

You know, back in the day, I was quite the little Trekkie, voraciously watching the reruns, attending a few conventions, wearing the pointy little ears, and eagerly dragging my unsuspecting (and uninterested) parents to see the films. This fascination with Starfleet was more intense than my other interests, and as I got older, I filled my time with Star Trek novels, Star Trek games ... even a few Star Trek Star Charts (which, looking back, is quite funny in itself: an idiot in the field of science studying an astrological chart of planets ... that don’t exist. Now you know why I write instead of being an engineer!)

This Trek love continued through the brilliant "Next Generation" television series, the ever-more-tepid "Original Cast" movies ... even through Sisko’s scenery chewing on "Deep Space Nine" and the waste of Kate Mulgrew’s phenomenal abilities on "Voyager." But, around the early nineties, Star Trek-as-obsession morphed into Star Trek-as-tradition, as I began tuning into the shows more out of rote than out of unbridled passion. This mindset change is partially due to personal growth. The awkward, geeky boy had been replaced by a confident, over-the-top adult ready for sex, drugs and rock and roll! What can I say? Ear-wearing dorks don’t get past the bouncer.

And yet, my own Trek into Sin is only part of the dimming of the Star Trek enterprise (yeah, THAT’S a theory! Star Trek the franchise is failing because some anonymous writer got laid. Maybe if more current Trek writers were getting some ...) I’m certainly not going to rehash what has been covered in the media ... but Star Trek has lost some of its energy as a franchise due to the diminishing quality of the scripts, an over-saturation of the market (both of things Star Trek and of things Sci-Fi), and a lack of innovation regarding the look-alike/interchangeable series. Plus, Star Trek had ceased being a fan-based cult a long time ago. With six television series (including the animated Trek), 10 films, countless games, and even more countless products, Star Trek is less a fledgling movement than a cash cow ... less about quality, more about profitability.

Now, I’m not going to beat Paramount Pictures down for trying to squeeze Trek for every dime its worth ... they are simply attempting to do their job, by making the most profit with the least amount of overhead (indeed, it sounds a lot like the contemporary Disney method). Instead, imagine ten years into the future. Where Trekkies are replaced by ... Scoobies worshiping at the altar of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. That’s right: Buffy The Vampire Slayer, already a cult hit, has the makings to become the next Star Trek phenomenon. (On the television series, Buffy and her demon-killing friends refer to themselves as the "Scooby Gang," or the "Scoobies." And, in a weird example of pop culture synergy, Sarah Michelle Gellar, the actress who portrays Buffy, also portrays Daphne Blake in the "Scooby Doo" movie franchise.)

Much like the original Star Trek series, Buffy The Vampire Slayer is an original before its time. Kirk and Spock didn’t truly find an audience until the show hit syndication in the 1970, and once it did, Star Trek became the primary model to build a science fiction series upon. Battlestar Galactica, V, and even Star Wars owe a huge debt to Gene Roddenberry’s yarn about a future utopia. In essence, the network audience wasn’t ready for this unique take on space fantasy ... but a few years later, legions of fans, who were catching the repeats locally, were eager for more.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer has seen the beginning of this trend. Rarely getting a sizeable audience on the small networks (WB, UPN) which aired it, Buffy has nonetheless built a huge fan base in repeats on the FX cable network, in addition to traditional syndication. Frequently over the past two seasons, the two-hour Buffy blocks on FX met or out-rated the new episodes airing on UPN. (I didn’t even tune in until midway through their sixth season ... and now, I’m hooked.) Plus, Buffy The Vampire Slayer has already been used as the archetype for a fantasy-based series. Dark Angel was Buffy-as-Brunette. Smallville is Buffy-as-Superman. Alias is Buffy-meets-Bond. Charmed is Buffy-With-Babes. And, much like the Trek knock-offs, most of these series will fade into Buffy’s background, resurfacing on the Sci-Fi Channel, or as a question in a game of Trivial Pursuit.

The original Star Trek became a phenomenon because of the fans. Trekkies moved Star Trek far beyond the realities depicted on the show, taking the basic themes and expanding them, writing fan fiction, creating uniforms from felt and dreams ... all the while organizing conventions to meet other members of the cult. Now, while Paramount may have overdone the amount of products currently licensed with the Star Trek name ... early on these licensees were inexpensive to obtain, rarely discussed, and frequently resulted in homegrown products.

Similarly, Buffy The Vampire Slayer is more than the sum of its television episodes. Don’t misunderstand me: 20th Century Fox has plenty of official merchandise available to scratch your Buffy itch (and they’re making plenty of cash off the Buffy license.) But there are now BuffyCons: literally a Star Trek convention featuring the Buffyverse. There are unofficial books about the series, and quite a few academic treatises about the effect of Buffy on pop culture. Despite the ratings (and the near-impossibility of classifying the show), Buffy The Vampire Slayer has arrived ... and more and more Scoobies are signing up daily.

Finally, Star Trek succeeded through "The Next Generation" because its creators found an ideal balance between art and commerce, thereby protecting the franchise from losing its luster. Too much of a good thing is still too much, and with each successive episode, each repetitive film, Trekkies have learned that mediocrity ... in abundance, becomes monotonous. With series creator Joss Whedon maintaining firm control over Buffy (and its spin-off, Angel), much like Gene Roddenberry did for Star Trek until his death, its unlikely that Buffy The Vampire Slayer will be tainted by the money masters at 20th Century Fox anytime soon.

So, the signs are there. An innovative show, building an audience in repeats, with fan clubs the world over, is poised to take the mantle from Star Trek and create a new version of that old phenomenon. However, if Buffy’s handlers don’t heed Star Trek’s lesson, 20th Century Fox may lose Buffy’s potential. For example, it’s extraordinarily wise that there isn’t a new Buffy spin-off this year. In fact, once Angel is off the air, Joss Whedon and 20th Century Fox should take a decade or so off, and just let the franchise cook in its own juices. Keeping fans waiting for new filmed material was a perfect fit for Trek; overloading fans with new episodes is what’s killing it.

Plus, Buffy The Vampire Slayer has an ace in the hole over Star Trek: Sarah Michelle Gellar. It’s easy to equate Roddenberry to Whedon, and series to series, but to compare William Shatner to Sarah Michelle Gellar isn’t balanced. William Shatner is great as Kirk ... because Shatner’s ticks, quirks, and general wackiness are part of our memory of the original, fun, campy Star Trek series. Sarah Michelle Gellar, on the other hand, is great as Buffy Sommers because Ms. Gellar is a phenomenal actress, conveying a three-dimensional person with each and every episode. Cardboard versus flesh and blood.

And since Gellar is pursuing movie work full time, the franchise may again be blessed: in ten years, should Sarah Michelle Gellar make good on her potential, building a film career that’s both profitable and artistic, the return to the role that made her a star should boost Buffy’s potential in ways that Shatner, funny though he is, couldn’t hope to duplicate with T.J. Hooker, or any of his other non-Trek work. (Not that I don’t like T.J. Hooker ... but it’s no Rescue 911.)

Trek is dead, rotting under the weight of its own excessive success. But in its wake is a little show just starting to build momentum towards Trek-like greatness. So, eager readers, its time to get in on the ground floor of the next big thing. See Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Even if I’m wrong, you’ll get to experience an exceedingly well-written, acted, produced and filmed work of art ... from a medium that rarely goes outside the box. And, if you’re an old school Trekkie, watching Buffy The Vampire Slayer will rekindle a certain geeky, manic energy inside. Space may be the final frontier, but the voyages of the new generation will take place with The Chosen One. The Slayer. Staking staleness ... one brilliant episode at a time.

See all you Scoobies at the convention!