The Complete Slayer: The Unofficial And Unauthorised Guide To Seven Seasons Of Buffy The Vampire Slayer by Keith Topping (book review).
I should point out two things from the start. This book, ‘The Complete Slayer: The Unofficial And Unauthorised Guide To Seven Seasons Of Buffy The Vampire Slayer’ by Keith Topping, is enormous 761 pages and is an update on the 2004 version released by Virgin. It’s also hard to believe ‘Buffy’ first came on the screens in 1997, 25 years ago and I’ve seen the complete series at least, by my reckoning, 4 times and the DVD version being the least censored version, so I should be on home territory as memories are stirred up.
There are some people out there who don’t read introductions, with books such as these, they offer some insight into the needs of a book. Author Keith Topping points out that when he started this book for Virgin there was no episode guides for ‘Buffy’ and two out by the time his book came out. However, this book isn’t a synopsis-driven book, although there is a brief one for each episode, but more a pointer at content filling in gaps that can make you look authoritative on trivia from the series. What then feels like an enormous book then becomes a surprisingly easy book to read, forcing you to slow down a little to let your head absorb all the information. It’s interesting to note how much of the fight scenes were cut by the BBC in the UK but surely, by now, most ‘Buffy’ fans will know this and have picked up the boxsets.
Picking out things to comment on is going to be difficult without missing anything. I will customary answer questions that don’t appear to be answered and query some errors and omissions. For instance, season one, episode 5: ‘Never Kiss A Boy On A First Date’, Topping references why when vampires are dusted, their clothes disintegrate but not their rings. I suspect if the budget had allowed it we would see their loose change and any other metal as well. A vampire would have to spontaneous combust at a very high temperature to melt metal. That would certainly exceed their budget and I suspect a lot of the ashing re-uses the effect than make new ones all the time,
Episode 7, ‘Angel’, has Joyce Summers saying the marks on her neck were caused by a barbecue fork, despite the fact that she doesn’t own one. Thinking further into the seasons when Giles explains how people in Sunnydale explain supernatural in ordinary terms could well make this the first example in the TV series.
I was amazed by how many continuity errors between scenes kept popping up and how I didn’t pay attention to them. I do think much of the time, we’re propelled by the story than nit-picking or slow-moing the scenes. Equally, American TV shows are produced at a rapid rate that the editors can only use what is in the can than go back for reshoots. In season 2, episode 18, ‘Halloween’, he asks how can vampires shave when they can’t see their reflection. I would say they’re dead, so why should they grow beards when their appearance mostly stays the same as when they were sired.
Topping notes in episode 8, ‘I Robot…You Jane’ that Buffy now has two different birthdays and that the school register lists that as her full name with no middle name. I tend to still waver over that. Would Joyce really call her daughter ‘Buffy’ and not Elizabeth’ from which its derived from? In terms of continuity, ‘Buffy’ was used throughout to avoid confusion but it wouldn’t have hurt to have use a few dialogue lines to point out she didn’t like being called her fully name.
In a couple episodes. Topping points out that Cordelia asks Buffy to do something so they don’t match in clothes or hairstyle which the latter ignores. I’m not too surprised at that. I mean, why would Buffy do something for Cordelia’s vanity when they clearly didn’t get along?
Some details are useful to catch, like episode 21, ‘What’s My Line Part 1’, where this is the first time the group refers to themselves as the Scoobie Gang.
The use of British swear words because the Americans won’t recognise them started with ‘Buffy’ although, as far as I can tell, rarely extends to other American TV series. Oddly, we for you Americans reading here, we rarely use ‘wanker’ in TV series over here. Probably the most significant time for ‘wanker’ came about in the regular version of the Channel 4 spelling/numbers show ‘Countdown’ in 1991 when it was the longest word in a letter choice! These days, if a particular rude word as the only choice it is, they do consider a resetting of the letters.
Episode 26, ‘Innocence’, does raise an interesting question that if vampires don’t breathe, how can they expel smoke from a cigarette. I think the answer to that is pretty straight forward. Vampires don’t need oxygen but air can fill their lungs and a diaphragm movement can empty them, so if it contains cigarette fumes, it will come back. At least it stops the actors having to hold their breaths. I suspect if there really were vampires, they would make their fortunes in TV and films.
Now Episode 27, ‘Phases’, raises a regular problem that Topping doesn’t really address properly throughout the episodes. Here he points out Buffy says the lunar month is 28 days not 25. Earlier, he also notes that Buffy’s school grades are average. You couldn’t excuse Giles or Willow if they got information wrong because they are both supposed to be super-smart and know their stuff. It’s far more likely for Buffy to make common mistakes. Whether this is the scriptwriters getting it right for Buffy or not is debatable, let alone having someone else correct or at least give the right information later.
With the Episode 43, ‘Gingerbread’, Topping presents the case for just how much censorship goes on Stateside, mostly caused by pressure groups which does raise questions on free speech as based on the American Constitution. I often wonder why no pressure groups ever rose versus them but we would probably have a similar situation over here and, as with Mary Whitehouse, would go away eventually. More scarily, it’s the list of famous authors books that aren’t allowed in the USA that shows its level of censorship and how more enlightened we are in the UK.
Towards the end of Season 3, Topping does a chapter ‘Demonising America’ which raises comparisons and oddities about Sunnydale compared to normal American towns. I mean, there’s a singular lack of people of colour and an absence of drug dealing although shootings at school still existed. That should make most of you think. It did me. I’ll throw my twopence in and say all the demons and such quietly disposed of the competition. I doubt if vampires would like their blood meal contaminated by drugs. The lack of people of colour could also be because they were wise enough to stay away. It’s a shame we don’t see the other hellmouths to see if a similar situation exists there. Something omitted and goes beyond ‘Buffy’ is we rarely hear of medical insurance in American TV series and films and they practically use our NHS model than how it really is over there. Then again, outside of some US dramas, we only see an idealised version of America.
There’s several mentions of Gavrok spider-crabs but no reference to ‘Doctor Who’s story ‘Delta And The Bannermen’ and Gavrok as played by Don Henderson. I did wonder originally if it was supposed to be Garrok, a Savage Land villain from ‘The X-Men’ but the spelling pointed the right direction. Any name that looks odd has to be sourced from elsewhere. When you start looking at details, there’s bound to be some that slip by but also heightens geeks like me now paying attention.
Topping does go on about missing bullet holes in Spike’s tee-shirt without thinking he might actually have two tee-shirts. He might not wash them but could rotate them.
With episode 66, ‘Hush’, Topping misses out the unintentional masturbation joke from Buffy when she mimes using Mr. Spikey to go on the attack.
Although I do remember a lot about this series, it might have been handy to have noted character absences and reappearances when they happen from time to time, more so as Topping stops short of spoilers in his brief synopsises but also omits characters leaving and against the information they give in the details. The arrival of Dawn for instance is totally missed.
Topping doesn’t make any comment about composer Thomas Wanker’s name. Granted its probably pronounced ‘Vanker’ but it did raise some eyebrows on our side of the pond.
Season 5 suffered two significant deaths, Joyce and Buffy Summers. I know Whedon had different plans for the Buffybot although it might have been interesting to see what would have haven’t had it been used to stop the portal and found it didn’t work. I’m not too surprised medical procedures with Joyce was wrong as this is a common problem with American shows and I certainly wouldn’t use them as a means to save lives.
Oh, the end of Season 5 also has two articles. One examines the characters as being outsiders which is pretty much there from season one, although oddly the geeks ended up being the troika villains in season 5. I know Willow is geeky with computer tech but her transition to witch did move her away from that. The other article devotes itself to looking over the series moving from Warner’s to UPN. From a UK perspective and only watching ‘Buffy’ on BBC2, I didn’t really see much difference.
Moving on to Season 6 and episode 106, ‘Life Serial’, I was surprised Topping didn’t spot a comparison, like I did at the time, of Buffy going to work or rather a demonstration of her actual strength to the time three of the original X-Men did a similar thing to raise air fare to go after Factor Three, stopped short simply because they didn’t have union cards. It isn’t though the X-Men weren’t referenced, more so as ‘Dark Willow’ was practically a re-enactment of Dark Phoenix’s demise.
With episode 109, ‘Smashed’, I doubt if Willow and Amy could play pool telepathically when it should be telekinetically. I should point out that the latter seasons in his book get more and more pages and I do detect a bit of fatigue with the mistakes, more grammatical and spelling, especially apostrophes, than information thankfully. This is a massive book to read, let alone write and edit.
I was surprised with episode 123, ‘Lessons’, that Topping didn’t recognise ‘Ms. Harkness’ as Agatha Harkness, former Franklin Richards’s nanny and witch from Marvel’s ‘Fantastic Four’. Granted he can’t be au fait with every detail but somethings should have triggered a look.
Frequently, there are puzzles on how Spike got to various houses in daylight hours. I have a vague memory of him using the sewers to get around and considering the various tunnel systems beneath Sunnydale, they have to be used as well. As to Spike and other vampires casting reflections, again, I suspect that’s invariably to do with the speed of filming. Our own 1999 series ‘Ultraviolet’ had its creator Joe Ahearne pointing out how much time was spent removing reflections in his series, including from eye reflections.
With episode 134, ‘Potential’, I’m surprised Topping didn’t recognise Xander’s comment of ‘No problemo’ as being a quote from ‘Terminator II’ than as streetspeak. Please be aware, although this could be seen as a criticism, it does show I’m paying attention as I read this book. Again, this is a massive undertaking in research and mistakes and omissions are bound to occur but you would have thought another read before reprinting would have been on the list of things to do.
Now we come to episode 137, ‘Get It Done’, the basis of my article a few years back that Buffy and all the Slayers are possessed by a demon, making them a succubus. Topping doesn’t identify them as that although its clear from his description that is what happened to the first Slayer. Possession does not necessarily mean the demon has conscious control but certainly contributes to their strength and ability to recover from their fights. Further into the information given is a reminder of how many potential Slayers are out there, any one of which would become ‘the one’ when Faith dies, not Buffy which shows a jump across Slayers. A unique situation. We’re never told how many Slayers there have been over the centuries but if a number of potential Slayers has always been waiting in the background, it does suggest their lives are always quite short. In episode 139, ‘Lies My Parents Told Me’, Spike reminding Robin Wood that as a vampire it was part of his job to kill Slayers and succeeded twice does firmly establish that this is more of an eternal battle.
After the 144 episodes, there’s a brief article looking at Buffy-based websites but no indication as to whether they are still going 25 years later.
As I’ve commented a couple times in this review, all books exploring the details of TV series are bound to miss odd things, let alone have errors creep in and I’ve only hit on the ones I recognised. The balance of these are smaller against the amount of accurate information. However, this is a third edition and although this is my first reading of it, you do have to wonder what other reviewers did when they read this book, assuming they just didn’t sample read. It isn’t like the old days where it would have been expensive to correct such things as the text is now stored digitally.
Some aspects of continuity errors definitely didn’t hit me when I watched the series. It has to be something totally stupid scientifically that would stop me in my tracks, more so as I’m paying attention to the story. Just because you spot something means you can change it although there is a good argument for better continuity guidance across the pond and it would be interesting to see how better more current TV series are.
If you’re a ‘Buffy’ fan then you should consider getting this book if you didn’t pull one of the earlier editions. If nothing else, it might stir you to watch the series again.
(pub: Telos, 2019. 761 page small enlarged paperback. Price:£24.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84583-126-4)
check out website: www.telos.co.uk