00:00 – 15:00
It has been two weeks since the mythically important episode “Angel” aired. We both liked that one a lot, you and me. Any episode that followed would suffer in the comparison. Case in point: “I, Robot . . . You Jane.”
I mean, my issues with this episode begin with the title, a bizarre mashup of Asimov and Tarzan. But, more on this later. Let’s set the stage with our personal Wayback Machine, which we usually keep hidden away in the Sunnydale High School library.
On Monday, April 28, 1997, Bill Clinton, Sir John Major and Pope John Paul II were still in positions of power. I believe they had a standing Thursday night poker game as well.
“Hypnotize,” by The Notorious B.I.G. knocked Puff Daddy & Mase out of the #1 spot on the US music charts. R. Kelly was still believing he could fly in the UK.
The day before, on Sunday, April 27, Andrew Cunanan began a murder spree that wouldn’t end until July, with the death of Gianni Versace.
The previous Friday, April 25, a couple of people flocked to the movie theater to see the premiere of Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion. John Grisham’s The Partner still reigns over the NYT bestsellers list.
Just when we were hearing that “Dead right, if we head right, Biggie there every night,” we got to experience “I, Robot . . . You Jane” for the very first time.
Okay, not “we,” because you and I didn’t watch this series until it was off the air. That’s the way we used to roll. But other would-be fans of the show watched it that night.
Now that we’re in a 1997 frame of mind, let’s begin our annotated synopsis of the episode.
The teaser is set in the year 1418, in Cortona, Italy, and it stars none of the actors or characters we’ve already met.
The purpose of the teaser is to introduce the demon Moloch, who insists upon the undying love of his followers just before killing them. A group of Italian priests form what’s known as a Circle of Kayless to trap Moloch within the pages of a book. Surely, there’s no way that a demon from the Dark Ages could escape this sort of trap five hundred years or so later, could he?
I mean, who actually reads old books?
Librarians do, I believe. Especially librarians with a particular interest in rare and old books. Maybe even more especially librarians who also moonlight as the Watcher of the Chosen One, the so-called Vampire Slayer.
Flashforward to 1997, in the Sunnydale High School library, and Buffy Summers, high school sophomore and Vampire Slayer, opens the box which contains the Moloch book. Rupert Giles, librarian/Watcher, is there, along with Giles’s potential love interest, Ms. Jenny Calendar.
Willow Rosenberg, and a few other students, are working on a huge project, scanning these old volumes into the school’s computer system. The Moloch book becomes a part of the “Willow” pile being scanned.
Just a brief aside. Moloch—or Molech—is mentioned several times in the Bible. The people of Israel were forbidden to worship this ancient god, who required the ritual sacrifice of children. Many biblical scholars think that Moloch was a Canaanite fire god.
Jenny Calendar gives Giles a hard time about being woefully behind-the-times. Giles has what I consider to be a healthy aversion to all things computer related. Okay, I’ll admit that I’ve embraced many of the things about computers that make my life easier on a day-to-day basis. But I’m a lot like Giles. Slow to adopt new technology.
Giles refers to the computer as an “idiot box.” Ms. Calendar corrects him, saying that the idiot box is television; computers are the “good” box. I’m not convinced that Giles was incorrect about this either. Maybe it’s time that the title was passed on. All hail the computer in its myriad forms, be it desktop, handheld device or watch. All hail the new idiot box.
Ever the overachiever, Willow stays late to finish scanning in some books. When the Moloch book is scanned, the script vanishes from the pages. Willow doesn’t notice. After Willow leaves the library, the following question appears on her computer screen:
WHERE AM I?
End of teaser.
Here’s what I think about this setup. It’s just okay to me. The flashback was a bit more elaborate than was necessary, I think. I get it, though. It was necessary to introduce Moloch as a formidable demon who deserves to be feared and reviled, because we’re going to turn him into something even more ridiculous just a few years before the turn of the twenty-first century. Even the first time I watched this episode, I understood the implication that the imprisoned Moloch was somehow released into the computer system when Willow scanned the book. This realization filled me more with dread than anticipation.
We’ve seen evil computer stories before, haven’t we? Treacherous androids in Alien and Blade Runner, the HAL-9000 in 2001: a Space Odyssey, assorted Trek episodes and plenty of other science-fiction movies and television series that you’re probably thinking about, right at this moment.
A friend once told me that the appearance of robots in Buffy was somehow hard to accept as real, even within the rules already established for the fictional universe. I understand what they meant. We’ve accepted that supernatural creatures such as vampires, witches, demons and even giant praying mantises exist in proximity to the Hellmouth in Sunnydale, California. The introduction of science-fiction elements such as robots and demon-possessed computers requires an even higher level of suspension of disbelief. The fictive dream of a vampire-infested town and its various apocalypses is somehow shaken at its foundations.
Vampires and demons: Yes.
Robots, Cyborgs and Evil Computers: No.
I felt the same way when the original Star Trek introduced seances and Jack-the-Ripper demons and pseudoscience such as ESP and telekinesis. There is a definite dividing line between the genres of science-fiction and supernatural horror. Joss Whedon would continue to dip our toes beyond that line throughout the series, with some mixed results.
I’m not saying that each genre can’t have elements of the other. Frankenstein’s monster was brought to life during a science experiment, after all. It’s just difficult to pull off successfully.
Cue the wolf howl, the horror movie organ sound, and the rocking Nerf Herder theme song, while we watch the opening credits sequence.
Act I opens in a hallway at Sunnydale High School. Buffy approaches her friend Willow. Buffy says she tried to call Willow—like, a million times—the night before, and Willow never answered. Perennial wallflower and introvert Willow isn’t allowed to be un-reachable by phone. That’s out of character.
Willow explains that she was busy . . . talking to someone. Buffy applies just enough pressure to get Willow to spill her secrets. Her new “friend” doesn’t go to their school, his name is Malcolm, and, no, they haven’t kissed yet. She met him after the scanning project they completed in the library last week.
Buffy says, “You are a thing of evil for not telling me this right away.”
Willow responds, “Well, I wasn’t sure there was anything to tell. But last night, oh! We talked all night. It was amazing. He’s so smart, Buffy, and he’s romantic, and we agree about everything.”
“What’s he look like?” Buffy asks.
“I don’t know,” Willow says. End of scene.
You and I are more sophisticated about things such as online relationships these days. Plus, we’ve heard of catfishing, which is what Moloch/Malcolm is doing to Willow. Buffy, however, is confused as to what’s going on with Willow.
Plus, the Spike Lee movie Malcolm X was released in 1992. I’m willing to bet there was a reference to that movie in the original script that was wisely excised. I can almost hear Buffy saying, “Well, did his ancestors land on Plymouth Rock, or did Plymouth Rock land on them?” Something of that nature, perhaps written by someone with a better college degree than my own. Someone else in the writers room would suggest that the inclusion of the line would make it seem that they were trying to demonize Malcolm X. Hence, the wise edit.
We’re not going to be able to avoid at least one scene in a computer lab, in this episode about an evil computer. Two Sunnydale students we’ve never seen before are there. They are Fritz and Dave. I’ve never seen Jamison Ryan, the actor who plays Fritz Siegel, in anything else. Chad Lindberg plays David Kirby, and I recognize him from his role as Ash on Supernatural, as well as many other guest-spots on other series.
Ash—I mean Dave—is talking to his monitor as Willow and Buffy enter the computer room. Nothing weird about that in an episode about demon-infested computer systems.
Buffy and Willow continue the conversation begun in the hall. The gist of it is that Buffy is trying to tell Willow to be wary of romantic partners she hasn’t met or seen yet. Moloch hears all of this talk and decides that Buffy is a threat. The demon sends Buffy’s school record to Fritz’s computer in the lab and gives the student orders to WATCH HER.
I’m not sure why Fritz Siegel is willing—even eager—to take commands from his computer, but it seems to have been established that Moloch is a charismatic charmer. Something we really haven’t seen firsthand.
“His name is Malcolm Black,” Willow says. “He’s eighteen. He lives in Elmwood, which is about eighty miles from here, and he likes me!”
Jenny Calendar has already established herself as a “cool” teacher, because she allowed Buffy to hang out, for a moment, in a class she wasn’t taking in order to finish her conversation with Willow. Jenny approaches Fritz and indicates some papers in her hands. She points out that Fritz and Dave are logging a “scary” amount of computer time.
“New project,” Fritz explains.
“Ooh,” gushes Ms. Calendar, “will I be excited?”
“You’ll die,” Fritz says.
Come on, now. This would probably be interpreted as a threat anywhere in the US, where mass murders have become commonplace. In Sunnydale, the fictional murder capital of the world, this threat isn’t even clever or remotely veiled. Obviously, Fritz and Dave are already in league with Moloch.
We cut to the Sunnydale High quad, where Xander does the whole Guess-Who bit, covering Willow’s eyes. He wants to know if she’s coming to the Bronze tonight. Willow smiles and says she’s going to call it an early night.
“Malcolm, right?” Xander says. “Yeah, I heard.”
Xander continues to try to be witty for a moment longer before Willow says goodbye and leaves. Buffy arrives and joins Xander in watching their friend walk away.
“She certainly looks perky,” Buffy says.
“Yeah,” Xander agrees. “Color in the cheeks. Bounce in the step. I don’t like it. It’s not healthy.”
He turns to Buffy. “So, are you going to the Bronze tonight? Oh, probably not. You probably have some vampire slaying or some lame endeavor like that, don’t you? Everyone deserts me.”
Buffy says, “Check out the jealous man.”
Xander points out that he’s not interested in Willow like that, which seems to have been true up to this point. He is, however, troubled by Willow’s sudden obsession with this unknown person. He and Buffy discuss this at some length, never using the term catfishing, because it didn’t exist in 1997.
Both Xander and Buffy seem to be concerned about real-world threats during this discussion. Never once is the threat considered to be of supernatural origin.
Meanwhile, back in the computer lab, Fritz is repeating the phrase “I’m jacked in,” as if he’s in a trance, while carving the letter “M” into his arm.
The next day, Willow is late for school. She tells Buffy she overslept because she was talking to Malcolm. Buffy says that this isn’t like Willow, like at all, and Willow gets defensive. She says that Malcolm told her that Buffy wouldn’t understand their relationship.
Buffy goes to computer geek— I mean, “genius” —David Kirby, of the suddenly ubiquitous duo Fritz & Dave, and asks him questions about tracking the source of an email. Dave seems excited to help at first, until Buffy mentions Willow’s boyfriend Malcolm.
Dave suddenly gets angry and says, “Leave Willow alone,” which leads Buffy to believe that Dave might be the mysterious “Malcolm.” This is a somewhat logical conclusion, even though you’d think that Buffy’s Slayer Sense would be a little more accurate.
Buffy heads to the library to discuss this with Rupert Giles.
“I’m telling you, something is going on,” Buffy says. “It’s not just Willow. Dave, Fritz—they’re all wicked jumpy.”
We’re at the 15-minute mark, and still in Act I. Join me next time for Part 2 of “I, Robot . . . You Jane,” and we’ll pick up our discussion from here.
Will this episode get better? I’m not promising you that, but I will tell you that it gets a bit weirder. How’s that for a teaser?
2 thoughts on “\m/15-Minute Hellmouth\m/: Buffy the Vampire Slayer DeepWatch: Season 1, Episode 8: “I, Robot . . . You Jane” (airdate: Monday, April 28, 1997): Part 1 of 3”
Tend to agree with your early assessment of this article. ‘Buffy the VAMPIRE Slayer’ specifies vampires, but how boring would that have been week in and week out? But supernatural is a, forgive me, NATURAL expansion. This sci-fi/occult mashup could have come in much later after all the usual suspects had been addressed, but Episode 8? Reminiscent of ‘Battlestar Galactica’ (original); we all knew they were in trouble when Episode 3 was a remake of ‘Shane’ in space. Nice start! I’ll be interested in reading your final conclusions.
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Just to clarify: I never minded the inclusion of other supernatural elements in BTVS, such as witches or giant snake demons. You’re correct in that just vampires week after week would have gotten tedious. It’s the pseudo-technology things such as robots, cyborgs and the like that throw me a bit for a loop. Similarly, I would have objected to the sudden injection of supernatural elements in FIREFLY. I guess I’m saying I like my genres separate but equal. As always, thank you for reading and commenting.
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