Thursday, 3 October 2013

FEATURE: Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Some Assembly Required

Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Cordelia has discovered just what the Scooby Gang get up to in the library and finds herself increasingly involved. Also, she's crushing on Angel who is crushing on Buffy who is also crushing on Angel but no one's really doing anything about it.

So far in my Buffy posts, I've been following a fairly standard formula; watch the episode, talk about what I like about it, go for some brief analysis if anything interesting crops up. This is great, and I'm really enjoying it, but this week is going to be a little different for two reasons. 1). Some Assembly Required isn't all that great as episodes go and I think I'd run out of stuff to talk about quite quickly and 2). It's an homage to one of my favourite novels of all time and that alone means I get to do some nice intertextual comparison here. 

Oh and 3) (sorry, a bit Spanish Inquisition of me), there just happened to be an X-Files episode dealing with similar themes and also based on Frankenstein that same year, airing just two months after Some Assembly Required, called The Post-Modern Prometheus. So in this post, I'm basically going to be looking at how two genre shows approach the Frankenstein story and the way in which they interpret the novel, but also other adaptations that have gone before.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a seminal piece of work, kickstarting the science fiction genre way back in 1818 and is now widely considered to be a critical darling. If you haven't read it, please do. It's the perfect book for dreary autumnal evenings. Boris Karloff may be the most iconic image of the creature (not Frankenstein, that's the doctor and yes this totally matters) but he appears, as does the mad scientist Dr Frankenstein (not all that mad in the book, just proud and lacking in common sense), in many incarnations across various art forms, particularly film and television. 

Buffy the Vampire Slayer will tackle the Frankenstein story several times over the course of its seven season run, particularly in the fourth season when monstrous creation Adam takes over from his creators and nearly fulfils Victor Frankenstein's fear of a race of monsters, but also in Warren's creation of his girlfriend April and the Buffy bot. But we get ahead of ourselves. Whedon first tackles it in Some Assembly Required, in which two science nerds attempt to create the perfect woman for a deceased, and now reanimated, student. In The X-Files, Mulder and Scully are called to investigate the mysterious impregnation of a woman who claims to have been knocked up by The Great Mutato, a character in her 18 year old son's comic book.

Both shows treat their Frankenstein references in very different ways, exploring separate points of the narrative and themes of the novel. The results are... interesting. For Buffy, Some Assembly Required takes the moment in which the creature commissions Frankenstein to create a female companion for him who could share his isolation from the world. Daryl Epps is the version of the creature, reconstructed and reanimated by his distraught brother Chris, who is the instructed to piece together female students for his companion. 

The importance of fraternity is one of the key themes in Frankenstein and is key to the way in which the female companion episode plays out. After killing Victor's brother, the creature tells him his story (which we will return to in The X-Files) and then begs him to create a companion. Like Chris, Victor initially complies before destroying the female, an act which results in the creature declaring outright war upon Victor, later killing both his creator's wife and best friend. Buffy deconstructs this idea by having the creature as the brother of the creator. Here, Chris is not bound by the duty of creator to created, but by a fraternal bond. Whereas the creature is consistently shunned by Victor, Daryl is embraced by Chris and the conflict that arises between them stems directly from this sense of duty. It is one that Chris and Victor both struggle against, but thanks to Buffy and the gang, Chris is allowed his redemption as Daryl must perish.

In The Post-Modern Prometheus (a wonderful play on Frankenstein's subtitle, The Modern Prometheus), The X-Files takes a completely meta-fictional approach to the material; it is shot entirely in black and white with a superb classic Universal horror-themed score by Mark Snow. There's a mad scientist called Polidori (a nod to Byron's doctor who was present on the night on which Frankenstein was conceived during a competition between Polidori, Byron and the Shelleys). It's more of an homage to James Whale's Frankenstein from 1931 than Shelley's original text, but as a result, it still has a fair amount to tie it back to the novel. Particularly, it explores the moment in which the creature is taken in by a blind old man who, oblivious to his looks, teaches him a range of things, including the idea of understanding. Then upon the return of the old man's family, the creature is hounded away, much like Mutato.


The main theme is the idea of understanding and conversely, the rejection of the unfamiliar. This is best represented in the actions of the population in the unnamed town who actively pursue the Great Mutato, not from a lack of understanding or education, but from a willingness to pre-judge, to point, laugh and stare. In short, to actively choose not to understand the unfamiliar. In this respect, The X-Files is particularly vicious; the mob are fed on Jerry Springer and other such reality TV shows where being judgemental is par for the course. When faced with the creature, they are actively prepared to go into an attack, fuelled by Dr Polidori's framing of the creature for the murder of his father. Therefore, like the mob in Frankenstein, they rush to drive the Great Mutato out of their town, without really understanding why he did what he did.

Whilst The X-Files deals much better with the themes that arise from the use of the Frankenstein narrative, it also remains problematic; Mutato is essentially date-raping these women and, after an admittedly eloquent tale, he is sympathised with and rewarded with a visit to see his hero Cher. For a show that makes a big deal about women not in control of their bodies and the subsequent reproduction (the 'wrong' reproduction being a key theme in Frankenstein incidentally), it's odd that there is no reprimand for Mutato. However, Buffy tackles the inherent misogyny in Chris, Eric and Daryl's decision to create their 'perfect woman' based entirely on objectification. This is apparent most in Eric's locker in which a woman composed entirely from magazine pictures. Buffy outwardly criticises their actions several times, vehemently so, on these grounds. 

The one theme that both episodes explore successfully is that of isolation, the loneliness the respective creatures feel as a result of their appearance. For Daryl in Buffy, it is clearest in a scene in which he watches his former Sunnydale football teammates from underneath the bleachers. The haunting music perfectly scores the scene and, whilst not justifying his actions, serves to demonstrate his desire for a companion. For Mutato, it is his eloquent speech to the mob about his origin and upbringing, a direct reference back to the intelligence of Shelley's creature; he learns compassion from Cher's role in Mask while the creature learns of human nature from Milton's Paradise Lost, amongst others. 

The two characters of Daryl and Mutato get very different endings, each underscoring their respective episodes' key themes. Daryl dies in the fire that consumes his companion, unable to live with the thought of being the only one of his kind. Narratively, he is punished for his actions in both forcing his brother to nearly kill for him. For Mutato, he inspires a level of understanding that ensures his safety, and the safety of his offspring, in his town. He also gets to go to a Cher concert, thus kicking off one of the best endings to an X-Files episode ever; Mulder and Scully dance. What is not to love? Seriously, I defy anyone to watch that ending without a big grin on their face.

And so to conclude. It is inevitable that I must talk about the quality of the two episodes discussed here. Some Assembly Required is one of the poorest Buffy episodes, reaching too high for a concept that it never quite tackles very well. It's handled much better when Buffy is a more mature show and has found its place a bit more. The Post-Modern Prometheus, on the other hand, is a joy from start to finish, worth it for the range of Gillian Anderson's cynical facial expressions alone. No one does wary dismissal in quite the same way. If you haven't seen it, I suggest a watch, even if you've never seen an X-Files episode before. Trust me, no prior knowledge is required.

Right, I must now try and get Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves out of my head.

Next Time: School Hard (SPIKE!)

Quote of the Week: Buffy on gender roles - "I'm an old-fashioned gal. I was raised to believe that men dig up the corpses and women have the babies."

- Becky

You can read Becky's look at the Season Two opener here.

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