Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Buffy Retrospective: "Nightmares" & "Out of Mind, Out of Sight"

These two episodes have something in common that makes them somewhat unique in relation to the structure of other storylines. They both feature a real-life problem (child abuse/being ignored) that results in a supernatural occurrance (nightmares becoming reality/invisibility).

There was a tendency in Season One for the writers to hit us over the head with the real world message they were trying to convey. Their technique, thankfully, grew more subtle as time went on, but these particular episodes differ from most others because they goes beyond mere metaphor. "Nightmares" is particularly after school special-esque and I must report that it is one of my least favourite episodes of the series. However, I am a fan of "Out of Mind, Out of Sight".

I'm left wondering, "Why does "Out of Mind, Out of Sight" work for me while "Nightmares" does not?"

"Out of Mind" does get off to a bit of a lead given that Clea Duvall easily wins the award for "Best Guest Star" of the season, but there are other factors at play.

It's a nightmare come true

Putting something as intangible as a dreamscape on film is a challenge. It's something the folks at Buffy did a lot, particularly in earlier seasons when Buffy's semi-prophetic dreams were more frequently used as a plot device. Sometimes the dreams were quite vivid (see "Surprise" and "Graduation Day") while in earlier episodes they were more of a collection of images (see "Welcome to the Hellmouth"). It would be easy to say "Nightmares" doesn't work because it welcomes comparisons to "Restless", which is one of the best episodes of the entire series (if not one of the best episodes of television generally), but even without considering how amazing "Restless" is, the dreamscape in "Nightmares" is just poorly conveyed. What always stands out for me is the way in which the high school was decorated when Xander follows the chocolate bar trail and is attacked by the clown. To me it just looks like they hung up a bunch of white shower curtains (and perhaps they did), but for a show that was always used the resources they had to produce something of a certain standard, I found this and other aspects of "Nightmares" to come off as low-budget and rushed. In the same vein, I was never pleased with the Ugly Man's make-up or the special effects in the episode, particularly the vortex-like effect when the cemetery appears in the parking lot at the high school.

A lack of exposition

In most supernatural/sci-fi stories there is inevitably a scene in which somebody (in Buffy's case, usually Giles) explains what is going on and how they're going to fix it. The explanation of how Billy's coma results in everyone else's nightmares becoming real is incredibly vague while the explanation for Marcie turning invisible seems more feasible somehow. The appearance of the astral body of somebody who is in a coma is not a new concept, so I can accept that aspect of it, but that only explains why Buffy can see Billy around Sunnydale High when his earthly body is in the hospital. We are not provided with a satisfactory explanation as to why or how Billy was able to bring everyone's nightmares to the waking world.

In conclusion

The endsings of these two episodes provide an interesting contrast. "Out of Mind" features another cheesy supernatural ending (see "Witch" and "I Robot, You Jane"). I'm not a fan of this sort of ending to Buffy episodes. What I do appreciate is that this is the first suggestion of the U.S. government's awareness of paranormal activity and using it to their advantage. Season 4 and now Season 8 have extended this aspect of the Buffyverse.

Meanwhile, "Nightmares" has an after school special ending to go along with the rest of the episode (at least it's internally consistent). "Remember kids, if somebody is hurting you, tell your parent or a Vampire Slayer you trust."

Sunnydale High Faculty Death Count: 2 [1 attempted (Ms. Miller)]

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