Buffy The Vampire Slayer: I Robot, You Jane

So far away and yet so near. The problem with depicting the future on TV is that, 99.99999% of the time, it never turns out that way. Take the short-lived Space: 1999, the mid-1970s ITV rival to Doctor Who. 1999 itself was far less dramatic – the moon was never catapulted across space in the wake of a nuclear disaster. And come to think of it, no one walked around in drab, grey jumpsuits with big, bouffant hair. So many of the sci-fi classics made the mistake of thinking that the future is overpowered by the jumpsuit and the bouffant hairdo – a terrifying combination.

And let's not forget computers – great big clunky pieces of metal that would require the combined mights of Geoff Capes, Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks to ferry from one place to another. TV programmes also assumed that computers could talk to people in the form of a giant holographic face. If you remember The Space Sentinels, a cartoon from around 1977, you'll know the sort of thing I mean.

20 years later, Buffy The Vampire Slayer took the techno age by the scruff of the neck and plonked it in the context of a modern-day thriller. Looking at it now, again, in some respects, the depiction of computers in I Robot You Jane is so far away it might as well be broadcast from another galaxy. The computers themselves are clunky and obsolete – you can imagine today's “jacked in” kids hunched over their pocket-sized gizmos, watching this episode and chortling at the carbon dated technology. The “jacked in” phrase is also laughably quaint, as are the two stereotypical cyber geeks Dave and Fritz (the latter could pass for the lead in Meat Loaf: The Junior Years).

On the other side of the coin, I Robot You Jane is so near to today with its depiction of slavish dependence on technology, it's scary – well, scarier than Malcolm The Robot, any road. The episode contains many references to today's technological habits, things that we take for granted such as online dating, hacking, computerised books (Kindles), not to mention the darker aspects of technology such as unknown identities, crime, cyber bullying and even cyber-influenced suicide. Given that the technological age was still in its relative infancy when this episode was made in 1997, I Robot You Jane is, in many respects, ahead of its time.

Apparently, I Robot You Jane is not one of the best loved Buffy episodes. In fact, it's regarded by a sizeable amount of Buffy fans as a stinker. Which is odd, given that there are justifiable clunkers around the corner which I think are far more offensive (such as Reptile Boy or Bad Eggs). Admittedly, the Monster Of The Week isn't much cop. And I suppose it's the corny old cliché of an evil devil trapped in a computer that clinches the deal for some. Fair do's, the basic premise of I Robot You Jane is also a bit old hat, some 16 years later. An evil horned monster thing called Moloch is trapped in a book by a group of monks in 1418 Italy – inevitably, when the book gets dug up centuries later, it's scanned by an unassuming Willow, trapping the devil in the computer. Cue Moloch unleashing hell from the confines of the idiot box – which includes making a move on Ms Rosenberg.

Finally, an episode that revolves around Willow. To be honest, the series so far has left the shy computer genius in the cold so far, with more emphasis on Buffy, Xander and their catastrophic excuses for love lives. So it's nice to see Willow get her first defining moment in the centre of the stage. The problem is, would Willow be so easily duped by Moloch's online wooing? Moloch is now posing as a chap called Malcolm, who's offering Willow the prospects of candlelit dinners and canoodling. Curiously, Willow isn't fazed by the fact that Malcolm's a bit of an enigma – I suppose that because her love life's more event-free than the average episode of Bargain Hunt, she's prepared to throw caution to the wind and take the risk.

In that respect, the episode's addressing the darker concerns of the computer age. The problem with communicating online is that you can never be certain that you are chatting to who you think you are. It's a scary prospect – it's all too easy to assume a fake identity. As Xander points out: “I can say that I'm an elderly Dutch woman. Get me? I mean, who's to say I'm not if I'm in the elderly Dutch chat room?” And because Willow's on the lookout for the love of her life that has eluded her for so long, she ignores her friends' concerns. It's a neat trick that writers Ashley Gable and Thomas A Swyden pull off – the metaphor of a “deadly and seductive demon” who “draws people to him with promises of love, power, knowledge”, trapped in a computer, is very apt.

In addition, crimes are being committed all over the globe. Killer profiles are being downloaded from the central computer at the FBI. An archbishop is spluttering to explain financial discrepancies. Perhaps worst of all is the fact that one of Moloch's geeky acolytes, Dave, is murdered by Fritz for insubordination, with Junior Meat Loaf framing the killing to make it look like suicide. It's bleak stuff, and poles apart from the usual type of fantasy death that Buffy provides.

Perhaps that's the reason why the general tone of I Robot You Jane is so cartoony – to counter-balance the bleak results of the technology age. News reports today still deliver harrowing bits of news related to online predators, criminals, peer groups and cyber bullies – what makes it so depressing is how easy it is to commit crimes or torment someone from the confines of a small room. At this point though, Buffy The Vampire Slayer is still quite light-hearted – perhaps if the writers had told this tale in the darker real world of Season 6, it might have been less silly and more realistic.

What we get with the Season 1 end product is, however, for the most part, a light-hearted runaround. Buffy becomes a bit of a detective by taking inspiration from the Inspector Clouseau Handbook Of Bad Disguises by observing shady goings-on in a trenchcoat and sunglasses. There's lots of running around corridors, especially in the final act, when Buffy, Xander and Willow do their best to escape from the computer research labs. Fritz never convinces as a murderous lackey. And the robot Moloch looks pretty cheesy as well, a galumphing, campy bit of junk that pales in comparison to the excellent monster mask seen in the prologue.

Despite this though, I Robot You Jane is much better than its reputation would suggest. Alyson Hannigan finally gets something more substantial to do, even if it's questionable whether Willow would be quite as reckless. Sarah Michelle Gellar and Nicholas Brendon provide reliably solid performances – the sight of Buffy, Xander and Willow lamenting their non-existent love lives at the end is a good example of the lead trio's sterling character work and comic timing.

Best of all is the interplay between Giles and newcomer Jenny Calendar. Giles and Jenny are, at first, chalk and cheese. Jenny is moving with the times, fully immersed in the technology age, while Giles is stuck in the past with a good, dusty book and a cup of cocoa. She's feisty and assertive. He's pompous and spluttering. This makes for some great repartee between the two: “I know our ways are strange to you,” teases Jenny. “But soon, you will join us in the 20th century – with three whole years to spare!” Giles, on the other hand, is so far out of his comfort zone, he's practically sweating in fear. “Things involved with a computer fill me with a childlike form of terror,” he says. “Now if it were a nice ogre or some such, I'd be more in my element.”

Despite getting off on the wrong foot, it turns out that Jenny and Giles have far more in common than they first thought. When Jenny reveals herself to be a technopagan, Giles looks at her with a new-found respect. The two work together to pretty much save the day by banishing Moloch out of the virtual world – and by the end of the episode, a speechless Giles is left musing on the whereabouts of Jenny's corkscrew. Robia LaMorte (better known to Prince fans as Pearl from the early 1990s) makes a welcome addition to the team, and makes for a great double act with Anthony Head, who in turn, is relishing the lion's share of the great lines. Giles sums up his fear of computers better than I ever could at the end by saying that knowledge gained should always smell (“If it's to last, then the getting of knowledge should be, uh, tangible, it should be, um... smelly”). Watch this space for a relationship in the making – at least Giles looks like he may be in with a chance of speaking the language of love.

It's not perfect, it lacks the subtle depths of the previous Angel episode, but I Robot You Jane is still a good, enjoyable story. While the cartoony elements threaten to overpower the tale, there are still some chilling predictions of humanity's slavish over-reliance on technology. Maybe some of the anti-techno comments are a bit heavy handed, but you can't deny that Giles has a point when he bemoans a society “in which human interaction is all but obsolete” and “in which people can be completely manipulated by technology.” The regular actors continue to make their characters likeable, witty and engaging, and on top of that, you have a baddie who goes by the name of Malcolm. Re-evaluation required.

* Don't be like Giles, be like Jenny Calendar, and embrace the wonders of the non-smelly ebook! In particular, my new Doctor Who Third Doctor era ebook which is on sale now!

UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B071P3CQ9M

US: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B071P3CQ9M