Buffy The Vampire Slayer Reviews: Go Fish

Only in the last episode was Buffy dealing with evil spirits. Go Fish now pits Buffy against another kind of evil spirit.

No, not the demon drink, although I'm sure that Willy The Snitch has seen many a patron fall foul of too much booze. It's that other kind of evil spirit – what the old school fuddy duddies call “School spirit”.

Actually, you could replace the word 'school' with a multitude of similar groan-inducing examples – team spirit; office spirit; patriotic spirit...the list goes on. In short, if you don't play along with whatever spirit, you, sir or madam, are a scoundrel – a lone wolf, a hermit, a selfish tyke etc...

The reality of all this spirit nonsense is, however, more often than not, a blinkered attempt at forced jollity that wilfully ignores the bigger picture. Which is something that the Sunnydale High staff haven't really factored in Go Fish.

This week, the ever-punchable Snyder and his sporty sidekick Coach Marin are drumming up support for the school's swim team. Incredibly, swimming is something that Sunnydale High actually seems to be good at, so naturally, the staff are trying to involve all the pupils in this celebratory fiesta.

The Scooby Gang, of course, know better. The swim team naturally seems to comprise a gaggle of snarling bully boy losers, all macho posturing and tattoos and “Dude!”s. Three of these, Dodd McAlvy, Cameron Walker and Gage Petronzi (or Prison Break guy to those in the know) have been throwing their weight around a lot lately, and Buffy, Willow and Xander are not impressed. “Dodd McAlvy,” sneers Xander. “Last month, he's the freak with vicama breath who waxes his back – he wins a few meets and suddenly he inherits the cool gene?”

Dodd's, Cameron's and Gage's crimes are stacking up. Dodd thrusts perpetual geek Jonathan's head in the drinks tub at a freezing beach party. Gage is cutting class and playing a dubious form of solitaire in class. Cameron, meanwhile, decides to woo Buffy with the old 'Are you wearing a bra' letch routine. If this were a Poirot episode, the swim team would all provide very good motives for their inevitable deaths.

Buffy and her friends find that they too can exercise the brain cells, since Dodd and then Cameron are found dead. And not just boring old 'shot through the heart' dead. We're talking ripped open skins and stolen insides. Willow compares this method of dispatch to eating a well known brand of cookie, “Except for, you know, without the chocolatey cookie goodness.” It's a murder mystery with a small pool of suspects – the coach, his nurse accomplice called Ruthie, and even Jonathan, who ultimately confesses to an even greater sin.

Peeing in the pool.

With a straightforward mystery to solve, Go Fish acts as the light-hearted popcorn fluff ahead of the big box full of heartbreak and tragedy ahead. It's not the most demanding or exciting of Buffy episodes, but it does include some neat plot twists and some interesting things to say about the dreaded concept of school spirit.

Snyder, for one thing, annoys Willow the supply teacher with his insistence that Gage should get some sort of reward for being a great big slacker. “I'm – SUGGESTING – that you recheck your figures and I think we'll find a grade more fitting to an athlete of Gage's stature,” he passively aggressively instructs Willow, who naturally is not best pleased at a work-shy freak getting a free pass just for the sake of “school spirit”.

To his credit though, Gage does help to propel the plot along in his own gormless way. He's responsible for two key clues to the mystery. One – is that there's something in his blood that even Angelus doesn't like. This is a first – Angelus turning down a walking free meal. Maybe Gage has chronic BO. Either that or his latest aftershave, Eau de Poisson, ain't exactly working wonders for his social life.

However, something's clearly wrong with Gage and the others in the team, given that there have been increased signs of steroid abuse such as depression, mood swings and headaches. In fact, the missing link proves to be in the steam room. Get this, Sunnydale High has its very own steam room. Most schools provide a changing room the size of a broom cupboard and a poxy shower that has a default setting of dispersing ice cold jets of water. And yet Sunnydale High has apparently gone all upmarket with its very own steam room. Presumably, if you look hard enough, there's also a holistic spa, a hot tub area and an a la carte restaurant extension of the canteen.

All very shifty, but then given Sunnydale High's track record for weird, this comes as no surprise. Something in the steam is causing the swim team to mutate and rip the human flesh off to reveal a roaring green monster. The reveal in which Gage slowly changes and melts away to become the creature is very well done, and makes for a good twist in the plot. Kudos to the special effects team for creating the gross out remains of the swim team.

It's been a nice surprise to rediscover that Buffy The Vampire Slayer isn't afraid of showing gruesome or scary imagery. I remember when this one went out on BBC2 in around 1999 or 2000, and the early evening edition got hacked to pieces. Go Fish contains its fair share of behind the sofa material for kids, including the remains of the swim team and the half eaten corpse of the nurse floating like a novelty inflatable swimming toy in the sewer.

Mind you, the reveal of Coach Marin as the man behind this sorry charade does pose some questions. Like why. The man's so obsessed with school spirit that he's perfectly OK with letting his team become monsters. Marin explains how he'd been experimenting with fish DNA which had already been tested on Olympic swimmers. Which is all well and good, but what use is a fish monster to a school team? Aside from the fact that the spectators would probably run a mile, Sunnydale High would further cement its reputation as the school to avoid. As Buffy points out, Marin evidently wasn't in line when they were handing out shreds of sanity that day. Regrettably, Marin comes across as a thundering nutcase and very little else. There's no real reason given for his motives apart from “school spirit” and even that's not going to pan out. Inevitably, he's hoisted by his own petard and used as fish food – although the mind positively boggles at Buffy's last snarky comment of “Those boys really love their coach”.

As an amusing horror diversion, Go Fish just about works. It's another homage to the good old B-Movie. Perhaps the problem with that is the bar's been raised so high in the past few weeks with the likes of Surprise/Innocence, Passion and I Only Have Eyes For You. Go Fish is a bit of a letdown in that it's more of a disposable romp in the style of earlier Season Two tales like Inca Mummy Girl and Reptile Boy.

That said, the regulars get plenty to work with this week. Cordelia and Xander's oddball relationship takes a turn for the better when Xander tries out for the swim team in order to find out what's going on. Cordelia is evidently moved by Xander's bravery – especially at the thought of him possibly becoming once, twice, three times a fish guy.

Xander leaves behind his clumsy first season persona as he actively gets involved in sorting out the mystery. When she sees a random fish monster in the pool, Cordelia thinks Xander's unleashed his inner halibut. What's interesting is that Cordy unleashes her inner compassion, to the point where she's willing to put up with a lifetime of pilchard smell. “We can still date,” she says. “Or not. I mean, I understand if you wanna see other fish. I'll do everything I can to make your quality of life better – whether that means little bath toys or whatever.” Dating a geek is one thing for Cordy, but dating a fish takes some doing. Cordelia has finally embraced her caring side with a great big fishy hug, and it paves the way for her more mature persona in the Angel spin-off.

Willow, meanwhile, gets to play detective – one of her great strengths. Notably, she gets to grill the hapless Jonathan. In the future, she'll be looking to chargrill him, but for the moment she's happy to get to the bottom of whether he's responsible for the grisly deaths of the swim team. Her reaction to Jonathan's revelation is very funny, providing the first bonafide moment of Jonathan The Victim – it certainly won't be the last.

Buffy's attempts at detecting are also amusing, especially her incompetent stalking of Gage in The Bronze (“OK, obviously my sex appeal is on the fritz today”). It's a shame that the supporting characters are little more than ciphers – we've seen the likes of the dullard swim team bully boys before (Mitch, Blaine et al), the faceless Nurse Greenleigh miraculously gets a conscience at the last minute (leading to her untimely demise at the jaws of the fish monsters), while Coach Marin is all Cartoon Villain and very little else.

Go Fish is still capably directed by David Semel. The transformation sequence of fish monster Gage is accomplished well, while the scenes in the sewers are suitably spooky. A big up also to the Clement and Murray score, which is actually their best for the show. The reverse voice treated motif for the fish monster attacks is very good, as is the last piece of music to accompany the creatures swimming home. Ironically, they'd never be used again on the show.

It's a shame that some of the supporting cast aren't quite up to the by-now flawless performances of the regulars. The swim team don't quite manage with some of the dated dialogue (“Dude! What is that foulness??”), while the acting from the coach and the nurse doesn't exactly propel them into the Hall Of Fame of Memorable Buffy Villains.

While Go Fish isn't particularly memorable, it's still reasonably entertaining with some worthwhile commentary on “The Spirit”. A breezy warm-up before the full-on head rush of the season closer, Go Fish isn't quintessential Buffy, but it still has its plaice as corny B-movie popcorn fodder.