How the tide turns.
If School Hard turned out to be one of the fan favourites of Buffy's second season, the next two stories have tended to receive a sound drubbing. While Reptile Boy is generally beyond redemption, I actually don't mind Inca Mummy Girl. That's not to say it's perfect – it's a fun runaround, but it's not without its flaws.
The main premise of Inca Mummy Girl revolves around the eponymous tragic princess. With the cultural exchange “megillah” looming up at Sunnydale High, everyone's minds are too busy wondering who they will end up with to concentrate on a trip to the museum. Cordelia is initially delighted at the prospect of a week with a guy called Sven, although Xander is less than thrilled that a foreign exchange chap is due to shack up with Buffy. “This person who's living with you for two weeks is a man,” he frowns. “With man parts. This is a terrible idea.” Xander evidently doesn't quite get the concept of Not Interested. He needs a child's book to master the theory, with illustrated drawings of Buffy shaking her head, pulling revolted faces and holding up a sign saying 'Go Away Xander'.
Part of the museum is devoted to the Inca people and their history. The centrepiece is a grisly mummified corpse of an Incan princess. The corpse is 500 years old and is the remnant of the sacrifice to the mountain god Sebancaya. Turns out that the Incan people selected their princess solely for this reason. Possibly, this is the equivalent of choosing a Miss World to go and scrub sewers for a living instead of a lucrative modelling career.
Of course, with a reputation for ghouls, vampires and monsters, Sunnydale Museum is not a safe place to be – as Juvenile Delinquent Of The Week, Rodney Munson finds out to his chagrin.
Rodney, like Sheila in last week's instalment, gets zero character progression beyond the fact that he's a cardboardy bad 'un. We learn that he beat up Xander on a regular basis, is none too bright, and has wonky teeth. Three stellar examples of character development. For some odd reason, Rodney decides to raise hell after hours in the museum – by breaking the seal of the Inca Mummy Princess. The rebel. Presumably, Rodney's downtime includes making off with ice cream cones without paying and pulling faces at the windows of cafeterias.
This small-time villainy comes crashing to a grinding halt as Inca Mummy Girl awakes and decides to opt for a spot of canoodling with the nearest small time loser. Poor old Rodney finds that she has a chronic case of halitosis, to the point where this oral hygiene defect sucks the life out of him and leaves him a dessicated corpse.
The old 'mummified corpse' schtick is by no means new. Classic sci-fi such as Doctor Who (Planet Of Evil) or Space 1999 (Dragon's Domain) employed this grisly method of despatch to great effect – and in the future, the Mummy films would wipe out a good portion of its cannon fodder to shrivelled husks too. The corpses are well done in this tale, as Inca Mummy Girl continues on her non-stop quest to maintain her life force. The real exchange student and Ampata's bodyguard are next on the list, and even Xander and newcomer Jonathan look set to suffer the same fate.
Things do get a bit hard to swallow though when it's revealed that Ampata has somehow managed to shove the remains of the genuine article into a smallish trunk which she then oddly takes to Buffy's house. Clearly this is a TARDIS trunk or a Mary Poppins trunk which can store fully grown corpses, houses and hotels. This would sell like hotcakes in the real world.
Not that the real world tends to play much of a part in Inca Mummy Girl. Many of Buffy's stories, while rooted in fantasy and adventure, at least have some sort of real world element at their core – normally through an underlying moral or theme. Maybe this is why Inca Mummy Girl hasn't enjoyed such a good press. People act in unrealistic ways, do unrealistic things and spout unrealistic dialogue.
Take Xander. When he first meets Ampata, having put his tongue back in his mouth, he goes on to speak to her in the most cringe-inducing fashion possible. Because she's from overseas, Xander decides to employ patronising baby talk in an attempt to communicate with the new apple of his eye. “Your. Eeeengleeeesh. Is. Veeery. Buuuuueeeeenooooo.” Just short of using a rattle and an I Can Read book, Xander's attempts at wooing a girl that's not from around Sunnydale shores are in danger of backfiring big time. It's a miracle that Ampata actually agrees to go out to the upcoming dance with him at all: possibly she's after the nearest simpleton in town who wouldn't go asking questions about her real identity.
It's annoying, and while Xander's characterisation is normally very good, in this one, it's way off the mark. Cordelia's ignorance of Sven is typical, frustrated at the fact that he doesn't speak fluent American. But Xander's dopey behaviour seems out of character, and despite the best efforts of Nicholas Brendon, fails to amuse this time around.
Mind you, the other characters seem mysteriously off the boil and slow off the mark. The Scoobies are easily taken in by Ampata's dupe. They seem all too eager to agree with Ampata to destroy the seal and accept the supposed danger of the bodyguard at face value. Normally, the combined brainpower of Buffy, Willow and Giles can detect such obvious duplicity from a million miles away, but on this occasion, they've got nothing. On top of this, it's amazing that no one discovers the corpse of the bodyguard for such a long time. It seems to take a whole afternoon, which suggests that Ampata's hiding skills are pretty good.
The Scooby Gang's lack of detective nous could be something to do with the fact that their minds are on other pressing subjects. Buffy's annoyed – yet again – that her social life and dutiful destiny do not mix. There's a point where Ampata makes a none too subtle speech about the Inca Princess' plight. “Who knows what she had to give up to fulfil her duty to others,” she muses, as Buffy identifies all too well with the Princess' fate. The problem is, this running theme of the lack of normality in Buffy's life can sometimes be over-egged a bit. The next story will take this frustrated moping to new levels of annoyance, just one of the many problems with Reptile Boy.
But back to Inca Mummy Girl, and while Buffy's lamenting the lack of normality and Xander's blinded by his love for a woman 31 times his age, Willow's too busy mooning over Xander to concentrate on the problem at hand. Again, this subplot has been tried, tested and discarded many times in the first series already. It's not Willow's finest hour, needless to say, as she either walks around with a forlorn frown or sitting loner-like in The Bronze in the inexplicable get-up of an Eskimo.
Still, it catches the eye of one Daniel Osbourne, or Oz to his friends. Many secondary characters have been introduced in Buffy The Vampire Slayer who would go on to become hugely popular. Anya, Faith, and of course, Oz. Oz takes the word laconic to new levels. He is the master of irony, spouting amusing quips and asides in a quietly spoken voice. He also plays guitar in a band called Dingoes Ate My Baby, which should allow him the pick of the girls. As lead singer Devon tells him, “It's a currency.” But given that Oz doesn't rate the ordinary or the mundane, he fixates on the sad looking Eskimo, sowing the seeds for one of Buffy The Vampire Slayer's most endearing couples. Seth Green demonstrates why the show had a real talent for good casting. It's hard to imagine anyone else playing Oz, and Green adds much wit and personality to this popular character.
There's also Jonathan tucked away in the corner, again, another long-runner in the making, thanks to good characterisation and Daniel Strong's strong performance.
In a sense, Inca Mummy Girl contains many familiar Buffy characters and tropes (The Bronze, Dingoes, evil local threat etc), even without the presence of broody Angel, who's presumably checking out the Wang Chung section in the local record store this week. In that respect, the story feels like the Buffy equivalent of comfort food. It's not original or clever by a long shot, but it is entertaining and well shot.
Ara Celi gives a charming, understated performance as Ampata, and works well with Nicholas Brendon. It's well filmed by Ellen Pressman, who makes the most of the sometimes plodding script to create some sort of atmosphere.
The final confrontation scene in the museum sounds a little half-hearted on paper, but Pressman uses quick alternate camera shots and cutaways to give a sense of pace and urgency. The shots of the disintegrating Ampata are quite grisly, as her disembodied, decaying arms stick to Xander and her head smashes to dusty pieces on the floor.
I can see why Inca Mummy Girl has acquired a less than stellar reputation. Some of the characterisation is off beam, the plot's so obvious you can smell it, and some of the same themes are starting to become over-used to the point of annoyance. But on the glass half full side, it's well performed, with some strong direction and visuals, and is a fun, if disposable way to pass the time.
A filler episode perhaps, but entertaining filler nonetheless.