Buffy The Vampire Slayer Reviews: The Dark Age

Rupert Giles. Champion of the piping hot, meaty drink and tweed suits. The archetypal Brit abroad, complete with Hugh Grant-esque clucking when embarrassed and a confused frown at American colloquialisms.

Even his friends are queuing up to poke the fun, on today of all days. Buffy scoffs that he wore tweed diapers (that's nappies to the Brits); Xander is reeling from the horror of mentioning Giles and orgies in the same sentence; even Giles' beau, Jenny calls him a fuddy duddy.

Such a rock solid square clearly isn't capable of harbouring a dark past. You would have thought so, anyway, but as it turns out, Giles is no stranger to the dark side. His shady history has happened to have caught up with him in a big way in the latest episode called The Dark Age.

You know how some people turn out to be unwanted acquaintances rather than friends? The bad seed who causes trouble, and spreads misery and pain like butter on bread? Well, it turns out that one of them – a demon, naturally – has come to Sunnydale to pay Giles a visit.

Eyghon, as the demon is known, is a shifty sort. Also known as the Sleepwalker, Eyghon can only achieve true, corporeal existence if he possesses an unconscious host. He can home in on anyone who has a tattoo of his symbol, which further reinforces the assertion that tattoos are rubbish. It's not as if you can rub off a tattoo with an eraser or hot soapy water. As both Buffy and a returning Ethan Rayne find out, only a costly laser procedure or a jarful of acid will do the trick. Problem is, a certain Watcher can take some of the blame for the whole sorry affair...

Giles as a rebel – discuss.

Actually, the seeds of Giles' rebellious streak had been sown in Never Kill A Boy On The First Date, in which he confessed that he would have liked to have pursued other employment options apart from Watcher. You can picture an adolescent Giles, getting sent to bed without tea and crumpets after refusing to do as his (presumably) overbearing parents demanded. Parental pressure will be explored in more detail with Giles' successor, Wesley, but reading between the lines, it's not hard to deduce that many of Giles' decisions were taken for him as a kid, with the words 'tradition' and 'destiny' presumably mentioned in every other sentence.

With that in mind, it's not so surprising to learn that Giles dropped out of the pomposity of university, fell in with the wrong crowd and even played guitar in a punk rock band. Giles' recollections of his dark days make for an interesting glimpse into his previously unheard of past. The way in which he describes the summoning of Eyghon sounds like a session of 'Pass The Woodbine'. “It was a tremendous high,” says Giles, with just the hint of a smile, before falling back into a sobering frown of “God, we were fools”.

It's one of the first indications of how dark magic is like a drug. As the series will progress, we'll see that a key member of the Scooby Gang will travel down a similar path. The difference with Giles is that his experience with the dark arts resulted in instant tragedy, with the death of his friend, Randall (“WE killed him”). This event presumably put Giles back on the straight and narrow – a return to the life of academia and hot, beefy drinks provided a welcome contrast to a very dark road indeed.

Coming so soon after the web of lies spread in the previous story, the revelations of The Dark Age are perfectly timed. The second season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, time and again, proves that no adult is without his or her demons. It's another uncomfortable reminder to Buffy that the grown up world is sometimes not a good place to be. “I'm so used to you being a grown up and then I find out that you are a person,” confesses Buffy at the episode's conclusion. A morose Giles replies that “Some are even, uh, short sighted, foolish people.”

It's not only Giles' past actions that prompt this comment, it's the way in which he makes a meal of dealing with this crisis. Hitting the bottle and attempting to get rid of the demon alone may not be the things that any sane person would do, but in the end, these decisions not only put Jenny's life in danger, they also temporarily cost him his relationship.

Eyghon Jenny's a scary piece of work. She knows how to press Giles' buttons the wrong way, bringing out his compassionate side (such as his refusal to sleep with her in her weakened state), and even commenting that: “You are like a woman, Ripper, you cry at every funeral!” Eyghon Jenny also has the power of a man who's had three bowfuls of Shredded Wheat, flinging the Watcher about his house like a rag doll.

A quick mention for the superb make-up job done for Eyghon Jenny's final form, as well as the decaying walking cadavers of Deirdre Page and Philip Henry. The make-up department deserve a big round of applause for their sterling efforts with all the demons in the Buffy and Angel series and add much to their visual impact.

It's appropriately dark stuff all round. Possessions. Summoning demons. Acid mutilation. The dark nights were drawing in when this episode first aired, and it's one best viewed with the lights out and the drapes closed. The Dark Age achieves the hat-trick after two strong stories, a fast-paced, atmospheric horror story that succeeds in all respects.

The script from the joint pens of Dean Batali and Rob Des Hotel achieves the right mix of doomy tension and typically pithy Buffy one-liners. Even in the darkest stories, you can always rely on the Scooby Gang to provide welcome light relief, whether they are playing Anywhere But Here games or pondering on the return of the good old abacus. Xander, in particular, hogs the amusing lines (“A bonus day of class, plus Cordelia – mix in a little rectal surgery and it's my best day ever (!)”), and Nicholas Brendon's impeccable comic timing again makes the dialogue even funnier.

A notable plus point of the script is that it works out the resolution in a way that's both ingenious and obvious in retrospect. Put Eyghon in a dark corner with an inner demon and it's game, set and match to the vampire with a hair gel addiction.

The realisation of this climatic sequence is very well handled, with lots of fast cuts between the battling Angel and Eyghon in various stages of morphing, shouting and roaring. Bruce Seth Green dependably pitches in with suspenseful direction. Stuff like the shadowy arrival of Eyghon Jenny at Ethan's or the simple but effective shots of the victims dissolving into globby puddles: it's episodes like The Dark Age that spotlight how well Buffy The Vampire Slayer has aged. You could still show this sort of thing on TV and the less demanding audiences wouldn't be able to guess that this is already more than 15 years old.

It's also the cast (regular and guest) that add value. Two recurring guest stars make their mark: Robin Sachs, who again achieves the right balance of humour (“I actually like you, it's just that I like myself a whole lot more”) and silky menace; and Robia LaMorte, who makes a very good fist of playing the baddie for a change. It's hard not to feel sorry for Jenny, who's finding that the hills are not alive by the story's conclusion.

But The Dark Age is Anthony Head's show all the way. He manages to bring more grit and pathos to Giles' character, whether he's threatening his old 'pal' Ethan, recalling his past mistake to Buffy or reacting with quiet devastation to Jenny's “Sometime” rebuttal. The great thing about Buffy The Vampire Slayer is that it's an ensemble show – while some shows revolve around just one character, Buffy is just as much about her friends (and sometimes foes), and perfectly chosen regular cast members like Head add to the show's strengths.

The Dark Age is quintessential Buffy. It not only tells a thrilling story, it also adds new dimensions to the regulars. Buffy's initial horror at Giles lost weekending in his home turns to a newfound respect by the end. Beneath all that tweed and stiff upper lip is a human being who counts the cost of mistakes just like your average Joe.

Well directed and well told, The Dark Age continues a strong run of quality Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Too bad we never got to hear Giles sing The Bay City Rollers' Bye Bye Baby though...