Buffy The Vampire Slayer Reviews: The Freshman

University. Three years to swot up for the job of your dreams? Or three years of booze-infused partying like it's 1999?

Well that's up to you and your maker – as for Buffy The Vampire Slayer, well, the show's take on university is a little less orthodox.

That train of thought only leads to spoilers, but what I will say is that Buffy's fourth season takes the franchise into new and unexpected waters. Sometimes deeper than murky lagoons, sometimes as deep as puddles. It's a season that says goodbye to series regulars, tips the hat to new ones and welcomes back some old favourites. It finds some Scooby Gang members at a crossroads and others taking a brand new path in their lives.

Quality-wise though, the season's not quite as consistent as its predecessor. While it offers up some sterling classics in the run, it also delivers some of the worst clunkers of the show. More problematic is the ongoing season arc, which involves a snoozy military monster hunt team and an equally dull monster thing which rears its stitched together head further down the line. Not only that, but the show's now got to keep up with its hip, cosmopolitan younger brother spin-off which has taken to the sunny climes of LA to tell its own brand of terrifying monster stories.

It's enough to make the head spin more than an aggravated Kroton. Buffy herself is also finding that her head's in a spin during the brand spanking new season opener, The Freshman. Now at the local university, Buffy's having trouble adapting to a new life of academia. In a typically clever move, Buffy is attempting to ring in the changes just like the show itself. Her ex is now fighting the good fight in LA along with her old sparring partner, Cordelia. Her old school is lying in charred ruins. Her old Watcher no longer has a job. All the familiar surroundings of the show have gone, to be replaced by brand new locales and uneasy new additions.

In a vain bid to try and put some reassurance on this new world of change, The Freshman seems to be filmed on the hottest day of the year. It's clearly an Indian Summer in Sunnydale, given that the sun's out complete with bowler hat and hip-hip-hoorays. The camera swoops down from a sunny, high-up shot of the campus to pan in on Buffy making her way through a horde of pamphlet-doffing studenty types who actually look like they should be holding the open day on the beach.

Despite this sunny weather, Buffy doesn't look too comfortable on her first day at university. One thing that Buffy values is a normal life – or as near to a normal life as she can get in between staking vampires and killing demons. Problem is, all of her normal comfort blankets have been taken away. Her best friend's too busy loving every moment of university. Her Watcher's too busy re-acquainting himself with old friends to the hip sounds of David Bowie's Memory Of A Free Festival. Her old room at home is now inhabited by lots of musty old boxes. It's like all of her friends and family have deserted her, and what's worse, everyone at Sunnydale University seems to have it in for her.

If you've perused college brochures before, I'm sure you can guess the contents of the Sunnydale University prospectus. Mug shots of beaming professors and tutors which hover above impressive lists of academic achievements and published books. What's missing is the fact that on the evidence of The Freshman, all the Sunnydale University staff seem to be complete and utter nitwits.

Take the pot-bellied, balding professor who pretentiously babbles on about critiquing popular culture. This man clearly thinks he's as important as someone who's found the cure for all known human diseases, as opposed to the real scenario of being a pompous, boring lump who makes a living out of talking about what was on the telly last night. Naturally, pop culture professor doesn't like anyone contending with him for attention, and so chooses to humiliate a confused Buffy in front of several snickering undergraduates. “You are sucking energy from everyone in this room!” he bawls in laughably melodramatic fashion. It's a good thing that Buffy's new room mate ain't in the room, otherwise he'd have a fit.

Adding insult to injury, the professor finally yells at Buffy to leave. Quite how long this man continued to lecture at the university is never returned to. Judging from what seems to be a plastic cup of beer in his hand and a short fuse, it's a fair bet that the pop culture professor's icy excuse for a heart was running on borrowed time.

Not that grumpy psychology boffin Professor Walsh seems to be any better. Striding into the lecture room with the furious look of a woman who's just had bird poop congealing in her hair for the last 30 minutes, Walsh wastes no time in establishing that she's a surly, formidable force to be reckoned with: “Those of you who fall under my good graces will come to know me as Maggie. Those of you who don't will come to know me by the name my TAs use, and think I don't know about, 'The Evil Bitch Monster of Death.' Make no mistake, I run a hard class, I assign a lot of work, I talk fast and I expect you to keep up.” Blimey, who put salt instead of sugar in her tea this morning?

Clearly, it's not TA, Riley Finn, the cheery studenty type whose sole task at this point seems to be playing over-enthusiastic second banana to Walsh. “You'll have a lot of fun,” he tells Buffy and Willow. “Professor Walsh – she's quite a character.” Given that Riley seems to be mistaking 'character' for charmless, humour-free battleaxe, there's either more to this than meets the eye – or he's suffering the side effects of Buffy knocking heavy books on his head. Which still isn't nearly as painful as Buffy's joke about giving her mum an aneurysm.

Inevitably, I'll be returning to talk about Riley, the squeaky clean in-no-way-possible-Buffy-boyfriend-material character with what seems to be a limp, unwashed dish-mop on his bonce. At this moment in time, he's a harmless, if slightly dull chap, standing on the edges of the mad Buffy world like a nervous bungee jumper about to dive into the unknown.

In Riley's defence, he seems to be about the only half-sane person at Sunnydale University to actually make it out alive of this episode. Buffy's new room mate, Kathy puts Celine Dion posters on the wall and says things like “Super fun!” Automatically, this makes her one to watch out for in the future. Eddie, a nervous, shy, loner type is quickly turned into a vampire and reluctantly staked by Buffy. With Willow too busy carrying on like she's at Disneyland For Swots, Buffy's growing isolation results in her usual confidence plummeting to an all-time low. It's an interesting reversal of Welcome To The Hellmouth, in which Buffy was the confident, outgoing character and Willow was the socially inept, stuttering walking lack of confidence.

Because Buffy's feeling like a lonely fish out of water, this accounts for her failing to stand up to a clutch of boring student drop-out vampires who are busy terrorising the new undergraduates. Normally, this motley collection of losers would be done and dusted in the pre-credits sequence. In this case, they're the living proof of how low Buffy's sunk in these past couple of days. This ragtag gang essentially attack and turn the new students into vampires and then steal their gear while duping the living with an “I'm off, sorry” note. Amongst the gang are a portly fashion disaster, a laconic stoner with week-old spaghetti on his head, and a snooty, disinterested Goth type who's evidently the leader of this rabble. The latter goes by the name of Sunday, and seems to spend most of her time sneering at the stolen CD collections of the dead undergraduates. That's how lame she is, and yet Buffy can't seem to defeat her in a month of Sundays.

Yes, I know. I'll get me coat.

All in all, not the most taxing of Big Bads for Buffy to be up against. The fun of this episode lies in seeing how Buffy claws her way back from the bottom of the social pit. Having been burgled, isolated and humiliated, Buffy is left to go and cling to the one familiar meeting place, The Bronze. By way of comfort, squealing indie rock band Splendid are playing tonight. In addition, David Boreanaz has popped by for a quick five-second cameo as The Man Who Looks Like Angel But Isn't.

Best of all, Xander's back, and has returned from his travels a little older, a little wiser, and a lot more agreeable than in some of his Season 3 adventures. What's great about Xander's reappearance is that it comes from out of the blue. All bets tend to be off in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and the episode could have played out with Xander deciding to stay on the road. He doesn't appear until the third act, so it's all the more surprising that he suddenly pops up without warning in The Bronze. Xander may not have saved as many lives as Buffy, but in this case, he's the character who snaps Buffy out of her depressed funk: “Let me tell you something, when it's dark and I'm all alone and I'm scared or freaked out or whatever, I always think, 'What would Buffy do?' You're my hero...” It's a quietly touching scene, this, and proves that while the show had lost some of its familiar characters, it hadn't lost its heart.

With Xander back in the fold, Buffy's world slowly starts to reassemble itself. Willow and Oz realise that they haven't been paying enough attention. Giles has a change of heart after telling Buffy to go it alone. And best of all, Buffy manages to overpower the gang of losers – the clinching moment comes when Sunday tramples her Class Protector award underfoot. If you're a fan of metaphor, then high school is well and truly over at this point. It's the moment which makes an already furious Buffy see red, and in a whirlwind of high kicking violence, proceeds to reduce Sunday's Cool brigade to dust. In typically 'meh' fashion, Sunday dusts with her hands on her hips. So bringing this sorry lot of vampires to a merciful end.

It's been established that the season openers of this show tend to be good rather than great. Part of the problem with launching the season is that in addition to telling a story, the opening tale needs to either re-establish the regular team or launch a new set of characters and locales. The Freshman is a relaunch of the show and so has a lot to do. There's the new university setting, not to mention a slew of newbies such as Walsh, Riley and Kathy. The remaining Scoobies are also re-acclimatising, such as Willow settling into college, Giles adjusting to unemployment and Xander returning from the road to his parents' basement. So the fact that Joss Whedon actually manages to fit in a plot between all of this is something of a miracle.

Although Sunday and her team are dull, forgettable adversaries, there's still quite a lot to enjoy in this opening story. The direction is typically slick, with Whedon making the most of the sunny campus exterior and the spacious interiors. That library makes Giles' old collection look like a Bring 'n' Buy stall at the village fête. It's huge, and the swooping camera work echoes Willow's sense of wonder. There's also many a Whedon classic quote such as “Uh, are we gonna fight or is there just gonna be a monster sarcasm rally?” or Oz's response to Willow's panicked “How can you be so calm?” - “Long, arduous hours of practice!” There's also a mystery to be solved, thanks to the enigmatic final shot of one of the Sunday vampires tasered and rendered helpless by spooky masked Commandos.

Overall, The Freshman isn't bad at all. While Sunday and her crew make for lacklustre baddies, it's fun to see Buffy adapt to her new world. The sparkling direction from Joss Whedon matches some typically strong dialogue, and there's enough promise in this story to suggest that greater things are on the way. It's a good enough story to hold its own against the new Angel series – and talking of which, I'll also be reviewing the spin-off's pilot episode in which Angel likewise tries his best to acclimatise to new, unfamiliar surroundings.

See you there!