Buffy The Vampire Slayer Reviews: The Initiative

The Initiative marks a new phase of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Oz has left the building, casting off yet another of the early years remnants. Only Buffy, Xander, Willow and Giles remain – although James Marsters finally graduates to full-time member and reluctant hanger-on of the Scooby Gang. It's also the story where squeaky-clean curtain head Riley starts to fit into the puzzle. Which can only mean that the series reveals what all these mysterious Commandos are all about.

With the dawning of a new era, both in this season and of the whole show, it's mysterious that The Initiative episode is a bit flat. I guess that any episode which revolves around a bunch of dull army goons wouldn't ever score highly on my list of quintessential ways to spend 45 minutes with the telly.

Army and sci-fi rarely go together well, resulting in lots of tedious gun battles and laughable machismo. The lone exception is of course, Doctor Who's very own military mob, UNIT – although this is largely thanks to the sterling efforts of John Levene, Richard Franklin and the main man himself, the brilliant Nicholas Courtney as The Brig. It's an instantly likeable and well characterised crew – unlike the main triad of the Initaitive, seen instantly in this episode dribbling over Buffy in the university cafeteria.

Riley we already know. He's been gradually built up as a harmless but bland outline of a character. He's a devoted, heroic sort – albeit with a dreary line in morals. In the last episode, he rescued Willow from getting crushed by heavy wheels, only to sternly rebuke her by intoning “Whatever it is, it's not worth hurting yourself over!” like a criss-cross of He-Man, The Green Cross Code Man and any of the cast of Little House On The Prairie. He also has an unhealthy devotion to Sunnydale University's very own Cruella De Vil, Professor Walsh – although this questionable mystery is explained later on in this episode.

In Riley's defence, he does get two notable moments of glory in this episode. There's a sweet moment at a frat party when he silently requests the DJ to change the caterwauling din of Dingoes Ate My Baby to something else in order to avoid upsetting an already forlorn Willow. Better still, he brings the sorry shambles of the Barker sub-plot to a welcome end by lamping old Mr Smarmy on the chin. For this act alone, Riley should win some sort of award.

Problem is, there's very little to Riley, personality-wise. By making him the antithesis of Angel, Riley never seems to have much character, essentially functioning as the heroic rebound Mr Nice Guy for Buffy to date for a year or so. Marc Blucas' performance isn't too bad though, at least making him a solid, likeable presence.

At least Riley's better company than his two buddies. Forrest seems to undergo a character change from episode to episode, in accordance with whatever function the writers want him to perform that week. Maybe this is over-compensation for Miller, a chap who seems to have one lone, angry, default facial expression whatever the weather. It's like watching a quietly furious farmer who's just discovered that a large horde of cows have somehow made their way into his front room. Miller's unintentionally funny one-expression repertoire at least manages to liven up the boring Initiative stuff. Whether the Initiative has had a good, bad or downright frightening day at the office, you can at least rely upon Miller to pull the same, furious face.

The Initiative, it turns out, are some supposedly mysterious monster hunter hunt army gang. In the pre-credits teaser, we see a long row of vampires and demons in a row of futuristic, transparent prison cells. We first see the organisation through Spike's eyes, as for once, he's the helpless victim. Trapped and confused, he's at a loss to understand what's going on. The only font of knowledge is one of the losers who helped out Sunday in the season opener, but even after slyly organising an escape, he's still left baffled as to what this mystery cabal have done to him. Somehow, they've left him unable to attack humans. Every time he moves in for the kill, he recoils with a searing pain in his head. Presumably, the Initiative have somehow snaffled a copy of The Greatest Hits Of Take That and have implanted a warning loop of this at maximum volume in Spike's head.

The problem I have with the Initiative sub-plot is that there's no real mystery or sense of surprise to latch on to. The past three season arcs have all twisted and turned in various fantastical and exciting ways. But the military presence in Season Four makes this ongoing season arc less challenging, more routine and more ordinary. When it turns out that Professor Walsh is somehow involved in the organisation, this comes as no real surprise. It doesn't help that the lead-up to this revelation is flatly built up. Riley just walks up to her, and – BAM! - there she is. Admittedly, as the season progresses, we'll see the odd surprise coming our way, but overall, it's easily the weakest of the four ongoing season arcs in Buffy The Vampire Slayer so far.

Another problem I have with The Initiative episode is that it's too disjointed. There are several sub-plots scrambling for your approval. The Initiative reveal. Riley and his friends' double lives. Spike's re-introduction. Spike's new-found neutering. The possible Buffy 4 Riley plot. Willow lamenting Oz's departure. Harmony mooching around and getting into silly hair-pulling contests with Xander. Because there are so many of these, they never really feel fully formed – more like fragments of different episodes.

So watching this story is a bit of a frustrating experience. For me, it's like watching one of those clip shows commonly favoured by The Simpsons or Friends – the script's darting here and there and doing way too much in the process. Some of these sub-plots work well – some don't so much. The dull Initiative stuff, obviously. The Harmony and Xander bitch fight isn't as funny as it thinks it is. Giles and Xander seem to be getting less to do as each episode passes this season.

On the up side, the scattered moments of genius work very well. Neutering Spike was an inspired way of integrating the character into the regular cast, and the scene in which he attacks Willow in her dorm is one of the best of the episode. After the initial unsettling attack (drowned out by Willow's CD), the scene becomes a lot funnier, especially with its obvious double entendres. “This sort of thing's never happened to me before,” Spike mutters in embarrassment. “Maybe you were nervous,” replies Willow, who's seeing her own self-confidence taking a further battering in the wake of Oz upping sticks. “I know I'm not the kind of girl vamps like to sink their teeth into. It's always like, "ooh, you're like a sister to me," or, "oh, you're such a good friend."” It's a fantastic scene, since it starts out as dark and menacing and then ends up turning into something that's far more comical and poignant. Superb writing here from Douglas Petrie and ditto the acting from James Marsters and Alyson Hannigan.

Fan favourite Marsters finally lands himself a regular gig on the show, and it's a shrewd move to bring Spike into the fold full-time. The narrative possibilities for Spike are many, and as future episodes prove, there's some big surprises and twists in store.

Hannigan continues to naturally excel – the Willow of The Initiative is a numb, morose shell of her usual happy-go-lucky self. “You spend time together, feelings grow deeper, and one day, without even realising it, you find you're in love. Time stops, And it feels like the whole world's made for you two, and you two alone, until the day one of you leaves and rips the still-beating heart from the other, who's now a broken, hollow, mockery of the human condition.” Despite her grief, she still makes a rather endearing double act this episode with Riley, who's keen to get to know Buffy a bit better. Willow's the somewhat unwilling confidante, and Hannigan plays this to perfection with the right amount of humour and irascibility.

Another highpoint of this episode is the solid production. James A Contner directs the episode well, and despite the dull aspects of the script, there's no denying that the production values are uniformly high. Take the set of the Initiative itself. It's huge! Clearly, a lot of time and money have been poured into this set, looking like something from a hi-tech James Bond movie. It's expansive, detailed and expensive looking. Impressive stuff, although I kind of wish that the money could have been invested on a more interesting plot.

The Initiative, overall, is a bit too pick 'n' mix for my liking. There are lots of narrative strands at play here, but the end result is too messy – a bit like eating spaghetti with your fingers. If the Initiative itself is tedious and some of the story fragments don't hold together that well, there are still moments of gold for both Spike and Willow, and the production is impressively lavish.

Disjointed, but with some strong stuff to hold your attention.