Buffy The Vampire Slayer Reviews: The Wish

A big pot of gold delivered to your door. World peace. No more EastEnders on TV. Wishing may well be the most common pastime on Planet Earth, just inching ahead of backgammon and darts.

But as the old saying goes: “Be careful of what you wish for”. Cordelia's taking this advice on board a bit too late after new kid in town Anya (in reality, a scary, veiny demon) grants her wish of Buffy never coming to Sunnydale. This can only mean one thing: Alternate Dimension Time.

The Alternate Dimension is a common trope in fiction, in films such as It's A Wonderful Life. It's especially popular in science fiction. Doctor Who came up with Inferno, in which Jon Pertwee's Doctor found himself on a parallel Earth, just hours away from doomsday. Worse still, he had to battle with vicious, unkind counterparts of his friends, including Liz and the good old Brig (or Brigade Leader as he was known). In Star Trek, there was the episode called Mirror, Mirror, which contained alternate Enterprise peoples – including a beardy Spock and a sadistic Chekov, who got shoved into an agony booth for his crimes, prompting some girly screaming of the highest – and I mean, highest – order.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer's attempt at this genre resulted in another magnificent episode called The Wish. The episode takes Cordelia's wish literally and looks at what would have happened if Buffy had never set foot in Sunnydale. The Master would have walked free, the population of Sunnydale would have been considerably reduced and even poor old Willow and Xander would have suffered the fate of becoming vampires.

What makes The Wish work is that it's such an obvious idea, but it's done with skill and flair. The end result stands out as one of the best of the season.

If there's a minor criticism, then it's maybe that the episode takes a bit too long to kick the action into gear. We don't get to see the alternative Sunnydale until the second act. Instead, the first act deals with the continued fallout from Willow's and Xander's infidelity. The hurt's still going around – evidenced by a paradoxically peppy rock number in the Bronze called Tired Of Being Alone. Xander's leaving countless messages on Cordy's phone. Willow gets the brush off from Oz in a great, understated scene. After telling Willow to leave him alone to figure things out, Oz quietly rumbles: “I'm sorry this is hard for you. But I told you what I need. So I can't help feeling like the reason you want to talk is so you can feel better about yourself. That's not my problem.” Even though he doesn't raise his voice above a volume setting of minimum, Oz's hurt comes through loud and clear, thanks to some good dialogue and great, understated acting from Seth Green.

Suffering the biggest hurt is Cordelia. Recovering from a pole in the chest, Cordy's finding wounds in other places – most notably, Harmony and her airhead gang. Harmony's possibly more obsessed with the cool factor than Cordy, who's since outgrown this lame obsession. As a result, Harmony takes it upon herself to make her former friend feel as small as Jonathan. Putting forward the hapless nerd as a replacement candidate for Xander is a further twist of the knife, and for once, Cordelia feels what it's like to be the victim as opposed to the bully. Matters aren't helped when she ends up spread-eagled in a pile of trash after getting caught in a skirmish between Buffy and a vampire. As far as the social whirl goes, Cordy's hit rock bottom, complete with scrappy rubbish in her hair.

Fortunately, the latest sign-up for Sunnydale High is there to do something about this. Say hello to Anya, a hugely popular and enduring character in the Buffyverse. It's weird seeing Cordy and Anya together, since essentially it's a handing over of the baton from one to the other. Anya would go on to take the Cordelia role of unsubtle quips and dissension in the Scooby ranks once Cordy heads off to pastures new in LA – not to mention Anya becoming Xander's new partner.

An interesting thing about Anya's appearance in The Wish is how Emma Caulfield plays the role so straight. She'd go on to become one of the funniest characters in Buffy, with an impeccable sense of comic timing. But here, she plays Anya as a shadowy, lurking presence, and it's actually very effective. A lot of this is in the facial expressions. Look at how she's constantly sizing everyone up in the background. It's quite clear, for example, that she doesn't think much of Harmony and the vacuous Cordettes. Her glum expression isn't in step with the others' mirth at pairing up Cordelia with Jonathan.

Anya has her own agenda in mind, which is to grant wishes for scorned women. Her full name is Anyanka (the patron saint of scorned women) and when granting wishes, takes on the form of a croaky voiced demon with pinky, veiny skin. Her confrontation with Alternate Reality Giles showcases her as a dangerous, bitter opponent: “This is the world we made,” she hisses. “Isn't it wonderful?” She gets off on the payback and misery that's been created, even spreading some of that good cheer by threatening to choke Giles to death. Emma Caulfield already shows great promise in the role, and it's easy to see why the Buffy production team had their eyes on her to bring her back on a more permanent basis in the future.

The Wish is an episode that overflows the cup with surprises. The alternate Sunnydale is notably gloomy and full of foreboding. David Greenwalt shoots the episode with a shadowy, macabre edge. The scene in which Cordy goes to look for her missing car is very well done, shot from a high angle, looking down at the swirling emptiness of it all. He brings out the best in the actors, including a great turn from Mercedes McNab, who plays Alternate Harmony with a sombre, subdued air. Again, it works well, and acts as a neat counterpoint to her regular persona.

There's subtle clues at work here in the alternate Sunnydale High, such as the toned down clothing and the monthly memorials. Things have gone to hell in a hand basket in this new, warped reality, and Cordelia's already running into trouble – especially when confronted by the vampire Xander and Willow.

The great thing about these sorts of episodes is that it affords new opportunities for the regular cast. Nicholas Brendon and especially Alyson Hannigan steal the show in this one as their sadistic vampire versions. Brendon takes the sarcastic edge of regular Xander and turns this into something far darker (“You love all the parts”). Alyson Hannigan's performance as Vampire Willow is just as superb, making her alter ego a quietly dangerous and off-kilter presence. The childlike qualities of Willow are still seen, but they're given an evil edge in the way in which she says “Bored now” in a sing-song voice and calls a chained-up Angel a “puppy”. Her treatment of Angel shows that Willow's not averse to the kinky side of things, taking great pleasure in burning his chest with matches and licking him. The costuming and make-up for Xander and Willow add to the picture, with the leather and caked-on slap implying unscrupulous, evil creatures of the night.

Is there any crossover between both versions of Xander and Willow? We'll certainly find out that there are more crossovers to be had in a later Season Three episode, Doppelgängland. Furthermore, we'll see some parallels in a later season, especially a notable use of “Bored now”, which heralds a spew-tastic act of violence that Willow would normally flinch at. Alternate reality episodes like these tend to take the regular personality traits of characters and give them a darker edge. All of the good-natured humour of Xander and Willow becomes cruel and dark (“You're a Watcher aren't you? Well, watch this”), while Willow's childlike personality is made into something far more disturbing, especially her carefree treatment of her victims. She starts devouring the Master's 'Looking At Me' victim like she's just been allowed extra scoops of jelly and ice cream.

There's also crossover between the regular Buffy and the cynical, hard-nosed alternate version who eventually arrives to sort out the mess. Again, without wanting to give too much away, we'll see that Buffy will temporarily adopt an aloof, almost unfeeling side to her personality in the sixth season as a result of circumstances beyond her control. All of the humour and wisecracking is absent in this alternate Buffy, resulting in a shell of a Slayer, one who's got little time for people and their foibles. Sarah Michelle Gellar does a great job as the brittle, hardened Buffy, and makes an effective contrast with the regular heroine.

All of the regulars do well. There's an extra sense of desperation and panic in Anthony Head's Giles, which adds extra weight to the severity of the Master's domination. Seth Green adds great support, as does Larry Bagby III. It's also great to have Mark Metcalf back as the Master. It's nice to see him take a more proactive role in things, as opposed to skulking around in his smelly underworld pit of doom. One of the things I like about the Master is his twisted sense of humour. There's plenty of that here, in lines like “I'm trying to eat and she looks at me” or “I say to them...well, I don't say anything to them because I kill them”.

Another great example of this black humour is his specially devised machine which comprises a series of spiked tubes that dig into the victim and then drain their blood which comes out in a tap, ready for the Master to drink in a glass like he's been given a fine red wine. Appropriately, one of the snivelling, snarky Cordettes from earlier is used as the first victim, and it's a scene that's both gruesome and blackly comic – especially the way in which the Master gleefully explains “She's still alive, you see, for the freshness”.

The climatic battle is another notable aspect of this episode. It's shot very well, especially the slow-motion sequences, which again, spotlight some real world parallels and ironies. Xander finally gets his wish of killing Angel. Buffy is the one who slays Xander (hmm, just like she metaphorically staked his heart in Prophecy Girl?) and Oz turns out to be the killer of Willow. A notable new innovation is the dusting effect, which becomes the norm from this episode on. The victim's skin turns to brown dust which falls off to reveal the skeleton underneath, which then also turns to ashes: a finely achieved special effect.

The Wish is a massive success, taking a tried and tested concept, and turning it into an action-packed masterpiece, full of dry wit, drama and horror. There's plenty of double meanings and real world parallels for the Buffy fans, and there's lots to choose from in Marti Noxon's script when it comes to selecting great lines, from Buffy's cold treatment of Angel through to Giles' belief that there is a better world waiting to be restored.

This is one of Noxon's best outings, assembled with great skill and thought into how the alternate characters would work. David Greenwalt's direction tops off this gem with equal care and dedication, creating a truly nightmarish take on the Sunnydale that we know, full of queasy claustrophobia and the feeling that no one but the Master is going to make it out alive. Fans of Buffy The Vampire Slayer were probably wishing for their own fiendishly clever alternate reality episode, and with The Wish, they certainly got it.