Note: there will be spoilers here. All the shows involved went off the air years ago, so if you haven’t watched them, that’s your own fault.
From when I was a kid, my favorite TV show was Star Trek in all its incarnations. (OK, not the animated series, which I still haven’t watched.) I figured that would always be the case, that nothing would ever be able to beat out Star Trek as my favorite. Then along came a show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff Angel. I now consider that combo to be my favorite TV show of all time (and space, for that matter.)
One of the reasons why has to do with sacrifice.
My favorite episode of any Star Trek series is “Yesterday’s Enterprise” from the Next Generation. In that episode, the Enterprise-D encounters a temporal anomaly through which the Enterprise-C emerges. At that moment, reality shifts, and the Federation has been at war with the Klingons for years — and they are losing. Meanwhile, the Enterprise-C, which had been lost years earlier, feels fortunate to have escaped from a battle they were losing against some Romulans while defending a Klingon outpost. Eventually, the Enterprise-C and its crew must go back through the anomaly to face certain death against the Romulans, because their heroic sacrifice defending Klingons will help prevent the Federation-Klingon war.
I love characters who sacrifice. I love sacrifice.
And Buffy the Vampire Slayer does sacrifice better than Star Trek.
Consider the finale of the second season. Buffy’s in love with Angel, the heroic vampire with a soul. But unfortunately he’s lost his soul and is now the evil Angelus. Angelus has a plan to suck the whole world into a hellish dimension. If he opens the portal, only killing him will be able to seal it. Thanks to ample evidence of Angelus’s cruelty, Buffy has reconciled herself to the fact that she may have to kill Angelus if he succeeds in opening the portal.
He succeeds, and Buffy fights against him. Then, just as victory against Angelus is in her grasp, the backup plan her friends were working on comes through: Angel’s soul is restored. He’s no longer evil — he’s the person she loves.
And she still has to kill him to seal the portal.
But even more than sacrifice, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel are about redemption — which is a theme Star Trek doesn’t deal with much, as most of its major characters were only evil in a parallel universe.
Various major characters in the Buffyverse have redemption arcs. One of the best involves Faith (played by Eliza Dushku, who was raised LDS [I had to tie this to Mormonism somehow]), a vampire slayer who turns to the dark side. Eventually Faith realizes she must pay for what she has done and turns herself in to the police and allows herself to be imprisoned for murder — even though her superpowers would allow her to break out at any time.
But there’s a key point about redemption made in the last season of Angel. Angel and Spike (another vampire with a soul — long story) talk about their eternal fates.
(walks close around Spike, whispering in his ear)
You think any of it matters? The things we did? The lives we destroyed. That’s all that’s ever gonna count. So, yeah, surprise. You’re going to hell. We both are.
(sits on couch)
Then why even bother?
Try to do the right thing, make a difference…
What else are we gonna do?
So that’s it, then. I really am going to burn.
Welcome to the club.
On the surface, it sounds like a lack of redemption. But the deeper truth is that by becoming the kind of people who choose to do good even though they believe it doesn’t do them any good, they are redeeming themselves.
Very few of us have done as much evil as Angelus and Spike did in their soulless days, but if redemption seems possible for them, then it should be possible for us, too. But the key is not just to do good, adding up the good deeds vs. bad on some cosmic scale, but rather to become good.