Buffyversity: A Defense of “I, Robot… You, Jane”

By | January 1st, 2021
Posted in Columns | % Comments

Before we bid 2020 a final farewell, we share some of our favorite writing from the past year.  We wish all of you a happy and healthy New Year, with the hope for brighter days in 2021.  

In nearly every online ranking of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” episodes, season one’s “I, Robot… You, Jane” consistently makes the bottom five, and I stand before you as a fan, and as a millennial, to say that re-watching this episode in 2020 is delightfully funny, and historically compelling. This undeservedly oft-maligned episode originally aired in 1997, and seriously, that seems to be its most egregious crime… having aired in the year 1997. Is it dated? Yeah! The whole show is dated, you know, due to the date that it was made, and this episode’s focus on technology makes us more hyper-aware of the many differences twenty-three years can make, but I genuinely don’t understand why that’s supposed to be a bad thing. It’s fun to hear dated techno-babble!

On a deeper level, it’s interesting to remember the kinds of societal anxieties that the early internet inspired, back when fears were based on expectations instead of decades of experience. The first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the most part sticks to a monster-of-the-week formula, where each episode’s monster represents one of the many difficulties facing high school students. So this episode is a time capsule of what adults were afraid would happen to their kids on the internet in 1997. These fears did not include mass surveillance by advertising companies, or the spread of misinformation about a deadly global pandemic, or PewDiePie, and in retrospect, the fears of the ’90s seem positively quaint. It’s enough to make you clasp your hands, audibly sigh, and say, “simpler times” which is a thing grown-ups said in 1997 when they were thinking about 1974.

This episode set in the past (that was the present at the time), actually begins even further back in the past (which was also the past at the time), in Cortona Italy in 1418. A group of monks bind the demon Moloch the Corrupter into a large leather book. Centuries later, Buffy finds Moloch’s book-prison as she and the Scooby gang help Giles scan every book in the library, so they can be accessible via this newfangled thing called “the internet.” Here to help them is crowd-favorite Jenny Calendar, the computer teacher. Giles, like a lot of people, is deeply disdainful of any technological progress that occurred after he acquired his BA in English, but Jenny is determined to get him on board. They engage in an adorable tete-a-tete, during which Jenny assures Giles that he will join the twentieth century, “with three whole years to spare.” Jenny helpfully points out that last year more people sent electronic mail (a.k.a. E-mail) than regular mail (she means paper mail). Then Giles heads into the stacks and declares, “I’ll be in the middle ages” and Jenny retorts, “Did you ever leave?” Zing! This is the root of what will blossom into their classic odd-couple romance: Giles the fuddy-duddy librarian and Jenny the confident techno-pagan. That alone should be enough to bump this episode several spaces up in the rankings.

Poor nerdy Willow sticks around after everyone else has left, and unknowingly scans Moloch the Corrupter out of his book-prison and into the internet. The next day, Willow gleefully tells Buffy about a boy, Malcolm, she met online, to which Buffy earnestly replies, “On line for what?” That joke is worthy of an “lol.” Fun fact: the earliest recorded use of “lol” was in 1989! However, in 1997 internet lingo as complicated as “online” has yet to catch on in Sunnydale. It’s worth reminding ourselves that computers, the internet, and all related technology used to be considered geeky, and geeky things used to be considered uncool. Today, Buffy would be a fool for failing to understand what it means to meet someone “online.” In 1997, she’s just too cool to be in on that stuff.

Malcolm has also seduced Fritz and Dave, a couple of background nerds under Jenny’s tutelage. Jenny notices they’ve spent a gratuitous amount of time in the computer lab. We can tell Fritz is especially messed up because he repeats aloud to himself “I’m jacked in, I’m jacked in,” while he carves an “M” into his arm with an exact-o-knife. Okay, that escalated quickly, but Fritz’s behavior expresses a reasonable fear that people still have about the internet today; that it can become addictive, and that it can cause real harm. Moloch the Corrupter never recruited any cultists on AIM, (as far as I know), but any high schooler can leave YouTube on autoplay and come into contact with some truly yikes-inducing content published by similarly unsavory characters with similarly ill intent. As terrible as the internet can be, let me be clear; reading columns on is fun, and you should spend more of your time here, not less.

Continued below

My favorite part of “I, Robot… You, Jane” comes up after Buffy, Giles, and Xander have figured out that Moloch the Corrupter is loose on the internet and manipulating Willow and the other nerds under the name Malcolm. Xander calls Willow’s landline telephone to warn her, but she doesn’t pick up. However, Xander cleverly deduces that Willow isn’t connected to the internet, because he didn’t get a busy signal. That’s how the internet used to work! In 1997! Remember? Isn’t it fun to remember stuff like that? I’m grinning ear-to-ear. The point is, the dated nature of “I, Robot… You, Jane” is a feature, not a bug. It’s both hilarious and illuminating about how fears inspired by the internet have changed over time. So if you were quick to dismiss this one, I heartily recommend you take a second glance. Come for the historical implications, stay for the inexplicable quotation marks in whatever AOL chat room this is supposed to be.

//TAGS | buffy the vampire slayer | Buffyversity

Laura Merrill


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