Aug 15, 2010

Non-fiction: The Complete Slayer - Keith Topping

I have never been a huge fan of official guides to movies and TV shows. They are usually filled with completely pointless trivia and inconsequential facts, and rarely touch on the deeper and more interesting aspects of the work. Buffy's guides are, unfortunately, not an exception to this rule, and even though the show itself is overflowing with subtext, symbolism and interesting themes, the three parts of The Watcher's Guide offer not nearly enough insight into the minds of Joss Whedon and the rest of the people responsible for this amazing work of art.

Unofficial guides are riskier though. Some of them can be so devastatingly amateurish as to make you wish self-publication was punishable by death, and publishing books required an officially sanctioned IQ test. And yet sometimes an exception appears - one that proves that a truly dedicated intelligent fan could always do a better job than any "professional" (a similar case could be made for anime fansubbers VS official subs). Case in point - Keith Topping and his "unofficial and unauthorized" guide Slayer.

Keith Topping is a British writer and journalist who has written a huge number of movie and TV show guides as well as other media- and fan-fiction related literature. His first Buffy guide - Slayer: The Totally Cool Unofficial Guide to Buffy - comes out in 2000 and covers the first three seasons of the show. Since then every subsequent season has seen either a revised version of the guide, or its own separate entry, until in 2004 Virgin Books released The Complete Slayer - a hefty Lord of the Rings-sized volume that features each and every episode of the show, as well as the unfortunate movie that preceded it.

Now, I realize that at first glance the words "episode guide" do not evoke excitement. But that is only if you think "official". In Mr. Topping's case we're talking about a book that is easily one of the most engaging and informative Buffy-related non-fiction works ever written. Each entry in The Complete Slayer begins with the airing dates for US and UK, the Director, Writer, Story and Cast credits and a quick synopsis. They are then divided into separate labels that mark different aspects of the show, most of which are basically recap. Some of those are featured in every episode, and some are specific to only a particular one.

Dreaming (As Blondie Once Said) is Free - this entry features in every episode where a dream is presented or even mentioned. Nothing much to say, but it's actually pretty cool that someone paid attention at the fact that Buffy did such amazing dream sequences.

Dudes and Babes - as is probably obvious - deals with all romantic/dating aspects of the episode.

Authority Sucks! - every attempt at controlling the Scooby Gang from an authority figure of any sort.

Mom's Apple Pie - aspects of traditional American life, either simply portrayed, or used for a setting of a catastrophe.

Denial, Thy Name is Joice depicts the many amazing ways in which Buffy's mother manages to fool herself into believing that everything is ok with the world. Funny thing is, this label sometimes changes names if another character is particularly prone to denying reality in that particular episode.

It's a Designer Label! - one of the more pointless (to me) entries, which focuses on the clothes - good or bad - that characters wear in the episode.

References is pretty much self-explanatory, although I have to point out that the author has missed some. However, with a show that pop-culturey it's impossible not to.

Geek-Speak goes for the most Whedonesque lines in the episode, particularly those that reference comic books and other geeky stuff. For obvious reasons focused around Xander and some particular characters in Season 6.

Valley Speak - the slang used in the show. Or, as Whedon puts it, "twisting the English language until it cries in pain".

I Just Love Your Accent focuses on Buffy and her friends making fun of the way Giles speaks, and anything British in general.

Bitch! quotes the most outrageous, mean, snarky and sarcastic lines. Usually from the girl-cast, but not always.

Awesome! - the scenes that most impressed Mr. Topping. They are usually pretty close to my own favorites, although he seems more focused on action than me.

Cigarettes and Alcohol - another uninspiring label which - very much like the fashion one - lists the usage and mentions of - wait for it! - cigarettes and alcohol!

The Drugs Don't Work - Same as the above, for... I'm not even gonna say it.

Don't Give Up The Day Job appears when a member of the cast or crew is or has been known for a different kind of profession.

A Little Learning Is a Dangerous Thing - whenever some form of studying is being done or mentioned.

The Conspiracy Starts at Home Time is featured whenever some mystery is alluded to, that has something to do with a bigger story-arc.

'You Might Remember Me From Such Movies and TV Series As...' - the most famous roles of guest stars in that particular episode.

Logic, Let Me Introduce You To This Window is by far my favorite section in every episode (because I am a very mean person), and it is present in every single one. It lists all the logical errors, as well as shooting mistakes and all kinds of mishaps detectable in the episode.

Quote/Unquote - the most notable lines. Only, not my personal favorites usually. It's strange how the author rarely picks the quotes that I've liked the most.

Notes is my other favorite. Before delving into listing of facts we've learned from the episode, its first paragraph is always dedicated to Keith Topping's personal (and usually very informed) opinion of the episode from the point of view of professional reviewing - plot structure, ideas, acting, all that joy. It's surprising how often his opinion matches mine there.

Those are the most commonly appearing entries. There are others like Critique (which covers the media reaction for particularly important episodes) or Soundtrack (when there's a memorable song), but most are too rare to list.

In the end, it's obviously a matter of which - if any - of those things interests you. I have to admit that I skip some of them, like Designer Label, Day Job or You May Know Me... But I find most of the others very interesting, and I really enjoy reading the entry of each episode that I've just seen. It's a habit that I formed around the time I started watching Angel (Topping's Hollywood Vampire is the Angel version of Slayer, and I'll review it some other time). Now, as I rewatch Buffy, I'm finding the guide particularly useful in making the most interesting and fun parts of the show stick in my memory. I'd recommend it to everyone who is a fan of the show or is just now planning to start watching it. It's a great read, and extremely helpful, as Mr. Topping has obviously spent an incredible time on every detail of every episode. Plus, all that encyclopedic information that some people inexplicably care about.


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