My Buffy the Vampire Slayer re-watch brings me crashing into a world of scary new technology in Season 1, Episode 7, I Robot… You Jane. It contains spoilers and a content warning for passing references to cyberbullying and grooming.
I have to confess that in 1997 I had little knowledge of the internet and was probably further behind than Giles. As Ms Calendar encouraged Giles to join us in the 20th Century with three whole years to spare, like Giles, I felt more comfortable “back in the middle ages”.
While the technology shown in the episode now appears clunky and dated, what really strikes me about this episode is how prescient it is. It warns of the risks of the internet while also praising it’s potentially limitless benefits, a dilemma which resonates today. While we wouldn’t want to live without the benefits the internet provides – information at our finger tips and the ability to quickly connect with those who share are interests – we could do without cyberbullying, online harassment and threats of hacking.
We might conclude like Giles, that we are better off without the digital world. The internet can be a dangerous place, and while Ms Calendar extols the benefits of the technology there will always be people like Fritz, “making us all sound like crazy people”.
Joanna Robinson has insightfully put the case that the events of Buffy season 6 foreshadowed the particularly misogynistic online harassment incidents of recent years. Potential online risks are also uncovered in this much earlier Season 1 episode, I Robot… You Jane. So much so, that in some ways it’s hard to believe it was made over 20 years ago.
By scanning an ancient book, Willow unwittingly releases a demon into a computer, and from there the demon is able to inhabit the entire internet. Italian monks trapped him in the book back in 1418. So a question comes up – why was Willow scanning random bits of text? Ok, it’s just a plot device, let’s not get distracted…
Some of the havoc that ensues, caused by Moloch the Corruptor, is played out in the background of the episode, which is kinda nifty story telling. A student complains that their essay has been re-written to praise the Nazis. The school nurse has given a pupil the wrong medicine after the corruption of the school’s medical files. We hear on the radio of government files being hacked. Fun fact – that’s Joss Whedon reading the news on the radio.
Does any of this sound familiar today? Seriously – we don’t need a literal demon in the internet for malice to thrive. Just recently in the UK, ransomware attacked several NHS trusts. Cyberbullying and online pressuring of others into committing harm is also highlighted in the episode. Moloch bullies Dave into carrying out criminal activities and causes Fritz to self-harm and kill.
Central to the episode, Moloch adopts a fake identity as “Malcolm” to start an online relationship with Willow. The phenomena of people pretending they are someone they are not online – sometimes referred to as “catfishing” can pose serious threats to vulnerable people, and has also been known to be used to “groom” children and young people for abuse. As Xander argues to Buffy anyone can say they are anyone online – he can go into the elderly Dutch chatroom and say he is an elderly Dutch woman.
Recent years have seen disturbing levels of online harassment, sometimes causing misery that people feel they cannot escape. The scenes in which both Dave and Willow attempt to break from their connections with Moloch, show how the happiness of living in a world where everyone can share a connection can suddenly be replaced with the misery of being unable to disconnect and escape an online harasser.
When Buffy questions Willow’s interaction with “Malcolm” we see the use of a webcam to identify her and search for her school records which Moloch sends to Fritz with the message “watch her”. There’s a weird inconsistency here. Buffy’s file comes up in the office, and when it appears on Fritz’s screen a moment later, her birthdate and status are different. Is this a production error or does it signify that Moloch has changed Buffy’s details? I am going with the latter.
You can also see a folder called “Buffy… I Robot” on the desktop of Fritz’s screen. I have watched this episode a gazillion times and I only just noticed these details!
Giles is surprised by Jenny’s lack of surprise at the news that there is a demon in the internet. One of the cool aspects of this episode is also that it helps to establish the Buffyverse’s magic rules. Jenny identifies as a techno-pagan – when Giles asks her if she is a witch she replies, “I don’t have that kind of power”. Although not witches; the 15th century monks, Giles, Jenny and her online friends are able to cast the “circle of Kayless” to bind Moloch. Some humans have a high level connection to the earth’s magic, can control powerful magic, and can become witches. Others can learn to use magic and cast some spells, but do not have as much magical power as witches. While Willow has not yet shown any signs of being magical, her connection to Jenny – who also shares an interest in technology and the mystical – will later inadvertently lead to Willow developing her magical prowess to attempt to re-ensoul Angel.
Although Jenny and Giles are able to force Moloch out of the internet he does not go back into the book – instead he remains inside the robot body he has had created at the defunct tech company – CRD. Buffy is then able to defeat him by frying his circuitry.
20 years on, did Giles and Jenny really get the demon out of the internet? If not literal ones there is a case to argue that there are still several out there; bullying, racism, sexism, bigotry, you name it … Did I miss any?
Things to love about I Robot… You Jane:
- The relevance of it. See above… all of the above.
- Buffy’s super not-at-all conspicuous spying outfit.
- The introduction of computing teacher and techno-pagan Jenny Calendar – who will break Giles and all of our hearts.
- The chemistry between Giles and Jenny. They represent both a clash and a connection between tradition and technical worlds. They argue over it and they work together using both traditional and technical tools. Giles is sooo rude and petulant. And then polite – “well it has been so nice talking to you”.
- Xander, Willow and Buffy’s conversation at the end of the episode. Which is also sadly prescient for most of them for most of the time in the future …
Buffy: Let’s face it. None of us are ever going to have a happy, normal relationship.
Text Angela S