Written by Ashley Gable & Thomas A. Swyden
Directed by Stephen Posey
Original Air Date: April 28th 1997
In my last review for the superlative episode ‘Angel’, I declared that the episode was a classic and that things would get increasingly better for the series from that point on. As is sometimes the case with me, I jumped the gun and might have been a little incorrect because the next episode, the review of which you are now reading, is for ‘I Robot… You Jane’ and it’s generally considered by some, in fact many, to be one of those bad episodes of the series’ earlier years.
Now, I don’t hate this episode the way many do, in fact, I rather enjoy it, but before we get to that, let’s have a little television history lesson because why not? 90s genre television and emerging technology have a strange habit of mixing and delivering strange episodes of television. The X-Files devoted an episode of its first season to a HAL-9000 like computer system that went psychotic entitled ‘Ghost in the Machine’ that is usually regarded as a weak entry of that show too, although me being me I actually have nostalgic affection for its brand of 90s genre television dealing with technology gone amok story.
‘I Robot… You Jane’ falls somewhat in to the same realms of that X-Files episode and because it dated right from the moment it premiered in 1997, while also having been written, shot and edited in 1996, it’s an episode that has not aged well, not least in its depiction of what might look like giant computers to a Generation Z audience (you can positively hear anyone aged eighteen or younger watching it wondering what in the hell the white things the characters use anytime they’ve appeared in the show and I’ve just realised how much of an older person thing it might have been to write that sentence), while the episode takes a somewhat anti-technology stance in the manner that any hour of television dealing with psychotic technology was prone to do.
Giles’ speech about how he hates computers because they don’t smell is a stance the episode is clearly taking, and while his dialogue about how books have a wonderful musty smell to them is true (one of the reasons I adore books and love book stores), there is something darkly anti-technology to the episode’s tone that comes across maybe more nihilistic that intended, especially when it builds to a robot monster the likes of which the episode is building up to.
Not only are computers the source of much of this episode’s drama, but it also deals with the concept of Catfishing before that was even a term (strangely enough, The X-Files also devoted an episode to that in ‘2Shy’, and I should apologise for constantly bringing up The X-Files but it’s hard not to sometimes since I grew up watching both shows as they aired at the same time and very much represented high watermarks for American genre television at the time, particularly works devoted to horror and supernatural themes).
With its lacklustre reputation, it’s easy to expect the worst from ‘I Robot… You Jane’, but honestly it’s not terrible, although it is somewhat of a let down coming off the back of what was without a doubt the very best episode of the series right before it. What is most disappointing about the episode is that it positions itself as an episode all about Willow and as a vehicle for Alyson Hannigan’s talents, but instead opts to focus more on how Buffy and Xander view her; the opportunity is there for a potent drama about the danger of online dating and falling in love with someone who isn’t who they say they are, and given that this was aired in 1997 and was premiering on the cusp of that moment when everyone was on the verge of having easier access to the internet, it really should have been a more powerful work, and maybe might have been had its story been filtered through Willow herself; this stage it was very clear that Alyson Hannigan was going to be an MVP of the series.
There are large sections of the episode in which she isn’t there, but the script is focusing more on how Buffy and Xander are reacting to the events going around her rather than how it’s impacting on Willow herself, which makes the episode lose marks for being somewhat of a missed opportunity. It just feels like such a shame given that this season has devoted not one, but two episodes to Xander and pretty much put a lot of focus on the character in the space of those two scripts.
The final act does see the character reclaim the hour when it comes to the final set-piece, but to do so, it involves the character fighting a giant robot that looks somewhat like the titular alien from the Predator movies and it’s not very convincing either. The choice is also made to provide the character of Moloch the Corrupter with a Hal-9000 like voice which feels too on the nose and obvious.
Having said all that, there are individual moments that stop the episode from being a complete waste of time; there is a truly dark moment involving a fake suicide note that might very well be one of the darkest moments of the show so far, right up there with murdering poor Principal Flutie a few weeks ago, and admittedly the robot is given some brilliantly diabolical dialogue to let us know how bad he is. The fact that Moloch targets and manipulates male characters to do his bidding is an interesting notion, not to mention the fact that the character is a cold blooded one who isn’t above killing his minions on a whim. It’s scenes and ideas that like these that give it a darker drive that sets it apart from the B-movie escapade of something like ‘Teacher’s Pet’.
Of course, one of the most important elements of the entire forty-five minutes is the debut of Jenny Calendar to the series. Robia LaMorte makes an instant impression on the audience, and the reveal that she knows more than she’s letting on, coupled with her chemistry with Giles, doesn’t make it too much of a surprise that they would opt to bring her back for future episodes.
So, worst episode of the season? Not worst, per se, but it ranks more as a missed opportunity, and that’s a shame.