Top 10 Fantasy & SF TV Series

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TOP 10 FANTASY & SF TV SERIES

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For many – perhaps most – people, fantasy and SF is a cinematic or screen experience rather than a literary one – and in this present so-called Golden Age of Television, that screen often tends to be the smaller screen of television rather than the larger cinematic screen.

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These are my top 10 fantasy & SF TV series here on Stark After Dark, judged by their mythic effect on me – the way in which they changed or shaped the way I see the world (my mythos as it were), or defined the way I view fantasy or SF on TV. This makes my top ten lists for television among the most fluid of my top ten lists, because with some notable exceptions, they typically consist of series presently screening or ongoing, as they are the ones that continue to engage my interest or imagination (particularly as it is their ongoing mythos that engages me). Once a series is past or finished, I tend to relegate it to special mention – or, for that matter, when a series has waned over time. And that is where it gets still more fluid as, again with notable exceptions, fantasy or SF series have a habit of waning in quality with ongoing seasons, often (or perhaps especially) after the opening premise of their first season (or in terms of TV Tropes, moving beyond seasonal rot to jumping the shark).

 

 

(10) THE MAGICIANS (2015 – PRESENT)

 

In a nutshell, The Magicians combines a dark adult version of Harry Potter with a dark adult version of Narnia.

 

In my Top 10 Fantasy Books, I confessed my fantasy fan secret that I don’t particularly like Harry Potter. I don’t particularly dislike it either. It’s…okay. Which is to say it just pales in comparison to some of the other children’s or young adult fantasy out there, some of which are wild rides indeed, and I evoked Australian writer Garth Nix by comparison.

 

On screen (albeit the small screen), the Magicians offers a more intriguing comparison – as I said, it combines a dark adult version Hogwarts in its Brakebills University with a dark adult version of Narnia in its Fillory.

 

The TV series adapts Lev Grossman’s novel series of the same name and premise – protagonist Quentin Coldwater enrolls at Brakebills University for Magical Pedagogy to be trained as one of the titular Magicians, where he discovers that the magical world from his favorite childhood books is real and poses a danger to humanity. Over time, the series develops a number of intriguing and overlapping narrative threads.

 

In The Magicians, magic is dangerous. And it costs, usually in sacrifice or profound loss. That’s whether it’s the curriculum of spells in Brakebills University or so-called hedge witches scrounging for scraps of magic elsewhere. Magical creatures and gods are dangerous. The magical land of Fillory is dangerous – particularly as the seat of power of the Beast, who has made it over in his image (and whose face is shrouded in a swarm of moths).

 

To paraphrase Hemingway, magic tends to break everyone (although most of the magicians are somewhat broken in the first place) – but those that will not break, it kills.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

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(9) I-ZOMBIE (2015 – PRESENT)

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This entry, iZombie, is based on a Vertigo comic series (albeit one I have not read). It’s a spin on the zombie apocalypse, or perhaps more precisely, the zombie virus (which of course is potentially a zombie apocalypse). With the titular zombie, it features what must surely be the zombie pinup girl, Olivia “Liv” Moore – certainly the most attractive zombie in popular culture (with the arguable exception of Jenna Jameson in the deplorable film Zombie Strippers, although that was the premise of the film’s ‘joke’, such as it was). Of course, it helps that she is not, you know, decomposing – although her zombification has resulted in a pale emo white-haired appearance.

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The premise of the series is summarised by TV Tropes:

 

“Olivia “Liv” Moore is a young, upwardly-mobile go-getter who has it all. She’s pretty, perky, has a hot fiance, and is on the fast track to becoming a heart surgeon. Well, she was“.

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What she is now is a zombie – after being scratched in a zombie outbreak at a party, she emerges from her body bag (much to the alarm of emergency services personnel) to find that she is now undead herself. As a zombie, she finds she can preserve her bodily and mental faculties as well as retain her personality by eating brains, so to do so she now works in the morgue rather than as a surgical resident. However, a side effect of eating brains is that she picks up some of the memories, skills and personality traits of the original – ah – brain ‘donor’, which she then channels into assisting a police detective to solve their murders (the usual source of the morgue’s bodies) by posing as a psychic (while collaborating with her supervisor, who is aware of her condition, to find a cure).

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It’s a genre-bending series – combining elements of urban fantasy, horror and police procedural drama amongst others, not to mention the various conspiracies, both living and undead, to exploit the zombie virus for fun and profit (not least the corporation whose energy drink lead to the initial outbreak).

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(8) ASH VS EVIL DEAD (2015 – PRESENT)

 

Hail to the king, baby!

 

Well, not quite – Ash is back (played gloriously by the chin himself, Bruce Campbell), but things haven’t turned out quite so well for him. What’s worse – the evil dead are back as well, due to a moment of characteristic idiocy by Ash. (Pro tip – do not get stoned and read books of the dead. Although it does set the tone for the series). O well – it’s only the end of the world. What’s the worst that could happen?

 

Ash vs Evil Dead flows directly from the Evil Dead film franchise – which, as I said when I placed it in the top spot of my top 10 horror films, is not high art, but it embodies (in virtually every sense of that word) the archetypal B-grade horror movie in all its fun and glory, with tongue ever more firmly in cheek. Of course, the TV series starts with its tongue firmly in its cheek. Well, in someone’s cheek at least. Probably a whole lot of cheeks.

 

Need a recap? Ash helpfully provides it in the first episode:

 

“Thirty years ago, my friends and I spent the night at a cabin. We found the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, the book of the dead. Certain passages were recited. It awoke something in the woods. Something evil. I was the only one to escape. But now, the evil has found me.”

 

And it certainly has – from the opening ass-slapping scene onwards. Hold on – you’re in for a wild ride! All the iconic elements from the film franchise are there – the Book of the Dead, the Evil Dead, the chainsaw, Ash’s hand(s), that cabin with its eldritch architecture, all that dark fantasy comedy you loved from the sequels and all that splashing of gore that defines the franchise. And a lot of new elements, including some genuine touches of nightmare fuel amidst the dark fantasy comedy – as well as Xena’s Lucy Lawless.

 

Groovy!

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

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(7) THE STRAIN (2014 – PRESENT)

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It’s a vampire apocalypse in a box!

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My fifth place entry is one of two (or perhaps three) genuinely horror series in my top ten fantasy and SF TV series – and a vampire horror series at that, something of a rarity in television.

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And one that portrays vampires as the blood-sucking parasitic abominations they are. (Yes – I have fantastic racism against vampires. Stake them all in the sun, I say. Except hot vampire girls, of course. And there’s none of those in this series). In this case, vampirism is spread by the worm-like parasites that crawl from their bodies, one of which was depicted burrowing into an eye in an infamous promotional poster. (It’s reminiscent of the Lovecraftian vampire parasite things in the pulpy Necroscope book series by Brian Lumley).

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It’s a welcome relief from the sexy (or worse, sparkly) vampires of True Blood (or worse, Twilight) and most vampires in popular culture these days – the vampires in The Strain are distinctly unsexy vile abominations of extreme body horror. It’s hard to be sexy when your (male) genitalia have atrophied and dropped off, while your excretory organs have fused together into a cloaca. Eww!

 

The series is the brainchild of Guillermo de Toro (yes, THAT Guillermo de Toro) and Chuck Hogan, based on their novel trilogy of the same name (albeit one originally conceived as a story line for a television series). The series opens with CDC medical staff called to an airliner in which everyone appears to have succumbed to a mysterious viral infection or disease. Or at least, so authorities surmise – instead, it is worse. Much worse.

 

Soon, New York finds itself battling for its very existence against an ancient enemy with humanity itself at stake.

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

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(6) THE WALKING DEAD (2010 – PRESENT)

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The zombie revolution WILL be televised!

 

Zombie apocalypse television series, The Walking Dead, is based on the Image Comics series of the same name, although if anything the comics are even more bleak and brutal. Anyone can die – and when they do, they become zombies. However, the zombies play a larger role in the first few seasons, with the apocalypse looming larger in the later seasons. In later seasons, the zombies recede somewhat into the background, mostly as an ever present lurking threat, but manageable. Like weeds. Although unlike the comics, no one ever seems to refer to them as zombies – always using terms such as walkers, biters or whatever.

 

Anyway, the true villains are amongst the post-apocalyptic human survivors. The Governor. Terminus. Wolves and Saviours.

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They are the antagonists for our focal group of survivors, led by former police officer Rick Grimes – and with an ever rotating roster, as members are munched by zombies or killed off by post-apocalyptic villains. The group forages for survival and refuge on the southern Atlantic seaboard of the United States, originally in the surrounds of Atlanta. And it is particularly known for its post-apocalyptic pinup boy Darryl, who’s just too cool for zombie food despite the disadvantage of not being in the original comic.

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Yeah, he's not going anywhere

Yeah, he’s not going anywhere

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Finally, it also has one of my favorite opening sequences, changing over the seasons, but consistently evocative images in faded color of the detritus of the post-apocalyptic United States – with just a hint of zombie.

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(5) BLACK MIRROR (2011 – PRESENT)

 

Black Mirror – the cyberpunk Twilight Zone of the twenty-first century!

 

Okay, that cyberpunk label may be overstating it, but it certainly is a series of dark and satirical twists in the tale of the unanticipated or unintended consequences of technology and social media in modern society – or, in the words of series creator Charlie Brooker, “the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy.”

 

It is an anthology series with no continuity between episodes – each episode has a different cast, a different setting or even a different reality, so you don’t have to watch them in order. Personally, I’d recommend starting with the third season and working your way backwards (at least until the awaited fourth season) – particularly as the very first episode doesn’t extrapolate so much on technology or social media and can be a little confronting (although unforgettable – let’s just say you won’t feel about pork the same way again).

 

As for the premise and title of the series, it’s back to Charlie Brooker:

 

“If technology is a drug – and it does feel like a drug – then what, precisely, are the side effects? This area – between delight and discomfort – is where Black Mirror, my new drama series, is set. The ‘black mirror’ of the title is the one you’ll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone.”

 

Black Mirror episodes deserve their own top ten list – some episodes appeal more than others, although there have been no dud episodes to my taste. However, the third season is a definite highpoint (although that is not to exclude The Entire History of You in the first season, White Bear in the second and the White Christmas special) – with the series’ most acclaimed episode of San Junipero (a touching love story with some virtual twists and turns) as well as Nosedive (in which society is stratified into castes based on social media popularity) and Men Against Fire (with its chilling dehumanization in a dystopian war).

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****

 

 

(4) AMERICAN GODS (2017 – PRESENT)

 

“Believe”

 

American Gods is worth it for the psychedelic opening title sequence alone.

 

But of course it’s worth it for much more than that. It adapts the novel by Neil Gaiman, who (as I opined in my Top 10 Fantasy Books) may simply be the greatest living writer of fantasy – and my favorite Gaiman novel at that (as well as my favorite fantasy book short only of The Lord of the Rings).

 

Both novel and series focus on Shadow Moon, one of my favorite fantasy protagonists – although series Shadow is less of an unfazed everyman than novel Shadow, as the latter would work less well on screen. Shadow accepts a job offer as a ‘bodyguard’ for a mysterious man named Wednesday after being released from prison (particularly as he finds himself at a loose end after his wife and best friend are killed in a car accident in a compromising position with each other). This takes him into a world of gods and mythic beings that exist because people believe in them – and even more so, a looming war between the waning old gods of traditional mythologies and rising new gods of modern society.

 

One of the most striking features of the novel was Gaiman’s lyrical invocations of gods and goddesses, which the series adapts into striking visual invocations of gods and goddesses – reflecting that Gaiman is “very involved with the production of the series as well as the vision of series creator Fuller in adapting the mythic world of the novel.

 

The series expands on the mythic world of that novel – a joy to someone such as myself who loved that world and wanted to explore it further – as well as the events of the novel. And so we see an expanded role for Laura, Shadow’s magically revenant wife and one of my favorite characters from the novel.  We also see a role for Jesus, the subject of a throwaway line from the novel by one of the envious old gods – “there’s a lucky son of a virgin”. Or more precisely, ah, Jesuses, as there are often different incarnations of gods based on different beliefs – perhaps most powerfully in an incarnation by Mexican immigrants.

 

The series also perfectly captures the thematic power of belief from the novel – one of my favorite sequences involves Shadow making snow from belief (under Wednesday’s tutelage) in the episode named for it, “Head Full of Snow”. And then there are the gods themselves, brought to life (along with the other characters) by inspired casting choices – particularly with the new gods fleshed out from the novel, led by the trinity of Mr. World (played to creepy awesome effect by Crispin Glover), Media and the Technical Boy.

 

Above all, the series perfectly depicts how the gods and magic can turn our mortal world inside out. The gods are dangerous, even the old gods as shadows (heh) of their former selves

 

Believe. O yes – believe.

 

RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

 

 

(3) STRANGER THINGS (2016 – PRESENT)

 

I assume this series needs little introduction – the Netflix Original series to rival HBO’s Game of Thrones!

 

And what’s not to love for fantasy and SF fans?

 

Eleven! The Upside Down! The Demogorgon and Mind Flayer! Steve Harrington’s magnificent hair (and its secret)!

 

 

More broadly, 1980’s nostalgia and pop culture references aplenty! Psychokinetic girls (reminiscent of Charlie, not to mention her adversary, the Shop, in one of my favorite Stephen King novels, Firestarter). Extradimensional alien invasion – evoking Alien and Aliens in Seasons 1 and 2 respectively (with more than a touch of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos)! Mysterious government agencies to rival the nastier versions of men in black (with their black helicopters) – so that’s what the Department of Energy does?

 

And of course there’s all those Dungeons and Dragons references for this fantasy fan – “I’m our Paladin, Will’s our Cleric, Dustin’s our Bard, Lucas is our Ranger, and El’s our Mage”.

 

To quote Wikipedia, series creators the Duffer brothers “developed the series as a mix of investigative drama alongside supernatural elements with childlike sensibilities, establishing its time frame in the 1980s and creating a homage to pop culture of that decade. Several themes and directorial aspects were inspired and aesthetically informed by the works of Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter, and Stephen King, among others”. Set in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana in the 1980’s, the first season focuses on the investigation into the disappearance of a young boy amid supernatural (or rather paranormal) events centered on the nearby Hawkins National Laboratory – and the second season is even, ah, more upside downier.

 

On the other hand, I can suspend disbelief in the Demogorgon and Upside Down – but no one ever made it that far in the Dragon’s Lair videogame…

 

RATING – IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

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(2) GAME OF THRONES (2011 – PRESENT)

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House of Stark! HOUSE OF STARK!

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Of course, you saw this coming. Adapted from George R. R. Martin’s (unfinished) book series A Song of Ice and Fire (and sharing the same title with the first book), executive producer David Benioff jokingly suggested a tagline of The Sopranos in Middle Earth.

Or rather, I’ll make my own Middle Earth – with blackjack and hookers!

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More accurately, it has a plotline drawn from history, if history was much more interesting with dragons and zombies – the English War of the Roses (with the northern House of Stark substituted for the House of York and the southern House of Lannister substituted for the House of Lancaster) mixed with Hadrian’s Wall (with a zombie apocalypse brewing north of it), with more exotic elements (the Mongol Dothraki horde and Khan Khal Drogo).

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Anyway, the combination has proved wildly popular – “Game of Thrones has attracted record numbers of viewers on HBO and attained an exceptionally broad and active international fan base. It has received widespread acclaim by critics, particularly for its acting, complex characters, story, scope, and production values”. Even better, it has contributed to “the popularity of fantasy themes and mainstream acceptance of fantasy fandom”, so that “you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who isn’t a fan of some sort of epic fantasy”. Of course, the nudity, sex and violence helps.

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As for me, I was hooked from those awesome opening credits and opening scene of the first season – with the Night’s Watch looking into the heart of the night north of the Wall. The scenes of the Night’s Watch and the Wall have tended to be my favorite throughout the series.

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And of course, the series is a positive boon to people with the name of Stark (yes – that is my actual surname), although our House hasn’t been doing too well.

Sigh - honor before reason

Sigh – honor before reason

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Like little miss badass Arya Stark, I have my list of characters who must pay for their crimes against the House of Stark (with Littlefinger in top spot). O yes, they will pay…

The North remembers – and winter is coming.

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****

 

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(1) BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (ANGEL) (1997 – 2003)

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“Into every generation a Slayer is born: one girl in all the world, a Chosen One. She alone will wield the strength and skill to fight the vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness; to stop the spread of their evil and the swell of their numbers. She is the Slayer”.

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And in the end, just like the Slayer, there can only be one TV series in the top spot – Buffy the Vampire Slayer. For me, just as The Lord of the Rings defined literary (and cinematic) fantasy, Buffy the Vampire Slayer defined television fantasy – hence its top spot. In the words of TV Tropes (which itself originated as a Buffy fansite), “nobody can deny or ignore the influence of Buffy on the TV shows that followed it, both within and outside the genre”, notably in longer story arcs within seasons. Robert Moore of Popmatters wrote “TV was not art before Buffy, but it was afterwards,” and similarly Dr Who executive producer Russel Davies has said “Buffy the Vampire Slayer showed the whole world, and an entire sprawling industry, that writing monsters and demons and end-of-the world is not hack-work, it can challenge the best. Joss Whedon raised the bar for every writer—not just genre/niche writers, but every single one of us”.

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As for Buffy herself, she is one of the most iconic female figures in fantasy (and certainly in television fantasy). The premise of the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (with the name as part of the premise) is an inversion of the horror trope in which the doomed (dumb) blonde girl (typically of the appearance of a cheerleader, if not an actual cheerleader) is attacked by monsters in dark alley. In Buffy’s case, the blonde cheerleader is the Slayer, a mystically empowered warrior of whom the monsters are afraid.

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In the story, Slayers are called or chosen by fate, one at a time (passing on with the death of the previous Slayer), to battle against vampires, demons and other forces of darkness. (The prehistoric origin of the Slayer was explored in the seventh and final season of the TV series. Indeed, the Lovecraftian origin of demons and vampires is set out in the very outset of the show – demons originally ruled the world, before some sort of mystical realignment moved them into other dimensions, with vampires remaining behind as a lower form of demon in the bodies of their mortal victims). This mystical calling endows them with superhuman physical strength, endurance, agility, accelerated healing, intuition, and a limited degree of clairvoyance or precognition. (On one occasion, Buffy refers to her spider senses tingling). Like previous Slayers, Buffy (famously played by Sarah Michelle Gellar) is aided by her “Watcher”, a member of an ancient conspiracy dedicated to finding and training Slayers to fight the forces of darkness. However, unlike her predecessors (and critically for her unusual longevity as a Slayer), she has a circle of loyal friends who dub themselves the Scooby Gang.

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The starting point of the television series is the original film (both the brain child of Joss Whedon) – Buffy has learned that she is the Slayer and hoping to elude her responsibilities (as well as being forced to move schools after setting the school gym on fire to kill the vampires inside it), moves with her mother to Sunnydale, an apparently sleepy little town in southern California. However, things are never so easy, as she soon learns that Sunnydale sits on top of the Hellmouth, a mystical source of energy (and portal) which accounts for the never-ending stream of monsters drawn to it (and for Buffy’s own presence there). The series continues as Buffy battles various hellbeasts and spawn while juggling her double life as a schoolgirl (and while Sunnydale’s adults for the most part seem to be unable to acknowledge the evil brewing right under their feet).

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Apocalypse? Just another day in Sunnydale. Or as her tombstone read (she got better), she saved the world a lot.

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One of the greatest strengths of the series was its metaphorical and thematic depth – “given that demons on Buffy are walking metaphors for existing evils — reptilian authority figures, suddenly-soulless boyfriends, and so on — the B-horror trappings take on an entirely new meaning, usually with a sly feminist wink inserted”. The premise of the early seasons was ‘high school as hell’, extending to life in general in later seasons (and its spinoff series, Angel). Indeed, real life arguably became the antagonist in the sixth season (although that season had a mixed reception). Of course, there were still supernatural antagonists – a trio of fanboy nerds who suddenly decided to become supernatural supervillains, and more apocalyptically, Buffy’s own friend Willow, crazed on (and addicted) to magic (which, in the betrayal by a close friend, perhaps brings us back full circle to real life as antagonist). One episode from this season (and perhaps my favorite episode) illustrates this best, while also presenting itself as an alternative (and arguably more plausible) storyline for the entire series – with Buffy a patient in  an asylum, lapsing into catatonic fantasies of herself as Slayer. Although one aspect of the real life as antagonist bugged me – Buffy’s financial difficulties. Surely the Council of Watchers, who seem to have extensive resources acquired over centuries or millennia – including the means to purchase rare magical books and to infiltrate their members as librarians in schools – could pay for their most valuable asset, the Slayer herself?

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Our Lady of Sunnydale

Our Lady of Sunnydale

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Close-runner up is the spin-off series Angel, although one might well regard it as intimately part of the ‘Buffyverse’ as the parent series itself – with characters (and storylines) shared between the two series. It featured Buffy’s vampire boyfriend (the vampire with a soul) setting himself up as a mystical private investigator in Los Angeles facing the forces of evil (and worse, their lawyers), broadening the scope of storytelling well beyond the suburban Hellmouth of Sunnydale – “part horror, part melodrama, part neo-noir, with a helping of comedy (a given for Whedon)”.

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RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****