[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Ashley Gable and Thomas A. Swyden | Director: Stephen Posey | Aired: 04/28/1997]
Oh my. Here we have an episode that tries to be about something substantive, but fails oh so miserably at it. It’s an episode that was outdated before it was outdated (I’ll elaborate on this later)! I’ll concede that this can be one of those episodes that is fun to laugh at, but that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for this kind of evaluation. How is it that “I Robot, You Jane” got it so spectacularly wrong?
Just about the only positive aspect to talk about is Jenny Calendar’s introduction and subsequent arguments with Giles over the virtues and pitfalls of technology. You can throw in a handful of good quotes and the final scene too. I genuinely enjoyed Jenny and Giles’ spirited banter, and can sympathize with both positions. While I’m definitely into modern technology, I’m also quite a bit old-fashioned in certain ways as well. Jenny having a bit of flirty fun with Giles in the background adds a nice layer to this banter.
Unfortunately, that’s about the only good thing there is to say about “I Robot, You Jane.” Beyond simply being incredibly outdated, most of the episode has abysmal dialogue, execution, and pacing. The dialogue – usually one of the positives of the show – is so boring outside of a small handful of quotes that it actually surprised me a little. Most of it is entirely plot-centric and seems there only to help the viewer and the characters from plot point A to plot point B to plot point C — perfunctory is the word I’m looking for.
Then there’s the problem of the demon of the week, Moloch. This is an ancient demon that is apparently smart enough to understand and control computers to the point of spreading itself across the internet. This strikes me as both entirely unbelievable and completely ridiculous. Somehow the episode goes to a lower low with the big climax involving ROBO MOLOCH. There is no tension, no real stakes, a poor setup, and absolutely no subtext or subtlety to the entire proceedings. It’s all laughable at best and blehhh at worst.
At this point one might ask what the episode was trying to do? Well, I think that’s explained early on, but is followed up with heavy-handed silliness. In the Italy flashback, the demon Moloch asks, “Do you love me? I can give you everything. All I want is your love.” Once he has their love, he snaps their necks (even though it looks more like a gentle neck massage to me). “I Robot, You Jane” is pretty transparently about the dangers of the internet or, more specifically, the dangers of getting emotionally invested with people who you haven’t met in person before. Online dating is heavily implicated even though chat rooms appear to be the episode’s focus. The concept behind how love can be used to manipulate others, made particularly easy with modern tools of communication, is a concept worthy of exploration. As a fellow geek who is all-too familiar with the quirks of online dating, this is a theme that was ripe to resonate with me. This theme, however, is woefully under-developed, lacks any and all subtlety, and is just horribly cliché in its presentation.
Regardless of reality, online dating was something to be terrified of back in the day. There was a perception that only completely anti-social lunatics participated in it. Times have changed a lot though. Online dating is now much more modern, much more accepted, and much less scary. With that said, the dangers of naïve young girls (or anyone, really) searching for love in a chat room and getting tangled up in a mess of a situation with a molester or abductor is certainly all-too real. Although Willow can be somewhat easily influenced by others – how quickly she takes Buffy’s advice to “seize the moment” in “Welcome to the Hellmouth” [1×01] comes to mind – I can’t help but feel Willow’s still smarter than what she displays here. I think I’ll just blame that inconsistency on the fact that Moloch is influencing her. But then that gets us right back to the episode lacking lasting character relevance.
Another problem I have is with the portrayal of the computer science guys. I should disclose that I’m a professional software developer, and that I know my reaction will be stronger than others, but my God did those guys grate on me. They weren’t just displayed as stereotypical geeks; they were displayed as complete lunatics who spoke in a way that’s totally foreign to me. I grew up in the thick of that era of technology and nobody talked like that. If anything, there should have been less talk about being “jacked in” and more talk about who would win in a fight between a couple Borg Cubes and the Death Star (easy answer, by the way: one cube left standing due to adaption technology). These Season 1 techies make the Trio in Season 6 look like high class geeks. What makes this all the more baffling is the fabulous portrayal of the tech world through Jenny Calendar. Jenny is a wonderful representation of a computer geek: smart, passionate, and friendly. Plus, even though it’s not as bad today as it was back in ’97, it’s always awesome to see an example of a confidant, attractive woman that loves computers and programming.
What we have here is a complete mess of an episode. “I Robot, You Jane” is a pain and a bore to sit through in every phase, with only brief reprieves from Jenny and Giles. The underlying concept behind the episode – manipulation through love tangled with the dangerous side of the internet — is worth a careful, lasting, and relevant discussion but, alas, all of those attributes are absent here. Its portrayal of computer geeks (demon’s thrall or not, it’s painful), general lack of ability to hold my interest for most of its running time, long-term irrelevance, and shoddy production values all add up to my personal pick for Worst Episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. “Teacher’s Pet” [1×04] might actually be a smidgen worse, but “I Robot, You Jane” hits all the wrong buttons for me. To quote Xander: “Shoot me. Stuff me. Mount me.”
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Is Moloch a Fyarl demon (“A New Man” [4×12])!?
+ Jenny Calendar!
+ Giles’ final speech on the smell of books.
+ Not a Buffy-centric episode, but it’s worth considering Willow’s experience getting too emotionally involved with someone she doesn’t know well as a warning for Buffy about the dangers that lie ahead.
– Fritz is a one-off crazy stereotype, and that’s putting it mildly.
– The full black screen instant messenger (or is that supposed to be a chat room? Ha!). Ridiculous at best in its presentation, plus why wouldn’t Willow be using something the likes of AIM (AOL Instant Messenger, which was released around that time)?
– The sudden appearance of computers and laptops all over the school. They’re everywhere. They also come with a bunch of insane nerds that all conveniently get killed by episode’s end.
– “I’m jacked in! I’m jacked in! I’m jacked in!” Yeah? Well here’s your -5 points.
– Why is Willow repeating what she’s typing out loud, word for word? Is she having a voice chat with Blogger Extraordinaire Moloch while simultaneously typing the same words? What is going on here!?
– Buffy trying to delete the “Willow” folder on the desktop, causing Moloch to literally growl the words “stay away from Willow” while suddenly rendering his pixelated face on the screen. Oh my.
– Buffy not having the courtesy to look inside Willow’s folder before deleting it. Come on, Buffy! Where’s your computer etiquette!?
– Apparently Willow has a broadband connection and a computer that can detect when she comes into her room (all in ’97), because her computer kindly notified her she had mail despite not actually connecting to the internet (a noisy endeavor back then for those of us with old school modems… oh wait, that was everyone).
– The music is especially bad.
– The flashing multi-colored screen with wind blowing around the school library. For some reason I felt like I’d been transported back to the ‘80s, which is rarely ever a good thing.
* Buffy: “Let’s face it: none of us are ever gonna have a happy, normal relationship.“ Yup, that about sums it up.