What Scenario Planners Can Learn from Uncertainty in Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Resurrection and Consequences
Like the character Buffy, the show proved resilient in the face of change. Following cancelation, Team Buffy announced that Buffy the Vampire Slayer would return to the air for at least one more season on the now-defunct UPN network. The network’s advertising campaign clearly hinted at Sarah Michelle Gellar’s participation by employing the actress’s eyes as their focal point.
For scenario planners the end of the first five seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and its subsequent resurrection offer lessons in how deterministic and defeatist visions of the future are just as dangerous as overly exuberant ones. The behind-the-scenes negotiating that ended with Buffy on a new network could just as easily have culminated in the creative and artistic teams walking away. And the very emotional twist revealed in episode seven (“Once More With Feeling”) demonstrates how actual facts completely annihilate blind certainty about the future or the present.
Season 6: The Resurrection
So Buffy the Vampire Slayer returned for Season 6 on startup network UPN.
But Buffy was dead. Presaging that the actress would return to the show did not solve the narrative conundrum of a dead central character. Were there a set of alternative futures for the Buffyverse, the death of a Slayer would not affect them because the rules for the universe result in a new slayer activation upon a slayer’s death. The Buffy character, however, represents her own vector of uncertainty. Buffy’s death in Season 1 activated Kendra Young. Kendra’s death resulted in the activation of Faith Lehane. The slayer tradition continued despite the apparent discontinuity of Buffy remaining a second living slayer. The uncertainty from Buffy comes into play with more than one slayer available to fight evil, which underlies the entire premise of the show’s television finale and subsequent seasons from Dark Horse Comics.
The answer to death in the Buffyverse is always magic. Willow employed the Urn of Orsis and brought Buffy back to life. Unfortunately, she was still buried in her coffin and was forced to dig her way out.
And thus Buffy returned.
In “Once More With Feeling” Buffy reveals that she returned from Heaven, not from a Hell dimension. Assumptions and lack of data informed, or uninformed, the Scooby Gang’s actions. There is great risk in making assumptions about areas where little or no data exists, and like it or not, we all must face the fact that there is no data about the future.
Season 7: Unleashing the Slayers
Eventually, the series ends with a climactic battle over the Sunnyvale Hellmouth where the First Evil has been growing a vampire army. Buffy, and a team of unpowered slayers, along with Spike and Giles, Xander and Anya, Faith and others, enter the Hellmouth. With the help of a mystical scythe to channel her power, Willow unleashes the nascent slayer in women and girls, instantly transforming all of the unpowered slayers into fully powered slayers. Meanwhile, an amulet brought to Buffy by Angel, now worn by Spike as a “Champion who is more than human,” a metaphor for a souled vampire) captures, focuses and disperses the Sun’s energy, consuming the Hellmouth, Spike—and wiping Sunnydale from the fictional map.
Scenario planners would find the emergence of a Hellmouth into the human dimension an existential threat, perhaps even a black swan. In the Buffy mythology, however, the right ritual unlocks the Hellmouth unsealing, permitting bi-direction travel. More than one Hellmouth exists. Toward the end of the final episode, Giles quips that a Hellmouth also haunts Cleveland). Think the Hellmouth like the Northwest Passage. We know there open ocean can exist at the top of the Earth, but not when climate change and other factors will transform the northern latitudes into an economically viable home for shipping and commerce. In the Buffyverse, the uncertainty lies in not knowing when in history a power will arise that can coerce humans and others into performing the rituals needed to open the Hellmouth.
When uncertainty collapses into certainty: Resurrection and Consequences
Like many events that collapse some uncertainties into a singularity in which they disappear, the dissolution of the Sunnyvale Hellmouth created a new set of uncertainties. How would the new slayers connect and organize, if they connected and organized at all? How will the world view these newly empowered women? Was the First Evil really defeated, and if not, how long before it regrouped, and what form what that take? How would the world view an entire city disappearing into a giant pit—and what stories would it come up with to explain away the truth? With the army of Turok-Han discovered (although destroyed) are there other “extinct” creatures or demons that might still be around to cause trouble.
If Buffy the Vampire Slayer were any other television show, fans would most likely never know the answer to those uncertainties. But with an uncanny resilience, Buffy found yet another outlet for its creative team. Rather than cancelation, Whedon took the extraordinary step of creating a graphic novel series intended as a canonical extension of the show, not just a licensed take-off. So far the Dark Horse books have run through eleven seasons, with number twelve planned for June of 2018.
Season 8 and Dark Horse
Whedon’s Dark Horse Season 8 picks up some time after the destruction of Sunnydale. The release of magic from the Scythe transformed hundreds of girls and women into slayers.
Seasons 8, 9 and 10 explore the construction of a slayer organization that coordinates demon battles around the world, the aftermath of the destruction of magic, the return of magic and the implications of a magic reset.
At the end of Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 7, the structure of the world comes into question when Willow uses the Scythe to spread the power of the slayer to all potential slayers around the world. Whedon and team illustrate this by showing several women who feel the power unexpectedly surging through them—and without confusion, embracing it immediately. One stops her own abuse. Another prepares to take the softball swing of her life. The ramifications of this unleashing of magic are only hinted at when the team discussed going out to find the other slayers.
In the intervening time between the books and the television show, the slayers organized into squadrons who run missions in militaristic style, with Xander overseeing operations from a command center. Of the over 1,800 slayers created by the Scythe, 500 work with the Scoobies. This global reach offers the slayer not as a localized phenomenon around a Hellmouth, but as an organized force working across international boundaries.
Scenario planning lessons learned by analogy
Unlike Season 5, which offer continuity to the slayer lore, the release of power in Season 7 results in the need to reset scenarios. The unleashing of the slayer power is akin to streaming video nearly cannibalizing the physical record industry. The recast rules invalidate any futures explored based on the previous set of uncertainties. Good scenario planners recognize the collapse of uncertainty into certainty and recalculate and reimagine relationships and context.
The question of reversal of the spell along with the structures that could arise in response to it creates new uncertainties.
We see emergent agencies all of the time in response to uncertainty becoming certain. Globalization drove the creation of the World Bank and the World Tread Organization (WTO). World War II created NATO and the Warsaw Pact. The creation of these organizations in response to a certainty creates its own uncertainties given that the agencies have no historical proof that they can achieve their charters.
Buffy was a show that has fought cancelation in order to continue to explore. Because it is fiction, its birth, death, and resurrection have little or no impact on the day-to-day lives of any but it most stalwart fans. In the real world, however, the refusal to give up power under a structure that insists on it because of past abuses, does nothing but create uncertainty.
Organizations rise to assure certainty but actually create uncertainty
Many conservatives believe the United Nations no longer serves a purpose, or that its purposes no longer aligns with the goals of the United States. The Brexit vote in the UK brings into question the structure of the United Kingdom and the European Union, while the coup in Turkey raises questions about the stability and effectiveness of NATO. The vote to remove term limits in China creates new uncertainties about China’s stability as a world player even as it thinks such a move increases stability. History has proven more than once that rule by a single individual fuels chaos, and that the chaos of democracy, actually results in more sustainable stability.
Scenario planners in early 2018 have a lot of recalculations to make about the future, and many of them will be unpopular within commercial organizations that seek to use scenario planning to increase their ability to execute by anticipation. Those organizations need to allow the scenario planners to do their work because for the next several years it appears that navigation of emergent economic and social phenomenon will be more important to survival than executing short and mid-term plans based on predicting narrow trends or local geographies. Major global uncertainties have emerged. We know there is more than one nexus, we have no idea how the confluence of uncertainties will play out and we don’t have a timeframe for an inflection point. Those three “facts” should be enough to make even the most skeptical executive question the viability of any plan that doesn’t offer contingencies based on global disruption, and the credibility of any peer or advisor who asserts that he or she knows what is going to happen next.
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