The new season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is being touted as going back to basics after something of a convoluted, murky season, but so far, it strikes me more as a transitional one. The contract of Sarah Michelle Gellar, who plays Buffy, is up for renewal this season, and one imagines, after all these years of brandishing wooden stakes, she may yearn to move on to a more glamorous future of, perhaps, remaking Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton movies with Freddie Prinze Jr. (''The Taming of the Scooby-Doo,'' perhaps? ''CleoBatra''?).
The season premiere finds Buffy beginning to train her teenage sister, Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg), in windpipe-chopping combat, as well as ushering her onto the site of Buffy's greatest adventures -- Sunnydale High School (it's Dawn's first day at the newly rebuilt institution). This may signal a possible changing of the ''Slayer'' guard. (Next season on UPN: ''Dawn of the Slayer''?)
In the meantime, however, creator Joss Whedon and Co. are setting up a sparky new season. It looks like Buffy will join the high school staff as some sort of teacher/counselor (a neat reversal of her disciple role with Anthony Stewart Head's mentor Giles), and Xander (Nicholas Brendon), now a spiffily attired building contractor, has already spread out his blueprints to pinpoint that locus of all Buffy trouble, the Hellmouth: It's right beneath the office of the new principal (DB Woodside), a smooth operator with a smile that could prove charming or malicious.
Plus, Whedon seems to have already answered the chief complaint many fans had about last season -- that there was no single great supervillain, like the first season's grotesque Master (Mark Metcalf), or the weaselly Mayor (Harry Groener), or the witchy Glory (Clare Kramer). Whedon's clever notion is to combine all of them into one shape-shifting, super-duper villain; in its Master manifestation, Buffy's new nemesis says that we're going back to ''the true beginning,'' and that ''the next few months are going to be quite a ride.''