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Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog

Well, I said I'd occasionally be writing things that had nothing to do with stories.  This just happens to be the first of them.  Hey, I'm using my LiveJournal as a journal.  Nutty!  Anyways...

About a month or so ago my sister alerted me to a little hilarious show called “Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog.” If you haven’t seen it yet, stop reading this, and go see it.  Right now, it can be obtained on iTunes (in three parts, get all three!) for about six dollars total. Support your artists, buy it today! (It’s about 44 minutes long, and about PG-13 in content.) I’m going to be discussing spoilers about it, but I’ll put them behind the LJ cut below, so be warned!

Now, with a name like “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,” I think I would have had to check it out just on principle.  Written by Joss Whedon during the writer's strike, and starting Neil Patrick Harris (as Dr. Horrible) and Nathan Fillion (as his nemesis Captain Hammer), it’s a cleverly written, well-acted, tightly scripted labor of love. Though it was produced on a relatively low budget, I found the production values as good as or better than any episode of Buffy. This was clearly done by someone with a smidgen of means though; no aspiring backyard film director has access to the camera rigs (or camera quality!) for some of those shots, let alone the costumes and props. I felt like I was watching a regularly distributed show of some sort. 

As the title implies, this has songs in it. To be precise, it’s a musical. For those who have seen the Buffy episode “Once More, With Feeling,” you’ll find some of the same greatness. Perhaps even more; I’m guessing Joss Whedon didn’t have the singing vocal talents of his actors in mind when he cast them in Buffy for one future show in the sixth season. While I loved “Once More, With Feeling,” there were a few songs that didn’t play to the vocal strengths of the actors, and some actors whose voices were not quite up to par. 

But with “Dr. Horrible,” he was able to write the songs and cast the actors to fit them like a glove. It also really helps that his lead man, Neil Patrick Harris, has been in singing roles in Broadway. Let me tell you, that boy has some pipes! My image of Mr. Harris as Doogie Howser, M.D., was cracked by his role in Starship Troopers and broken by “Dr. Horrible.”

In “Dr. Horrible,” the songs fit so well with the plot, what the characters were trying to say, and the mood that was being conveyed, that I almost didn’t notice when they were singing. I mean that as a compliment, because while I enjoyed “Once More, With Feeling,” there had to be a convincing reason why the characters would burst into song (in that case, a song demon). In “Dr. Horrible,” it just seemed natural and normal that the characters would start to sing, and I totally went along with it. 

The writing is also very witty and pithy. I’ve gotten a lot of great quotes that I’ll probably be appropriating for my own personal use; this is an eminently quotable show, and I consider that just another of its many perks. 

And now we will be getting into spoilers, so read no further if you want to remain pure before your first viewing! Discussion below will be straying into the deep end of the pool. Including the ending. Just FYI. (Also will have spoilers about Serenity.)

The show does a great rip on pop culture, superheroes, supervillains, fanboys and fangirls, and true love. Some of the greatest little humor moments come up when casually talking about the supervillain/superhero world that Dr. Horrible inhabits. Things like the Evil League of Evil, a pair of female supervillains called Bait and Switch, and the leader of the aforementioned League, Bad Horse. The “thoroughbred of sin.” Who has his own Greek Chorus, a barbershop trio of cowboys. With moustaches. It’s choice, I assure you.

Now, those who have seen “Dr. Horrible” might have watched the last few minutes with a feeling of betrayal. After a good nine-tenths of the show being a humorous sparring match between Dr. Horrible and Captain Hammer over the affection of Penny, Joss goes and destroys Captain Hammer as a threat, kills Penny, and elevates Dr. Horrible to the Evil League of Evil, but after getting everything he ever wanted, he no longer feels “a thing.”

For those of you that stuck through the ends of Buffy and Angel, and who watched in open-mouthed horror at the death of Wash in Serenity, know that Joss loves to torment his characters. Joss will keep you laughing up until he feels the need to really amp up the character development. Then he rips out your heart and takes a left turn into hell.

I’ve heard some commentaries on “Dr. Horrible” that say it’s sort of an allegory for the time period in which it was written. They say it’s a story about a guy that tries very hard to hold onto the thing he loves most, and ends up destroying it. And this was written during the writer’s strike. Some would say, with great sarcasm, that Joss is being subtle. And that could very well be one meaning of this show. But I’m going to go deeper, because, hey, I can!

It’s in my nature to think about certain things, and then several minutes, hours, or even days later come up with additional questions or alternative explanations. “Dr. Horrible” was one of those things that made me think. 

The very first thing that occurred to me after finishing “Dr. Horrible” was a quote from Star Wars: A New Hope: “The more you tighten your grip Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.” In that respect, it jived with the commentary above. Dr. Horrible, or Billy, was trying to hold onto Penny so hard that he killed her. 

But after thinking about it for a few days, and rewatching it three times, a totally different perspective came to mind, summed up in a quote from Matrix: Reloaded. Say what you will about the Matrix sequels. Say that they’re long-winded, arty, pretentious, and like watching someone play a video game on God mode, but you can’t deny that they’re philosophical! The quote that occurred to me was what the Oracle said to Neo before his massive duel with all the Agent Smiths. She said: “You’ve already made your choice; now you need to understand why you made it.”

In the opening song of the second act, “Plain to See,” Billy and Penny are singing about their respective views of the world. Billy sings that the world is full of “filth and lies,” and that “evil inside of me, is on the rise.” Penny sings about nearly the opposite, that it’s possible to turn a life around with hope and love, and that the world is growing wise. All of this while Billy stalks Penny as she dates Captain Hammer.

The line Billy sang, about how “darkness is everywhere, and Penny doesn’t seem to care that the dark in me is all that will remain,” clinched to me what this show is about. Billy is evil. He’s not interested in doing good, he’s not interested in changing, and his feelings for Penny really weren’t love. He needed her death to show him exactly how evil he really is. Her death held a mirror in front of him.

Never once did any of Penny’s actions cause a lessening of his evil. The first time she talked him… This, the girl of his dreams, that he’s been trying to talk to for months, finally, willingly talks to him, and he can’t stop from pulling his Wonderflonium heist for even the two minutes necessary to make a solid connection with her. And later, when it becomes clear that Captain Hammer is going to boink Penny before him, he doesn’t think of a way to convince Penny that Captain Hammer’s a dick, he thinks of a way to kill his nemesis. At the opening of the new homeless shelter that she adores. 

He’s also clearly obsessed with her in a way that’s not healthy. During the first song, he talks about making a freeze ray to stop time in order to find the words to talk to her instead of… oh, I don’t know, trying desperately to mumble out something. Obviously there’s the bit he pulls out during the Wonderflonium heist, “Wednesdays and Saturdays, except twice last month you skipped the weekend.” There’s the stalking scene at the beginning of Act Two. And at the end of Act Two, during “Brand New Day,” there are a couple of other big things. One, he picks up a picture of Penny from a shelf to sing to, the sort of picture frame that you’d have for important snapshots. Except it’s Penny reading on a park bench, clearly taken from a long-distance lens. Also, he says, “Penny will see the evil me, not a joke, not a dork, not a failure. And she may cry, but her tears will dry, when I hand her the keys to a shiny new Australia.” 

He wants to show her he’s evil, and he wants to rule the world with her at his side. This, a girl who seemed horrified at the mention of Bad Horse (“I meant Gandhi.”), who works with the homeless, doesn’t eat meat, and was out trying to get signatures from an unwilling public in devotion to her cause. This was never a match made in heaven. Pretty, kind Penny was not ever meant for Dr. Horrible. There would have been no way to put those two together in a way that didn’t either make Penny miserable or change her character completely. 

If Dr. Horrible had succeeded in killing Captain Hammer, she might not have been totally heartbroken at his death (obviously, he’d just revealed he was a complete douchebag), but she wouldn’t have condoned it in any fashion. Either Penny would have ended up going crazy evil with Dr. Horrible (which would have broken her character), or committing suicide. Which would have been extra depressing. Either way, I’m glad she died, because there was no happy ending in sight for those two characters. 

Yeah, I know, I gasped and went, “WHAT?!” when Penny died, and almost cried when the last shot of Billy was of him, alone in front of his webcam, in civilian clothes, looking hollow and empty. But what other kind of logical progression could there have been? Dr. Horrible cannot have a happy ending. Dr. Horrible is evil. He clearly states that “the world is a mess and I just need to rule it.” His philosophy is set, his world vision is clear, and his morals are already in place. Just because he has standards about an evil laugh, didn’t want to fight around kids, and considered killing to be neither elegant nor creative, doesn’t mean he isn’t capable of evil things. 

What we saw in “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,” was not him trying to turn over a new leaf, or seek true love. He was seeking yet another prize for his evil actions. If Captain Hammer had never met Penny, who’s to say that eventually Dr. Horrible wouldn’t have captured her for nefarious purposes? No, what we saw in the show wasn’t an attempt at love. It was a series of failed heists.

Dr. Horrible is evil. I love evil guys; I often see their point of view, and I like writing the justifications for the other side of the story. But when I think about Dr. Horrible, I believe that his Ph.D. in horribleness wasn’t earned by volunteering at soup kitchens. There was never any happy ending; he was never going to be good. And now he has the full knowledge of that, and it’s drained him. He can walk around and high-five Moist, have parties with his villain compatriots, sit on the Evil League of Evil, but he now knows exactly what he is.

He’s horrible, he’s a villain, he’s broken, all his hopes and dreams came crashing to the ground, and he’s gotten everything he’s ever wanted. He got exactly what he wished for. He’ll be the most successful villain that ever lived, because he knows he doesn’t have a soul.

Dr. Horrible, congratulations, I love you. May your reign of villainy be long and joyless.

I loved this show, and it made me think. Did it make you think?
 
 

Comments

( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
brighteyed_jill
Aug. 17th, 2008 02:41 am (UTC)
*does evil dance of joy for being partially responsible*

Your ideas are intriguing, and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter. First off, I think that Dr. Horrible is brilliant. And, the singing is good! Catchy damn songs. I can't wait until the soundtrack comes out. I hear that NPH played Toby in Sweeney Todd, and boy is that something I would loved to have seen. Great role for him; he has that whole innocent-but-crazy thing down.

Re: Joss is a rat bastard. Yes. Yes he is. But it's brilliant, because he's great at subverting expectations and so forth. Beloved characters usually NEVER die, but Joss has really made the stakes high in all his work by making any character expendable. That makes the action all the more exciting. (e.g. Shit, if he'd kill Tara, I wonder if Anya could die next, or Xander... OMG! HIS EYE!) Y'know?

Re: "The more you tighten your grip, Tuck, the more star systems will slip through your fingers." Poor Billy. He's just so adorably socially awkward, and tries so hard. Yes, his obsession is unhealthy, but I think it's important to note those quotes about "the dark in me is all that will remain." Because all though he's clearly (more-or-less) evil, it seems like his crush on her was to some degree holding him back from the really, really dark side. Not that he's not an evil guy, but I think his heart isn't really in the big evil. He wants to be an achiever (like Bad Horse), but he doesn't have a killer's heart. Clearly. "There's kids in that park." etc. AND he doesn't want Penny to see him kill Captain Hammer.

But origin-story wise, it's pretty typical for a hero's loved one to get killed to launch him on a journey for revenge/justice/the American way. Peter Parker, anyone? But in this case, Billy's moving in the opposite direction, from a possibility for redemption to full-on villain. And damn that last shot is heart-breaking, and great job musical structure-wise, Joss, giving NPH those powerful, orchestra-supported lines and then dropping out the bottom to go back to poor old be-hoodied Billy for the last two words.

I'm not sure where it would be possible to go from here, though. Billy's pretty broken at this point, and I'm not sure what Joss could do with him to continue the whole self-discovery journey thing. I haven't heard that there are any plans to continue the series (in fact, I would be pretty surprised that there were), and I think it stands well as a narrative on its own, but I would like to have seen a female character kick a little more ass. Something other than be ineffectual, then afraid, then sad, then dead. Although, to be fair, Joss is usually the master of strong female characters, so I'll let him get away with the female victim trope here.

But look! Dr. Horrible has spurred discussion! Bully for Billy!
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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