Breaking the Ninth Wall with Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog: Internet Creation by Rhonda V Wilcox

Printable version Thursday 22 November 2012 Last updated at 09:57

It is a curious experience to watch Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog shortly after watching Sweeney Todd. Dr. Horrible writer-director-composer Joss Whedon is known to be an admirer of Stephen Sondheim, and the connections between the two pieces are fascinating to contemplate. This is just one instance, however, of the many sources at play in Dr. Horrible. The ‘Sing-Along Blog’ created on the internet is also remarkable for the consciousness of its own textual form. Dr. Horrible depends on both the intertextual and the metatextual. Like Sweeney Todd, it is a liminal work (Is Sweeney Todd opera? asks Stephen Banfield, among others); though we are discussing Dr. Horrible in Critical Studies in Television, whether or not it can even be called television might be questioned. The first (or the first famous, successful) internet musical is indeed an internet creation, and a not a big corporation’s product; it was also released as serial internet television, with all that is implied in the timing of such a creation; it is also now a DVD, consumed in the format used for both television and films, and experienced in a single sitting, as DVD films are. In terms of the business and artistic model of its creation and distribution, Dr. Horrible is significant. It is equally significant, however, because of the artistic result. It is not only the category of the work, but the quality of the work that demands attention. Its intertextuality sets it in the cultural stream of preceding art, and its metatextuality highlights the new form into which that stream now flows. Both together create a theme of human connection, social injustice, and social change.

Part of the aesthetic richness of Dr. Horrible is its thoroughly laden intertextuality, which sets it within the echoing traditions of earlier art (for those with eyes to see and ears to hear). From The Godfather to Godzilla, film allusions develop the text; and references to musicals abound. Billy (Neil Patrick Harris), the protagonist, wants to be accepted into the E.L.E. (Evil League of Evil) as Dr. Horrible because ‘The status is not quo. The world is a mess, and I just need to rule it.’ The bad guy with good intentions is matched by the good guy with bad intentions, Dr. H’s nemesis Captain H (Nathan Fillion)—the arrogant, handsome ‘Captain Hammer, corporate tool’ as Billy calls the man who goes after his beloved. (‘My hammer is the penis,’ says the corporate tool, with hefty, happy, patriarchal pleasure.) The third angle in the triangle is Penny (Felicia Day), who does her wash at the same laundromat as Billy (who is too shy to speak to her) and who volunteers to help the homeless—a very different kind of world-changing than Billy plans. Dr. Horrible moves from parodic comedy to shocking sadness (a hallmark of Whedon’s work). After Billy has at last participated in actual killing, we see in the final moments of the video the doors close in the face of the audience as he joins the evildoers on the other side, and we are left on the outside as at the close of The Godfather. This grim moment is reached after the horror-humor of shots of Billy imagining himself, as Dr. Horrible, stalking in Godzilla-gigantic form down the streets to stomp on Captain Hammer. Even earlier, the mood is even lighter, though still poignant: the first song Billy sings is a laundromat love song, a dance routine accompanied with Busby Berkeley visuals of layered glass circles of washing machine doors framing the heads of the performers and creating an intertextual framing for viewers, as well. And the intertextual references are not just decorative filigree; these references—whether to Andy Hardy or Mary Poppins—precisely cue the tone of the moment and deepen the implications of the themes.

The theme of social injustice twisting a good person and the problems of working against the social system can clearly be seen in both the operatic Sweeney Todd and the internet indie Dr. Horrible, different as they are.  In Dr. Horrible, Billy is angry at the evil of the world—and it is not just personal; here, it is the social system that is clearly to blame. Since this is a Joss Whedon film, the beloved woman in the case is much less passive than Sondheim’s Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney’s partner in crime.  In fact, Penny represents a different method of trying to effect world change—neither of which is satisfactory. The first real conversation between Billy and Penny illuminates the difference: While he is in the process of electronically controlling a theft of Wonderflonium to power his Freeze Ray, Penny approaches him to ask for his signature to get an additional building for the homeless—and recognizes him from the laundromat. His distraction with of his Evil plans keeps him from focusing on this conversation he has so longed for; and Penny says, ‘You’re not really interested in the homeless, are you?’ ‘No, I am,’ he hastens to reply. ‘But they’re a symptom—a symptom—and the disease rages on, consumes the human race; the fish rots from the head, as they say, so my thinking is why not cut off the head?’ ‘Of the human race?’ ‘It’s not a perfect metaphor . . . .’ Or maybe it is? By the end, Penny is dead. The Freeze Ray—now a Death Ray—has exploded after a struggle between Billy/Dr. Horrible and Captain Hammer. Though Dr. Horrible, knowing that his creation is broken, says, ‘Don’t,’ still Captain Hammer pulls the trigger, and Penny is killed on the very day that celebrates the new home for the homeless. Her last words to Billy are ‘Captain Hammer will save us,’ and the people around ask Dr. Horrible why he killed her.  Billy lifts Penny, whose death he has caused, in his arms. Sweeney Todd is killed; Dr. Horrible is born, though Billy is perhaps just as dead as he sings ‘So your world’s benign / So you think justice has a voice / And we all have a choice / Well, now your world is mine.’ ‘Everything You Ever’ is the song, and though there is no overt textual allusion, the dark beauty echoes Sondheim (in the music as well, though my words cannot contain that sound).

Dr. Horrible’s intertextuality (about which much more could be said) should be considered alongside its metatextuality, and both work in service of a larger theme. Self-referentiality and metatextuality certainly did not begin with popular culture, but it is a notable quality of some of the best popular culture, as many of us have written; indeed Michael Dunne has devoted an entire book (Metapop) to the subject. Dr. Horrible’s metatextuality is valuable in part simply because it is amusing, with that wonderful Whedonian combination of the hilarious with the serious; but it also serves to remind us of the indie nature of this production, and its status as internet creation. The multiple elements of the DVD form of Dr. Horrible show this to be so, but one could also advert to other elements, such as the online comic book prequel provided through Dark Horse comics, or the many internet fan hommages (some of which, indeed, are included as a feature in the DVD). But to the DVD itself: The viewer first sees, as usual, the F.B.I. warning against copyright infringement—but this is replaced by a parody, an E.L.E. (Evil League of Evil) warning that ‘This video disk is designated for Evil purposes only . . . .’ (I suppose my Evil purpose is, in the words of a Joss Whedon commentary song, to ‘pick, pick, pick it apart,’ so I am presumably safe from the penalties for Non-Evil usage.) When Act I (of three) begins, we see what seems a relatively typical online video weblog entry: Billy, alone, addressing at verbose length his webcam in white Dr. Horrible lab gear. The Whedon musical ‘Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog’ at this point seems to be a blog. It soon slips into a musical number—and another—and so on; but the structure is marked when Act II returns to Billy/Dr. Horrible alone before the webcam—this time wordless, as he contemplates Captain Hammer’s taking (let’s use that word) Penny. Steven Peacock’s recent TV Reflections essay on Steven Moffat’s Dr. Who episodes highlights the metatextual effect of the devices of the screen and/or watcher in such episodes as ‘Blink’. Here, too, in Dr. Horrible, we become more conscious of our roles as watchers—and perhaps as creators of the screen image, the video blog. But as Billy loses his innocence about Evil, as he seems to gain power while losing control of consequences, the screen use shifts too: Act III begins not with Billy’s blog but with the parodic representation of traditional television news reports on Dr. Horrible and Captain Hammer; the corporate world is speaking its voice. At the very end, Billy dresses himself in red Dr. Horrible gear as we see him walking through a party of admirers to be closed behind those Godfather doors; and his last two lonely words he sings solo, dressed in black, once more with the webcam: with ‘all the cash, all the fame and social change’ he ‘won’t feel / a thing’.

One of the most remarkable elements of the DVD, however, is that it extends the metatextual through an entire additional score in ‘Commentary! The Musical.’ While a standard commentary is also provided, the separate feature of ‘Commentary! The Musical’ provides songs that focus with musical humor on such matters as the 2007 Writers’ Strike that gave birth to Dr. Horrible, the dearth of Asian on-screen representation (‘Nobody’s Asian in the movies’), the distress of analysis (‘pick it apart’), the pull of sex vs. the aesthetic (‘It’s not about [Nathan Fillion] . . . . It’s all about the Art’), opportunities for minor characters to have major songs (‘Ten Dollar Solo’), and more ways to be aware of the nature of the construction—although ‘I don’t discuss my process’, Felicia Day keeps repeating. Through ‘Commentary! The Musical’(as well as the additional ‘Making Of’ featurettes), viewers gain some knowledge of the four people most responsible for Dr. Horrible: Joss Whedon, who conceived the piece as a way to create in spite of, and in support of, the Writers’ Strike; his brothers Zack and Jed, and Jed’s fiancée Maurissa Tancharoen. They all worked together, with Joss Whedon directing, Zack and Maurissa mainly focusing on writing, and Jed mainly on the score. The contributions of Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion, Felicia Day, and all the crew involved doing favors to help the cause of creating Dr. Horrible. As Felicia Day says in ‘The Making of Dr. Horrible: The Movie’ featurette, Joss Whedon’s ‘just so clear about what he wants, and he has such a vision, but he has a way of including everyone and making that vision happen . . . .’ The internet musical’s artistic roots are both personal and political: ‘It came from pain’, Joss Whedon jokingly moans; ‘It actually came from solidarity’, Maurissa Tancaroen replies with humorous pedantry. Mock as they may, of course they and we know both are true. Joss Whedon reports (in the ‘What Just Happened?’ featurette) that his group refused the plans of ‘companies’ and insisted, ‘No, we’re gonna put it on the internet and we’re gonna do it for free . . . ‘—which they did (July 2008; though the December 2008 DVD does cost, a modest price of less than ten dollars). The attempt to change the social order represented by this independent and communally created internet musical reflects, in the real world, the attempt to change the world so sadly misshapen in Billy and Penny’s story. And our consciousness of the one heightens consciousness of the other. If we follow Neil Patrick Harris’s comments in ‘What Just Happened?’, we can see him make the connection between the real-life creation and the fictional theme of social change: ‘We want to show big corporations that you can make something like this if you really care about it . . . Soon Dr. Horrible will take over the world!’

The story itself, of course, tells us it is more complicated. But they know that—all of the creators of Dr. Horrible. We don’t just break the fourth wall in Dr. Horrible; as Zack Whedon says in ‘Commentary! The Musical’, it feels ‘like we’re breaking the ninth wall’. The delightful complexity of the text will give us more and more to think about. And as always in a Whedon work, the intellectual play is balanced with feeling, so that thought and emotion converge. Feeling powers the thought, leading viewers back through the piece again and again—which is the reason all the levels can work, all the layers can interweave. All this from the internet; all this from a six-day shoot. We can only hope that on the seventh day, they rested.


Rhonda V. Wilcox

Gordon College, Barnesville, Georgia, USA


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