‘Doctor Horrible’: Lessons from the Musical-Tragi-Comedy-Internet Sensation

Laugh. Cry. Sing-along. Learn some lessons along the way. If you are a Joss Whedon fan, then there is a good chance that these are all things you have done before while glued to one of his offerings. This article is primarily concerned with Whedon’s venture into the world of web-content, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and with using it as a vehicle for exploring recurring themes in his works. Many of these messages, found amongst the video-blogging, songs, comedic-banter, and tragedy that comprise Dr. Horrible, will likely be familiar to Whedon’s viewers as they are popular themes or lessons found in his works. In addition to Dr. Horrible, discussion will refer to the television programs Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly (and its movie spin-off Serenity), and Dollhouse.

Clocking in at about the length of a one-hour television program (in three acts), Dr. Horrible was groundbreaking in regards to its success in internet-based distribution. Originally made available for free online, Dr. Horrible later achieved great commercial success, thanks to significant paid downloads and DVD and Blu-ray sales. Dr. Horrible won numerous awards and accolades, including an Emmy and being named the 15th best invention of 2008 by Time Magazine. To put this in perspective, the 14th invention was a bionic hand. Impressive accomplishments indeed for a web-distributed musical born out of a writer’s strike.

Whedon is no stranger to fantastical premises. A vampire-slaying ex-cheerleader. A vampire with a soul turned supernatural detective. A Western starring a spaceship full of outlaws. A facility that imprints human beings, called “actives” or “dolls”, with customized personalities in order to cater to the desires of the ultra-wealthy. In the wrong hands all of the above premises could have resulted in calamitous, unwatchable programming; thankfully they are anything but.

Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Not since Buffy has Whedon packed a title with so much information. “Horrible” tells a prospective viewer that the Doctor is a villain (or at a minimum an anti-hero). “Sing Along” conveys that lyrical music will be involved, and “Blog” that it has something to do with the aforementioned bad guy’s online blog. Upon viewing (and singing-along; it’s a musical after all), all that turns out to be true, more or less. Dr. Horrible revolves around Billy (aka Dr. Horrible), a video-blogging would-be villain with delusions of grandeur who longs to join the Evil League of Evil (ELE), a consortium of tackily dressed baddies led by Bad Horse, the “thoroughbred of sin.” There is a love interest, the good-hearted Penny, and a rival, the cheesy hero Captain Hammer, also with his eyes on Penny.

Dr. Horrible represents an exciting assemblage of Whedon alums. Nathan Fillion is familiar as Mal Reynolds on Firefly as well as the evil preacher Caleb in Season Seven of Buffy. Felicia Day played potential slayer Vi in Buffy Season Seven and appeared in the celebrated finales of both seasons of Dollhouse. Notably, she is the creator, writer, and star of her own critically acclaimed web-series, The Guild. Doctor Horrible, the titular character with “a Ph.D. in horribleness” is played by Neil Patrick Harris, who stars in the sitcom How I Met Your Mother along with Buffy alum Alyson Hannigan.

And now for some lessons.

Lesson One: If you are in love, beware

Imagine after years of flirting, when Rachel and Ross (sitcom Friends) finally got together romantically, Rachel was unexpectedly struck by a stray bullet flying through the window in Central Perk (coffee house) and wound up dead in Ross’s arms. Unthinkable, right? Sure, because Friends wasn’t a Whedon show. In a Whedon program no one is safe. When love is in their air, chances are pain is eminent. Relationships often blossom, and quickly fall apart into apocalyptic-level mayhem. Whedon sends the clear message that if you have a lot, then you have a lot to lose.

Like many central characters, Dr. Horrible has clear goals, and obstacles standing in his way. He desperately wants to join the ELE, but needs to prove his worth through criminal acts. He also longs to crush his arch-nemesis Captain Hammer (or in Dr. Horrible’s words “Captain Hammer corporate tool”) and win the heart of his beloved Penny. The tragedy is that he attains his stated (and sung) objective, to join the ELE, only through actions resulting in the accidental death of Penny (the “Death Ray” used by Captain Hammer against Dr. Horrible explodes, impaling Penny with one of its fragments). Despite what some grieving audience members may claim, there is much more at play here than Whedon sadistically torturing his fanbase. Moments of happiness followed by having that happiness ripped away (or in Dr. Horrible’s case, getting what you want through the death of someone you love) is classic Whedon. Tragic, unexpected death provides compelling narrative, motivation for characters, and a ripe opportunity for stories to go in interesting directions.

The quintessential example of this theme is found in the romance between Buffy and Angel, star-crossed loves to a nearly absurd degree. Even setting aside the obstacle that he’s a way-too-old-for-her vampire and she’s a vampire slayer, thanks to a curse Angel loses his soul if he experiences a single moment of true happiness (which happens in Season Two when he finally has sex with Buffy) and reverts to the thoroughly evil Angelus. Other examples from Buffy include characters in the stages of beginning or rekindling a romance. Tara was killed by a stray bullet the morning after reconciling with Willow (“Seeing Red” 6.19). Jenny Calendar was murdered by Angelus, with Giles heartbreakingly discovering her body while thinking she had planned a romantic evening (“Passion” 2.17). Buffy discovers her mother’s dead body just after she comments on flowers sent by a new love interest for her mom (“The Body” 5.16). This lesson surfaces in Dollhouse as well. Just as Topher and Bennett’s romance is blossoming, Bennett is executed by Whisky/Dr. Saunders (“Getting Closer” 2.11). In all cases, love is a portent for doom.

Lesson Two: Technology can be dangerous

Whedon skillfully uses modern technology to advance plotlines and tell a compelling story, and not just for the sake of showing viewers something shiny. A theme running through Whedon’s shows is that technology is to be used cautiously. In Dr. Horrible this theme is on one level very literal. Dr. Horrible video blogs about his criminal plans, and as “the L.A.P.D and Captain Hammer are among [Dr. Horrible’s] viewers,” his plans are foiled. Even more disastrous is Dr. Horrible’s use of rays, of both the “Freeze” and “Death” varieties. Initially appearing just to be comic-fun—after all the Freeze Ray (“Stops time. Freeze Ray. Tell your friends.”) is powered by “wonderflonium”—this technology ultimately results in the death of Penny. The Freeze Ray fails, with the unfrozen Captain Hammer trying to use the Death Ray on Dr. Horrible, its malfunction and explosion resulting in Penny’s death.

In Buffy the Buffy-Bot, a robot built to look, sound, and act like Buffy was custom ordered by Spike to give him the affection the real Buffy refused. This technology, and the lesson of the inherent danger of its use, was first revealed in the episode “I Was Made to Love You” (5.15) and the girlfriend-bot April. Buffy provides a host of other examples of the dangers of technology, and a warning to beware of its misuse. Giles was notoriously anti-technology. In an early episode of Buffy, his apprehension regarding the use of computers was validated when Willow was nearly killed by “a demon on the internet” (“I, Robot…You, Jane” 1.8). In an early warning on the dangers of internet dating, a demon was inadvertently scanned into a computer from an ancient text, and the demon posed as an online love interest of Willow.

Perhaps no shot better encapsulates Whedon’s juxtaposition of old and new, the futuristic and the forgotten, as the title credits of Firefly in which horses gallop on land, while a spaceship soars overhead. In Firefly the spaceship Serenity is constantly in danger of falling out of the sky; space-travel is dangerous, especially with a ship often desperately in need of repair. A powerful example that technology can be dangerous lesson comes from the movie Serenity, in which it is revealed that a government’s secret technology that was designed to keep a planet’s population calm (releasing substance in the atmosphere) unexpectedly resulted in the entire population either dying of apathy (including not wanting to eat) or, for a small percentage, turning them into rage-filled cannibalistic creatures (reavers).

No Whedon show carries the “Beware technology!” banner higher than Dollhouse. Being able to program “actives” with tailored personalities is seductive technology. The series explores the extremely dangerous Pandora’s box this kind of technology represents, resulting in more or less the end of modern civilization (see especially, “Epitaph 1” 1.13 and “Epitaph 2: The Return” 2.13).

Three: You sing what you dare not say

At some point or other, characters in Whedon shows tend to sing. As is common in musicals, people sing what they dare not speak. Dr. Horrible would never admit that he loves Penny, but will belt it out in song. In the end he admits that even though he got what he said he wanted (joining the ELE), in song he sorrowfully admits that he “won’t feel a thing” because Penny is gone, and it’s his fault.

There was not a lot of singing in Dollhouse or Firefly, but nevertheless both programs gave viewers some lyrically driven plotlines. In Dollhouse, Echo becomes a back-up singer as part of an engagement (“Stage Fright” 1.3). In Firefly, a story features a folk song concerning the legend of Jayne (“Jaynestown” 1.4). Angel provides a noteworthy example, as the empathic demon Lorne is able to peer into someone’s destiny and soul while they sing karaoke.

The clear comparison screaming out to be made is between Dr. Horrible and the Buffy Season Six musical episode “Once More with Feeling” (6.7). This episode is replete with characters confessing deep secrets through song. Nothing better synopsizes this theme than Buffy singing that she thinks she was “in heaven” before she was resurrected by her friends. Other notable confessions from the episode include Xander and Anya expressing fears about their future married life, and Giles’s belief that he is “standing in the way” of Buffy’s development.

There is a delicious harmony present in Dr. Horrible. It manages to be both comfortingly familiar and innovative; it’s chicken noodle soup on the moon. Dr. Horrible is original, and expands what many people thought web content could be, and at the same time is recognizable to those already indoctrinated into the ever expanding world of Whedon. Like all of Whedon’s work, Dr. Horrible has that signature auteur magic about it combining drama, action, wit, fun, and tragedy in an irresistible package. More please!

MATTHEW GRACE is a long-time Joss Whedon enthusiast. At the time of writing, Matthew is in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is soon to return to his hometown of Toronto.