PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Games

"What a Crazy Random Happenstance": Destiny and Free Will in 'Dr. Horrible'

Cynthea Masson

Among other things, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog provides a meditation on good and evil and the role that choice plays in embracing one or the other.

“Hey, this is weird. I ordered one frozen yogurt and they gave me two. You don't happen to like frozen yogurt do you?” “I love it.” “You’re kidding! What a crazy, random happenstance.” Except, of course, this apparent good fortune is clearly not a random happenstance. Dr. Horrible (candidate for the Evil League of Evil) would rather Penny (“the girl of [his] dreams”) mistake his calculated orchestration of events with chance, luck, or destiny, to borrow a phrase from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (General Prologue, line 844). In this moment, Dr. Horrible’s choice governs Penny’s perspective: his free will determines her destiny. And his plans to control destiny move well beyond this moment -- “I’ll bend the world to our will,” he envisions singing to Penny. Elsewhere, he insists, “Soon I’ll control everything/My wish is your command.” Here, as in Buffy, “it’s about power” (“Lessons” 7.1).

Unlike Dr. Horrible, Buffy ultimately chooses to share her power, inviting others to exercise free will -- to “make a choice” (“Chosen” 7.22); her destiny as the Chosen One is thus changed. Gregory Stevenson claims that “the role of fate in Buffy’s world is ultimately tempered by free will” (71), and, moreover, “[f]ree will as moral choice continues as a theme throughout the series” (72). Similarly, J. Michael Richardson and J. Douglas Rabb argue, “Whedon is developing... a virtue ethics emphasizing moral character in decision making” (52). In contrast, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog shifts the familiar bonds among destiny, free will, and moral choice, thereby illustrating what might be called malevolent ethics. Whereas Buffy works with destiny by accepting the opportunity to change, encouraging choice, and exercising free will toward good, Dr. Horrible works against destiny by rejecting the opportunity to change, discouraging choice, and exercising free will toward evil.

For the purposes of this paper (the brevity of which negates extended focus on the philosophical intricacies of free will versus destiny and/or determinism), “free will” refers to choices characters make with the intention of affecting events, whereas “destiny” refers to events (whether by fate or happenstance) that seemingly occur beyond the control or intention of the characters. Thus, free will puts Dr. Horrible at the scene of the Wonderflonium heist, but destiny determines that he and Penny cross paths at that particular point. Robert Kane in “Free Will, Determinism, and Moral Responsibility,” contends, “free will arises in circumstances where the will of the free agent is deeply divided between conflicting motives. One powerful set of motives is pulling the agent in one direction, while another…is pulling the agent in an opposing direction” (43).

At such points of conflicting motives, we might place Buffy’s decision to sacrifice herself in “The Gift” (Buffy 5.22) or Angel’s decision to destroy the Gem of Amara in “In the Dark” (Angel 1.3). Both Buffy and Angel repeatedly resolve conflicting motives by making the “moral choice” which, according to Stevenson, “is one that sacrifices self-desire for service to others” (166). “An immoral choice,” argues Stevenson, “is one that is self-centered with no regard for others” (166). Throughout Dr. Horrible, intersections of free will and destiny generate space for conflicting motives and, thus, for the necessity of choice -- a space that provides the opportunity for Dr. Horrible to choose the moral good, to change course along his path to evil.

As viewers of a scripted, finite, and relatively short text, we do not have the ability to regress through each stage of Dr. Horrible’s character development; nonetheless, the script provides evidence of character traits that inform, if not determine, his choices. William Dwyer in “Free Will and Determinism” asserts, “If a person is to be held responsible for his choices, then those choices must proceed ultimately from his character” (226). He maintains, furthermore, “only if [a person’s] choice is determined by his character can that choice be a reflection of it, and therefore deserving of blame and punishment” (225)? What remains debatable is this: does the text -- albeit a work of fiction ultimately dependent on authorial control -- allow Dr. Horrible “alternative possibilities” at moments of conflicting motives; does the character, as Robert Kane might ask, “have the power or ability to do otherwise” (33)? For example, when Penny interrupts the heist, could Dr. Horrible have discarded the remote control and his quest to rule the world to choose Penny and her quest to “help the helpless” (as Angel might say)?

Much of Dr. Horrible’s character is revealed within the first few moments of Act One...

Dear reader:

Joss Whedon’s importance in contemporary pop culture can hardly be overstated, but there has never been a book providing a comprehensive survey and analysis of his career as a whole -- until now. Published to coincide with Whedon’s blockbuster movie The Avengers, Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion by PopMatters (May 2012) covers every aspect of his work, through insightful essays and in-depth interviews with key figures in the ‘Whedonverse’. This article, along with previously unpublished material, can be read in its entirety in this book.

Place your order for Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion by PopMatters, published with Titan Books, here.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Music

​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.

Music

The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.

Music

Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.

Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.