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"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...

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

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