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‘Breaking the Ninth Wall’ with Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog: Internet Creation

Rhonda V. Wilcox

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January 2009.

It is a curious experience to watch Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog shortly after watching Sweeney Todd (Tim Burton 2007). Dr. Horrible writer-director-composer Joss Whedon is an admirer of Sondheim, and the connections between the two pieces are fascinating. The 'Sing-Along Blog' 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): The first (or the first famous, successful) internet musical is indeed an internet creation, and a not a big corporation's product; it was released as serial internet television; it is also now a DVD, experienced in a single sitting, like films. 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. For a new form of art to be taken seriously, impressive examples of work in that form must exist—and Dr. Horrible is such an example. Dr. Horrible illustrates the use of the internet as a way to get around socially established business and distribution networks—television networks; and the idea of repudiating the socioeconomic status quo is expressed in both the form and content of the musical.

Part of the aesthetic richness of Dr. Horrible is its thoroughly laden intertextuality. From The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972) to Godzilla (Ishiro Honda, 1954) Dr. Horrible's allusions develop the idea of social injustice. 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 in the triangle is Penny (Felicia Day), who, like Billy, does her wash at the local laundromat (a class indicator) and who works as a community organizer—a very different kind of world-changing than Billy plans. Dr. Horrible moves from parodic comedy to shocking sadness (a Whedon hallmark). After Billy has at last participated in actual killing, in the final moments of the video we see 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 after Michael Corleone has chosen his dark path to deal with the world's unfairness. 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: Godzilla-Billy is the monstrosity that comes from human wrongdoing. Such intertextual references are not just decorative filigree.

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. Sweeney Todd is the name taken by Benjamin Barker, a barber who has been wrongly convicted by Judge Turpin, who uses his power to sexually take, and then discard, the barber's wife. Sweeney Todd's revenge is to make society's metaphoric cannibalism literal; but as he becomes more complicit in the evil of the world he rails against, he becomes more careless of his targets, finally killing—without having recognized until too late—his own wife. In Dr. Horrible, too, Billy is angry at the evil of the world—and it is not just personal; here, too, he excoriates the social system. Since this is a Joss Whedon film, Billy's beloved is much less passive; Penny represents a different method of trying to change the world. Their first real conversation illuminates the difference: While he is in the process of electronically controlling a theft of Wonderflonium to power his Freeze Ray (yes, the tone here is really different from Sweeney Todd), Penny asks him to sign a petition for the homeless. But he tells her the homeless are '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. At the end of Sweeney Todd, Sweeney Todd holds in his arms the wife he has killed; in Dr. Horrible, Billy carries Penny, whose death he helped cause. Sweeney Todd is killed; Dr. Horrible is born.

Dr. Horrible's intertextuality (about which much more could be said) should be considered alongside its metatextuality, both working in service of a larger theme. Dr. Horrible's metatextuality is valuable in part simply because it is amusing; but it also serves to remind us of the production's indie nature and its status as internet creation, from the online comic book prequel to the many internet fan hommages (some of which are in the DVD). For the DVD's main feature, the viewer first sees the F.B.I. warning against copyright infringement—but this is replaced by 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 begins, we see what seems a typical weblog entry: Billy, alone, addressing 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 alone before the webcam—this time wordless, as he contemplates Captain Hammer's seducing Penny.

Steven Peacock's recent TV Reflections essay on Dr. Who highlights the metatextual effect of the devices of the screen and/or watcher in such episodes as 'Blink'. In Dr. Horrible, too, 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 gains power while losing control of consequences, the screen use shifts too: Act III begins not with Billy's blog but with parodic representation of television news reports on the 'hero' and 'villain'; the corporate world is speaking. At Dr. Horrible's end, Billy dresses himself in red Dr. Horrible gear when he is to be closed behind those Godfather doors; his last two words he sings alone, 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 remarkable elements of the DVD is that it extends the metatextual through an entire additional score in 'Commentary! The Musical.' While a standard commentary is also provided, 'Commentary! The Musical' provides songs that focus with sharp humour on such matters as the 2007 Writers' Strike that gave birth to Dr. Horrible, the dearth of Asian representation ('Nobody's Asian in the movies'), the distress of analysis ('pick it apart'), sex vs. aesthetic ('It's not about [Nathan Fillion] . . . . It's all about the Art'), 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' (and the 'Making Of' featurettes), viewers gain some knowledge of the four people initially responsible for Dr. Horrible: Joss Whedon, who conceived his second musical partly because of social resistance, the Writers' Strike; his brothers Zack and Jed, and Jed's fiance Maurissa Tancharoen. They all worked together, with Joss Whedon directing, Zack and Maurissa mainly writing, and Jed mainly scoring. The contributions of Harris, Fillion, Day, and all the crew involved doing favors to help the cause. As Day says in 'The Making of Dr. Horrible: The Movie' featurette, Joss Whedon 'has such a vision, but he has a way of including everyone and making that vision happen . . . .' The musical's roots are both personal and political: 'It came from pain', Joss Whedon jokingly moans; 'It actually came from solidarity', Maurissa Tancharoen replies with humorous pedantry. They and we know both are true. The group insisted, 'We're gonna put it on the internet and we're gonna do it for free . . . '—which they did (July 2008; the December 2008 DVD costs 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. Neil Patrick Harris makes the connection between the real-life creation and the fictional 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!' ('What Just Happened?' featurette).

The story itself, of course, tells us it is more complicated; changing the world is not simple, especially outside the screen. But they know that—all of the creators of Dr. Horrible—as do we. 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 complexity of the text gives us more and more to think about. Emotion powers the thought, leading viewers back through the whole construction again and again—the reason all the levels 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, Ph.D., is the editor of Studies in Popular Culture and the author/editor of three books on Whedon, including Investigating Firefly and Serenity: Science Fiction on the Frontier (Tauris 2008).

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