A Writer Reviews: Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

Before I start talking about this in terms of writing and character development, I’m going to say if you’ve only seen Dr. Horrible online, through Netflix, on iTunes, anything like that…track down the DVD.  Commentary, The Musical is a full length…well, musical commentary track that is value added and then some.

I’ve been meaning to talk about Dr. Horrible in one of these Writer Reviews bits.  I always figured when I did I would explore the nature of the protagonist and antagonist versus the hero and villain of the story.  That’s legitimately interesting with Dr. Horrible, which does the villain-as-protagonist twist that was later the heart of Despicable Me and Megamind, but without taking the villain-becomes-hero redemption route.  Instead, Dr. Horrible is a fantastic example of a protagonist with two conflicting, and actively contradictory, goals.

I was playing around with these while putting together an exercise on dissecting plots for my writers group.  Dr. Horrible has two main plot lines, which for the exercise I deemed as the “Dr. Horrible” plot and the “Billy” plot, with each of the main character’s personas taking the role of protagonist, and Captain Hammer being the antagonist.  Let’s just do a quick breakdown for those who might not remember the entirety of each plot, using the seven step plot break-down I talked about two weeks ago.  These are my own suggestions for the points, so you may disagree with them and the will be spoiler filled.

Dr. Horrible wants to join the Evil League of Evil.  That’s his hook, and that’s where the story starts, reading viewer email and talking about his transmatter and freeze rays.  Plot Turn 1 comes when he gets a letter from Bad Horse saying he is under evaluation for membership.  Pinch 1 occurs during the Wonderflonium heist, which is interrupted by introduced nemesis Captain Hammer.  Even though he succeeds, the intervention complicates his path to ELE membership.  The midpoint is the second Bad Horse letter, announcing that he’s been unsuccessful in his membership and now must kill someone to get in, it’s the first point of transition from merely felonious to willingly murderous.  Pinch 2, rather than being an all-is-lost moment, is actually a high point during the song “Brand New Day” when Dr. Horrible realizes that Captain Hammer will be his victim.  Plot Turn 2 comes with the creation of the death ray and the accidental death of Penny, which leads to the conclusion as Dr. Horrible rides roughshod over the city and joins the League.

Billy is infatuated with Penny, the cute redhead at the laundromat, and his hook is the opening song “My Freeze Ray.”  Plot Turn 1 happens as he is preparing for the Wonderflonium heist (seriously, Wonderflonium is a fun word to write) when Penny recognizes him and talks to him about creating a shelter.  Pinch 1 has Penny swooning for Captain Hammer after he apparently saves her life.  In the midpoint Penny and Billy are now “laundry buddies” sharing frozen yogurt and talking about their lives, they even nearly kiss at one moment.  Pinch 2, all is lost, happens when Captain Hammer comes to the laundromat, recognizes Billy as Dr. Horrible, and announces that he’s going to keep dating Penny out of spite.  “These are not the hammer.”  Plot Turn 2, now this is the interesting part.  The moment where Billy has everything he needs to win over Penny’s heart, he doesn’t know it.  It’s the point where she walks off stage disgusted that Captain Hammer is discussing their love life and isn’t nearly as interested in the homeless as he seems.  Sadly, because Joss Whedon will rip your heart out every damn time, he doesn’t know this so the conclusion has her dead in his arms, her last words being “Captain Hammer will save us.”

The first important turning point of the story happens at Plot Turn 1 for the Billy storyline, which is appropriate.  Plot Turn 1 is that moment where we’re done introducing the characters and we need to give them a story to take part in.  Our villainous hero in Dr. Horrible has a moment after his first actual conversation with Penny where he considers whether he should go after her, or whether to continue with the heist and experience his other Plot Turn.  The choices are directly in conflict with each other, and he needs a moment to make a conscious choice between the two plots.  It’s that moment where he can choose whether to abandon evil and go after Penny, or where he can continue with his plan.  This comes to a head at the end of Act Two when Pinch 2 for each plot run headlong into each other.  When he has to confront Captain Hammer discussing what parts of his anatomy are, and are not, the hammer, he is again presented with a choice of how to go forward.  However, he doesn’t recognize it as a choice, and instead decides the murder of Captain Hammer will achieve both goals, certain Penny will love him when she gets a “shiny new Australia.”  The fact that he’s hiding behind a curtain when Plot Turn 2 happens for the Billy plot drives the point home.

Conflicting goals make characters interesting.  How they handle them is important.  In Dr. Horrible our main character has with two goals that I think a lot of young men in the target audience can understand: the desire to be a super villain and the desire to date Felicia Day.  Or is that just me?  Anyway, when it comes to conflicting goals like these, there are three possible outcomes to conflicting goals.  First is that the character, through trying to achieve both, achieves neither and learns a lesson in the process.  Second is that the character is forced, whether consciously or unconsciously, to give up one goal in favor of the other, and learns a lesson in the process.  The third is that the character gets to eat his cake and have it to, the conflicting goals through some device deconflict, and the character really learns nothing in the process.

Dr. Horrible is interesting because he has convinced himself that he is working towards the third instance.  Lots of characters, and people, presented with this sort of choice likely to do the same, to rationalize their decisions as being in the best interest of both goals.  It’s what makes the ultimately downfall of the Billy plot line so heart-rending, because he has convinced himself that his actions are building towards happy endings for both personas, though we as an audience are less naïve in thinking socially progressive Penny will agree that a world run by Dr. Horrible is the cure for societal ills.  He never recognized the moment that he chose one plot over to the others.  We can, we the audience know the tragedy that he is walking into.  In part because we’re trained that characters can’t have everything they ever wanted.  That everything won’t be fine.  Because that’s ultimately uninteresting.  There’s nothing of humanity in that answer.

Alright, that’s not entirely fair.  Characters do occasionally get to eat their cake and have it, too.  Not because they’re trying to.  It has to be that though choosing one goal they find another path to their lost goal.  Then they’ve grown and learned, and gotten a pretty nifty reward in the process.  It’s the character who is certain, as Dr. Horrible is, that his two goals are one in the same and can be achieved through the same grand act, who must learn through pain and suffering.

Characters need choices.  They need big choices.  They need conflicting options.  They need two doors, the lady and the tiger, and a requirement to choose one and never open the other.  They can have several shots at the same choice, but they need to either act consistently, as Dr. Horrible did, or have a good reason for changing.  And I won’t go so far as to say they have to be punished for their choices, but the choice cannot lack repercussions.  Some moment that drives home that they chose, and that their choice had implications.  It’s a moment to add depth to the character, and to give them a shot at some genuine emotion.  They have, after all, walked away from something that they wanted, something that motivated them for a good portion of the story, and the audience isn’t going to buy it if the character looks at what happen and they don’t feel…

…a thing.

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  1. avatar

    #1 by find-way-net on July 18, 2016 - 9:05 pm

    Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog isn’t quite like anything else. Don’t let that stop you, though, it’s great! Funny, clever, entertaining, and

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