Dr Horrible's Sing-Along Blog Review
Had events followed a different course, we would now be coming to the end of Firefly’s seventh, and most likely final, season. We would long since have learnt the truth behind Book the enigmatic preacher, River would wrestled and overcome the moral implications of being some kind of psychic superwoman, Mal and Inara would still not have got together and even as I write we would be watching the final days of the Alliance as the Serenity's ragtag group finally overcame the evil empire and their mysterious blue-handed friends. Probably. As it was, we all know what happened instead as one of the most promising shows of the decade was strangled almost at birth, much to the amazement of fans (whose howls of disbelief can still be heard echoing around the internet all these years later) and great personal disappointment to its creator, Joss Whedon. Since then, it's been a frustrating few years for the writer/director – the box office failure of Firefly's cinematic spin-off Serenity killed any possibility of turning the show into a movie franchise, his work on a big screen Wonder Women ended up going nowhere and in the end he found himself turning for an outlet for his talents to the world of comic books, most notably on Astonishing X-Men and the unofficial official Buffy: Season Eight. All of which kept him busy but not where he should be, for his natural home is television, a medium which, on the evidence of Dr Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog, he is desperate to return to.
Filmed during last year’s Writer’s Strike when he couldn't work on his new series Dollhouse, Dr Horrible was an episodic webcast starring Doogie Howser himself Neil Patrick Harris as the eponymous supervillain, ex-Mal Reynolds Nathan Fillion as his nemesis superhero Captain Hammer, and Felicia Day as Penny, the woman they both love. A comic musical not unlike Buffy’s Once More With Feeling the plot follows the inept villain as he attempts to be admitted to the ELE (Evil League of Evil), only for his plans to be constantly thwarted by the insufferably smug Hammer. During one particularly disastrous heist, he inadvertently brings Penny and Hammer together, and watches with increasing despair as the girl of his dreams falls in love with his exasperating foe. Of course the twist is that Dr Horrible is actually a sweet, good-natured guy while Captain Hammer is a conceited bore who’s only interested in getting into Penny’s pants, but matter take an unexpected turn when the would-be bad guy is told that the only way he will be admitted into the ELE is by carrying out a successful assassination. Can our antihero kill two birds, or at least one very annoying bird, with a single stone (and by stone I mean great big laser rifle.)
The style and plot is recognisably Whedonesque (far more so than the few glimpses we've had so far of Dollhouse). The dialogue has that unmistakable rhythm and vocabulary that altered the way a generation of fandom spoke, and the ever-present wit is there in bucket loads, from the Captain Hammer groupies who "have a problem with" Penny to Dr Horrible’s best friend who has a spectacularly useless superpower. Shot in seven days during the strike, using Whedon’s own money and featuring cameos from many of his Buffy and Angel colleagues including David “I got the mustard out!” Fury and even a blink-and-you'll-miss her cameo from Sarah Michelle Gellar, it belies its webcast status by looking and sounding just as good as anything produced for TV, even if there’s not as much directorial flourish as Whedon has shown on other similar projects. The cast ham it up in fine style, with Fillion perfect as the self-satisfied Hammer and Harris giving us a pitch-perfect hero, half vulnerable loser and half evil genius.
Mild spoilers follow
It's also extremely lightweight, about as substantial as the frozen yoghurts Dr Horrible and Penny share. The songs are musically utterly unmemorable (albeit usually with fairly witty lyrics) but to be overly critical of what is after all just a bit of disposable, likeable nonsense would be somewhat churlish. However, it's precisely the fact that in the final act Whedon forgets that it's just a bit of disposable, likeable nonsense where the only major problem with Dr Horrible lies, and it's a mistake I think symptomatic of the fact that he's really yearning to be back on the box. One of the major strengths of his best work is his ability to juxtapose comedy and tragedy so well, and his knack of pulling the rug out from under the viewers' feet is well known - it was, after all, the emotional truth he invested in Buffy which was what ultimately elevated it above just a series about some chick who fought vampires. Dr Horrible, on the other hand, is nothing more than bubblegum, and to try and invest in it a similar depth is to give it ideas far, far above its station. Giving what is otherwise a very jolly, happy affair an ironically cruel twist of an ending is a misstep which leaves a sour taste in the mouth and actually makes it a lesser work than it would otherwise have been. It's the sign of a man longing to once more give viewers that full roller-coaster ride of emotions which he does so well and for which he hasn't had an outlet for far too long. Let's hope that Dollhouse overcomes what from the outside appear to be substantial odds and gives him the chance to do so once again because, on the evidence of Dr Horrible, he's fit to bursting.
The DVD is available exclusively from Amazon, and is a single, DVD-R disc, which is rather sweet, coded for all regions. The main menu is a simple CGI outline of the city, which you move around slightly as you select one of the four options: Play, Scene Selection, Special Features and Languages. The main feature is subtitled, but none of the extras are. There’s a fair bit of digital noise in the Video transfer, as well as some compression artefacts, but overall it’s very watchable, while the Audio, if not as resonant on the best musical DVDs, is certainly clear enough, although there is at times a slight tininess to some of the tracks.
The best Extra is Commentary! The Musical which is exactly what it sounds like – a commentary by all involved which take the form of all-new show tunes. Once again the tunes are hardly anything to write about but the lyrics for some of the songs are arguably wittier than those in the proper show, while all performers throw themselves into the thing with great zest – highlights include a song about the Writer’s Strike, one highlighting the joys of the web game Ninja Rope and a third in which Nathan Fillion sings about how much better he is than Neil Patrick Harris. There's also a regular cast commentary - those who are familiar with Whedon's other DVD yak tracks will be disappointed that he takes a back seat as the others chat away about the production.
The Making of Dr Horrible (20:41) is a straight-forward largely joke-free featurette, which is very similar to those on Buffy – we had fun, Joss is a genius, etc etc. A bit more entertaining are the ELE Application Videos (30:48) Fans were invited to submit a three-minute audition explaining why they should be admitted to the ELE, with the prize being that the ten best would be included on this DVD. There’s a lot of creativity here, as well as a couple that are awful. There are also four Easter Eggs included, which frankly are a nightmare to activate unless you have all day to decode the clues on the DVD box and press various combinations of buttons every time that Dr Horrible Countdown appears. If you persist or cheat (ahem) you’ll find a short interview with the members of the ELE, a set of clips of the cast goofing around, some behind-the-scenes footage of the first scene with Hammer and Penny and, less excitingly, the DVD credits (typically, the last is the easiest one to find). Finally, for completeness sake, the Teaser Trailer (0:56) is also included.
Given you can see it free on the internet, it's difficult to recommend this DVD, even given its cheap price, as with the exception of Commentary! The Musical the extras are somewhat lightweight. However, for those who fell in love with the show and want more, there's enough to satisfy, even if you never find those dratted Easter Eggs.