It may seem strange to try and find a ray of light from the great writers’ strike that occurred almost a decade ago, but out of the darkness and despair of defined those few months, one film was created as a beacon of hope: Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.
With another writers’ strike threatening to shut down production on various TV shows, movies, games and other creative industries where writers represented by the Writers Guild of America work, it’s been a time of reflection. We think about the movies that suffered and the TV shows — like Pushing Daisies, Lost and Heroes — that were forever changed because of it. Like I said, it can be difficult to find something to hold on to for hope, but that’s what Whedon gave us with Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog when he released it almost 10 years ago, and that’s what we should try to remember going into this uneasy time.
Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog follows the titular, aspiring super villain, played by Neil Patrick Harris, as he contends with his nemesis Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion) for the love of his crush Penny (Felicia Day). The movie was conceived by Whedon during the writers’ strike, in between Whedon’s work on Serenity, his followup film to Firefly, and just before Dollhouse. It was created during the four months of striking that Whedon, enthralled with the idea of having the creative freedom to work on projects he wanted to do but couldn’t get the backing for.
It was because of the writers’ strike that Whedon had a number of his closest friends — who just so happen to be some of the most esteemed actors — at his disposal for his weird idea, but that wasn’t the only factor working in his favor. Between the period of 2007 and 2008, Whedon also decided he wanted to toy with the idea of using the internet as a way to distribute a film. This way he could bypass having to go through a studio for money and connect directly with those who wanted to support his vision, particularly during a time of need.
The only thing stopping him from doing that at the time was that fact that he didn’t know how do go about doing it. In an interview with Dave Itzkoff last year, Whedon told the New York Times critic that it noted Felicia Day’s work on The Guild, a webseries that premiered on YouTube in July 2007, as a reason for looking to the internet as a realm of possibility in the first place.
With all of the ingredients in place, Whedon was free to start working on the idea that would end up becoming Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, a movie written, directed and produced by himself and various members of his family. The film, which is split into three parts, is only 45 minutes long and only starred a few actors. The movie shouldn’t have succeeded and it had everything — including a lack of funding and a massive writers’ strike — working against it.
But Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog was the ideal Whedon production. It’s full of musical numbers, and as any Buffy fan will know, Whedon is a fan of using songs as a way to tell a story. It’s also cheesy, but with enough of a message that it doesn’t feel like you’re watching an after school special.
Most importantly, there’s an undeniable enthusiasm to Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog that comes with the freedom of being able to make the movie Whedon wanted to make without having to worry about notes from studios and interference from executives. This is Whedon at his most carefree, and that comes through in the success of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.
Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog feels like Whedon’s childlike wonderment over the possibility of what cinema could be found itself in the pages of the script, dancing on screen with every new shot. There’s something uncharacteristically innocent about the movie that leaves you enamored with what you’re seeing the moment it begins.
There’s one other aspect of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog that doesn’t get talked about as much, however, and it’s important: the representation of blogging, vlogging and the idea of an online diary in film.
Both blogging and vlogging had been around for quite some time at this point, but there was still something inherently geeky about the entire thing ... unless you were Gawker or Huffington Post and making millions doing it. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog captures the beginning point of the internet celebrity; the beginning of the YouTube personality who used vlogging as a way of connecting with their audience.
In that regard, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog feels like a touchstone of an important era in today’s culture. Because it came about during a point where conversation was elsewhere, we often forget that Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog exists.
But without the short, we wouldn’t have other movies like it — specifically Whedon’s 2015 film Much Ado About Nothing. Like Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Whedon hired friends and shot the film at his house without any kind of real budget. The movie, which was praised by critics and fans alike, was another Whedon success, and the director has credited Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog for giving him the confidence to take chances on other films like it.
There’s another writers’ strike looming over Hollywood and the millions of people who enjoy keeping up with new TV series and films. If it actually does happen, the consequences will be felt and they shouldn’t be trivialized. But if Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is proof of anything, it’s that if creators want to make something, they’ll find a way to do it.