My Eyes

- Or Billy and Dr. Horrible: The Dual Identity-

And I won’t feel/A thing.

- Everything You Ever, Dr. Horrible/Billy

There is something about the duality of Billy and Dr. Horrible that has been bugging me for two years now, and I think I have finally come to a point at which I can articulate my ideas around it.

Dr. Horrible is a persona of power for Billy – you can see this very clearly in the ‘Blogs’ and in the situations where Dr. Horrible is dealing with the world of Heroes and Villains. But Billy is still a very important part of Dr. Horrible; for most of the film, Dr. Horrible and Billy are the same person. Once again, you can see this in how Dr. Horrible acts in terms of social, non-work situations.

He blinks more.

I know this is a weird, tiny thing for me to notice and latch on to, but Billy projects his anxiety so incredibly clearly through his eyes that it’s hard for me to ignore. When Dr. Horrible is talking to Moist about Penny, he blinks frequently and squeezes his eyes shut. He also exhibits the same behavior in regards to his anxiety about the Evil League of Evil. Billy exhibits the same behavior when talking to Penny in the alley, in the laundry mat, and in…basically any other social situation.

But Billy and Dr. Horrible split.

Dr. Horrible, I contend, Billy uses as a way to talk to the world (via blogs) about the issues he sees with society. Yes, he’s evil, but he just wants ‘social change!’ Dr. Horrible is the persona that gives Billy to confidence to act on things he thinks are wrong (such as the heroes of this city being total jerks), but in the end (at least in acts 1 and 2) he is still Billy.

Then, Penny dies. But Penny doesn’t just die. Penny, who has been ‘dating’ Captain Hammer for the entirety of the film, and then Captain Hammer accidentally kills Penny with the shrapnel of Dr. Horrible’s death ray and she dies. But before she dies, she sees Billy, (“Billy,” not Dr. Horrible, she said, even as we saw her realize that they were one and the same during Slipping) and says “Don’t worry. Captain Hammer will save us.”

This breaks Billy, and it’s truly a brilliant break, because you can see the transformation on his face. Dr. Horrible was a tool, but now he is Billy’s shield. Billy shrinks in on himself in grief over Penny (and anger, possibly, at her faith in false heroes), but Dr. Horrible tells the world “I am fine.”

The break is more clear with the last image of Dr. Horrible, during Everything You Ever. Not only does his costume change – from white, which is usually associated with innocence, to red, which is normally associated anger – but he pulls his goggles over his eyes. Again, this is possibly a case of over analysis, but Billy’s eyes are so expressive that putting that barrier down is important. Billy’s anxiety can no longer be shown in Dr. Horrible’s eyes. There is no room for Billy’s weaknesses anymore. This is further highlighted in the ending ‘blog’ – Blogs are Dr. Horrible’s domain, but suddenly we are faced with Billy, whose line in Everything You Ever is ‘a thing,’ following Dr. Horrible’s statement that he ‘won’t feel.’ Billy, though, is clearly feeling – he looks as if he has just finished crying.

This line is significant – Dr. Horrible will not feel, cannot feel, so Billy has to shoulder all of the guilt, grief, and sadness that stems from his continued Villainy. He has achieved his goal – The Evil League of Evil – but at the cost of the woman he loved and his faith that people could see past appearances to the truth (“Captain Hammer will save us”). Billy and Dr. Horrible, once the same person, are now dual identities, and the audience is left with the horrible feeling that Billy may never exist outside of his apartment again.

At the risk of this becoming too academic for this blog, I’ll end on this – Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-Long blog is rife with themes of identity. Some people are layered with a “third, even deeper layer, that’s the same as the first. Like with pie.” Others constitute a duality that is easily broken. My point, I suppose, is that this film is more than just a silly thing the Whedons made during the Writer’s Strike – it takes a serious look at different types of identity, and how sometimes our archetypes do not work.

Take the Sky From Me

- Or Why Firefly is Different from Buffy, and How It’s Air Schedule Crippled It Narratively -

Aside from the obvious, Friefly demonstrates a departure from the narrative structure of Buffy. Starting from the episode Serenity, which is the canonical starting point for the series, viewers are thrown into the end of a war that serves as a backdrop and anchor into the setting that Mal and Zoe are a part of. Over the course of the episode, we are introduced to the well established crew – family – of the Serenity, rather than watching the crew form (as with the Scooby Gang in Buffy). All of this would be super overwhelming were it not for Simon, River, and Book, three passengers on the Serenity who get caught up in the crew’s antics. These three characters provide a relatable and stable (or unstable, in the case of River) anchoring point for views to get used to the banter, relationships, and conflicts common to Mal’s motley crew.

The way Firefly was aired, however, ruins this anchoring point.

Firefly’s first official episode, according to Fox, is The Train Job, which, in order of filming and production was the second episode. In this version, all viewers have in the way of anchoring is a short series of clips from the first episode narrated by Book, and even that doesn’t fully explain what the hell is happening. The bar fight does little to explain Mal all that much (though, he is a rather complex character, so not a whole lot of introductions are adequately going to explain Mal), or Zoe, or Jayne. Or Wash, for that matter. Simon and River are already established parts of this small community (though they are still outsiders) and Book is really…full of questions.

This, understandably, leaves the audience confused.

In any good work of fiction – book, television, movie, or otherwise – it is vital that you give the audience what I have been calling ‘anchors.’ These are concrete details about the setting, the main characters, or the plot that the reader can latch onto before they figure out how the universe they are entering works. In Firefly, the passengers Mal picks up are anchor characters – they are just as confused and out of their element as the audience is. When thrown into a show where the anchor characters have already been explained in an unaired pilot, the audience is left groping for a handhold and are let down. This causes them to abandon the story except for a few heroic cases (the original Browncoats).

To avoid turning this into a rant against Fox, I will end on this - Firefly is a weird story. It is a non-conventional mash up of the Sci-fi and Western genres and a mash up like that requires narrative anchors, or the story will never float. Joss seemed to have provided those anchors in Serenity, which where then not provided by the cable network. The situation surrounding this show is, of course, complicated, but some of the blame (I think) on why it failed is because the airing order and dates provided by the network ruined the narrative construction of the series.