Last night I stayed up far too late watching TV shows. I had enough time before bed to watch three 45 min. episodes, but both turned out to be two parts, resulting in watching 4, successfully keeping me up an hour late. Finally making my way into my warm, cozy bed I proceeded to stare at the ceiling, realizing I was suddenly alert. I couldn’t sleep. And when I can’t sleep, I start thinking. So I thought, and I thought about the show I’d just seen, and I made connections and drew lines and speculated, and I finally ended up connecting two of my favorite doctors in all of film and television: Doctor Who and Doctor Horrible.
Doctor Horrible is the title character of a 45 minute web musical Doctor Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog. From the minute I heard the first notes of the first song I knew I had found something remarkable and unique. Wikipedia classifies it as “a musical tragicomedy miniseries in three acts, produced exclusively for Internet distribution.” The word that jumps out at me most is the term “Tragicomedy.” I’d never heard of such a thing before, but it seems to oddly fit the structure and style of the musical.
Doctor Horrible is an anti-villain, a villainous protagonist, a heroic antagonist. He’s a walking contradiction. The only thing more backwards from your typical hero setup is the arrogant, licentious, and selfish hero; Captain Hammer. Everything Doctor Horrible does is funny, from his inability to make his super-weapons work to the fact that he keep a vlog, and sings on it. We laugh when he gets threatened by Captain Hammer; we laugh when he disguises himself as a bush to spy on the girl he loves.
A good book will have the power to make it’s readers both cry and laugh. To acheive both those goals within the covers of a novel is a must. To do it within a single chapter is remarkable. But how do you get your audience to cry and laugh, both at once? Within the same song? TV Tropes defines the first law of Tragicomedies as “In any work that has both drama and comedy, the drama will rise proportionally with the level of tension in the story. The comedy will do the reverse.” This means that it will start out comedy, and end up drama or tragedy, gradually morphing as the story progresses. Perhaps this is why I didn’t recognize the cross-genre, for Doctor Horrible does not follow this rule.
|Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor.|
The Doctor of Doctor Who is nine hundred years old. He’s a hero who saves the world, many world in fact, on a regular basis. This sounds like fun, lots of characters do this. But think about saving the world. In order for the world to be saved, it has to be lost first. Saving the human race is a noble and awesome thing, but what seems to set the Doctor so much apart is that even in his moment of triumph he doesn’t forget what was lost in the regaining. You don’t live for nine centuries and not learn something of pain and loss. He suffers, and we all know that suffering characters are the most endearing. But at the same time the series is horribly funny. Between a time machine disguised as a phone box, a sonic screwdriver, and the endless jokes about his name it’s one of the funniest shows I’ve seen. Most episodes seem to be divided into funny and dramatic, but a few are on the level of Doctor Horrible, thrusting the two back to back, and alternating so fast you can barely keep up.
Doctor Horrible doesn’t loose it’s comedic feel when the action climaxes and the drama is overwhelming. The second to last musical number is eery, sarcastic, and hopeless, as Doctor Horrible prepares to finish off his nemesis. We get a real explanation of his world view, and why he became a super-villain, and it’s more bitter because it tastes of the truth. It’s a poignant moment and in the middle of it he stops to correct the spelling of his name for a journalist, and we laugh again, not quite able to break the tension of that moment.Pain is more real because of the laughter, and laughter has more meaning in context of the drama.
Doctor Who, Season One, Episode 10 – The Doctor Dances. This is one of the funniest episodes I’ve seen. Highly quotable, with lots of jokes about sonic screwdrivers and dancing. It’s also one of the most dramatic. It’s a classic comedy while we’re running for our lives while arguing about inconsequential things, but there’s nothing inconsequential about the ending, when the Doctor realizes it can all be fixed, it can all be fixed: “Just this once, just one day like this… everybody lives, Rose! Just this once, Everybody lives!”
Everyone gets to live! How many heroes get that opportunity? How many times can the world be saved from certain disaster with no casualties? And how many stereo-typed characters would care, would be so elated over every single life? Just the fact that he recognizes that makes us want to weep for all the times when it wasn’t possible. It’s horribly, tragically, wonderful. It’s brilliant. It’s the kind of characters you don’t find every day, and that I can only hope I’ll someday know how to write. It’s the kind of stories that I want to watch over and over again, that I want to quote, that I wish I could act it.
Tragicomedy is an underutilized genre. Those few things that fall into it’s category are often lame, and do not live up to the promise it presents. Life is a tragicomedy; laughing through our tears, and weeping for joy. It is the genre I wish to write, and the genre I’d love to read.