There are a lot of firsts surrounding Tuesday’s (April 14) panel discussion of "Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog," the fourth event at PaleyFest 09: it’s the first time the festival has ever featured an internet series, the first time that Nathan Fillion has ever been part of the festival and the first time that Joss Whedon has been asked about his relationship with FOX (Okay, so the last one is a lie, that happens every single time he speaks).

Regardless, there’s a lot riding on "Dr. Horrible" as a model for future internet success, but what was most interesting about the discussion moderated by Matt Roush was that it wasn’t Whedon who really spoke passionately about this model.

“I doubt we would have had the time or the inclination,” Whedon admitted when asked whether or not the writer’s strike was a necessary proponent to the series’ inception; this is not exactly the kind of visionary sentiment normally associated with the writer/producer. When asked about potential future projects in the Dr. Horrible universe, he was similarly non-plussed: “We could do something on the small,” he shrugs, his answer moving beyond the expected non-committal (offered by other panelists throughout the evening) to something approaching disinterest.

There is no question that this is a tight-knit family, and that the production was a passion project for Whedon and those involved, but Whedon’s outlook has changed since then: the night couldn’t possibly have gone without some questions regarding Whedon’s recent struggles with FOX’s "Dollhouse" (which is getting its own panel discussion on Wednesday), and its impact was quite clear. Rather than hanging onto "Dr. Horrible" as an ideal to sustain him while dealing with the perils of working in the network system, Whedon seems to view the web series as a romantic notion that, while enjoyable while it lasted, isn’t something he’s willing to commit to.

“It’s still very nascent, and I still have a day job,” Whedon said when pressed on the issue. While his usual charm and enthusiasm were certainly not absent from the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, there was nonetheless something about his demeanor that felt almost defeated.

Whedon may have seemed more enthusiastic if not for the presence of internet sensation Felicia Day, who between extolling the virtues of Twitter and discussing World of Warcraft politics found time to lay out a passionate and comprehensive outline on the ways in which this model could be the way of the future.

“It’s [all] to be invented,” Day said, “there are no rules.” It’s that freedom that attracted Joss to the idea of "Dr. Horrible," but it’s clear that Day was the brains behind the operation’s viral success: Whedon discussed how Day “schooled” a room of marketing types on the potential ways to use the internet to their advantage, and admitted to being the most technologically illiterate person on the panel.

Day, who produces and stars in online hit "The Guild" and who says she is working on a number of other online projects, simply felt the most connected to this form of distribution as something more than a side project. While Whedon spoke in vague terms about his potential future plans in the online medium, Day was talking about recent sponsorship deals, advertising placement and how this will always be her main priority due to the freedom it provides her.

It’s too bad, of course, that Day and her enthusiasm aren’t going to be around for future Dr. Horrible projects thanks to her untimely death in the third Act, perhaps the most substantive discussion which emerged from the panel.

“I wanted it to come pure,” Whedon said when asked about whether he regretted the shock of Penny’s death, admitting “that was probably a bad idea...it made people hate me a lot.” I, admittedly, was skeptical of Penny’s death from the very beginning, but Whedon’s answer made his intention clearer.

“It gave us license to be sillier,” Whedon said, “because we knew there was some weight to it.” It was an integral part of the planning process for the three Whedon brothers (Joss, Zack and Jed) behind the scenes, as Jed noted that it gave them a definite goal, as well as a tragic template upon which to plot both songs and storylines.

It is in these moments that Whedon feels more engaged, more connected with his material: there were some great anecdotes about how different characters came to be (the origin of “Bad Horse,” an idea originating from an abandoned Angel pitch from writer Ben Edlund, was particularly great) as well as some stories about filming. However, most of that material had been mined for both their normal commentary recorded for the series’ DVD release as well as “Commentary: The Musical,” acknowledged as a fun idea if not a fun project to complete; this kind of took the wind out of their sails at points.

There’s no doubt, though, that this panel knows how to work a room, particularly star Nathan Fillion whose years of training at fan conventions have prepared him well for both tangential questions and witty banter. He was responsible for many of the evening’s comic highlights, in particular the lengthy series of comments regarding the infamous “The Hammer is my...” line in Act Two (which he notes is a good line to be known for, although composer/orchestrator Jed Whedon jokes he should be renamed “Captain Pencil”), and demonstrated the star quality going to waste on "Castle" and still in search of its proper vehicle. And while Zack Whedon may have been a bit quiet (having to be prompted to take credit for the “Hammer is my...” joke), Jed and fiance Maurissa Tancharoen (who are getting married on Saturday) were both talkative and open about the show’s journey; Jed, especially, gets points for copping to being the one who allowed the series’ trailer to leak early.

It raises some important questions about just what these events are really about: are they really just a slightly more civilized form of Comic-Con panels considering the autograph seekers or the spontaneous outbursts of cheering and yelling, or are they meant to be something more? When the questions were turned over to the audience, it became clear that things were split: one side wanted to have their theories confirmed or to chat with Whedon about his past shows, and the other wanted to know more about the production, more about the future of this medium in Whedon’s eyes.

Personally speaking, I felt as if there was a critical discussion not taking place as part of the panel: one questioner tried to get to the issue of whether this model actually works when not in the hands of Joss Whedon, and I think this is both a fair and important question. If not for Whedon’s already existing fan base and their high populations amongst internet  populations, "Dr. Horrible" might have been stalled on its tracks, and this model becomes far less trustworthy. Even Day’s model is problematic when one considers how closely her subject matter is catered to those more common in such internet circles. And while I understand that these are big questions that these people couldn’t possibly answer, this wasn’t a Q&A: it was a panel discussion about the series’ impact on television as a medium.

For this particular panel, it worked out in the end: Day offered a glimpse of hope for the future of online television, Fillion brought the humour, and Whedon himself gave us a glimpse (if not a particularly hopeful one) into his future relationship with this medium. At the same time, though, I hope the bits and pieces of discussion on this potential model go far beyond what was experienced at the ArcLight; if the more substantive discussions aren’t going to take place during the event itself, I at least hope that the very internet that made "Dr. Horrible" a success might be able to dig a bit deeper.

Bits and Pieces

   While much was made of Neil Patrick Harris absence from the panel (Fillion joked about how much joy it brought him, while Whedon claimed he was in a Sanitarium), we did get some tidbits about how he was cast and a great story about his love of foley during the recording of the commentary tracks; Harris, in case you were curious, is just out of the country.

   Felicia Day is generally quite charming as it is, but her realization that she was wearing the same shirt as she wore in the series to the panel was pretty great. Day was also great when diplomatically refusing an invitation from an audience member to join their Guild in World of Warcraft.

   The closest we got to information on a potential sequel was Zack’s news that there’s more Dark Horse comics on the way (Penny comic hits MySpace on June 1st), and Fillion’s hypothetical costume for the project: darker outfits and a pompadour haircut.

   To preview Joss’ "Dollhouse" panel, he did note how he was frustrated “to work so hard and get so lost,” so the doom and gloom is certainly not going to be absent tonight.

   Most exciting piece of trivia from the panel: Dobber the horse, who appeared as Bad Horse in "Dr. Horrible," was also (unbeknownst to the crew) in an episode of "Angel," and will appear in the next episode of "Dollhouse? to complete a Whedon trifecta of sorts.

 

Read more from Myles at his Cultural Learnings blog.