Abbey Road is alive with the sound of Maestro this weekend! And ahead of The Devil’s Chord Blogtor Who explores those shows who gone before into the world of musicals!

Doctor Who is finally doing a musical episode with The Devil’s Chord. To a random observer though, that word ‘finally’ fits oddly in that sentence. Why would anyone have been expecting a show about an alien saving worlds with the help of a screwdriver, a Police Box, and a plucky young human or two to ever have musical numbers? Of course, the reality is that so many shows have done musical episodes down the years. So many that it’s begun to feel inevitable. If your TV series makes it to its sixth or seventh series and you haven’t yet resorted to a musical episode to keep things lively, people start to count down the days until you announce one.

So let’s look at a few of those musical episodes that have set the stage for The Devil’s Chord. There are literally dozens of examples, but Blogtor has narrowed it down a bit. We’ll just be featuring SF/Fantasy genre shows that go on full on musical. So not episodes where there’s just one big number, justified by the characters ‘putting on a show’ within the show. No, these all go all the way. The casts of these stories sing and dance their feeling spontaneously around starship corridors and science labs.

It goes without saying, too, that these are cases where music is the exception, not the rule. So the likes of High School Musical: The Musical or Cop Rock would be disallowed even if they were SF. (Though the latter’s Baby Merchant has to be heard to be believed.) Even Schmigadoon with its parallel world where time flows differently has too many songs to count here.

 

Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Once More with Feeling - the OG genre musical episode (c) Mondo Records
Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Once More with Feeling – the OG genre musical episode (c) Mondo Records

Buffy the Vampire SlayerOnce More with Feeling (2001)

Once More with Feeling is the high priestess of this subgenre of TV. There had been musical episodes of non-musical TV shows before, of course, right back to The Dick Van Dyke Show of the 1960s. But it’s the iconic Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode which has led to almost a quarter century of imitators.

Buffy had regularly featured demons with reality bending powers invading the small Californian town of Sunnydale. It introduces Sweet, a musical demon with the power to compel people to reveal their secrets and innermost thoughts through song. It’s a natural extension of the show’s mythology. It also set the standard for these types of episodes in another way. It makes the songs genuinely important to the ongoing story arcs. Everyone is left changed by the experience: Xander and Anya realize that they’re both dreading their upcoming marriage, Giles realizes he needs to leave Buffy to stand on her two feet, Willow and Tara break up, and Buffy finally reveals the depth of the depression she’s been battling under, and the reasons for it. Oh, and we learn that Anya has a bunny phobia. (“What do they need such good eyesight for anyway?!” she belt out.)

Like all the best musicals, it’s the quality of the book tied to the quality of the music that really makes Once More with Feeling something specials. It’s full of classics like Under Your Spell, Standing, and I’ve Got a Theory. It’s no wonder if received its own soundtrack album and run of Rocky Horror style singalong theatre showings.

Fringe's Brown Betty provides a noir jukebox musical
Fringe’s Brown Betty provides a noir jukebox musical

FringeBrown Betty (2010)

Few shows have been more unjustly forgotten than the twisted science procedural Fringe. The story of a special team assembled by the FBI to investigate the odd, the unexplained, anything on Earth, or even beyond (as Doctor Who’s Brig might say), it quickly outgrew its X-Files-ish beginnings to become something much stranger, funnier, and imaginative. It’s a sign of that wild nature that it managed to hit its musical episode at top speed. Brown Betty airing during Fringe’s second season.

Surprisingly though, despite the extraordinary universes (yes, plural) in which Fringe is set the singing and dancing isn’t really real. Rather the team’s resident scientific genius, the befuddled but morally complicated Walter (John Noble), gets very, very high on his personally developed supply – the ‘brown betty’ of the title. Unfortunately, he’s also unexpectedly landed with babysitting the niece of FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv). He does his best to keep her entertained by weaving a 1930s set noirish detective story, complete with period song and dance numbers.

 

Fringe episode Brown Betty places its characters in a noir musical (c) Fox
Fringe episode Brown Betty places its characters in a noir musical

The episode both retells recent events and drops hints about future ones couched in metaphor

Despite that, the episode still focuses on exposing and confronting buried secrets through music. The entire cast play new versions of themselves in Walter’s musical fantasy, with the scientist revealed to have stolen all his wonderful inventions from the dreams of children, leaving them without their inner spark. The musical storyline not only parallels the main arc plot but actually anticipates it. Walter’s story contains clues of what’s to come in future episodes, hidden in metaphor.

It’s completely appropriate to the type of show Fringe was that it’s take on the musical episode is a fever dream filled with mysterious signs and portents for those willing to look beneath the surface.

However, Brown Betty has to lose some credit for recycling existing songs rather than creating its own. Sure we get the likes of The Candy Man sung by corpses in the morgue, and Stevie Wonder’s For Once in My Life sung by Olivia’s hard boiled detective, but original songs would have been even better.

 

Duet was a musical crossover between two shows: The Flash and Supergirl
Duet was a musical crossover between two shows: The Flash and Supergirl

The FlashDuet (2017)

Duet was probably the most anticipated and demanded of all the episodes on this list. The late lamented Arrowverse of shows assembled some of DC Comics’ greatest heroes in a range of shows that, arguably, did a better job of building a consistent universe for them than the movies. But more than that it featured established musical stars in major roles. In particular, there were Glee co-stars Grant Gustin (the Flash/Barry Allen) and Melissa Benoist (Supergirl/Kara Danvers.) It all had fans asking, if not demanding, ‘musical crossover when?‘ from almost as soon as their shows began.

The Arrowverse also featured other stars like Doctor Who’s John Barrowman (the villainous Dark Archer), four times Tony Award nominee Victor Garber (one half of the superhero Firestorm), Tony and Grammy nominee Jeremy Jordan (Supergirl’s sidekick Winn), and original Rent cast member Jesse L Martin (Barry’s foster father Joe West). With other Broadway regulars in the cast too, it just added to the sense of inevitability.

 

John Barrowman performs Put a Little Love in Your Heart in The Flash episode Duel
John Barrowman performs Put a Little Love in Your Heart in The Flash episode Duet

Duet is basically a hybrid of musical, mixing original songs unique to its characters and world with karaoke classics

Borrowing a villain from the Batman: The Brave and the Bold cartoon, Duet cast Gustin and Benoist’s fellow Glee alumnus Emmy winner Darren Criss as the Music Meister. As with Buffy, it leveraged the fantastic nature of the Arrowverse to make things happen. In this case, the villainous Music Meister using his superpowers to cast Supergirl into a dream-world that follows the rules of the classic musical. The Flash enters that world too to save her. Inside, the pair find themselves working in a 1930s style nightclub just as a mob war is about to erupt. The mobsters wear the faces of Barrowman, Garber, and Martin, and needless to say, everybody breaks into song at the drop of fedora.

The story features original songs like Super Friend and Runnin’ Home to You, padded out by old standbys like Moon River and Put A Little Love in Your Heart (the latter featuring Barrowman). The result is some powerhouse performances and (literal) musical magic, but loses points for feeling distinctly like a filler episode. The ongoing plotlines of Supergirl and The Flash are put on pause for a week, and the fact that most of the cast are playing different characters than normal adds to the sense of it being fun but ultimately inconsequential.

 

Lucifer and co perform Another One Bites the Dust over the body in their latest murder investigation (c) Netflix Bloody Celestial Karaoke
Lucifer and co perform Another One Bites the Dust over the body in their latest murder investigation (c) Netflix

LuciferBloody Celestial Karaoke Jam (2021)

The musical episode of another DC Comics series, Lucifer, turns the tables on the usual format. Instead of our heroes being cursed by some demonic or villainous force, this time it’s the fallen angel Lucifer (Tom Ellis, Last of the Time Lords) forced to sing and dance at the whims of God Himself (Denis Haysbert). Lucifer’s base of operations in the show was his nightclub Lux. So there was always an element of music in the series, with the devil frequently seen at the keyboard of his piano. But this season five episode was the only time it embraced the full on musical. Throughout the episode the cast sing and dance their way through their latest murder investigation.

Everyone performs admirably, and Ellis’ singing voice is as brilliant as ever. Bloody Celestial Karaoke Jam is, like the name suggests, very much a jukebox musical however. Wicked Game, Another One Bites the Dust, and Every Breath You Take make appearances among others, with the odd lyric changed to fit the plot. But where the episode stands out is the choreography. Some of the songs are accompanied by massive productions, worthy of the Emmy nomination the episode received.

 

Star Trek's Subspace Rhapsody was an instant classic (c) Paramount Strange New Worlds
Star Trek’s Subspace Rhapsody was an instant classic (c) Paramount

Star Trek: Strange New WorldsSubspace Rhapsody (2023)

The latest in the traditional of musical episodes, until The Devil’s Chord drops at least, is Subspace Rhapsody. Star Trek had previously had occasional out of tune bursts of Row, Row, Row Your Boat. And at times it seemed like the 24th century Jazz resurgence was out of control. But it took Star Trek 57 years to fully embrace the phenomenon. But then came Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, charting the USS Enterprise’s voyages under Captain Pike before Kirk took command. When it went for it, it went big. The closest on this list to a true successor to Once More with Feeling, Subspace Rhapsody features ten original songs, integrates the musical aspect smoothly into a very Star Trek plot, and uses the idea of people singing their innermost thoughts aloud to advance the show’s character arcs.

It begins when Uhura chooses to poke a spatial anomaly with a subspace signal based on Broadway standard Anything Goes. It causes the anomaly to create a music-based quantum improbability field. In other words: it uses technobabble to turn life aboard the Enterprise into a musical. There’s everyday life aboard ship expressed as song in Status Report, inspirational character pieces in Connect to Your Truth (No.1 and Kirk), How Would That Feel? (La’an) and I’m Ready (Chapel), songs of regret like I’m the X (Spock), and a showstopping anthem in We Are One, complete with Klingon dance break.

And every song actually advances the plot and characters in one way or another. Whether it’s Pike realizes just how dangerous this all is in Private Conversation or We Are One literally providing the solution to the problem. And all with the backing of the crew dancing, running, and gyrating through the corridors of SF’s second based spaceship.

 

Doctor Who: The Devil's Chord (c) BBC Fifteenth Doctor Ruby Sunday Ncuti Gatwa Millie Gibson
Doctor Who: The Devil’s Chord (c) BBC

Doctor WhoThe Devil’s Chord (2024)

This is all brings us to this week and Doctor Who’s latest entry in the history of SF musicals – The Devil’s Chord. We don’t know much about the episode yet. But we do know it features Broadway star and Drag Race Queen of Queens Jinkx Monsoon as ‘Maestro,’ a mistress of malicious musical magic in the tradition of Once More’s Sweet and the Arrowverse’s Music Meister. We also know that it will feature the Doctor and Ruby singing and dancing their way through full on showstoppers. And we know that the plot involves the Beatles, and Maestro attempting to change history by erasing their music.

Showrunner Russell T Davies has said part of the inspiration for The Devil’s Chord came from just how impossibly expensive it is to licence Beatles songs. That implies we can’t expect to hear many of the Fab Four’s tracks in the episode. Filling that space is a tall order for any songwriter but at least in Murray Gold Doctor Who has someone who’s proven himself able to produce thumping great anthems in the past. But we’ll just to wait and see what ear worms he’s come up with this time…

 

The Doctor and Ruby get Jinkxed! Illustration: Blogtor Who Doctor Who Jinkx Monsoon Ncuti Gatwa Millie Gibson Ruby Sunday The Devil's Chord
The Doctor and Ruby get Jinkxed in The Devil’s Chord! Illustration: Blogtor Who

Doctor Who returns at 0000 BST on the 11th of May 2024 with a double bill of Space Babies and The Devil’s Chord on iPlayer in the UK, RTÉ Player in Ireland, and on Disney+ everywhere else

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