Remember what the doormouse said*

Disclaimer: If you haven’t seen episode 1.01, “Down the Rabbit Hole,” of ABC’s Once Upon a Time In Wonderland, the following post may contain spoilers.

*Like I was really going to pass up the chance to quote Jefferson Airplane? Plus, it actually fits the episode, but let’s start at the beginning.

If you did as bid by the onslaught of commercials that aired the last two days and tuned into ABC’s Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, you may have had a moment of deja vu. We open with the familiar ‘Once upon a time…’ title card, then cut to a child’s tea party set in a wooded glen, silent but for birds. An explosion occurs behind the tea party, throwing dirt everywhere, and a young blonde girl emerges from the ground, hauling herself out thanks to abundant ground cover. She’s dressed in the familiar blue dress and pinafore and seems relieved to have returned.

She runs home, greeting a father who tells her she was missing and presumed dead. Next, her father is behind closed doors, relating her story to a stern-looking man, who calls her a liar and says he can cure her. Alice, watching through a keyhole, says she’s not lying and can prove it.

Next, we join our familiar Storybrooke on the eve of change, as a young man approaches Granny’s Diner, narrowly escaping a hit and run with a yellow VW bug. Outside the diner, he meets Leroy (Dreamy/Grumpy the Dwarf) and Ashley Boyd (Cinderella), who has locked up for the night. They both advise the as-yet faceless young man to take shelter, as there’s an approaching storm. (Hurricane Emma, I believe.) He agrees and turns to watch Leroy and Ashley leave, revealing he’s pick-pocketed the latter’s keys to the diner.  He takes shelter in the diner, only to face a non-atmospheric disturbance: The White Rabbit appears, demanding the young man accompany him to help Alice, for whom help may be too late. The young man, named as the Knave of Hearts, reluctantly follows the Rabbit down a swirling blue tunnel.

 

They land in London, somewhere during the Victorian or Edwardian* period, where the Alice in question has been brought from her private room cell at Bethlem Asylum to a well-appointed sitting room, where she is interrogated by a panel of three doctors, one of whom is the mystery man from her childhood. In short order, thanks to the magic of flashbacks, we learn Alice’s stint in Bedlam is the latest in her father’s attempts to “fix” her following her wild stories about visiting Wonderland.

Again, the scenes not heavily grounded in green screen were overwhelmingly better.

We also learn Alice traveled to Wonderland several times, staying for periods long enough that her family noticed her absence.

*I’m of a mind that any TV series can be vastly improved by the presence of Maggie Smith, especially if she’s appearing as Lady Violet.

During one of these trips, she shrinks herself down and stumbles into the lamp of a genii named Cyrus. Alice explains she’s returned to Wonderland to obtain evidence (the White Rabbit) of its reality to prove to her father she’s not insane. Cyrus proceeds to be That Guy, roundaboutly asking if she’s seeing anyone, then grants her three wishes when he finds out she’s single. We see snippets of their adventures before Cyrus takes Alice to The Boiling Sea, where he proposes – sort of. But, alas, there’ll be no walk down the aisle for Alice, as the Red Queen appears with her henchmen and seemingly throws Cyrus to his death.

Subsequently, Alice agrees to a lobotomy as a definitive “cure”, but is then freed from the asylum by the Knave of Hearts and the Rabbit, who take her back to Wonderland. The Rabbit explains that the Doormouse said, during tea, that Cyrus was still alive. Alice is skeptical, but insists on following up on the lead for the sake of closure. She and the Knave head off through the Tulgey Woods to find the Mad Hatter’s abandoned house, while the Rabbit is quickly picked up by the Red Queen’s henchmen and brought to her castle. After interrogating him, the Red Queen confers with Jafar, the vizier from Aladdin, who reveals that Cyrus is indeed alive and that both he and Alice play some greater part in Jafar’s grand scheme.

 

Alice and the Knave eventually find the Mad Hatter’s home, after a run in with a particularly violent Cheshire Cat, and discover Cyrus’ betrothal token for Alice.

She’s convinced the find means Cyrus lives, while the Knave believes all it means was the token’s magical properties kept it from melting in the Boiling Sea. They agree to disagree and set off into Wonderland proper, presumably on an inadvertent course to Cyrus’ prison.

Still with me? Good on you. It sounds much more complicated than it seemed while watching. But lets get down to brass tacks.

What Worked

  • The acting: The success of any show depends on its lead(s), and Sophie Lowe shows great promise as Alice. There were a few moments that felt disingenuous, but I’m willing to put that down to the writing, which, arguably, has never been KitsoWitz’s strong point. With any luck, future episodes will give Lowe room to develop Alice as a flesh-and-blood young woman, and not simply a collection of romantic stereotypes.

    Meanwhile, Naveen Andrews appears to be the Robert Carlyle of this spin-off, as he manages to imbue Jafar with a sense of purpose, despite spending most of his screen time mugging evilly.

  • The cast: Lowe and Andrews aside, it was a nice nod to regular Once fans to include Lee Arenberg and Jessy Schram in the opening Storybrooke scene. It established that all these characters ostensibly live in the same universe. John Lithgow’s voice work for the White Rabbit managed to convey urgency, menace and sorrow, which will be useful as the actual animation for the Rabbit is a little rough. Likewise, Michael Socha put his epic eyebrows to good use in giving the Knave of Hearts* some emotion, especially as his lines did little to reveal anything about his character.

    *I think Alice called him ‘Will‘ at one point, but it was so quick, I’m not sure if I heard it. Until then, I will call the Knave of Hearts ‘Tom‘ because it is both shorter and because I am more used to it.

  • The story logic: It’s unclear precisely why Jafar needs both a genii and an English woman, much less how the Red Queen or the Knave of Hearts fit into the plan. But the reveal of how Cyrus was saved was logical, and, unlike plots on original flavor Once, I didn’t notice any massive loopholes or dropped threads. On the other hand, it’s easy to have cohesive story logic in a single episode; whether it can last for an entire season is another matter entirely.

What did not work

  • The Mad Hatter’s house: I didn’t expect a surprise cameo from Sebastian Stan as the Mad Hatter. I’d expect that on the regular Once before I’d expect that here. But we saw the Hatter’s workroom at the end of Season 1’s “Hat Trick,” and it looked nothing like the derelict cottage Alice and the Knave stumbled on in the last third of the pilot.

  • The costuming: I know Becca mentioned Andrews’ wig, so I won’t spend much time on it, other than to say it looks like a leftover from an Eddie Murphy character in Coming to America. Instead, lets discuss the Red Queen and Alice. Where Regina, Maleficent and the Queen of Hearts all have wardrobes that reflected their character, the only thing the Red Queen’s ensembles told me was she’d been digging through the clearance bin at Filene’s Basement.

    It felt like a wasted opportunity to make a statement about the character, unless the point is she’s simply a puppet and there’s another power behind the throne. Meanwhile, adult Alice is shown in one of three costumes: A pink, more adult version of her dress and pinafore; a belted blouse and leggings; and a getup that looks like her undergarments. The progression shows her transition from childhood to independent adulthood to depression and apathy, but I hope that subsequent episodes involve finding her an outfit better suited to a quest. (Perhaps, she can somehow find one of Emma Swan’s leather jackets? Goodness knows Emma has more than enough to go around.)

  • The romance: It’s not as though I find Alice and the Knave to have better chemistry, but for a pairing that the show itself is holding up as an OTP, I expected more from the Alice and Cyrus interactions.                                                              Perhaps, if more of their adventures are shown in flashback, I’ll buy into Alice’s imperative to discover the truth of Cyrus’ fate. But as it is, I’m not invested in that aspect of her mission; I’m more interested in learning about Alice’s previous trips to Wonderland and what led to the bad blood between herself and the Red Queen.
  • The green screen: It was as eye-searingly bad as it was in the first season of its parent show, and I can only hope they adjust it more quickly than they did with Once.

I can’t say this was an hour wasted (unlike the ridiculousness that was this week’s Once Upon a Time), but I will say I was disappointed in how light on plot the pilot was. I buy Wonderland’s existence as a tangible location, thanks to the heavy use of special effects, but I will need to know more about it in a day-to-day sense if I’m going to care about what happens to the people who live there.

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