Once Upon a Time in Wonderland

As a fervent (though a little behind on episodes) viewer of the popular series Once Upon a Time, I did not really have another choice but to give the new spin-off a try, which only started two weeks ago. I now want to give a preliminary impression based on the first two episodes.


But first I should give a short recap of the original series. Once Upon a Time is based on the premise that, due to a curse by the Evil Queen, most fairytale characters have been transported to a city in the real world called Storybrooke. Consequently, they’ve lost all memories of their former fairytale selves. The only two people who do remember the curse and everything preceding it are the Evil Queen and Rempelstiltskin – Regina and Mr. Gold in Storybrooke terms. The arrival of Emma, who has been raised in the real world, turns everything upside down; her son is the only one who believes in the fairytale character theory and tries to convince everyone of his point. Throughout the course of the series, the characters gradually come to remember, and the fairytale identities as well as their unique stories are revealed to the viewer. Admittedly, most of the time it is not hard to guess who is who, but it is a nice game to play anyway.

So far, so good.

What makes Once Upon a Time such an attractive entertaining series is its familiarity and, well, fairytale character. True, many a plot is predictable, but that is because of our cultural familiarity with fairytales, how fairytales work, what they do, and how the characters are supposed to behave, up until “And they lived happily ever after.” The fairytale character is not only explored in the story, but also in the way the narrative is told. What is a little off, though, is that not only classic fairytale characters are included: My mouth was wide open when Mulan walked onto the screen, and well, the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland did not really surprise me that much after all. So it is in no way flawless; it does have its weird moments, but it’s still fun to watch. That was why I was quite looking forward; I was curious what the spin-off had to offer, especially because the subject of Alice in Wonderland had already been touched upon, but –

Wait, what?

Admittedly, that was the question that bounced in my head most while watching the pilot. It all starts fine enough: a girl named Alice returns from Wonderland, but apparently there are significant time differences: in the real world, Alice has been gone for a very long time. Nobody believes her tales though, and after spending time in Wonderland repeatedly, she is institutionalised. Much older now, her psychiatrists suggest a lobotomy to cure her of her delusions; indeed, she seems to believe that they have been delusions by now as well. Just as she is about to be ‘cured’ though, she is rescued so that she can return to Wonderland and free her lover Cyrus.

It doesn’t start out that bad, I have to say, but there are a lot of things that bothered me when watching the pilot. And when I mean a lot, I mean a humongous amount of things. The plot seems to be all over the place and it is confusing, hard to follow, and chaotic. I don’t even want to start off with CGI, because that was just… Well. You could’ve done better, guys, and I know because you already have. The way the characters were introduced was very, very, very cliché. Of course: Once Upon a Time also deals with a lot of clichés – that is the point, after all – but, man, we’re talking clichés here. The characters or actors, too, don’t quite add up. Because Wonderland has been visited in the main series already, we know certain things and certain people. We know who the Red Queen actually is (but I won’t say because, spoilers), but in this series, she is someone completely different. Which doesn’t really make sense, does it? One of the characters who helps Alice on her quest lives in Storybrooke, but then there are logic issues when it comes to time: Shouldn’t Alice and the Knave, as they are in the ‘real’ world, have access to the same technology? Why is she confused when he talks about modern things? Was it because she was institutionalised for so long, or is there a time lapse and she is even from a different time? It doesn’t really get explained, although admittedly, the technical aspect are a bit better in the second episode, which is more coherent.

Crossovers with other stories are no stranger to the franchise; they just seem to take a bit of everything. Wonderland’s villains are the Red Queen and Jafar, who looks for the genie to fulfill his wishes: Cyrus, Alice’s lover. At first this might seem strange, but you get used to it, like you always do, so it isn’t that big of a deal. Especially Jafar, I must say, is a deliciously evil character – I am quite biased here though because I am mostly in favour of the villains, I just find them more interesting than the ‘good’ characters. The first episode doesn’t introduce him as well; the flashback in the second episode, though, introduces his evil character quite well, and I think he’s probably, next to the Knave of Hearts, the most developed character in the series so far. He has a clear purpose, he has a clear style, he has clear means to get what he wants – by not respecting anyone else. The Queen, though, also has her moment at the end of the second episode, where she, too, becomes colder, more determined, and less laughable.

Who really, really disturbs me, though, is Alice. Classic thing for me, disliking the protagonist, but I have tried. Her only purpose – and I mean, her only purpose in life – is to be with Cyrus. The character doesn’t consist (yet) of anything else. Their past and how they met is shown, it is all very romantic, etc. etc., and I do have to say that I sympathise a bit with her in those flashbacks – but present-time Alice? She is probably supposed to show that she has trust issues because of her institutionalisation, that she has been heartbroken and close to crazy because of what happened to Cyrus, and that she is oh so glad to have a chance to get him back. But in my eyes, she comes across as a spoiled, bitchy, dumb brat who takes the people who help her for granted. It is obvious that the Knave doesn’t really care for her quest, but she just assumes he would come with her – he does, but he has quite different motives. Dumb may be a bit mean, though; she does show that she is creative and smart, but the ‘Nothing matters as long as Cyrus and I are together’ acting makes it easy to forget that. The Knave, on the other hand, is an anti-hero with a tragic past, which is only hinted at so far, but will probably have its own flashback at some other point – who knows?

Watchable, unwatchable, meh?

A friend was right when she told me that you cannot judge a series by its pilot – is that the modern version of ‘don’t judge a book by its cover? The second episode was quite more entertaining and less confusing, less rushed than the first one,  but I am not quite sure yet whether these changes are significant enough for me. So far, especially when compared to the ‘parent’ series, it all seems rather arbitrary and not as deeply developed. For me personally, there is too much of a focus on the love story – I mean, come on, their love being the driving force of the series? Even if not of the entire series (because, God I hope someday she’ll get him out, she’ll never stop whining otherwise!), this has to go on for some more episodes, and I’m not sure how I feel about that because it’s not only a love story, it’s a tragic (almost sickening) cliché love-on-first-sight love story, which feels a little forced to me to be honest. And after that, what’s going to happen then? It is quite possible that the Knave’s story will be explored more, but really, all he wants to do is go back to Storybrooke and watch telly. There is, so far, too little depth, and the discrepancies with Once Upon a Time bother me a lot. Of course, as a Transmedia Storytelling student, I have to acknowledge that it is a spin-off; it may be part of the franchise, but, like all works, it does not have to be completely faithful to the original series. And after all, it does correspond a lot to Once Upon a Time’s style, especially with the flashbacks exploring the specific fairytale.

But a recommendation? If you haven’t watched the original series, it may not seem as bad, I can hardly be a judge of that. And the quality has improved in the second episode – yes, they’re trying. I’m willing to give it a chance (if only for Jafar and the Knave) for a few more episodes to see if it is engaging enough to actually keep me watching. Maybe things will change very soon.

For now, though, I am not quite impressed and I’d rather just stick with Once Upon a Time, thank you very much.

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