Strong characters and a well-realised setting make this more than just another spin-off.
WITH the huge success of Once Upon A Time (OUAT, now in its third season in the United States), it is not surprising that a spin-off idea emerged from the television series’ many tangled plotlines. And given that some of OUAT’s most interesting episodes have involved Wonderland – who could forget delicious characters like the Mad Hatter and The Queen Of Hearts? – it also makes sense to set this new series in the realm that was birthed in Lewis Carroll’s imagination.
And so we get Once Upon A Time In Wonderland, a show that revolves not around fairy tales but elements from Carroll’s richly imaginative, classic book; not to mention, weaving in bits and pieces from Disney’s Aladdin as well.
You can’t, of course, set a story in Wonderland and not include its most famous visitor, and so the show naturally includes Alice (Sophie Lowe). The series begins with an adult Alice having just returned to Victorian London from Wonderland, where she not only experienced a fantastic adventure but also fell in love with a handsome genie named Cyrus (Peter Gadiot), whom she believes was killed.
Thanks to her impossible-sounding stories, Alice is committed into an insane asylum, where she agrees to a treatment that will erase her memories of Wonderland forever. When the White Rabbit (voiced by John Lithgow) and Knave Of Hearts (Michael Socha) suddenly turn up to tell her that Cyrus is still alive, however, she escapes with them back to Wonderland on a quest to find her love again. Little does she know it is part of a larger scheme engineered by the Red Queen (Emma Rigby) and Jafar (Naveen Andrews).
Wonderland follows a similar structure to OUAT, shifting from the past to the present in each episode to explain the characters’ backstories as well as current happenings. Where it seems to often top its predecessor is in its streamlined plot. Unlike OUAT, which with each season seems to sprawl ever more unmanageably, Wonderland introduces a set of characters and keeps the focus strictly on them. Perhaps the showrunners learnt a lesson from OUAT’s first season, that having a large cast of characters offers a lot of potential but keeping all their storylines solid and relevant is a very big challenge indeed.
What Wonderland has going for it so far is a strong cast. Lowe makes an endearing enough Alice, and the show gives her a gutsy personality, though I would have liked to see more of the whimsy one associates with the character. Gadiot is thus far a serviceable leading man, but the character of Cyrus has yet to come into his own. Much more interesting is Socha as the caddish Knave, whose motivations for helping Alice are constantly suspect. As for the White Rabbit, the CGI used to bring him to life may be a little iffy, but Lithgow’s voice work with the character is thoroughly enjoyable.
The memorable performances, however, come from the show’s baddies. From the outset, Wonderland already seems darker than OUAT, and the villains seem to underscore this. Andrews as Jafar is cold, calculating and often quite terrifying, and his seemingly unlimited powers make him a fearsome adversary.
The Red Queen, meanwhile, is my personal favourite thus far; she was introduced as a spoilt and bratty beauty who lusts for power, but flashbacks have revealed that there is more to the character than meets the eye. Rigby is totally delicious in this role, giving the manipulative character just the right balance between evil and empathy.
In terms of visual appeal, the show is top-notch, bringing Wonderland to life in all its weird and wonderful detail (though the same middling CGI quality of OUAT also plagues this one). Costume design, in particular, is excellent – each dazzling new red outfit Rigby trots out is worthy of eye-candy points.
So far, Wonderland’s story arc has been solid, though not particularly amazing. One of the show’s advantages is that, unlike the fairy tales of OUAT, most of the characters here do not come with pre-existing backstories, which allows the show a lot of freedom in imagining how they came to be who they are.
The Knave’s flashback in the third episode, Forget Me Not, for instance, was both surprising and well executed, thanks to the unexpected crossover from OUAT, and I look forward to more such creative storytelling for the show’s other characters.
Surprisingly, where the show really drops the ball is in making full use of the idea of Wonderland itself. While characters such as the Caterpillar, the Bandersnatch and the Cheshire Cat have made appearances, these were merely one-offs and don’t seem to play a big part in the main plot.
Given that the main characters of the show have already been established, it doesn’t seem likely that any other denizens of Wonderland are going to be anything more than peripheral players – which is rather disappointing. And the fact that neither the Mad Hatter nor the Queen Of Hearts seem likely to play a big part in the show, since their stories have already been told in OUAT, is understandable but still a letdown, given how integral they are to the Wonderland mythology (and how big an impact the characters had in OUAT).
So if you’re a Carroll purist, you may want to skip Wonderland; if, however, you enjoyed the reimagining that OUAT brought to fairy tales, you may find falling down this particular rabbit hole quite enjoyable indeed.
Once Upon A Time in Wonderland airs every Tuesday on Star World (Astro Ch 711/HD Ch 722)
at 10.35pm. Send feedback to