With the success of Once Upon a Time, ABC decided it was a time for a spin-off. Called ONCE UPON A TIME IN WONDERLAND, said show premieres this week with the episode “Down the Rabbit Hole.” Picking up many years after the classic Alice in Wonderland story took place (and admittedly, the tale probably plays out quite differently for show purposes than the book remembers it), Alice (Sophie Lowe, Beautiful Kate) heads back to the magic realm after learning that the man she loves, Cyrus (Peter Gadiot, Hot Mess), whom she thought dead, might still be alive.
Fans of the mothership know that these writers like to mix fairy tales up, pulling one world into another. ONCE UPON A TIME IN WONDERLAND is no different. While the main structure and cast do hark back to Alice’s familiar story, her love is the Genie of the Lamp, recognizable from Aladdin. Similarly, although The Red Queen (Emma Rigby, Hollyoaks) is a malevolent presence in this world, so, too, is Jafar (Naveen Andrews, Lost).
And, because this is ONCE UPON A TIME, who is good and who is bad is not so clear. One of Alice’s friends, well, someone she is friendly with, is helping The Red Queen. It may be under duress, but this character is still leading Alice into danger.
The beginning is quite interesting, with Alice being locked up in a mental institution under the “care” of Dr. Lydgate (Jonny Coyne, Alcatraz). This makes sense for a little girl that is missing for quite some time, then returns with tales of talking rabbits and Mad Hatters. What else would a parent such as her father (Fringe’s Shaun Smyth) do with such a child than seek psychiatric treatment for her? And from the dialogue in “Down the Rabbit Hole,” it’s clear that Alice didn’t make the journey only once, leaving her not only crazy in the eyes of the people around her, but also worldly-wise and prepared to handle herself in dangerous situations. She is not a meek, malleable patient.
Efforts are also made to tie ONCE UPON A TIME IN WONDERLAND into the previous series. We see the Knave of Hearts (Michael Socha, Being Human) in Storybrooke at the start of the episode, interacting with a great guest star hasn’t been seen in awhile! Plus, Granny’s diner figures in, so there are definitely connections.
Which doesn’t mean that one must know much about Once Upon a Time to jump into this, or that the plots are tied closely together. I believe the purpose of that Storybrooke sequence was to solidify that these shows are set in the same universe, though not necessarily that they have anything much to do with one another. Alice’s mission is her own, and she herself does not encounter any familiar faces in the premiere.
I do wonder if each episode of this new venture will be partially flashback, as Once Upon a Time is. There are scenes set in the past throughout “Down the Rabbit Hole,” but these seem for a specific purpose, setting up the story. It is unknown if there will be more in future hours.
The animation and special effects in ONCE UPON A TIME IN WONDERLAND are excellent for a television budget, perhaps even a step up from Once Upon a Time. The White Rabbit (voiced by Dexter’s John Lithgow), for instance, is fully realized as an individual, with mannerisms and expressions that make him feel authentic. He may not be realistic looking, by the standards of a rabbit you might find in your garden, but he interacts well with the actors, and definitely fits into the setting and tone established for the program.
The story is also well constructed. A Wonderland favorite ends up being a deadly attacker. There are twists and betrayals in the first episode alone. Alice, in particular, is a carefully thought-out role, and while her journey may be easy enough to figure out, there will definitely be fun surprises along the way, such as a marshmallow marsh.
While initially skeptical that Once Upon a Time needed a spin-off, this is definitely a completely separate tale, and an enjoyable one at that. The two can co-exist without being dependent or taking away from one another. ONCE UPON A TIME IN WONDERLAND premieres tonight at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.