Once Upon A Time In Wonderland has all the makings of a hit. ABC has green-lit the spin-off series, which will premiere on the network in just a few weeks.
SciFi Stream got a look at the 20-minute pilot presentation, which has all the makings of a very strong, family fantasy show. This material will be expanded to serve as the show’s first full episode (titled “Down the Rabbit Hole”), setting up the story of a rescue mission that will frame the show’s first season.
We haven’t seen the finished episode, of course, so what you’re reading is not only a “pre-review” of the show but in fact a “pre-pre-review!” (See what we did there?)
The story in brief: Alice (Sophie Lowe) is a young woman in a Victorian-era mental asylum, held against her will and told that she is lying about visiting a fantastical place called “Wonderland” — where she fell in love with a handsome genie, Cyrus, only to lose him when the evil Red Queen (Emma Rigby) attacked them. Alice believes that Cyrus is dead, and so she has no hope and no reason to refuse when her keepers offer a chance to undergo a treatment that will erase her memory. But in the nick of time, a pair of old friends from Wonderland arrive to tell her that all of it was real … and Cyrus is alive.
This is a story of emotions — of love and loss, of hope and … yes, of wonder. As a weekly television series it will succeed or fail based on the quality of the actors. Everything is riding on their shoulders, and so far it looks like this company can really deliver. Lowe might not be an obvious choice for a Disney-esque Alice, but as a broken-hearted woman who is capable of kicking ass when she needs to, she’s a wonderful choice. This Alice has just the right mix of earnestness and naivete, wonder-filled but with a dose of the sardonic. She lives for love — but she’s also a strong young woman who isn’t in need of rescue and who isn’t defined by her man.
The Knave of Hearts (Michael Socha) is her companion, a bad boy who clearly has a lot of history. Alice once helped him get back his heart, but since then he seems to have been a loner. He’s willing to deliver a message and spring Alice from the asylum … but he has to be guilted into going any farther with her. The characters have a lot of history, and it will be nice to get to know their story as they set out on this new adventure together.
Rigby’s Red Queen doesn’t have a lot to do in the 20-minute presentation, though she sure looks terrific. The character is in one scene, and clearly wants to keep Alice and Cyrus apart just as badly as Once Upon A Time‘s Regina wants to ruin the lives of Snow White and Prince Charming.
Cyrus himself (Peter Gadiot) is charming and handsome, of course. But he’s also disarming, and seems to have found a true soul mate in Alice. It will be interesting to see his side of the story unfold — who he’s with, what he’s been doing, and how he survived his fall.
Last, but not least, is the show’s most unique character: Wonderland’s White Rabbit, always criticizing people for being late and always with a trick up his sleeve. The CG character voiced by John Lithgow (Third Rock From the Sun) is well-realized, and will doubtless become an important part of the show’s fabric with his own quirks and personal baggage. Here the Rabbit is a worker of magic, and has the ability to create portals (the “rabbit hole”) between worlds.
Even the guest actors stand out: Jonny Coyne (Alcatraz) could not have been better cast as Dr. Lydgate, the head of the asylum who confronts Alice about her “lies” in a scene more evocative of a police interrogation than medical care.
The efforts to make clear connections to Once Upon A Time (now entering its third season) and the town of Storybrooke are very welcome. At least two of these characters have been to Storybrooke very recently, as the pilot shows. This makes it clear that crossovers between the two shows and their multiple fairy tale lands are possible in any given week.
Once Upon A Time has always painted on a big canvas: lots of characters, each with his or her own backstory from the Enchanted Forest, and no shortage of interweaving threads and relationships for viewers to keep up with. All-in-all, Once Wonderland has all the charm of its predecessor but looks to be more focused. There are fewer characters to service, a clear emotional thread connecting the worlds, and a more focused objective for the story: find a guy, rescue him, and in so doing reunite two lost lovers. The addition of other elements, such as the evil genie Jafar (Naveen Andrews), will only add texture to the painting.
This smaller scale of cast and story makes sense when you consider that there are fewer episodes in which to tell the self-contained tale of the show’s first season — expected to be limited to the 13 episodes already ordered, though of course the network is free to ask for more this year if Wonderland proves to be a big hit.
On Thursday, October 9, we’ll all find out.
Once Upon A Time In Wonderland stars Sophie Lowe, Michael Socha, Peter Gadiot, Emma Rigby, and features the voice of John Lithgow. The pilot presentation was written by series co-creators Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz.