Was Once Upon A Time In Wonderland Worth Our Time?

Once Upon A Time In Wonderland has its origins in a cool and eminently sustainable idea: take the Once Upon A Time mythos and tell other stories that have happened in its universe that just don’t fit into the main OUAT story. To reference a similar project, it could have been to Once Upon A Time what Paradox Space plans to be for Homestuck. As Once Upon A Time seems to include, at this point, the entirety of classic speculative fiction within its parameters (as the inclusion of characters like Peter Pan, Dr. Frankenstein, and Robin Hood suggests), if the Wonderland spinoff had been successful, this could have been a launching point for a whole network of derivative series.

Unfortunately, we instead got the most boring, bland, and tropey mess I’ve seen since that one Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode. (You know the one.)

Shots fired.

Shots fired.

This show started out on a miss with its clunky and unimaginative title—what a freakin’ mouthful—and went downhill from there.

once-upon-a-time-in-wonderland-season-1-episode-4-alice-knaveThe plot went something like this: during her original adventures in Wonderland, Alice encountered and fell in love with Cyrus, a genie from Agrabah. Their love was complicated by the fact that once Alice used the three wishes she received from him, he would return to his bottle and be forced to serve a new master. It all appeared to be moot, however, when one night they were set upon by the Red Queen and Cyrus was killed. And when the heartbroken Alice returned to England, she was institutionalized based on her wild stories. The story picks up with Alice’s friends (the Knave of Hearts and the White Rabbit) coming to England to rescue her from the asylum, on the eve of her scheduled lobotomy, with the news that Cyrus is actually still alive and Wonderland once again needs her help.

Returning to Wonderland, they discover that the Red Queen has teamed up with the powerful sorcerer Jafar; the two want to force Alice to use up her wishes so they can take Cyrus and his genie power for themselves. Alice spends the first half of the season fighting her way to Cyrus’s side, and the second half trying to win back Wonderland from the villains’ evil clutches. Of course, in the end, true love conquers all and everyone except Jafar lives happily ever after.

This show had very few redeeming qualities, and almost all of them came with a caveat. For example, while there aren’t many series where the main character is a sword-swinging independent young lady, given that this is a Once Upon A Time spinoff and OUAT is crawling with swordswomen, it’s not as surprising as it might be. There are also few shows where a man of color is the romantic lead to a white woman—although it would have been better if they had actually cast a Middle Eastern man as Cyrus rather than Peter Gadiot, who, though still PoC, is of Dutch and Mexican descent. Cyrus’s mother Amara is a powerful sorceress in her own right—it’s revealed in flashbacks that she was the one who taught Jafar magic—but her agency is constantly taken from her by the men around her. The one untarnished bright spot was that Alice and the Knave had a consistently platonic friendship that never threatened to take a romantic turn.

Meanwhile, there was a ton of boring and/or problematic shit in every episode. Jafar, for example, was an amalgamation of racial stereotypes so comprehensive it was almost impressive. An evil, deceitful, and power-hungry Middle Eastern man who spends most of his time with his white female ally, the Red Queen, being overbearing and rapey toward her (including actually mind-controlling her into loving him at one point)? Wow, so progressive and imaginative.

jabberwocky jafar btsHe even treats the Jabberwocky, who in this universe is imagined as an eccentric lady in a bad wig, and who can look into your mind and know your fears and thereby control you (and who is therefore feared by all of Wonderland), with the same sort of flippant disrespect. I had my doubts about the inclusion of the Jabberwocky in the series, but she rapidly grew on me and I was displeased with her treatment at Jafar’s hands. Furthermore, in the last episode Jafar randomly betrayed and reimprisoned her, and we never saw her again. I would have liked to see that plot thread tied up far more than I wanted a ten minute Alice/Cyrus wedding scene.

ouatiw lizardSpeaking of misused female characters, I also utterly resent the way they treated Lizard, the Knave’s plucky thief friend. When she was introduced, I remember hoping that she’d become a series regular. Instead, she’s brought back in one episode, and saddled with an unrequited crush on the Knave that turns out to be her undoing when she’s randomly killed as a result of it. Bleargh, seriously.

And that leads me to my biggest complaint about the series: it was so boring and tropey it made me want to throw up. One of the things that OUAT is known for is putting a creative new twist on old fairytales, whether it’s making Rumplestiltskin into Belle’s Beast or revealing that Red Riding Hood was the wolf all along. OUAT In Wonderland took no such creative risks. Yes, they did populate the Wonderland world with characters from other narratives—the Knave was Robin Hood’s Merry Man Will Scarlet originally, and the Red Queen was Anastasia, one of the ugly stepsisters—but they were never subversive or interesting about it.

Alice’s character was the culmination of this boring writing: an attractive blonde cishet white girl whose entire character can be summed up in the phrase “I love Cyrus”. Besides being good at math, I can’t think of a single other defining feature of her personality besides that she cares for Cyrus. Love or hate the Tim Burton Alice reimagining, at least that Alice wasn’t obsessed with the guy she loved to the point of not having other interests. And on that note, the “grown-up Alice returns to Wonderland to face a new threat” concept was done several years ago, and with a budget more capable of supporting the immense use of CGI than the TV show was given.

Seriously, so much bad CGI...

Seriously, so much bad CGI…

In the end, the answer to the question “Was this show worth our time?” is a resounding “no”. And worse than that, its failure to deliver has probably ruined the potential for other spinoffs in different settings. Do yourself a favor and skip this series.