Alice (Part 1) – “Welcome to a whole new Wonderland”

Given the nature of SyFy Channel, they tend to make a number of miniseries, some of which (like the Battlestar Galactica miniseries) go on to be highly successful full series; others, such as Tin Man or Riverworld, are never really intended to be more than retellings or re-imaginings of well-known or popular stories. So it is with Alice, the subject of this installment of Miniseries Week. (This review only covers part one of the two-part miniseries. Part two will be reviewed later in the week.)

Alice is a retelling of the Lewis Carroll classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (naturally). Alice (Caterina Scorsone, Private Practice; The Devil’s Arithmetic) is a 20-something karate instructor who’s been living with her mother since her father went missing ten years ago. Jack Chase (Philip Winchester, Flyboys; The Patriot), Alice’s boyfriend and karate student (and secret Knave of Hearts), joins Alice and her mother for dinner one night, after which he gets a mysterious text telling him to “RUN”. He offers to take Alice to meet his own family, and when she hesitates, he presents her with a very old ring passed down from his ancestors. She kicks him out of her apartment, but not before he slips the ring into her pocket. After a moment of indecision (and a talk with her mother who reminds her that not all men abandon their families; just her father), she runs after him, finding him just as he gets kidnapped. As the van he gets thrown into pulls away, an elderly gentleman with a white rabbit pin asks her about the ring. He manages to take the ring box from her, then proceeds to run. Alice follows him through a mirror, falling into the world of Wonderland. Soon, all sorts of well-known characters appear – the Hatter (Andrew Lee Potts, Primeval; 1408); the Queen and King of Hearts (Kathy Bates, Harry’s Law; Misery and Colm Meaney, Hell on WheelsStar Trek: The Next Generation, respectively); the White Knight (Matt Frewer, Watchmen; Honey, I Shrunk the Kids); and of course, Dodo (Tim Curry, Charlie’s Angels; The Rocky Horror Picture Show).

Top left – Alice; top right – Jack Chase; middle left – Hatter; middle right – Queen and King of Hearts; bottom left – White Knight; bottom right – Dodo

Alice is by no means the first remake of a popular children’s book to grace the SyFy screen. The same writer and director, Nick Willing, is also responsible for the SyFy re-imaginings of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (in the 2007 miniseries Tin Man) and J. M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy (in the 2011 miniseries Neverland). Both Alice and Tin Man (I have not yet seen Neverland and so can’t comment on it) are a good deal darker than many more popular versions – think Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland to get a decent idea of the tone of Alice. In Willing’s telling, Alice finds herself in Wonderland 150 years after the events described in the story (much like Burton’s has Alice returning after however many years), and the world depicted is both fantastical and allegorical. The Wonderland of Willing’s Alice shows a world where people seek instant gratification, and those who can afford the prices can buy any emotion they want. These emotions, of course, have to come from a source; namely, the so-called “Oysters”, or people from the “real” world who are taken by order of the Queen of Hearts and locked in a casino, where they are continuously confronted with a situation designed to elicit a specific emotion, which is then drained from them and purified into a liquid essence to be imbibed by those wishing to experience that feeling. (Obviously, the ones in charge of distilling the emotive essence are Walrus and Carpenter, and if you don’t know why that’s obvious, read this poem in its entirety.) And if that allegory weren’t quite clear enough, they saw fit to include a stock market where people buy and sell the various emotions.

Though I have no idea what this guy’s feeling…

As in the book, the Queen of Hearts is not known for her kindness; it’s been a while since I’ve read the book, though I don’t remember this being in there, but I do know that the Burton film included a resistance movement, as does Willing’s miniseries, again getting at the idea of dystopia. Once Alice meets the Hatter, he takes her to see the leader of the resistance, Dodo. The resistance base is in a library housing 5000 years of history; when Alice asks about it, the Hatter remarks that the Queen of Hearts would burn it to the ground because “wisdom is the biggest threat” to her power. Now, I could be a cynic, but it seems to me that this is also a jab at the current state of government in the United States. (I don’t want to politicize this blog if I can avoid it, but I have to say that I have definitely noticed over the past two or three years a decided rejection of facts by politicians, of both parties, in favor of more desirable delusions which have then been spread to the public in various ways. In this world order, it is very definitely true that wisdom is a threat to power. Of course, as was seen recently with the Occupy movement around the country and the world, a rejection of the current power balance is not necessarily predicated on wisdom, either.)

And can land you in a room with giant men spying on you

But that’s neither here nor there, because this is SyFy Channel, and everything’s grittier with a good resistance running in the background. Right? Right.

After the run-in with Dodo (who, of course, wants the ring that Alice conveniently held onto when confronted by the White Rabbit), Alice and the Hatter try to return to the Hatter’s tea shop (a front for the emotion stock market; or vice versa, it’s not really clear at all which enterprise is the legal one), but when they arrive, Mad March (as in the March Hare), the deadliest of the Queen’s assassins (and, for some reason, a Chicago or New York-style mobster) is already looking for them. He chases them into a nearby forest, where they run afoul of a jabberwock (because duh), but also meet up with the White Knight, who takes Alice and the Hatter to the ruined Kingdom of the Knights.

Note: the White Rabbit is the one without a rabbit head

First of all, the White Knight is very much in the style of Don Quixote, crossed a little bit (in my mind) with the Grail knight from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The White Knight is also a self-described inventor, which puts him in one of the most classic clichés – the Mad Scientist. He’s certainly a lot smarter than he seems at first, and smarter than most everyone perceives; but he is also absent-minded and manic, just like all the best inventors from television and movie history.

“Mad, you say? Would a mad man tilt at windmillsHMMMM?

Second, though, he talks about how the Red King (as in, chess piece king) once ruled the land with wisdom, before the Queen of Hearts overthrew him and refused to accept that bad things could happen. I’m not sure whether this was intended by Willing, but this history of Wonderland presents a war between cards and chess, arguably allegories for impatience and simplicity on the one hand, and thoughtfulness and planning on the other. Of course, those of you who know me know that I love a good card game; you also know that I’m not terribly talented at chess. But however you look at it, it’s difficult to make the case that chess is a game of instant gratification, or that many card games take much strategy. So again, it seems as though Willing is trying to tangentially force certain allegories between the Wonderland dystopia he’s created and the real world in which we find ourselves.

“Ahead truth-factor 7. Engage.”

Before I go, I need to mention some of the basics. Despite the beauty of Wonderland shown throughout much of this episode, the run-in with the jabberwock demonstrated poor enough CGI to make me notice it and remark that it just barely avoided being called “bad”. The acting, on the other hand, was pretty good across the board. Certain characters were exaggerated, of course, but then, they’re kind of supposed to be. The dialogue and music served to complement and complete the desired effect of a restless sort of dystopia, and overall, the darker tone throughout was handled well and served as a successful homage to the strangeness of the source material. My one main complaint is that the Cheshire Cat, my favorite character from the book and possibly one of the best characters from fiction, was almost entirely absent. Hopefully, he’ll be back in a big way in part two, but to find out, you’ll have to wait for the next review! See you then!

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Posted on August 27, 2012, in Miniseries and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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