Thu
Dec 10 2009 4:37pm
From Wonderland with Love: Spy-fi and Mod themes in Syfy’s Alice

From its opening titles onward, Syfy’s Alice is suffused with Mod. From rhythmic music reminiscent of the 60s and the 70s to the very clothes of almost every character, the miniseries is a sensory embodiment of Mod aesthetics. Moreover, the plot and themes within Alice contain many conventions and aspects commonly found in the spy-fi stories of the Cold War.


The most obvious parallels can be found in the form of clothing. The title character, Alice, wears a blue dress, clearly a modernized and adult allusion to the appearance of the Alice character in the original Wonderland stories and in subsequent renditions; however, the simple, A-frame style of the character Alice’s dress, coupled as it is with a pair of dark red rights, is the sort of garment that one would have expected to see in the late 60s rather than in a “modern” interpretation. On a thematic level, this version of the Alice character is a tough, clever and thoroughly modern woman with a good head on her shoulders and the skills to match. She makes mistakes, certainly, but she adapts to them, and when she gets herself into trouble she is equipped to deal with them. She is distinctly reminiscent of the new breed of confident and capable female heroines found in Mod-era adventure stories. While Alice may not be a globe-trotting ex-kingpin like Modesty Blaise or a scientific genius like Emma Peel and Cathy Gale, she shares with them their resourcefulness, intellect and skill in martial arts. The Alice character follows logically from the thoroughly emancipated female heroes of the Mod era.

Similarly, the character of Jack is repeatedly displayed wearing slim-cut suits of black or red with narrow ties in a very literal Mod style (indeed, he looks like he should be riding on a Vespa). His character is a staple hero-style of the spy-fi genre in the vein of James Bond, or Kelly Robinson and Alexander Scott from I Spy. He is brave, smart, rash and seemingly irresistible. In keeping with this theme, the character of the Duchess is model-chic, seductive and possesses all the qualities worthy of a Bond girl.

Rough, sneaky, clever but ultimately good-hearted, Alice’s Hatter is the sort of streetwise chap one expects to find helping the heroes of spy-fi and cop adventure programs from the 60s and 70s (he would have fit in delightfully in Starsky and Hutch or I Spy). His patent leather jacket, patterned mauve and yellow shirt, battered hat and loose tie complete the ensemble remarkably.


Agent White, the head of the White Rabbit agency and the show’s stand-in for the White Rabbit character, dresses slightly archaically in a suit and double-breasted vest, but the styling and cut of the outfit is ultra-chic, combining old-fashioned formalism with trendy flair, an extremely Mod concept. In particular, the style of jacket he wears looks like it came directly from The Prisoner, though of course it is of a lighter color to go with the White Rabbit theme. The agency White Rabbit itself looks like something from a paranoid Cold War story: it is a government-sanctioned organization used to kidnap people from our world and bring them to Wonderland, which has parallels the darkest portrayals of Cold War government agencies in the era.

The styling of the Heart’s Casino, home to the Queen of Hearts, is Mod architecture and interior decor to a tee. From the futuristic plastic chairs in the lobby to the stark black and white patterning of the gaming room to the heart-shaped velvet chairs of the throne room, the Casino looks like it could have been yanked right out of the Mod era. The clothing of the Queen’s minions carries this further, by adapting the images of their respective card suits to their clothing. There are dancing girls with glittering sequined dresses, bright red headdresses and strategically placed diamonds; the dealers all wear A-frame dresses designed to look like cards; and the serving staff of the Queen of Hearts all wear ominous black robes with unmistakable club-shaped headgear. The imagery of the playing cards is present, but it is adapted into the fashion in a way that one would expect to see in a Mod-era film or in a more extravagant fashion collection on the runway. Even the terminology used is characteristic: the Queen’s agents are known as “suits,” a reference to both their association with playing cards and the image of black-suited agents of the government (who are present representing the spades).

The Queen of Hearts is matronly and conservative, but even so she cannot help but be reimagined in a Mod context. She dresses in loose fitting, flowing gowns with a red theme; including one emblazoned with an image of her associated playing card. She is without a doubt the megalomaniacal diabolical mastermind that is a major staple of spy-fi. The King dresses in velvet suits of burgundy or striped purple, like something out of Swinging London, and in terms of character he is definitely the insightful businessmen and advisor, a power behind the throne who blunts the Queen’s most foolish excesses and helps bring her will to pass.

The Walrus and the Carpenter are here transformed from their literary selves into a pair of scientists serving the Queen. Their principle role is as chemists, transforming the emotions of captured people into ingestible liquids, but they are also skilled machinists and electronics experts who transform a dead assassin named Mad March (a reference to the March Hare) into a cyborg killing machine. The two have clearly been adapted to fit the “mad scientist” archetype and their clothing reflects this, but it has been adapted to suit a Mod mentality. Walrus wears a silver jump suit as if he were a space-age technician while Carpenter has exchanged the outdated white lab coat for an ultra-modern one of transparent plastic. The brightly colored liquids of their laboratory convey a distinctly disco image as well.

Similarly, Doctors Dee and Dum are wonderfully creepy psychological interrogators who combine both the image of the insane psychiatrist and the deranged interrogator in scenes filled with psychedelic patterns and images. While mind-twisting interrogation scenes are not unique, when they are combined with a Mod aesthetic it has a very clear look, and this can be found in Alice.

The aforementioned Mad March is a cyborg assassin revived from the dead by Walrus and Carpenter, and the end result looks like something out of spy-fi. He has a stylized rabbit mask as a head, attached to his body by a large mechanical collar with blinking lights. He dresses like a Bond henchman in a white turtleneck and black suit, and the surrealism of the character would have fit in perfectly in the Roger Moore years of Bond or in late-season Avengers.

The Dodo and Caterpillar make their appearances in Alice as the code-names of a pair of resistance fighters struggling to unseat the Queen’s tyrannical government. The theme of the resistance fighter, whether friendly or hostile, is a common one in spy-fi, and the program Alice takes a complex view of the organization and its members. Dodo is rash and aggressive, willing to take what he feels he needs by force; Caterpillar is more friendly and reflective, but he is nevertheless a stalwart defender of his cause. But whether fighting against the Queen or capitalism or communism, the Resistance could have been pulled right out of a 1960s film or spy show.

The story and characters in Alice are not a retelling of the original Wonderland stories, by any stretch of the imagination. The program’s use of the Alice themes are far more complex and intricately woven. Rather, Alice’s is a wholly unique storyline with unique characters written for it, all of which are in turn inspired in their imagery, roles and naming by the original Alice stories. While people are free to make up their minds whether this quality in Alice is good or bad, it is a technique found in many Mod-era stories, especially those of a more surrealist nature. Syfy’s Alice feels like the later seasons of The Avengers; it feels like The Prisoner; and it is unmistakably inspired by the conventions and imagery of the 60s and 70s. This is a psychedelic retro-modern story that takes characters from the modern world and throws them into a Mod setting that might have jumped out of 1960s fiction and flown forward in time. Whether it is good or bad (and I will leave that to the interpretation of each viewer), from suits and A-frame dresses to space-age chemists and flying flamingos, it is unmistakably Mod.


G. D. Falksen is an ardent fan of Mod and spy-fi, and he dreams of one day obtaining all of John Steed's suits and motorcars. He wishes that Emma Peel and Cathy Gale were real people, just so he could have the distinction of being turned down by them. More details can be found at his website (www.gdfalksen.com) and his Twitter (twitter.com/gdfalksen). More information about Syfy’s Alice can be found on their website (www.syfy.com/alice).

2 comments
Kat Blackthorne
1. Kat Blackthorne
Great article - can hardly wait until I get to see this show when its shown on the Canadian version of SyFy.
Kat Blackthorne
3. firstgentrekkie
Very interesting! I hadn't consciously recognized it--but you're absolutely right. Just one more thing to like about this ... Adaptation? Derivative work? Thank goodness copyright isn't quite yet infinite, or we never would have had this treat. I'm looking forward to owning the DVD, so I can see it again without the commercials.

[In what universe does Christmas fall on December 11th?]

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