Dec 7 2009 5:23pm

Go Ask Alice

Halfway through last night’s 2-hour premiere of the SyFy miniseries Alice, the Walrus and the Carpenter, reimagined as chemists in a vast laboratory of milked human emotions (don’t ask), wander through their warehouse as the Carpenter recites:

The time has come, Walrus, old friend
To test our many skills
The Oohs, the Aahs, the healing drops,
The passions and the thrills,
And see how joy and awe and lust
Can all be turned to pills.

It’s indicative of the series as a whole: numerous, often-skillful callbacks to Lewis Carroll’s books, in a setting too far from the original to feel comfortable and not quite thrilling enough to be gonzo fun. That said, the series has some redeeming features; the trick is whether they’re enough to get you to tune in for tonight’s conclusion.

Below the cut, let’s talk of pros and cons and iffy plots, of cabbages and kings!

Two years ago, SyFy (then the SciFi Channel) produced Tin Man, a miniseries that purported to update The Wizard of Oz with a gritty steampunk twist. It was a disaster, from the wooden dialogue to the nonsense plot that centered around a doomsday device designed to cast the world into darkness for reasons no one ever bothered to explain. Even roping in some vaguely A-list actors (the wasted Zooey Deschanel, the doing-his-best Alan Cumming) couldn’t help them; the series buckled almost immediately under the weight of its own ambition and never recovered.

It’s unfortunate, since The Wizard of Oz’s plot is a straightforward gather-your-allies adventure that would seem to lend itself very well to adaptation. The Alice books, which by comparison scamper aimlessly in a surrealist playground, would seem a trickier animal to adapt wholesale, and has generally been more successful when it appears as a callback in a larger piece. The Matrix is an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, from the White Rabbit right on down the line.

...Which is interesting, since this Alice also features a totalitarian regime that artificially drains humans’ emotional energy for their own sustenance, complete with a ragtag resistance determined to make good. (Awkwaaaard.)

The setup: Alice, a martial-arts instructor, gets commitment-shy with her new boyfriend when he offers her a ring. It’s for the best, since he’s kidnapped immediately afterwards (some men are just trouble). In chasing down his captors, Alice falls through a magic mirror into a Wonderland that’s gone to seed, 150 years after “the other Alice” turned everything on its head. Now human “oysters” (I see what you did there!) are stolen from our world and put into The Casino, a supernatural Vegas in which everyone wins every time so that their positive emotions can be mined for the use of Wonderlanders, who trade the multicolored thrills like currency. (Also, Alice’s father is missing, which is treated like a legitimate B-plot instead of one of the most overused and unnecessary tropes in the business.)

There’s almost nothing of Wonderland in the plot. It’s in the details that you recognize Carroll: Alice propping up her long limbs in a shrinking room; an encounter with a remarkably faithful Jabberwocky; an unsettling Tweedledee and Tweedledum; a murderous March Hare with a ceramic rabbit’s head; an underground password about a little crocodile; a Dormouse in charge of a Tea Party that’s a speakeasy stock market in disguise. The series is packed to the gills with references to Alice, which, if you can ignore the laughable A-plot, are fun to come across.

It takes a good actress to handle all this nonsense with grace. Luckily, as played ably by Caterina Scorsone, Alice is up to the task. Her Alice is rash (obligatory, since for any Alice we need the kind of girl who’s willing to chase people into dark alleys), but she’s also no dummy; she picks locks, she knows when to lie, and she can even accept help when she needs it.

Help, in this case, comes from the Hatter, a boyband-ified resistance-fighter incarnation of Carroll’s anarchist host. However, Andrew Lee Potts (one of many SyFy contract players in this miniseries) does the best he can, and gives real feeling to the tentative friendship that develops with Alice as they go on the lam. (If they’re going for a love triangle, then tonight’s conclusion better have more appearances by the fleeting Philip Winchester as Jack; it’s a rough gig to disappear for ninety minutes at a time and hope viewers still want you to get the girl.)

Of course, these three actors form the Taking This Seriously trifecta. The rest of the roll call—Kathy Bates, Colm Meaney, Matt Frewer, and Tim Curry—got scripts with a note that read HAM INSIDE. Each is gleefully committed to the material, overacting as hard as possible any time the camera’s on them. Tim Curry, woefully underused, still walks off with the trophy, and Kathy Bates almost makes up for her hideous half-assed Queens’ robes with a performance that’s both camp and vaguely creepy. (Matt Frewer’s pathos as the White Knight, Wonderland’s last remaining paladin, is also successful; he’s another one I want more of tonight.)

Last night left viewers hanging (and Alice quite literally so); and despite the uneven pacing and heavy-handed infodumping in the series’ first half, I’ll be tuning in tonight because I want to know how it all unfolds, which is more than I can say about SyFy’s last miniseries. Alice: Upgrade.

Alice airs tonight on SyFy; the first half reruns at 7pm Eastern time, and the second half premieres at 9pm Eastern.

Genevieve really, really hated Tin Man (which deserved to be hated, as it was awful). You can read all about it on her blog.

Sean Fagan
1. sef
I was pretty sure it would be awful, but I was willing to give it a shot. I lasted just about 25 minutes, and shut it off at, "Alice? From the LEGEND?!"
Samantha Brandt
2. Talia
I'm quite enjoying it, if I let myself lay my nitpicking aside. I quite enjoy the setting actually,I'm finding it visually stunning (I really enjoyed the toweringly huge mushrooms spotted in one scene!). The White Knight's ridiculous over-the-topness was indeed fun to watch, and the Tweedlebrothers were creepy as all get out.

I haven't quite made up my mind on the Alice character, though. She's a little.. flaky's not quite the word. Doesn't seem particularly well drawn, maybe. Also, she seemed to be familiar with the tale of Alice in Wonderland, but not at all with the characters or plot - which seems odd.

I'll be watching anyway; its a treat for the eyes at the very least. :)
Barry T
3. blindillusion
Why didn't she recognize any of the characters? Well, it seems she's put up a serious block regarding everything connected with her Dad's disappearance. And simply going by the flashbacks, she might of been reading that story when poof.

Also, that was the Cheshire Cat...really? Weak.

two-to-one, the Guy in the Waiting Room = Alice's father...

edit: Serious for series. Too into the WoT threads. Opps.
Samantha Brandt
4. Talia
Well I'm hoping we see more of the Cheshire cat - I must admit, it creeped me the heck out!

But if thats it for the whole thing, then yeah, lame.

Interesting theory considering the memories of her dad (I am also placing bets on the waiting room guy. There was no other reason for that scene to exist).
5. firstgentrekkie
Clearly she IS familiar with the original story, but knowing it isn't going to help her. (Or will it? We'll find out tonight.)

I liked part 1 very much, and am looking forward to the conclusion. I'm enjoying the almost but not quite feeling of familiarity, as if I could read the book again for the first time. A slavish translation of the original book to television would have held no surprises for me, but this makes it all fresh again. And I like that this is an older Alice--I wasn't expecting that at all. The challenges should be accordingly more difficult, and they are. This is a worthy retelling of Lewis Carroll's original, and I'd rank it a notch below any fairy tale retold by Tanith Lee, Jane Yolen, Josepha Sherman, Terri Windling, Ellen Datlow, et al.--a notch, only because it's television and not the written word.
John Patrick Pazdziora
6. mrpond47
Remarkable. I wasn't aware of this show before, and you make it sound intriguing. At least intriguingly awful? Why is it, do you think, that we're so hard pressed to escape from the shadow of Victorian fantasy? Or should we esteem it as a legacy?

'Heavy handed info-dumping'. Oh, really? Long sigh.
7. MAry Arrrr
Watched the first episode last night. Currently TIVOing the second one.

I'd say it was more enjoyable than good, although the balance will tip based on how they wrap it up.

It was witty and fun when they were playing with the story and characters, but the writing sort of fell apart during purely plot-driven moments. "No - we have to go this way!" Some of that may have been trying to stretch things to four hours.

mrpond: One of the reasons that we are still trying to escape Victorian fantasy is because it is in the public domain. If copyright had been allowed to follow its natural course the stuff from the 30s and 40s (maybe even 50s) would be an open playground now.
John Massey
8. subwoofer
Poopy! I was actually wanting to watch this, but it conflicted with football. I am the type that owns movies but likes to watch them on the tele as it becomes more of an event. Hoping it is on again or I am visiting the Pirate Bay...

9. firstgentrekkie
MOST satisfying! I can't wait to own the DVD.
Samantha Brandt
10. Talia
I, uh.


I'm in the middle of watching part two, and all I can say is, what the hell? Didn't they have test audiences? Didn't anyone review this?

There are so many problems, aside from the scenery which was awesome, you'd think it was made by middle schoolers.

.. seriously, what the hell. I'm so dismayed.

Still, I will hold out some hope. There is a half hour yet to go for it to somehow redeem itself.

(edit) no, I will not hold out any hope.

Wow. That's one of the worst things I've ever seen on TV.

Why ruin such a great start. Why :(
Barry T
11. blindillusion


I smiled at the end, but I cannot decide if it was because of the way it ended or the fact that it ended.

Such promise...poof
12. Lily of the Valley
Oh, c'mon guys, it wasn't that bad. And, really, if you're heading to the Sci-Fi channel and expecting anything higher than B status, you're going to be disappointed even on a GOOD day.

Let's face it, it's a station filled with bad endings after good beginnings Every movie on every weekend?]

I didn't watch it to see how much they scrambled the Alice in Wonderland story, or what kind of quality they could smush into a TV series, or the writing . I watched it because I recognized the actors and I thought it looked entertaining. I enjoyed the actors and I was entertained. As far as I'm concerned, Alice was a success. :)
Samantha Brandt
13. Talia
No, it really was that bad. Although the recognizable actors were quite fun in the roles they pursued. Broken down that way, yes! The acting was quite enjoyable, for what it was worth.

I wasn't a fan of alice in particular, but I wouldn't argue that being a matter of opinion.

My problems stem, I think, from the directors, writers and producers.

They simply did not gel. And something ugly came from that lack of gel-ing.

I'm not a terribly picky TV viewer. But I do not care for the assumption that I am totally stupid. Which was largely assumed throughout this production.

I am willing to be open minded about it though, and am curious the mindset of the creators at the time of production.
14. James C. Wallace II
Once again, the powers-that-be feel the need to engage in what I term the "Adultification" of classic children's tales in order to appeal to baby boomers and the like who now control the purse strings. TinMan was a prime example of this process and unfortunately, even moderate success will ensure that more children's classic tales are turned into adult fantasies. I point out "The Grinch" with Jim carrey as one of the few adaptations that work well. It does so because it retains the child-like quality the everyone loves so much. Take "The Cat in the Hat" with Michael Myers as the opposing viewpoint. It felt the need to through in adult humor and so failed as an adaptation, in my own opinion.
It would be nice if Hollywood, Syfy and others would leave well enough alone!!! I liked Alice just as it was, complete with all its eccentricities and quaint songs.
Samantha Brandt
15. Talia
I rather like the "adultification" of children's tales - WHEN they work, that is.

(IE: 'Wicked').

I doubt I could sit through the classic 'Alice in Wonderland' movie today. It just wouldn't interest me.
CE Petit
16. Jaws
When adapting a literary work to the stage or screen, it really, really helps if everyone with creative control on the project has actually RTFM before beginning their "creative" work. Reading Alice and Looking Glass demonstrates one thing rather quickly: An Alice who has any more skepticism than the eiron in any of the classics of satire leads to Epic Fail.

Besides, who needs to "reimagine" the nutty surrealism of Carroll? Just pretend that Disney never happened and RTFM.
17. Clare K. R. Miller
I thought it was fun, as long as you could ignore the fact that neither the plot nor the backstory made any sense whatsoever. And hey, the plot in the original didn't make sense.

I do wish it had been able to make up its mind whether it was a reimagining or a sequel, though. Then again, take out the "Alice of legend?!" stuff and it would have been pure reimagining.
18. firstgentrekkie
Wow, tough audience! Whatever happened to the "willing suspension of disbelief"? Next you'll be saying that the flying flamingos were aerodynamically unstable.
19. Lily of the Valley
Once again, the powers-that-be feel the need to engage in what I term the "Adultification" of classic childrens tales in order to appeal to baby boomers and the like who now control the purse strings.

I don't believe Alice in Wonderland was a child's tale to begin with. In fact, just watching the Disney version gives me the creeps. Opium smoking caterpillar? Queen who beheads her subjects often, and on a whim? Hatter and hare who destroy personal property with little regard to the owner and a cat that pulls itself to pieces and grins creepily while talking in riddles? Little oysters devoured by seemingly-nice people who just want to let them have fun? Not exactly my idea of kid-friendly content. Well, it might be, if you want to scare your child onto the straight and narrow for the next decade.
20. Vera Nazarian
Part One had its moments and was definitely worth a look.

Part Two... not so much. Oh dear lord, it was dreadful, dull, unenthusiastically dead. Even the characters would often pause between lines of dialogue in uncomfortable silences, as though experiencing moments of metafictional ennui.

A shame -- I so wanted to like it, after the promising Part One.

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