As a longtime fan of genre television, I’m willing to overlook shoddy effects work. Sometimes, that can even be a key to a show’s charm. The original Star Trek and Doctor Who are both filled with ridiculous costumes and shaky sets, but they draw a kind of strength from the clumsiness; this is all pretend, those shows seem to say, so let’s get together and pretend something amazing. I don’t know if it’s my age or simple facts, but CGI effects rarely have the same kind of charm. Even with them, though, I’m more than happy to accept that things can’t be perfect. But Once Upon A Time In Wonderland has been throwing out some hideous backgrounds and landscapes since the pilot, and tonight was some kind of crisis point. Roughly half of “Forget Me Not” has actors green-screened into nauseatingly bad settings, places that twist perspective and throb with unnatural, unappealing colors. What’s worse, little of these bargain-basement creations seem particularly relevant or necessary to the plot.
For an exception that proves the rule, take the Bandersnatch. Determined to force Alice to start using her wishes, Jafar and the Red Queen send a vicious monster after the young woman on the assumption that she’ll wish the creature away. The creature isn’t hugely convincing; like all CGI beasties, there’s the weird mismatch of mass and weight, and it doesn’t always interact well with the live action location and performers. But the Bandersnatch was part of the story the show was telling, a passable threat designed to create suspense, as well as prove Alice (and Cyrus) are more resourceful than the villains give them credit for. In theory, the screenwriters could have come up with a creature that didn’t rely on a computer to work (the Grendel looked decent, as far as hideously marred tragic cannibals go), but still, I’m willing to accept this as a required solution to a narrative problem. Yet the constant shots of Alice and Cyrus wandering through a field of eye-watering, radioactive mushrooms and Easter basket grass serve no real purpose. The lawns where Alice found Cyrus’ bottle had been stolen looked perfectly fine, as did the forest, and while I understand the desire to show a more varied world, this isn’t the way do it. Those scenes of the mushroom field are some of the worst effects I’ve ever seen on a network show, and make it nearly impossible to take those scenes seriously. Which is a shame, too, because the Alice/Knave scenes remain the strongest element of the series. Thinking about CGI isn’t something I have any desire to do, but large portions of “Forget Me Not” made it difficult to do anything else.
As far as the actual story, well, it’s roughly the same mixed bag as its always been. This time out, we got flashbacks that started to fill in the Knave’s story: Apparently his real name is Will Scarlett, he used to run with Robin Hood, and a few years ago, he stole a magical looking glass from Maleficent in order to travel to Wonderland with the love of his life, Anastasia. Who, it turns out, is a very fresh-faced and sweet version of the Red Queen. Which, okay? I’m slowly coming around to Emma Rigby’s performance—she and Jafar aren’t threatening, exactly, but they both seem to be enjoying themselves, which is something. And it’s not like the Queen couldn’t use some additional character development. I’m not sure another romantic subplot is something this show needs, but since we still don’t know how Anastasia became the Red Queen, I’m going to reserve judgement. Character establishing flashbacks are a nifty device, and while this one never got past the mildly curious stage, it at least helped keep the pace moving.
Iggy Pop made an appearance (in voice only) as the Caterpillar, a casting decision whose sole value is in the fact that it’s a funny idea. As a voice actor, he is lugubrious, and the Caterpillar himself is just Jabba the Hutt in Day Glo pink. Most of the plot of the hour revolves around getting the mystical Forget Me Knot (it could be called the “Forget Me Not,” since that’s the name of the episode, but it feels like they really should have gone with the pun) so Alice and the Knave can figure out who took Cyrus’ bottle. Fetch quests are rarely the height of dramatic intensity, and for much of the first half of the episode, this one seem particularly dire, starting with the hideous effects work and moving on to the “Underland,” which was another open woods cafe, only this time it was inside a mushroom. Alice was as game as ever, and it was interesting seeing the show trying to both emphasize and explain the Knave’s Han Solo-esque antics, but the story didn’t pick up until the pair tracked down the Grendel in order to get the Knot. “Pick up” is a relative term, but at least the encounter with the Grendel had some actual excitement and pathos to it. The Grendel is yet another character with a tragic romantic past (dear God, please don’t bring the White Rabbit into this): His wife died, and he stole the Forget Me Knot from the Red Queen so he could see her again; as punishment, the Queen turned him into a monster. The sight of him staring through the knot (noose, really) at a past he can never return to was a sad one, and almost made the Knave’s decision to burn the Knot rather than return it to the Caterpillar seem sensible, rather than a weird moral stance that just happened to save him and Alice from a confrontation with Jafar.
By now, it’s fairly clear what kind of show this, and how good (and bad) it’s going to be. It remains an inessential, intermittently entertaining diversion, anchored by a fine lead performance, and capable of generating the occasional emotion, albeit not entirely consistently. It’s not bad, if you’re into that sort of thing, and I’m curious to see where it goes when the next new episode airs in two weeks. But man, it really needs to find a better way to deal with those effects.
- Anybody else think the Knave and Robin Hood (Sean Maguire) had pretty amazing chemistry together? Just me? Okay then.
- I guess Jafar and the Queen don’t want to face Alice directly until they make her use up her three wishes? Fair enough.
- The Underland looks like a Steampunk convention trying to get one of those Eyes Wide Shut orgies happening.
- I like how part of the Knave’s job seems to be explaining bits of the plot just to make sure we’re following. (After the Bandersnatch is tricked by the Forget Me Knot, he makes sure to point out, “He bought it!” So let’s just hope the ‘snatch’s hearing isn’t very good.)
- “I mean this as a friend, Alice: sod off!”