(Notice: In July, the Sci Fi Channel rebranded itself as Syfy. This writer joins the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in boycotting this unsupportable offense against orthography.)
The four-hour miniseries Alice (Sci Fi Channel, Sunday and Monday at 9 p.m. ET) remixes Lewis Carroll’s double-decker nonsense novel into an adventure film with a fairy-tale aftertaste. Creator Nick Willing re-engineered the characters, rewired their relationships, and doubtlessly—perhaps at the cost of overdosing on mythic structures—re-reread Joseph Campbell. Here is an adaptation where the Dodo (played, too briefly, by Tim Curry) is a particularly militant soldier in a movement resisting the Queen of Hearts, and Caterpillar is the code name of his boss (Harry Dean Stanton, desiccated as usual). Willing, treating Carroll as one among many, many influences, has adopted his Jabberwock from a Jurassic Park animal shelter, authorized many nods to Doctor Who, and sent the costume department clanging through the racks at vintage stores to find one supporting actress her Barbarella support bra.
The first hour of Alice is all aces. Playing grown-up heroine Alice Hamilton is actress Caterina Scorsone, whose gorgeously striking eyes convey a quickness and pluck that link this Alice to the wild child of the John Tenniel illustrations. Her famous pinafore appears only in flashbacks to her girlhood. In keeping with a frequently op-arty design scheme, this Alice is otherwise a color-block girl—plum-purple coat, cornflower-blue tank dress, relatively sensible brown boots for fleeing from her many tormentors.
But when we first lay eyes on her, she wears a Judo uniform as a martial-arts instructor who has been getting her dojo on with a student. This is the suspiciously appealing Jack Chase—blondish hair, British accent, vague background, you know the type. Alice brings him home to meet her parents, or rather just her mother, her father having disappeared so long ago. … He gives her a ring. The controlled pace of the scene is such that there’s a fine tension when he wraps his arms around her to show her the secret of opening its box. “There’s a catch,” he says.
Jack is not “dropping the rock,” to use a popular dumb synonym for presenting an engagement ring, merely sharing a family heirloom. Still, Alice cautiously declines it, being wary of men, her father having disappeared so long ago. … Jack is already sneaking through the night like a fugitive when she discovers he has dropped the treasure in her pocket without so much as a gift receipt. Giving chase, Alice sees him abducted. A very dry White Rabbit makes a charming entrance from the shadows, circling her to reveal long white pigtails stretching down his back. He wants the ring, and she wants some answers, and they go through the looking glass into a world of first-rate production design and high-quality whimsy.
It emerges that the gem set in the ring is “the stone of Wonderland,” which object is necessary to making the looking-glass work as a passageway, which portal is critical to social control. In this dystopic edition of Wonderland, the Queen of Hearts maintains her reign by way of a human-trafficking scheme. Her castle is a casino where abductees—always hitting 21 at blackjack, forever mute with bliss—are milked of their endorphins and good vibes. The Queen’s scientists fashion these into designer drugs that keep her subjects docile. Here is her motive for wanting off with Alice’s head. Meanwhile, it seems likely that Alice, who simply set out to rescue her boyfriend, could experience a Wonderland reunion with her father, who disappeared so long ago. … And it seems that the unfocused emotions of the abandonment-issue story line do nothing to enliven the proceedings.
As Alice shuffles through its plot and its controlled pace degrades to an uncontrolled languor, the queen remains a steady pleasure. Kathy Bates takes a discernible pleasure in the ripeness of the role. Under copper hair and an extravagant robe, she is luscious and malicious. I’d like to think that Carroll, great neologist that he was, would call this special quality maluscious.