Note: Do not read on if you have not seen Season 2, Episode 5 of ABC's "Once Upon a Time," titled "The Doctor."
This week's "Once Upon a Time" certainly fit in with the rest of ABC's Halloween fare, with an abundance of lightning and shambling monsters and creepy heart stealing -- but the end result left me a little cold.
I can understand the show wanting to have its cake and eat it, adding in literary characters such as Lancelot who may not technically be Disney (although there's an argument to be made for him, given Arthur's origin story in "The Sword in the Stone") but who nevertheless fit into the swords and sorcery surroundings of the Enchanted Forest. Likewise, the subtle mention of "The Wizard of Oz" and Dorothy's slippers also seems thematically relevant, given the emphasis on witches and magic present in L. Frank Baum's novel, while the inclusion of Frankenstein and his monster simply seemed jarring.
Obviously, at one point in history, science and magic seemed indistinguishable, and the fantastical elements of the Frankenstein story arguably lend themselves to the same kind of treatment as fairytales, but tonally, the episode didn't feel as seamless as Lancelot's inclusion did. Perhaps it's because bringing Daniel back as a grunting monster could never come across as anything but cheesy, but as interesting as it is to debate over which has more power, science or magic, I'm hoping the show keeps the genre-swapping to a minimum. If we see Bram Stoker's Dracula next Halloween, I fear the show may have jumped the shark .
It's also a pity that the promos for the episode (usually entirely out of the producers' control, it's worth noting) spoiled Dr. Whale's identity a week before the episode aired. True, as soon as the episode's title was revealed to be "The Doctor," I had my suspicions, but the emphasis on lightning and reanimated dead people in the ads drained the episode of all its tension, which is a pity, because the episode's actual narrative seemed intent on drawing out that mystery until the final act. (In case you're still wondering about the "Dr. Whale" alias, the 1931 classic "Frankenstein" was directed by James Whale.)
David Anders did a great job of portraying the doctor's eccentricity in the Fairytale Land flashbacks, and it was a pleasure to see Sebastian Stan's Jefferson in the time before he was quite so mad (but also undeniably eccentric). I also enjoyed seeing the duo and Rumplestiltskin manipulating Regina into becoming another kind of monster, and despite my reservations about the tone of the episode, the show is still succeeding at building empathy for the so-called Evil Queen and helping to justify some of her heinous behavior. Lana Parrilla truly sold Regina's pain and abiding love for Daniel, and watching her turn him to dust was surprisingly affecting, just from the rawness of Parrilla's performance. Just as all magic comes with a price, so too do all actions have consequences, and it's not surprising that the writers of "Lost" would be so adept at weaving a tale in which one person's selfish act can create ripples across generations and worlds, and that even the noblest intentions truly do seem to pave a path to hell.
Regina was only really guilty of doing exactly what Snow and Charming did -- refusing to give up on true love -- and yet she took the easy road and embraced darkness instead of choosing a more painful (but ultimately more rewarding) path. It's truly great to see a show framing such morality plays in new ways for kids, because that's what Disney movies always provided for me as a child, and since Disney's animation house ain't what it used to be, it's nice to see that legacy being continued on TV.
Sadly, the episode's tonal problems were probably compounded by the fact that it tried to show too many plot threads at once -- telling Regina and Whale's origin story in Fairytale Land and their present day situation in Storybrooke would've been sufficient for one episode in Season 1, but the continuation of Emma and Mary Margaret's present-day quest in the Enchanted Forest made "The Doctor" seem disjointed (no pun intended) rather than giving it a solid throughline between past and present. I admittedly quit "Lost" before it introduced the "flash sideways" narrative device, so I'm sure Losties are probably more tolerant of it than I am, but obviously when the present-day Enchanted Forest storyline doesn't share characters or themes with the flashbacks, it's inevitable that things will seem a little bipolar.
Then again, I'm still thoroughly enamored of Hook, and although the executive producers have admitted that they would never tackle Captain Jack Sparrow on the show unless they could somehow get Johnny Depp to guest star, I'm enjoying the aspects of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise that they're subtly weaving in without him. Hook going from Jack Sparrow-esque swagger to a humble, Will Turner style blacksmith when he was trying to earn Emma and Mary Margaret's trust, and Colin O'Donaghue's suitably Sparrowish "so you've heard of me?" smirk were great touches, and I can't deny that I'm hoping the show can dig up Captain Jack's magic compass that never points north (but instead points to the thing you want the most, such as a way back to Henry and Charming in Storybrooke) for Emma to retrieve from the top of the beanstalk next week.
Ultimately, while "The Doctor" was an interesting experiment, it didn't quite pack the emotional punch of the show's best episodes. While Regina's evolution is believable, I would've hoped for either a more sympathetic send-off for Daniel, or for the show to have simply let sleeping stableboys lie.
"Once Upon a Time" airs Sundays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.
What did you think of "The Doctor"? Did you enjoy the Frankenstein twist, or would you prefer the show to stick to the fairytale genre? Weigh in below!
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