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I have often wondered about K dramaland’s ongoing fascination with Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Drama after drama in 2020 have made obvious reference to the classic English work of satire and imagination. It begs the question: Are they genuine homages to the source material or are these references merely cynical and blanket justifications for the lack of coherence and consistency in plotting? The answer is important to me at least, because often as a member of the viewing public I am asked to accept things “just because” and often in science fiction or should I say, serious science fiction “just because” just ain’t good enough.

 

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The industry has had a checkered relationship with science fiction for as long as I’ve been watching K dramas and there’s little doubt that the best ones have come from the cable networks.  Why that is the case is perhaps a subject for another time. So perhaps it shouldn’t be any surprise that this production goes wobbly half way. At the start Alice seemed to have all the makings of a good science fiction-time travel story. The elements were all there: fascinating ideas, good production values, a seemingly intriguing plot and even extended action sequences. On top of that, the show was attempting to do what others before had done in combining crime with time travel and in those early days, it seemed to hit all the right notes. Everything seemed to be solidly falling in place in those first six episodes. So what went awry? 

 

Joo-won, another recent returnee from military service, plays Park Jin-gyeom, a highly competent detective who was diagnosed at an early age with alexithymia, a condition that renders him unable to empathise and process emotions in ordinary fashion. Even as a child, he shows himself incapable of interacting with other kids and his only friend is the boisterous but good-hearted Do-yeon (Lee Da-in). At age 19, his mother was murdered and he went to stay with the investigating officer (Kim Sang-ho) and his wife. He then made it his lifelong goal to track down his mother's killer. What Jin-gyeom doesn’t know at first is that his mother, Park Sun-young aka Yoon Tae-yi (Kim Hui-seon), was a time traveller from the future. By all accounts she was the one who started it all — discovered time travel and led the way. With the help of colleagues she made time travel a genuine enterprise for individuals with past grievances. Hence the birth of Alice, an enigmatic organization that engages in what I call, time travel tourism.

 

It is established early on that Tae-yi and her partner travels back in time to 1992 in search of a mysterious tome known as the Book of the Prophecy because it contains crucial information regarding the end of time travel. While in 1992, Tae-yi inadvertently discovers that she’s pregnant by her partner and is advised to abort the baby because of the radiation effects of wormhole travelling. During an attempt to retrieve the book, the physicist who was in possession of it then is murdered by a rogue time traveller. Disposing of their adversary not long afterwards, the book soon falls into Tae-yi’s hands. She takes a gander and then absconds with it, much to the chagrin of her partner and lover. Now acquainted with its contents, Tae-yi resolutely decides to remain in 1992 to raise her son as a single parent. 

 

Soon, Jin-gyeom in his capacity as a detective is led into one inexplicable crime after another. A girl goes missing, presumably kidnapped and then returns later unscathed claiming that she had been with her mother the entire time. Her mother however, had been on an overseas trip. Then a murder takes place in an apartment and the murderer disappears without a trace. This leads Jin-gyeom into a series of altercations with a key member of Alice, Yoo Min-hyuk (Kwak Si-yang) in the drama’s most exciting action sequences. It’s not really a spoiler to say that unknown to both men initially, Min-hyuk was Tae-yi’s lover and is Jin-gyeom’s biological father.

 

As if this isn’t mind-boggling enough, Jin-gyeom during his investigation into the plausibility of time travel encounters a younger version of Yoon Tae-yi, a physics professor at a local university who may or may not be his mother’s doppelgänger or younger self. It is a question that pervades the entire drama and I for one don’t believe that the show ever deals with it satisfactorily.

 

To be fair time travel is always a tough nut to crack. Sometimes it’s just best to assume that the temporal mechanics works the way it does because it does. No scientific explanation can be given. Often that works as in the case of Signal or 365: Repeat the Year as long as the show doesn’t willy nilly break its own rules, the plot is engaging and the storytelling flows. When the storytelling is good no one really cares how a walkie talkie without batteries can suddenly work so precisely at a particular time without warning.

 

However, in the case of Alice, the temporal mechanics purports to be explained by Choi Won-young’s character as parallel universes. Or is it alternate timelines? I’m never sure. Perhaps something's lost in translation. When a person travels back in time, it supposedly creates an alternate future (a branch timeline) but it doesn’t change the future of the original timeline from which the traveller came. The use of terminology here is somewhat confusing but what is doubly confusing is the insistence of SBS promo department that Prof Yoon Tae-yi is a different person.  We are expected to believe that when the maternal version went back into the past and changed it, she may or may not have created a parallel world with another Yoon Tae-yi. The lack of clarity there was, to my mind, the beginning of the downward spiral of the drama.

 

What also upset and sent viewers running in a different direction were the possible Oedipal implications of all of this especially when Jin-gyeom spends the rest of the drama doing “The Bodyguard” routine with damsel-in-distress Professor Tae-yi. As he realises how much trouble he caused his mother as a child, he starts to relive his missed opportunities with the professor who may or may not be his mother's younger self. Especially when he takes her to his childhood home as a refuge from murderous time travelling miscreants. There are hints too that Professor Tae-yi could be developing romantic feelings for Jin-gyeom. 

 

The show, it seems to me, repeatedly and deliberately obfuscates the identities of the various Tae-yis. It seems to me that this is an attempt to game the audience right up to the 11th hour but the resolution leaves one more dissatisfied than in awe. There are far too many unnecessary red-herrings particularly in the second half being pulled out of the magician’s hat for my liking. The ideas are interesting in and of themselves but they’re not well incorporated into the bigger storyline. 

 

Clearly parts of the show are better than the sum total. Consequently it points to a colossal waste of potential and good will. The ideas are all there for a decent drama and perhaps for the more forgiving that might be enough because the cast do their best with the madness that’s inflicted on them.

 

I wanted far more from the ensemble cast but it seemed to me that the show gradually shifted into Jin-gyeom and Tae-yi melodrama gear which didn’t interest me after a while. One of the bright spots for me was Kwak Si-yang as Min-hyuk. He really came to my attention in this drama and I was rooting for him all the way. His emotional arc was one that I was so looking forward to seeing expanded but alas that was not to be. Furthermore, the entire Alice angle — the origins, the relationships — was completely ignored. I didn’t want just to be told about the good o’l days, I wanted to see evidence of it. Flashbacks would have been nice. Other characters like Do-yeon and fellow detectives essentially became props and scenery.

 

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When the show delves into the importance of families — birth ones or the ones that those orphaned find their way to, it does well enough exploring the relationships around Jin-gyeom. It’s certainly one of the highlights of Jin-gyeom’s trajectory to understand himself and his place in the universe to appreciate the people around him who have done so much for him despite his seeming indifference. Yes, I also accept that the show is an unabashed celebration of mother’s love. But they can only do so much drum banging on that theme before it gets really irritatingly old.

 

The ending is for me a nonsensical one. It’s a cop out. A plot hole large enough for two elephants and truck to go through. That’s why I keep mulling over the Alice reference. Do the show runners really believe that we’d be happy going on this journey to accept that the incoherence as something deliberately built into the plot? Like Alice who woke up relieved to find out that it was all a dream. If they did, it was a serious miscalculation on their part.

 

 

Story: 7

Storytelling: 6

Cast: 9

Production Values: 7.5

Rewatch value: 5

 

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Currently Watching:  She and Her Perfect Husband, The King of Pigs, Reborn Rich, Under the Queen's Umbrella, Thank You Doctor

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"Love is not an affectionate feeling but a steady wish for the loved person's good as far as it can be obtained." -- CS Lewis.

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