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TV Review: Once Upon a Time – “The Doctor”

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When you love someone, sometimes you have to let them go. Rumple (Robert Carlyle) has learned that lesson with Belle (Emilie de Ravin), and this week Regina (Lana Parrilla) also learns this in an even more heartbreaking way in Once Upon a Time’s Halloween episode “The Doctor.” 

“The Doctor” is one of the more complex episodes of the series, blending Mary Shelly’s classic horror story of Frankenstein with Once‘s modern-day Storybrooke, and the Fairytale Land that once was. And who is our Victor Frankenstein? None other than the enigmatic Dr. Whale (David Anders), who had thus far kept his identity secret from everyone else in Storybrooke. (Trivia question: Name the director of the original 1931 film Frankenstein. Answer: James Whale. Very clever reference to the original film — amplified by shooting this week’s final Frankenstein sequence in a starkly beautiful black and white.)

Not of Fairytale Land, but of a different realm (of course that would be 19th Century Europe) entirely, the Doctor travels between times and realms through the Mad Hatter’s (Sebastian Stan) hat seeking a heart to complete his experiment — to bring his brother back from the dead. (In the original Frankenstein, the creature kills Victor’s brother, leaving the scientist wracked by terrible guilt.)

While Victor needs a heart to bring his brother back to life, Rumple needs to toughen up his apprentice Regina, and a deal is struck. Rumple gets what he wants by indirectly destroying Regina’s only hope of bringing back to life her dead fiance Daniel — her true love — in a complicated scheme of actions and consequences.

When Victor’s resurrection “fails,” Regina is left without hope, finally brittle enough to tear the heart out of Rumple’s new apprentice and crush it. Rumple finally has a partner, no longer distracted by foolish hope — someone as miserable as he is to wallow in the cruelty of the black arts as solace from the grief and loss while he tries to find a way to the “land without magic” in which he might locate his son Baelfire. 

Until this point, Regina’s sole purpose in using magic had been to bring back Daniel, something Rumple believes had a waste of time. Magic cannot bring back the dead, he tells her. Nothing can. Insisting that Regina is wasting both his time and her own, he warns, “So long as you live in the past, you’ll neer find your future.” Which is interesting, since he seems never to lose sight of his entire reason for being — to find Bae, even if that means crossing over into a world without magic and patiently waiting for 28 years.

By the way, it seems that Rumple is trying to find Dorothy of Oz fame — or at least her ruby slippers. I’d never thought of the slippers as a portal before, but I guess they are! Although Jefferson can’t deliver on the slippers, he does recover what I can only assume is the witch’s crystal ball. I wonder if he’ll use that to try to see into our world — or is he asking for trouble by messing with the Wicked Witch’s magic?

But this week’s episode is more than a ghoulish ghost story, or even the next clue into Rumple’s search for Bae. “The Doctor,” more than anything else provides crisis point for Regina in her story with Daniel — as well as in her efforts to refrain from using magic as Henry has requested. 

Having used magic to keep Daniel in suspended animation, and ultimately to bring him back to life (with science, assisted by a magic heart), she uses it, albeit reluctantly, to put Daniel out of his misery. As happy as she is that Daniel has been brought back to life by Dr. Whale…er…Victor Frankenstein, she realizes that magic cannot bring her happiness. Magic is powerful, as Rumple has told her, but far from having the ability to produce happiness, magic “comes with a price.”

The episode also brings in an interesting argument about magic and science — which is more powerful? Rumple (and even in modern Storybrooke) insists that magic is more powerful than science, something about which scientist Victor strongly disagrees.

The Rumplestiltskin of Fairytale Land knows little of science, although he seems to know a great deal about a great many things. He’s quite an alchemist, our Rumple, but for him it’s all about the magic. And for 19th Century scientist Victor Frankenstein, product of the Enlightenment, magic is for the dark ages; the pursuit of science is the way to power — and to conquering the world.

But what is magic, ultimately? Magic is what we don’t yet understand of science; historically, magic has almost always been eventually explained by science. Frankenstein represents the nexus between them, borne of the Enlightenment, it is (like many fairytales) a cautionary tale. Does science, like magic, come with a price? I think the price of science (coming from a scientist, by the way) is sometimes the loss of wonder. And the challenge of science is to maintain the wonder and awe of the world even as it is explained rationally. (End of philosophical rant.)

In the end, his arm severed by his own scientific creation, Whale must admit to Mr. Gold that magic is more powerful. But one thing that magic cannot necessarily do is help to complete a quest. Although many of the Storybrooke residents have found what they are looking for, others still yearn: Rumple seeks his son; Whale seeks a return to his land; Regina seeks the love of her adopted son Henry.

For all his power and all his magic, Rumple has not, for centuries been able to use it to find Bae. It is the one thing that magic cannot help, yet it is the one thing Rumple desires more than anything else. It is the irony of his life. And for Regina, magic only brought Daniel anguish. That she used magic to end his pain and let him go is her own bit of irony.

I wonder if, now that Daniel is lost to her forever how that will change her. Will it make her more cruel or more introspective? Time will tell.

Speaking of severed limbs, this week finds Emma and Snow White in an encounter with the pirate Killian. Killian, like Emma and Snow want entry into our world — for very different reasons, of course. Will they help each other? It certainly seems like they’re about to collaborate on geting themselves a handful of magic beans as they stand at the foot of a very tall beanstalk.

I very much enjoyed this episode. I thought the scene in which Regina lets Daniel go was heartbreaking. Lana Parrilla did a wonderful job of allowing Regina to completely break down at her fateful decision to let Daniel die.

David Anders finally got to shine in dual roles, and any time we get Regina and Rumple, it always crackles with chemistry (or magic, as the case may be).

Once Upon a Time
airs Sunday nights at 8:00 p.m. ET on ABC.

Tomorrow night Gareth Hughes, creator of the huge Once Upon a Fan site will be joining me on Let’s Talk TV LIVE on BlogTalkRadio. Next week, November 5, Jane Espenson will be visiting the show to talk about her next Once Upon a Time episode along with Team Husbands (Brad “Cheeks” Bell and Sean Hemeon). 

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse is now out from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."
  • Barbara barnett


  • WML

    First there is awe of the world around us, which we explain by believing in the divine. Then we imagine that we can create many of the same things that we see in this world, thus magic is born. Then we learn to understand the world around us, that which holds us in awe, thus there is science. As one who believes in the divine, let us always strive forward to learn about our world and learn what it is to be human – to use the divine gift of consciousness to make our world a better place for all its inhabitants. To make the happy endings that we dream of, once upon a time, real in our own lives and in the lives of others.

  • Thanks Pixie. The coexistence of science and magic, science and belief. It takes wonder and merges it with curiosity and pushes us forward as a civilization.

  • Pixie Michele

    Insightful commentary indeed. How science definitely explains past “magic” and how those two need each other. The discovery step of science feels magical in the light bulb moment. It pushes the rest of the process forward through experimenting and conclusions.
    I’m not a scientist by trade, but I’m thrilled by advances. There’s several things I never want explained though, and left to magic. Most of all, how we learn love. Like how our hearts can break and fill up at the same time.
    Guess that’s why I cried when Daniel said “love again.” My favorite scene yet.

  • I really loved that idea that magic (or miracles) is really science we don’t understand. Historically that’s true. I was just rewatching an SGU episode where that exact debate came up. It’s a great debate, and as a scientist (I have undergrad background in bio and chemistry) and as one who believes in God, it’s always fascinating to me as we reconcile what we know of the universe with what we don’t.

    I agree with you about the modern FTL story. I’m not finding it so compelling yet. But I have great hopes for next week as it seems to be ratcheting up. I noticed that Hook mentioned a compass they’re looking for with the giant. But it’s a beanstalk. So something tells me it’s all about the magic beans 🙂

  • john

    I did like your science vs magic debate and to use the cliche, magic is science that has not been explained. The fact that Jefferson could reach Whale’s world proves he is using magic and not pure Earth science. His world must be the dimension where our horror stories come from and the show may eventually do a dracula story. I think the show is wrong to portray magic as an addiction rather than a gift that Rumple and Regina have misused. Ragina should be asking the Blue Fairy for help rather than a doctor. The fairy may teach her how to use magic properly even getting them back home. So far the modern enchanted forrest story has been the weakest this season, hopefully next week’s jack & the bean stalk will change that.

  • Thank you everyone for your kind comments. I really enjoyed this episode. A perfect Halloween “treat” with a few “tricks” thrown in for good measure!

  • OE:dystopia

    Thank you so much. You’ve done a great job writing this review. Moreover, finding the right words to describe The Doctor’s/Rumple’s/Whale’s/Gold’s argument. I was thinking exactly the same but didn’t have the words to express.

    (I’m not a native speaker. I’m not standing on firm ground with comma placement.)

  • andrea

    What the hell happen with hook? he lack character, I don’t know if this because of the writing or because of that pretty boy who wear eyeliner can’t act
    Even archie was more enjoyable to watch

  • Christy

    I enjoyed reading your commentary; it was insightful. It brings forward everything I had in my mind but couldn’t verbalize.

    To summarize, it was a cool episode… like so many of them are. I’m totally enjoying this series.

    Rumplestiltskin is my favorite character, but beyond that, I just can’t decide. There are so many interesting characters and character-associated plots. The backstory that I still think is brilliant is “why the Mad Hatter went mad.”

    And in the response to a previous comment… I can’t wait for Sleeping Beauty to have her backstory moment… and to have a meaningful role in the present. Her day is coming, I feel sure.

  • Michael

    Wow it’s so wonderful to be able to sit down in front of the tv each week and lose myself in this series. Regina is becomming more human it seems and I see a possible alliance between her and the town in order to battle her mother. Her visit to the shrink was heartfelt and funny at the same time. The episode was perfect for Halloween and had just the right amount of spooky with a bit of light heartedness. Big thumbs up to ABC for giving us a place to run away every Sunday night. 🙂

  • Betsy

    Barbara, loved your review! Loved the episode – perfect for a dark and stormy night on the East Coast, lol.

    I have to watch that scene again, but it never occurred to me to connect the crystal ball/slippers to Dorothy and the WW. Wow…

    Frankenstein is a great novel and I always found, though I just read it once, that the real monster was the Doctor. The “Monster” had a basically kind nature, but people were scared of him and reviled him. It was a tragic story.

    Did I feel for Regina? A little – I’m not her biggest fan, admittedly.

    I LOVED how Charming showed Henry about the bond between horse and rider. As someone who has ridden a lot and performed in shows, as someone who just loves horses, it meant a lot that Charming was instilling in Henry a love and concern for them.

    I would just like to say also that I think magic like this is really cool, lol. Magic does NOT have to be be bad at all; it’s just how it’s being used that’s the issue. Gold used it to rescue Belle – without it, Belle would have been lost. He gave Whale back his arm – and didn’t ask for anything except the truth. It’s not like he tried to make a deal. LOL I loved how he just wanted the truth… Belle rubbing off on him?

    I think the notion of needing magic as a crutch is sad because he clearly does NOT believe in or have faith in his abilities. IMO, Gold needs to be encouraged to use his many intellectual gifts and not depend on magic. That, I think, is the key. If Gold can use it in moderation, there’s nothing wrong with it. If he can use it when necessary or for a good cause, what’s wrong with that? I personally LOVE seeing magic….not black magic, but cool magic.

    I don’t really think Jeff and Rumple were friends but I LOVED their scenes together. They just sort of were allied with each other because each had what the other needed. It was a marriage of convenience…..We see a lot of that on this show, and it’s why villains can never trust other villains. There is no honor among thieves and they will betray each other at the first chance they get.

    So, couples like Snowing and Rumbelle ALWAYS have each others backs and there will be no betrayals, no double crossing. That is STRENGTH. Regina/Hook/Whomever may ally with each other, but those bonds are purely temporary. The moment that one of them finds another who can do the same job, but better, the alliance is over.

    I’d like to think that science and magic can co-exist in this or any world. I believe in science, in the things that can be proven, but I also believe in wonder. I love magic and I don’t ever want to know the “science” behind magic tricks. I just want to still be in awe and never lose that wonder.

  • WML

    Lana Parilla was excellent, so was RC, as usual. David Anders? Not bad. Hook? BORING! It’s clear to see how great Carlyle is as an actor. Last week, Hook was somewhat interesting. This week, I don’t know about Hook. This story didn’t do much for him. Or for Snow or Emma. And what’s the point of Sleeping Beauty?