by Lori J. Fitzgerald
Jefferson: Stories. Stories. What’s a story? When you were in high school did you learn about the Civil War? How? Did you read about it, perchance, in a book? How is that any less real than any other book?
Emma: History books are based on history.
Jefferson: And story books are based on what? Imagination. Where does that come from? It has to come from somewhere. You know what the issue is with this world? Everyone wants some magical solution for their problem and everyone refuses to believe in magic….
Emma: This is it. This is the real world.
Jefferson: A real world. How arrogant are you to think yours is the only one? There are infinite more. You have to open your mind. They touch one another, pressing up in a long line of lands, each just as real as the last. All have their own rules. Some have magic, some don’t. And some need magic. Like this one.
Once Upon a Time, Episode 1x17, “Hat Trick”
Although Once Upon a Time started its journey with fairy tales, the writers have dusted off the Storybrooke Library shelves (with Belle’s help) and have enthusiastically expanded into the realms of other literary genres. Speculative fiction is a broad genre encompassing works with supernatural, fantastical, and futuristic elements, commonly known as horror, fantasy, and science fiction. Fantasy fiction usually contains magical elements, often influenced by mythology or folklore, which shape the plot, setting, and/or characters of the story. Fantasy novels often create elaborate worlds of their own, governed by specific rules of magic, as Jefferson alludes to in the above quote. There are several types of fantasy fiction, including high or heroic fantasy, magical realism, and contemporary fantasy, to name a few. In terms of literature, Once Upon a Time itself fits the fantasy fiction category; in fact, Storybrooke in Season 2 can be seen as an example of contemporary fantasy, in which magical elements are present in and impact the modern world. Science fiction deals principally with the impact of actual or imagined science upon society or individual characters, often containing motifs such as time travel or interplanetary travel and their ramifications. These genres are grouped together under speculative fiction because many works cross the boundaries of these categories and use a mixture of these elements, such as in science fantasy, paranormal fantasy, weird fiction, or even “sword and planet.” Interestingly, Adam Horowitz and Eddie Kitsis, the creators of Once Upon a Time, also created the science fiction show Tron Uprising. Ursula K. LeGuin, an award-winning modern fantasy and science fiction writer, believed that these genres overlapped so closely “as to render any effort at exclusive definition useless” (21). Therefore, it is fitting that Season 2’s Halloween special, Episode 2x05, “The Doctor,” opens the cover of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the novel that brought the science fiction genre to life.
Above: Recent book cover of Mary Shelley's classic 1818 novel, "Frankenstein", widely noted for creating the sci-fi genre
Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, published in 1818, is often considered a horror novel because it was written in the Gothic tradition, which includes a mysterious, dark, and tempestuous atmosphere and suffering characters who are motivated by insanity and/or vengeance. Indeed, the story of the novel’s creation is gothic itself. On a dark and stormy night, in a coastal villa in Italy, four friends, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, her husband Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and Doctor John Polidori, devise a contest to see who can write the scariest “ghost” story. From this atmosphere, and from nightmares in which her premature stillborn infant comes alive, is the first science fiction novel birthed by a teenage Mary Shelley (Clute 36).
The character of Victor Frankenstein in the novel follows the science fiction motif of the mad scientist who performs experiments of questionable ethical standards and then faces the consequences of those experiments. Shelley’s young university student is headstrong, temperamental, highly intelligent and spurred by a passion for scientific learning. He is especially curious about natural processes, chemistry, and human biology. In Once Upon a Time, Dr. Whale (whose first name, and real name, is “Victor” as revealed by Mr. Gold, leaving no doubt as to whom he is), is Storybrooke’s hospital physician. In the novel, Frankenstein turns to alchemy for a time, interested in acquiring such items as the philosopher’s stone. Alchemists sought to change base metals into gold, through discovering and utilizing the laws of nature, and they tried to work toward perfecting things in their own nature. However, in popular tradition alchemy is often connected with magic (Taylor 11-12). Interestingly, in the Once Upon a Time flashback to the Enchanted Forest, Jefferson describes the Doctor as a “wizard” to Regina. Of course, this could also be because the concept of science is unknown in a magical land. In the novel, Frankenstein’s passion for knowledge morphs into a passion for fame: “Wealth was an inferior object, but what glory would attend the discovery if I could banish disease from the human frame and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death!” (Chapter 2) He does not wish to cure disease or restore health for humanitarian purposes, but for his own selfish gain. Upon hearing his professor extrapolate on the wonders of “modern chemistry” and how it can “penetrate into the recesses of human nature,” Frankenstein is greatly affected:
“Such were the professor’s words – rather let me say such the words of the fate – enounced to destroy me. As he went on I felt as if my soul were grappling with a palpable enemy; one by one the various keys were touched which formed the mechanism of my being; chord after chord was sounded, and soon my mind was filled with one thought, one conception, one purpose…I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.” (Chapter 3)
Above: James Whale, Director of the 1931 film "Frankenstein". Dr Whale was a homage to James.
Herein lies the “madness” of the mad scientist in science fiction: the obsessive hubris, or pride, that he can play God and control nature. In the Once Upon a Time flashback, the Doctor seems to be driven by love, a nobler purpose, in the wish to reanimate his dead brother, much as Regina wishes to bring back Daniel, her true love, from the dead. The Doctor indignantly informs Rumplestiltskin that he is not making a monster. Similarly, Dr. Whale in Storybrooke reanimates Daniel in the hope that by doing a kind deed for Regina, she will return him to his land and his brother. Dr. Whale/the Doctor is more of an empathetic character than Frankenstein in Shelley’s novel since he is motivated by love of family, as many of the other Once Upon a Time characters are.
On a “dreary night in November,” Shelley’s Frankenstein creates his monster:
“I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet…His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shriveled complexion and straight black lips…Oh! No mortal could support the horror of that countenance. A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch. I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then, but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived.” (Chapter 5)
Although we are never explicitly told how this creature is brought to life, we can imply that it has something to do with chemistry and electricity which inspired the vintage laboratory atmosphere of bubbling flasks and sizzling electric spheres in the black and white science fiction films. The name “Dr. Whale” itself is an homage to James Whale, the director of the classic films Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), the greatest of all Frankenstein films and starring Boris Karloff as the monster (Clute 254-255). Science fiction is probably the only major literary genre that has spread so pervasively into screenwriting as well as books, and both movies and TV shows have shaped the history and influence of this genre. The last sequence in Episode 2x05 is also a thrilling nod to the early sci-fi classics that spawned cult followings: filmed in black and white, set in a castle on a dark and stormy night in a remote mountain range, in a lab filled with glass bottles, hydraulic pumps, lightning spheres, and the creepy, whistling sci-fi music, a stitched-together hand emerges from beneath the sheets, and Dr. Frankenstein murmurs, “It’s alive.” In the Storybrooke parallel and also with a modern horror movie atmosphere, Regina wanders through the empty hospital corridors, coming into the modern lab, the operating room, with lights flickering and electric wires buzzing, to reveal Whale’s severed arm beneath the sheets, evidence of violence and carnage, and Whale answers Regina’s shocked exclamation, “He’s alive!” with the whisper, “He’s a monster.”
Shelley’s creature, although hideous in looks, has intelligence, the capacity for kindness, and the basic human desire for companionship and acceptance. Victor Frankenstein flees in horror from what he has done and descends into a period of real insanity, essentially abandoning his creation to a life outside of society. The creature learns speech through observing a family while hiding for months in their shed. When he attempts contact with the blind patriarch he is driven away by the son. He saves a little girl from drowning and is vilified by the other rescuers. This repeated misunderstanding and rejection builds hatred in the creature and a desire for revenge against Frankenstein. Thus, he murders Frankenstein’s five-year-old brother and demands that he create a companion for him. When Frankenstein finally refuses, because he fears that the creatures will propagate, the creature murders first his best friend and then his wife Elizabeth on their wedding night. Frankenstein, filled with hatred and vengeance himself, follows the monster to the Arctic wastes, but sickens and dies aboard a ship. The creature, bitter and remorseful, decides to end his wretched existence through self-immolation. In Once Upon a Time we only know that the reanimation of the Doctor’s brother “ended badly,” as Dr. Whale tells Mr. Gold, and we can only speculate how. However, Daniel is also a “monster” brought to life in this episode.
We know from Season 1’s “The Stable Boy” that Regina’s true love is noble and kind; as the monster he is fueled by pain and rage, only remembering the moment when Cora ripped his heart out in the stables, and attacks both Henry, a young child, and Regina herself. Daniel emerges briefly from his fog of violence when Regina chokingly confesses her love, and he asks Regina to let him go in order to stop the massive amount of pain he feels. He obviously realizes at that moment the unnatural condition he is in, and answers her pleas to come back to her by telling her he can’t. He wisely tells her to “love again.” Regina, echoing the immolation of Shelley’s creature, returns Daniel to the state that he should be in, if it wasn’t for her preservation spells or Dr. Whale’s experiment: ashes and dust. Regina extinguishes the flames of love for Daniel that fueled the fire of her hate and vengeance, and returns to Dr. Hopper for the start of psychological healing. Unlike Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein or his creature, there is hope for Regina that she will not be consumed utterly by her desire for revenge.
Although the sub-genres of speculative fiction meld and merge, readers often have a preference for one over the other, to the point of sparking debates over which is better, fantasy and its magical elements or science fiction and its futuristic and scientific elements. Any of you gentle readers who are parents might have seen (willingly or not) Episode 2x56 of the Disney cartoon Phineas and Ferb “Nerds of a Feather Parts 1 & 2” in which the brothers attend a convention and are caught up in a duel between fantasy fans and sci-fi fans. This conflict is mirrored in Once Upon a Time between Rumplestiltskin, whose Dark Curse has made him a magical creature with an altered appearance and eerie voice, and the Doctor, a scientist with a black doctor’s bag, tightly buttoned jacket echoing the style of a lab coat, spectacles, and a clipped, almost Victorian, accent. Interestingly, on Twitter, David Anders referred to the character’s costume style as “steampunk,” which is also a sub-genre of science fiction whose stories have a steam-industrial setting. In the Enchanted Forest at the end of the episode, Rumple and the Doctor engage in some verbal sparring:
Doctor: What I’m going to accomplish goes far beyond magic.
Rumple: And yet, you need a magical heart to do it.
Doctor: So small-minded. I need my powers to transcend the limitations of your magic.
Rumple: This must be quite a land you hail from if you think your abilities are more powerful.
Doctor: They are.
Rumple: Care to wager?
The Doctor displays the proud arrogance of his scientific intelligence, much like Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein. In the lab in his own land, the Doctor’s assistant claims, “It’s magic, Dr. Frankenstein,” to which the Doctor replies, “No, not magic. It’s science.” And yet, in Storybrooke as Dr. Whale, he comes to Mr. Gold to reattach his arm through magic. Gold notes with smugness that he came to him rather than the hospital, and Whale pays his price by finally admitting to Mr. Gold that he needs magic. Although we have seen Once Upon a Time venture into the land of science fiction, perhaps this is a subtle reminder that fantasy reigns supreme at the core of this show.
With Episode 2x05, “The Doctor,” Once Upon a Time has clearly shown that this show is not just about fairy tales, but about opening our minds to the possibilities within all of literature.
We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel – or have done and thought and felt; or might do and think and feel – is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become.
The book is what is real. You read it, you and it form a relationship, perhaps a trivial one, perhaps a deep and lasting one. As you read it word by word and page by page, you participate in its creation….And, as you read and reread, the book of course participates in the creation of you, your thoughts and feelings, the size and temper of your soul….The author’s work in done, complete; the ongoing work, the present act of creation, is a collaboration by the words that stand on the page and the eyes that read them. (LeGuin, 31, 127)
This is the power of all literature and thus the power of the literary show Once Upon a Time: that we learn more about ourselves, our emotions, the world, and the human condition, through the written word, whether it be on a page or performed by actors on a screen. The characters make us think and make us feel, and just because they are imaginary does not make them any less real to us in the impact that they have on us, just as Jefferson implies when he states imagination as a source of reality. Jefferson also asks where imagination itself comes from, and Ursula K. LeGuin has that answer:
The artist who works from the center of his own being will find archetypal images and release them into consciousness. The first science fiction writer to do so was Mary Shelley. She let Frankenstein’s monster loose. Nobody has been able to shut him out again, either….It is by such statements as, “Once upon a time there was a dragon,” or “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” – it is by such beautiful non-facts that we fantastic human beings may arrive, in our peculiar fashion, at the truth…At this point, realism is perhaps the least adequate means of understanding or portraying the incredible realities of our existence. A scientist who creates a monster in his laboratory; a librarian in the library of Babel; a wizard unable to cast a spell; a space ship having trouble in getting to Alpha Centauri: all these may be precise and profound metaphors of the human condition. The fantasist, whether he uses the ancient archetypes of myth and legend or the younger ones of science and technology, may be talking as seriously as any sociologist – and a good deal more directly – about human life as it is lived, and as it might be lived, and as it ought to be lived. For after all, as great scientists have said and as all children know, it is above all by the imagination that we achieve perception, and compassion, and hope. (LeGuin, 45, 58, 80)
Imagination comes from the depths inside us where universal human truths reside, Jung’s collective unconsciousness. In opening the Storybrooke Library door as wide as it can go and letting light illuminate all the shelves, the writers of Once Upon a Time are delving deeper into the truths of life and the universal themes of redemption, love, and hope, just as a great printed work of folklore, fantasy, science fiction, or any genre of literature could.
Abrams. M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms, Sixth Edition. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace
College Publishers, 1993.
Clute, John. Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia. London: Dorling Kindersley,
LeGuin, Ursula K. The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction.
Ed. Susan Wood. New York: Perigee Books, 1979.
Merriam Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature. Massachusetts: Merriam Webster,
Incorporated, Publishers, 1995.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Superior Formatting Publishing, 2010. Nook file.
Suggested works of Ursula K. LeGuin:
The Left Hand of Darkness
The Earthsea Cycle:
A Wizard of Earthsea
The Tombs of Atuan
The Farthest Shore
Tales from Earthsea
The Other Wind
Explore the Arthurian legend surrounding Lancelot, take a trip into the woods to discover the mythology behind Red Riding Hood or learn more about a modern day hero called Snow White. Origins provides unique insights and perspectives from talented writers into the characters we know and love, going far beyond the boundaries of Storybrooke.