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Remembering SYFY’s Wild, Ambitious Wizard of Oz Miniseries Tin Man
When Zooey Deschanel ditched Dorothy’s ruby slippers for a darker sci-fi take on The Wizard of Oz.
It’s crazy to think just how ambitious the vision was for 2007’s Tin Man (streaming here on Peacock), SYFY's (formerly the Sci-Fi Channel) genre-mixing event series that extensively reimagined Frank Baum’s classic children’s novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. A modern-day fairy tale that updated the kid-centric story with a more mature PG-13 sort of vibe, it placed Zooey Deschanel — already a household name in her pre-New Girl TV days thanks to films like Elf and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — in its swept-away starring role.
Costing a reported $20 million to produce (a sum roughly comparable, pound for pound, to those extra-spendy later episodes of Game of Thrones), Tin Man assembled an ensemble of big-name acting talent around a vastly altered version of Baum’s iconic fantasy land. The changes are dramatic enough to thwart most direct screen-to-book comparisons between Tin Man and its inspirational source material (the sprawling realm of Oz, for instance, is presented here as the “Outer Zone,” or “O.Z.” for short), and the tone — while still plenty fantastical — liberally folds in elements of sci-fi and even horror to craft a distinctively darker and more dangerous world.
Tin Man’s Magical Cast
Going simply by the nickname of “DG,” Deschanel embodies Tin Man’s new-girl version of Dorothy Gale as a restless waitress who begins the adventure in a present-day setting that’s not so different from Judy Garland’s Kansas farm from the iconic 1939 movie adaptation, The Wizard of Oz.
By creative design, the similarities pretty much end there, though. DG soon gets swept away (by a lab-spawned “travel storm” tornado, in just one of Tin Man’s many thematic tweaks), quickly learning after her arrival in the O.Z. that her concerned and loving Kansan parents not only aren’t her real parents, they’re not even human to begin with. They’re androids instead, ‘bots that pass the believability test as easily as any Blade Runner Replicant, serving in Tin Man’s world as caretakers sent across dimensions to watch over DG until she answers her fateful coming-of-age summons to another world.
Once she’s on the ground in the O.Z., DG slowly begins to collect both friends and foes who resemble (but by no means parallel) the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, Cowardly Lion, and other familiar Wizard of Oz characters. Her first meet-up is with the Scarecrow-adjacent Glitch (played by ace Spy Kids actor Alan Cumming), a former brainiac with a zipper on his head whose smarts have been rudely yanked away by the realm’s evil queen Azkadellia (played with brooding menace by Swimming with Sharks creator and costar Kathleen Robertson).
Azkadellia’s introduction comes with the first hint that we’re in for a heavy delve into some of the deep family issues raised in later Oz-inspired projects (most notably Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, which itself served as the inspiration for the smash-hit Broadway musical Wicked, and the upcoming movie adaptation starring Ariana Grande and Cynthia Erivo). Azkadellia isn’t just the queen; she’s also DG’s long-lost older sister, and she’s got their mother (Smallville alum Anna Galvin) imprisoned on a magic island as part of a larger ploy to cast eternal darkness over the land by freezing the realm’s two suns behind the moon in a permanent double eclipse.
She’s got some surprisingly poignant reasons for being such a party pooper, though it’s worth saving those kind of serious story spoilers to see for yourself. But it's safe to say that Azkadellia isn’t the only guilty party in putting the O.Z. in its sorry dystopian condition, and that there’s a ton of dormant DG family drama that’ll require some memory-jogging flashbacks to fully explain.
At any rate, DG and her little gang eventually are joined by a duster-wearing ex-lawman named Wyatt Cain (aka the series’ titular Tin Man, played by Minority Report and Arrowverse veteran Neal McDonough), along with a hairy leonine fella named Raw (a far less ‘fraidy-cat cognate for the original story’s Cowardly Lion, played with stoic composure by Apocalypto and Riddick actor Raoul Trujillo). With the quartet’s core pieces at last in place, they set off to get some much-needed answers about DG’s destiny from the one guy who’s revered across the whole O.Z. for awing entire audiences with his deep enlightenment.
If that sounds like it might be the wizard, well, it is — only this wizard, known as the Mystic Man, is nowhere close to pulling any levers of power from behind a concealing curtain. Played by Richard Dreyfuss (at his reliably neurotic best) as yet another fallen victim to the queen’s schemes, he’s a mere side-show act who’s slumming it up in a night club in Central City (think of it as the Emerald City’s dreary twin), dosing himself and the blissed-out crowds he attracts with mind-numbing vapors — a kind of recreational drug that Azkadellia concocted to keep her rebellion-minded subjects docile and addicted.
Not in Kansas: How Tin Man Built a New Kind of Oz
Androids, druggy night clubs, and lab-created storms, oh my! As you can probably tell, Tin Man builds a world that warps far beyond its book-based source material when it comes to science fiction. Vibe-wise, the world of the O.Z. comes off as a colorfully pleasant blend of more recent fictional far-out places like His Dark Materials and John Carter… with perhaps a slight, sinister smidge of Altered Carbon thrown in for good measure. It’s the kind of sci-fi environment where people can say things like “brain room, sub-level three!” (where Cain’s missing Scarecrow brains are held hostage in suspended animation), all with nary a cringe from some fuddy-duddy wicked 20th Century witch.
With 2007-vintage special effects (and camera work that’s perhaps informed by the more boxy era of standard-definition TV), Tin Man doesn’t quite add up to the measure of cinematic spectacle that coddles TV viewers at home these days. But no matter the decade, $20 million does buy any well-crafted TV project a certain wallop of big-event grandeur — and though no one today will mistake it for a complete theatrical experience, Tin Man more than lives up to the high-aiming task of bringing Baum’s magical fantasy realm to vividly reimagined life.
The world building is at its best in the smallest details, especially when it comes to character creation and costumes. Tin Man won a 2008 Emmy (after racking up nine total nominations) for best non-prosthetic TV-movie makeup, a feat that’s easy to grasp once you’ve seen the obvious creative care that went into adorning even its most ancillary characters. From carnival dancers to a creepy cave witch to the flying “mobat” minions that serve as this series’ version of Oz’s winged monkeys, it’s a marvel to look at, even when the leisurely story paces by at an unhurried stroll.
Tin Man is also far more mature and, at times, even violent than its ruby-slipperred big-screen predecessor. People get shot, shocked, stabbed, sliced, and bludgeoned to bloody pulps, in between the occasional flurry of four-letter words and mildly racy scenes. The horror moments are sparse but effective when they come; that aforementioned cave witch provides one of the series’ biggest jump scares, alongside some genuinely devastating freaky deeds from the tips of the evil Azkadellia’s magic fingers.
But there’s nothing too seriously scary about Tin Man, which eventually finds its titular missing heart by keeping things (mostly) on the bright side of dark fantasy. Directed by Nick Willing (who’d previously helmed similar TV-event projects including a reimagined Alice in Wonderland and Jason and the Argonauts), it’s a benign dive into Frank Baum’s world that’s unlike any other Oz adaptation out there... with an emerald-hued atmosphere to match its jewel-boutique price tag.
Tin Man is available to stream on Peacock here.