Jon Povill, part 1

Jon Povill got his start in the industry doing construction for Gene Roddenberry. After working with the Star Trek franchise for several years (his work with the aborted 1970s series led to his indirect participation with The Next Generation), Povill served as executive story consultant and producer for the first two seasons of Sliders. In the first of a multi-part interview, Povill recounts the circumstances that led him to Sliders, the story creation process, and a host of other things.

How were you introduced to Sliders? Who approached you about working on the show?

It was something that my agent (at the time) found for me. His pitch was to Tracy Tormé, and it was based in large measure on our shared backgrounds as Star Trek vets, even though we’d worked on Trek at different times and had never met. The thing that actually clinched it, however, was that Jacob [Epstein] and I had worked down the hall from each other while I was working on a feature at Universal a few years earlier and he was working on a pilot — or maybe a short-lived series. I don’t remember the name of his show, but I know that it starred, or was supposed to star, Tim Matheson. My feature, called “Species Unknown” which was an environmentally themed, character driven horror picture set in the rain forests of Borneo, never got made.

But as a result of this earlier contact, Jacob and I were able to be pretty straight with each other and they were in fairly desperate need of a very full rewrite of the Fever episode. Jacob asked me what I thought I could do with it and I described what I thought it needed and told him that, if necessary, I could do a page one rewrite of the full script over the weekend. I think this was on a Thursday and I was hired on Friday and completed the rewrite by Monday morning. Mario Azzopardi called me shortly after reading it to express his utter astonishment at the transformation that had taken place. But, of course, some of the scenes I’d taken out or drastically altered ruffled some feathers and wound up being re-inserted. I can’t say for sure, but I think my 2 1/2 day script was better than what got shot (which still had most of my rewrite in it). It was certainly grittier – the opening scene was dead carcasses on a street being picked up by a trash truck.

As Script Consultant for the first season, what were your duties?

As described above, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite — generally under massive deadline pressure. Even if I wasn’t rewriting on a given script I was still required to read each draft of it and provide notes and ideas. The scripts I remember working on the most were Fever, Eggheads, Last Days, and, of course, Luck of the Draw. I created an absolutely insane and (I thought) very funny game for Eggheads that was way too out there to get used. It took place on a kind of chess board and you scored points by answering questions, but the game threw all kinds of crazy physical distractions at you that you had to dodge while you were trying to answer. I don’t remember how it worked, but there was also some kind of mechanism for “psyching” your opponent. Completely wacko, but great fun — at least for me. One scene I’m proud of that I did in Last Days was the romantic scene between Quinn and Wade. To a great extent the relationship conflicts between them in Luck of the Draw was a continuation of what I’d started in Last Days — though, by that time the mandate was to back off on the their attraction so they could get involved with guest stars.

Did your promotion in the second season lead to more creative control of the show? What did your job as Producer entail?

It was mostly just a change in title. I was essentially doing the same things I’d done the year before but was being bumped up in title (and money) in recognition of good work the previous season. Presumably I had some additional authority with the new title, but in truth I always assume I’m hired to give my honest opinions, and even though that is a politically bonehead approach because I’m way too passionate and outspoken, the upshot is that I’m always acting as though I have authority even when I don’t actually have it.

What did change in the second year was that Jacob became the show runner, and even though there were supervising and co-exec producers above me I pretty much became his right hand man. Which is largely why I lost my job when he did. With respect to creative control, yes, it did increase. There was very little meddling with Obsession — there were notes, but they were minor, and no one else rewrote any part of that script — which was quite rare. Generally everyone got rewritten to some extent.

Why did you depart after the second season? Did you follow the show after you left?

See above. The show had done well in the second season, well enough to be picked up for a full 25 episodes the following year, which was the first time it had been given a full season renewal. We’d all done a pretty good job, and neither the studio nor the network should have been inclined to make any changes. Unfortunately, there was a personal “thing” between Jacob and one of the studio higher-ups and the studio wanted him out. I actually wrote a letter to the exec in question and pointed out that Jacob had done an extraordinary job; that he deserved to be retained and that the show needed him. He was, of course, fired anyway, and there was no way that the new show runner was going to keep the old show runner’s right hand guy around. It still hurt, though. I’d been told, and my agent had been told, that the show was picking up my option and I’d be returning. This meant my agent didn’t try to get me another job and by the time the studio turned around and informed us that they weren’t going to pick up the option after all, staffing for other shows was already filled, so I couldn’t get other work and it was a deep financial blow, as you can imagine.

Accordingly, I was not inclined to follow the show after I left and I have to say I find it gratifying to see that many fans felt the show took a sharp drop in quality between the second and third season. I could be wrong, but I like to think that if Jacob and I had been kept on the third season would have been solid and the show wouldn’t have been canceled on Fox. But we’ll never know, will we?

Three episodes of yours made it to screen. Were there any other pitches/treatments you developed that weren’t produced? If so, would you care to describe them?

There were. Digging through my files, I found some old notes and discovered El Sid began as a tale of two worlds in which a sociopath from a gang dominated world jumps with them to avoid being killed and winds up arriving on an essentially pacifist world where his aggressiveness could either be malignant or could result in him quickly acquiring power and exploiting the meek citizens. The Sliders essentially feel responsible for having unleashed a demon upon a populace with little or no mechanism for coping with it, so they must stop him.

Another episode involved sliding into a world where Wade finds her family and another version of herself living a fairly normal life, manages to get herself accepted by them, and begins to live with them as the twin sister of her other self.

A third had them sliding into a world in which the water was heavily polluted with mercury and people were exhibiting severe symptoms of mercury poisoning — which manifests itself as extremely erratic behavior. (The expression “mad as a hatter” derived from the mercury poisoning that hatters suffered as a result of rubbing mercury into the felt used for hats during the 19th century. No one knew mercury was responsible, but the mercury poisoning made the hatters brains malfunction.) So this was a kind of “Through the Looking Glass” world where virtually everyone behaved in the manner of those at the Mad Tea Party.

One presumed other sliding societies and we crossed wormholes with a bunch of convicts being transported to a penal colony world. Obviously, parts of this became incorporated into “El Sid.” On another note, a second (mostly undeveloped) premise based on other sliding societies had alternate Arturo and Quinn running an interdimensional tourist agency, sending tourists on round trip excursions to alternate earths.

Were you involved with two “lost” episodes — “Twisted Cross” (aka the Nazi episode) or “Beauty World”? Fans have heard that these were commissioned but rejected by the network — any particular reason(s) why?

Nazi World was (I believe) rejected because it wasn’t fresh. It really is a pretty standard/expected road to take for an alternative universe show to take — and considering the pilot dealt with Soviet world and there’d already been an episode where we lost the American Revolution, it seemed reasonable to nix Nazi World.

“Beauty World” had the inherent problem of calling some of your cast ugly in order to create conflict for the episode. It was felt that it would not be wise to go down that road. Perhaps we could have posited a “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” kind of situation in which Arturo would have been considered the hunk of the group — but ultimately we (not the network) felt the best way to handle this was to not handle it. The episode kind of morphed into the Youth World that we did later in season 2.

Do you watch the shows you’ve written? Ever see one on television being repeated and sit a spell?

Nope. I’ve got the DVDs but haven’t looked at them. I recently got into a discussion with my son Andrew about the inherent issues of writing a show like Heroes in which prescience is used to change the course of events. I haven’t watched a full episode of Heroes, but after looking at one of them, Andrew (who wants to be a physicist and understands well the flow of time) came to me pointing out cheats and inconsistencies in that show. I suggested he take a look at Obsession which, I think, does a pretty good job of not cheating in order to complete the circle of the (original) Prime Oracle’s goal. He sets everything into motion in order to ensure that Derek becomes a good Prime Oracle. Andrew hasn’t watched it yet, but when he does I may watch it with him in order to see if he finds any flaws in the time logic. If anyone can, he can.

Of the three episodes you wrote, which is your favorite?

Obsession. Hands down. Largely because I believe it does a very solid job of handling a time loop without cheating the order of the events and the manner in which they unfold. It’s a very tricky business to structure this kind of episode. Furthermore, as I’ve mentioned, it contains my favorite (produced) line of dialog (that I’ve written): “Derek, you can’t force someone to love you, not even God can do that.” Though the line goes entirely unnoticed by most people, the philosophical, psychological and sociological implications of that concept resonate very strongly with me and that line is (to me) my proudest accomplishment thus far in my career.

Other than your own, which Sliders episode did you enjoy the most?

Like most other people, it’s Post Traumatic Slide Syndrome.

Did you rewrite any of the scenes in other episodes? If so, which episodes/scenes have that extra Povill touch?

Yes, quite a few. At this point I can’t remember which ones, but I know I did help a bit on a couple of Nan’s scenes in the above. I helped with The Weaker Sex and with one of Tony and Paul’s episodes (Tony did not like that at all). I fought, to no avail, against Invasion, which I felt took the show in totally the wrong direction (and I think set the precedent for all the excesses that destroyed the show’s credibility in season 3). I also did some work on Tracy’s Wizard of Oz episode. I’m not talking about major work on any of these — just rewriting a scene or two here and there at Jacob’s behest. If I went through the scripts or watched the shows I might be able to remember which scenes they were, but maybe not even then. Keep in mind these things were part of 16 to 18 hour days over a period of months, and everything kind of blurs together after a while.

If the show were being revived, would you be interested in playing a role in the new adventures? Why or why not?

I’d be interested if the intent was to bring the show back to the promise it originally showed. I would have no interest (other than, perhaps, monetary) in simply extending where the show wound up. Perhaps I’m not being fair as I saw very little of the subsequent episodes, but what I did see was eminently forgettable garbage.

When you look back on those two years, what is your fondest memory?

Interestingly, I think it was my trips to Vancouver. I loved being up there and being on set for at least some of the days of my shoots. I’ve always loved Vancouver and it was great to see my pages come to life. It was also great to work with the cast to address how they saw their characters and work at achieving greater emotional resonance between their vision and my lines. Even John Rhys-Davies, who could be a total pain in the ass, often had great insights into possibilities for his character and legitimate complaints about the way he was being portrayed. Because he was often such a pain in the ass — and because many of his complaints and suggestions were not appropriate — most of the staff chose not to listen or respond to him at all, so he appreciated that I was at least willing to listen, even though we certainly had our share of disagreements and full on blow ups. Jerry, Sabrina and Cleavant were all great and very easy to work with. A pleasure.

Did you enjoy working with the staff? Any funny behind-the-scenes stories you’d like to share?

Tracy reminded me a great deal of Gene Roddenberry, and not in a good way. He would no doubt take umbrage to the comparison. They both got some very creative ideas, but neither one of them was (what I would call) a disciplined writer. They both found it hard to tell the difference between their good ideas and their bad ones — and would support both with equal force.

I very much liked Sean Clark from season 1 and was sorry to see him go. I liked Nan. I liked Scott Miller. I liked Steve Brown and I liked Paul Jackson. Tony Blake was kind of a cold fish. We got along, but only because we had to. Didn’t have all that much contact with John Landis. No opinion. Robert K Weiss was spread a little too thin, but he was very capable when you could get his full attention.

Jacob was Jacob. Could be your best buddy. Could be very Machiavellian. He was somewhat paranoid, but I could understand that considering his mindset. Certainly he was a capable showrunner and a good rewriter. I disagreed with his tendency to continue to tinker with the structure of episodes after (in my opinion) they would be better served by polishing for character and emotional resonance rather than experimenting with different plot directions — but different writers will have different approaches. He welcomed criticism and debate far more than most, and even when he got sick of hearing me tell him what was wrong with an approach he’d overrule me and invite me to criticize the next one. So, our relationship was often contentious, but we had good respect for each other. We’re not in touch anymore, but I still think he did a better job with the show than Bob before him or David after him.

Obsessive fans that build huge websites honoring long defunct shows — good or a little unbalanced? :)

I’m a libertarian with respect to that. I have a hard time understanding why they don’t have something better to do with their time, but if something resonates that strongly with them who am I to deny them their passion? I will confess to occasionally lurking on the alt.tv.sliders newsgroup back in the day in order to get a sense of the fan reaction to what we were doing. And I have enough of an ego to have Googled myself from time to time and have seen a few of the web sites. Not bad from an ego perspective but I haven’t visited any of them in the past few years. No time, and looking back at the past is not an effective use of the present unless one needs it in order to solve a current problem. One must move on.