"You are not my daughter." — the General.
"You don't know how many times I've tried to convince myself of that." — Maggie.
Review by Ibrahim Ng
There’s a moment in the teaser of “The Return of Maggie Beckett” where I’ll forgive the audience if they want to throw in the towel. It’s such a small stupid error that, when compounded with the others we’ve seen this season, could serve as a watershed moment.
The Sliders land on a world where Maggie’s double led a manned mission to Mars thanks to technology upgrades from aliens. (That’s not the error, by the way.) When the return trip from the Red Planet goes awry and kills her and her crew, Maggie’s double becomes a celebrated American icon representing humanity’s spirit of exploration. The gang is astonished to discover a statue commemorating their journey in a nearby park – although the astonishment may be equal parts infodump and prop disaster.
What’s wrong with the statue? When the camera shows us the plaque, it reads Maggie Becket. With one “t.” Moments before and after the title card declares this is “The Return of Maggie Beckett.”
How sloppy and amateur are the crew and prop designers? How hard is it to get a character’s name right when it’s the title of the story and it must be on every page of the script? And even if the prop department made a mistake and there wasn’t money to redo the plaque, couldn’t they have avoided showing it onscreen? Had the characters read it out? Photoshop another “T” on there?
Did they have to show the title instantly after showing the botched plaque? Don’t the creators care at all about visual coherence?
Of course not, it’s the fifth season of Sliders.
That said, if you can move past this testament to obnoxious carelessness, “Beckett” is a very good episode. It features a lovely script from Chris Black, a very talented writer who makes terrific use of the available resources and actors to make the old Sliders magic come alive again. When the Sliders emerge from the vortex and terrify a homeowner (and her cat), the laughing, cheerful interplay between the cast is instantly appealing.
Robert Floyd, Tembi Locke, Kari Wuhrer, and Cleavant Derricks really seem to have a great time together and Black’s script makes it come alive well for the characters. Everyone gets something significant and worthwhile to do; Maggie and Mallory have some fantastic interplay over his sale of her toothbrush to Maggie-collectors, Diana shows her inquisitive nature through a fascinating investigation into this alt-world (Roswell aliens lead to the technology exchange catapulting their space program well past ours) and its embrace of all things Reticulan, and Rembrandt holds the team together by coordinating the effort to find Maggie after she goes missing. It’s nice to see this group of Sliders can click; all they need is to be given meaningful dialogue and worthwhile roles. Who knew?
On one level, this space-program-driven alternate world is very sketchily defined, with the advanced technology from the Reticulans shown as an anti-gravity mail cart and little else. Yet Black’s script accommodates the tight budget by introducing Maggie and Mallory to the Leader (Steve O’Connor), a seemingly-alien looking being who turns out to be more human than he appears. The Leader is a marvelous creation thanks to inspired scripting and a lovely performance from O’Connor; you believe his take on the conspiracy obsessive who suffers from the “problem” of living on an Earth where there are no conspiracies. (Thank you, Adlai Stevenson.)
The Leader is a comical yet strangely tragic figure. He’s an awkwardly self-important man desperate to assert his significance by proving a conspiracy exists involving the death of Maggie Beckett – even if he has to fake the evidence proving it. And it’s through this character Black’s script breathes life into this alternate history, showing how the culture of this world left the Leader and most other conspiracy theorists struggling for a cause. Even Mr. Xybo (Rob LaBelle), curator of the Maggie Beckett museum, gets to show he’s more than a face to deliver exposition.
World-building and characterization aside, much of this episode rests on Kari Wuhrer’s shoulders, and she delivers. Maggie is stunned to discover she’s a national hero, and while the others are delighted, it’s clear this discovery wounds her in some way – although it’s not immediately clear how. Kari excels at showing Maggie putting on a cheery face to hide her discomfort: she throws on sunglasses, smiles too broadly, dashes about with an enthusiasm that’s clearly forced. But when Mallory tries to steal her hair for resale on the collector’s market, Maggie snaps. She tries to strangle him and then gobbles down fried chicken in an attempt to cope.
Maggie’s confrontations with the double of her estranged father, General Thomas Beckett (Winston Rekert), are somewhat generic. The difficulties between them are predictable and don’t connect well to Maggie’s identity as a Slider; we learn the General largely ignored Maggie as a child, she joined the military to win his approval, never received it, and grew bitter. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, except it doesn’t add to our understanding of Maggie’s character.
How did the lack of a father figure result in what she became? In the third season, she was an antagonistic, abrasive bully. With the fourth and fifth seasons, she’s become a milquetoast with a few flares of aggression or brilliance, but ultimately, she’s a generic female heroine defined purely in terms of Kari Wuhrer being appealing and affable. This episode had a chance, through Maggie’s father, to address these disparate, confusing and contradictory portrayals and find some way to unite and deepen them. Instead, Maggie’s father-issues are disappointingly lacking in personal specificity, but that’s not really Chris Black’s fault. It’s because Maggie isn’t really a character, just an excuse to justify Kari’s (admittedly enjoyable) presence on the show.
Nevertheless, Chris Black’s well-considered writing finds a solution to this problem by giving these shop-worn dramas a neat angle. He introduces an identity conflict for Maggie: she’s estranged from her father and angry at him, yet when faced with his double, she relates to him from the position of being his daughter, even if it’s just to demand why he raised her so poorly. She can’t stop seeing the General as her dad even though he’s not and she doesn’t want him to be. Kari’s performance hits every single note in this conflict. This shouldn’t work, but Black’s ability to make the most of very little triumphs in the end and Kari does a very good job.
This is a lovely episode and a wonderful piece of television. Shame about that memorial plaque and it’s a shame Chris Black wasn’t working on Sliders during a production regime that actually cared about quality control.