“The Great Work is next,” I thought. “It’s boring,” I thought.
So I thought I would use this post to talk about the strange behind the scenes stuff that Season Five has swirling around it. Or at least the Year Five Journal. The Year Five Journal is one of those things that changes the longer the show’s been off the air.
Well, let me back up. So Bill Dial is now the ‘showrunner’ for Sliders. In 1999, that term is a little different than it is now, or at least more nebulous. Especially for a show like Sliders, where terms like “professionalism” is basically a swear word. But he’s more or less in charge, now that David Peckinpah has taken a back seat in terms of ideas (he shows up later, in a funny way [and by funny I mean “still sexist and dumb”]). But anyways, Peckinpah is now ambling around the backlot looking for stories to ruin, and Keith Damron, who I have already (have I? I meant to if I haven’t) declared as maybe my least favorite writer the show has ever had, is the “story editor.” So seeing as I absolutely hate “Lipschitz Live,” the fact that its writer is (and has been) looking over and rewriting every single episode this season isn’t really appealing to me. Especially when there isn’t Marc Scott Zicree to make sure the show isn’t a complete disaster. But hey, Sliders never used the writers it should have as much as it needed to. This is also the least interesting thing to say about Sliders.
Anyways, with Season Five, Keith Damron posted blogs (were they still called weblogs then?) after each episode aired called the “Year Five Journal,” where he would talk about cool and funny and interesting little stories about the episode, to give fans an idea of how it is to run a show. To be honest, in that regard, it is interesting. You can tell that there is frustration with the lack of attention the show gets from the network (though he does play nice, for the most part). “The Great Work”‘s entry is all about how spec scripts are submitted, and it is fascinating if you don’t know anything at all about how TV shows are made. But when I said his stories were “cool” “funny” and “interesting?”
I really just mean frustrating, infuriating, and bewildering.
The reason is this: in a few of the entries, including this one, Damron tells us what sort of episodes could have been made instead of what we watched. And literally without fail, the rejected story ideas are more interesting. Every single time, we are teased with a glimpse of an alternate dimension where we are watching a better show. And here’s where time makes this even worse. At the time the show aired, and the Y5J was written, it was an instant disappointment (it also wasn’t assumed you’d read them— I didn’t read them when Season Five was airing, and didn’t for years afterwards). You’d watch the episode, read the post, think “that would’ve been cool,” and move on to be excited about next week’s episode.
But now we’ve had thirteen years to imagine in our minds the teased and unmade episodes. And they’re just so much better, so much more interesting. “Strangers & Comrades” is one of the most upsetting— there we learn that Damron’s original idea was to have a Rembrandt-centric episode where he’s separated from the others on a Victorian World. This is passed over for being too expensive. But the rest of the post is Keith Damron explaining how cool it is that sometimes he gets to go tank shopping. I’m sorry, you went tank shopping? And bought a bunch of guns? And blew up a desert? How is that less expensive? You bought a tank. Maybe don’t buy a fucking tank next time.
Let’s put aside the Y5J for a second, because (despite spending all of the above talking about it) I found myself surprised when watching “The Great Work.” Because here, at long last, I get to do something I haven’t done in a very long time— at least since Season Three. I get to defend a story from it’s reputation. Now, that doesn’t mean that I don’t still agree with this:
Only #Sliders could have an episode where someone plants the entire knowledge of planet Earth onto a CRYSTAL and have it be boring.
— Ian McDuffie (@ianmcduffie) December 5, 2013
But really, it’s certainly less boring than the back half of Season Four. Or like, “State of the Art.” The only real problem with the pacing is the usual one— focusing the episode on a ‘cool battle’ at the end of the episode. The way our attention is tuned, the episode should be called “Volsang Boogie.”
Look, we don’t know what this world was like pre-Volsang Invasion. I don’t think it’s that silly to have them conquer the whole world. I don’t think it’s silly for the Monks to be wary of the Sliders. I don’t think it’s that silly for that dude from Paradise Lost to betray the Monks. I just don’t think this is very silly. I don’t think it’s very boring either. Sure, nothing really happens, but frankly Sliders could use more episodes where the team walks around discovering things. Why is it the norm now for an entire episode to be a gunfight? No, this episode is more like the first two thirds of “As Time Goes By,” or like, all of “In Dino Veritas.” In the rush to remember that the latter is the ‘dinosaur episode,’ it’s often forgotten that the vast majority of the runtime is devoted to people sitting in a cave talking about feelings.
Of course, that brings us to what is actually a problem in this episode, which is that no one talks about anything whatsoever. The paper thin plot of “Dino” set up the episode to have space for the characters to breathe. But were we have a problem that’s starting to stretch out between episodes— what is Rembrandt thinking? What is he feeling? Who is Rembrandt? All he does here is get super suspicious and angry and a little crazy. We haven’t yet sat down with him and had a heart-to-heart. Maggie’s had plenty of tears so far this season. But Rembrandt, in case you forgot (sometimes I start to) is the only original cast member left. He’s been through more than all of these chumps combined. I want to know how he’s feeling. And I don’t. All I see is him yelling at a bunch of strangers who quite frankly don’t deserve it.
The Monks are protecting the most valuable thing in the universe, and Rembrandt treats them like… well, Kromaggs. I know that a lot of episodes have the team in danger from outside forces. But dude, this is a church. Just because it has a curfew doesn’t immediately doom them to being evil and hiding something and MALLORY WE HAVE TO FIGHT THESE MONKS I HATE THEM SO MUCH GRR.
Why? Why is this the go-to? Frankly, I trust the Monks more than I trust the team. And that’s sort of weird. And since we don’t have any scenes with Rembrandt talking about his feelings, we don’t have any reasoning for his suspicious rage. All we have is surmounting evidence that Rembrandt is now a bitter old man who trusts nothing. Which is really very sad. There’s no wonder in his face anymore, which is awful, because what the Monks turn out to be doing is far more interesting than the episode itself even seems to realize.
The Monks are endeavoring to record the entire sum of knowledge on their world and protect it. The Volsangs are barbarians— they have no use for knowledge, they will destroy it. The Monks have committed themselves to a nobel, wonderful act. And the episode just glosses over it, instead throwing in a battle with the Volsangs at the end, the needless sacrifice of the Head Monk, the needless (but completely understandable, actually) betrayal of the dude from Paradise Lost, and some explosions. It also glosses over what is actually completely awesome (at least to an internet art hipster nerd like me)— Diana imprints the entire knowledge of this planet onto a giant crystal. And sure, she doesn’t tell them simple things like “how does one get the information back off the giant crystal.” But it’s still cool. It’s still an interesting idea on a show that is lacking in them.
Frankly, it’s magic. Diana adds magic to the show. She adds magic to the lives of the surviving monks, who set out upon the unknown sea in search of the City of Angels. Which is a surprisingly sweet little moment between two guest characters. Together, these two naive children share between them the magic of intelligence. The knowledge of the world. These two kids are children— they look young, but more importantly, they act young. They carry adolescence with them. The end of innocence in the form of a giant crystal. It’s five seconds of a better episode that actually was thinking about what it was doing, and what it meant.
And, sadly, this is where I have to bring the Year Five Journal back. Because that notion of what this episode could have been hangs over it. Here’s Damron’s paragraph about the original pitch for this episode:
Robert Masello’s original title for his story was “Lindisfarne.” It was based on the historic island of the same name. There ancient monks once labored to preserve the knowledge of mankind for all, much like they did in our story, sans the high-tech wizardry of course. In Robert’s original concept the monks were an order who were gathering not just the knowledge of their world, but the knowledge from many parallel Earths. The monastery was to be a sort of pan-dimensional library at Alexandria. The monks’ mission was to protect this legacy from Kromagg invasion and conquest.
I know that I have complained for so long about how bad the Kromaggs became on the show, or how overused and underthought they were. But I’ve also said that I really like when the show gets way into the whole ‘science thing,’ and shows new applications of sliding technology. Like “World Killer” and it’s Slidewave. Or the “Slidecage.” Those are both interesting ideas that open up (and freshen up) the whole idea of interdimensional travel.
They’re also, however, used as bait for the prevailing cynicism of the show and how it treats technology as this cursed thing that makes you a terrible person. So the idea of a group of people using Sliding for actual good— an interdimensional library— is amazing. It deserves to be on the show. Because it allows sliding to be a thing of hope again, instead of a thing of terror. But it’s not only that— it makes sliding into a thing that preserves hope, that defends it.
The Kromaggs, when they first arrived, were terrifying because they were a great unknown, a force lurking in the Multiverse that threatened the wonder of the journey. Season Four stretched the willing suspension of such an enemy to a ridiculous level. Tracking Device or No, if we actually assume that there are an infinite number of worlds, then there’s really just no fucking way in the universe the Sliders would ever meet the Kromaggs ever again. There they were so tied into the sliders’ lives that they became boring, and not at all threatening. The use of a flaming backlot, again and again, further neutered the danger.
But if they were threatening an archive of the Multiverse’s knowledge? Terrifying. A real threat. A real danger. A real—
—but no. We don’t get that episode. We get an episode that, while not as bad as its reputation, certainly isn’t great. It’s passable, it suffers from the same problems the show has suffered from for years, and it’s over in the same amount of time as any other episode. But, because of a “gift to the fans,” we know to much. We know what could have been. We know that “Strangers & Comrades” could have been better. We know that this episode could have brought hope back into the very nature of the show. We know the sexist bullshit origins of “Easy Slider.” We know why “The Seer” is inane and insulting. We know what “Requiem” could have (and should have) been.
All these options, cast aside. And it all seems like the simple reason is laziness. Like it would have taken too much effort just to make the show interesting, let alone good.
And, even more sadly, I can’t even really blame the show for this. It sounds like it wasn’t very fun to work on Sliders. It was a job, a sort of hard, crap job that no one really thanked you for. It was a job that had to get done. And so they did it. While on one hand, it’s disappointing that it wasn’t a better show. But on the other, it’s nice that they got it made in the first place.
Next Week: I enter the story, a little (New Gods For Old).
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