“Strangers and Comrades” was, in my humble opinion, SORT OF a part three to our opening episodes. Not so much because it was directly connected to the first two, but because it focused on plunging Mallory and Diana into, arguably, the worst case sliding scenario — a down and dirty stalemated trench war. The type of experience where death hung heavy in the air and the hope of survival was slim to none. It was a baptism of fire for the newbies. If they survive this they’ve got what it takes, ’cause it’s only going to get better. It also re-directed the arc of the season for Remmy and Maggie, tying up the anti-Kromagg weapon thread.
However, this was not my choice for my first full script assignment of the season. Like our freelancers, we on staff also had to pitch our ideas up the food chain for approval (more on pitching next time). After filtering two ideas through Bill (Dial) and Chris (Black) they were sent up to David (Peckinpah). My first story was set in a Jules Verne Victorian type world. One that had all the stylings of the eighteen hundreds and all the advances of the nineties (solar powered model T’s, old fashioned-looking cellular phones etc.) The story dealt with the Sliders disbanding and Rembrandt being swept up in an eccentric inventor’s dream of traveling into space. My second idea, the back-up story if you will, was this trench warfare thing that I cooked up during my morning drive (which can be considerable when you live in L.A.).
Pitching a period piece is always risky business. But being on staff as opposed to freelancing allows you to take those risks. A “pass” on a story does not mean you are immediately out of a job. I knew going in that anything period translates immediately into escalating expenditures for the requisite costumes, props and so forth. Whether you’re doing Sliders or Star Trek, in television you always write with budget in mind, and ours was considerably smaller this year. This story was passed over. No doubt the episode would have been pricey but I think ultimately David just liked the trench warfare story better. The thumbs up was given and I was instructed to write up the outline for “Baptism of Fire.”
The story, as with any script in progress, underwent many different incarnations. Still intrigued with the idea that the Sliders might encounter intra-group irreconcilable differences, I had them at one point disbanding and fighting an every man for himself type war. That really didn’t work for our characters. The concept of teamwork and friendship is a cornerstone of the show. Another idea centered on Rembrandt becoming swept up in the war, fueled by his all consuming hatred of the Kromaggs. But we had gone to the well a bit to often with that character beat. One concept that I’m still very fond of had all four Sliders dying in the end. As the last of our heroes fall in battle a wormhole opens and four of their duplicates, who are identically dressed, step out. Of course, these are not duplicates but are the real characters who just experienced the same conflict, but survived. The story would have been a character piece that focuses on the wrong choices made by the duplicates and the right choices that lead to our heroes’ survival. Ultimately, that went away in favor of a more All’s Quiet on the Western Front, Red Badge of Courage type story. The episode eventually became “Strangers and Comrades.”
I noted earlier that the Victorian episode would have been pricey. Well, Strangers and Comrades wasn’t exactly cheap. It was also one of our more ambitious episodes of the season. To start things off, if you’re going to do a trench warfare story you need… well… a trench. That probably means you need to dig one. Such was not the case. Our location manager Tony Saenz found one. The trench was on a huge tract of privately owned land in Acton, up in the desert. Apparently, it was created for some World War I project, a commercial we were told, and the landowner left it there. Good for him, he made a few more bucks off it and good for us, it was perfect for our needs. Another area on the property was picked out for the other exteriors and everything else (underground, tent interiors etc.) would be set up on Stage Three.
When preparing a show such as Sliders you find yourself in the midst of all sorts of conversations that to a casual eavesdropper may sound… highly suspect.
Bill Belt (property master): How many M-60 machine guns do you need?
Keith Damron (writer): No more than two or three.
Bill Belt (property master): Okay, and the M-16’s?
Keith Damron (writer): Twenty or thirty I should think. And throw in a few semi-automatic pistols.
Bill Belt (property master): Okay, I’ll see what we can afford.
Had these conversations taken place anywhere in public, I think the ATF would have been hot on my trail. But, then again, this is Hollywood.
Then there was the dinner conversation that took place between my wife and I during pre-production week.
Tonie: So, what did you do today?
Keith: We went shopping.
Tonie: Oh? For what?
Tonie: (A beat) I wish I had your job.
Yes, it can be fun. And we DID go shopping for tanks. Los Angeles supports all sorts of odd businesses whose sole purpose is to provide for the entertainment industry. One such example is WANG’S, where armored trucks, tanks and the like are available for rent. It’s a sort of used car lot for military vehicles. On the day we were “shopping” among the weaponry for our vehicle of choice, I felt like some tyrannical despot intent on making an arms deal for my small Balkan country.
Grand kudos must go out to our staff and crew who definitely rose to the challenge and delivered. Under producer Paul Cajero, all the elements were brought together and placed in the command of director Richard Compton, (who I now affectionately refer to as “The General”). As we (Bill, Chris and myself) sat in the comfort of our offices, watching the daily footage returned from the desert, we were awestruck. The stuff looked great. It didn’t look like TV. It looked like something straight out of a feature.
Bill and I took a trip out to the “battlefield” to see the excitement firsthand. It soon struck me as odd that, despite the dark script, everyone was having a blast (literally and figuratively) especially Cleavant, Robert, and Jerry (Doyle). Then I thought, why not? Make no mistake, putting together a TV show is hard work and cast and crew were really putting out. But at the same time these folks were playing army. Oh… and we did go just a little over budget. In their enthusiasm our cast shot a few thousand extra dollars worth of ammo beyond what was budgeted.
Deep down, I wanted to play too!
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