Altered Slides

by Joe Nazzaro

Starlog #233
December 1996

A world where magic is commonplace. An Earth where time runs backwards. A reality in which dinosaurs managed to survive – albeit in well-protected wildlife sanctuaries. Those are only a few of the alternate realities postulated in the quirky SF series Sliders which follows a quartet of dimension-hopping adventurers traveling from one alternate Earth to another in an attempt to return home.

To the delight of loyal viewers, Fox renewed the series once again. “After the first season, it was really dicey as to whether we would be back,” notes creator Tracy Tormé, a veteran of such diverse series as Saturday Night Live and Star Trek: The Next Generation. “The show was already listed as canceled by many people, which was not accurate, but we managed to come back from the dead that first season. With the second season, we were relatively confident that we would return. Our numbers, especially in the 18-49 demographics, were actually winning the night against the other networks.”

And now, the Sliders have expanded their dimension-hopping activities beyond the San Francisco area. The first two seasons were shot in Vancouver, which doubled for San Francisco, but the production has moved to Los Angeles, which means changes. “We have some new rules in the show. From now on, the Sliders can land anywhere in a 400-mile radius between LA and San Francisco,” Tormé explains. “There’s a reason in a story why that happens an alteration made to the timer by a villainous person. It’s not just because suddenly in LA, or we’re trying make LA look like San Francisco, in order to meet their doubles. There is a need to be in San Francisco from time to time, so two-thirds of the stories will probably take place in LA and the rest somewhere in between.”

Alternate Attitudes

One element of Sliders that won’t change is its quartet of cast members. Back for a third season are Jerry O’Connell as whiz-kid Quinn Mallory, John Rhys-Davies as his mentor Professor Maximillian Arturo, Sabrina Lloyd as Wade Welles and Cleavant Derricks as Rembrandt Brown. Davies, the most vociferous member the foursome, had some dissatisfaction with his role, but Tormé notes that all the Sliders have signed on for a full season.

“John is sort of like John McEnroe: I think he thrives on being unhappy,” says Tormé. “He uses it in his work, and we were warned before he came here that he had walked off The Untouchables, and there were always going to be problems. We’ve had our share of problems with John, but we’ve tried to listen to any complaints he’s had. Some of his complaints have merit, and some of them have absolutely none.

“As far as the ones that are justified, he had many of the same frustrations toward certain things that I did, but they were all network decisions,” Tormé explains. “John wanted to do much heavier SF-laden stories, and so did I; but that was something Fox resisted. We finally did an episode called Invasion that had a lot of SF in it, but that was only by my going to the network head and saying, ‘Please let me do this, because I’ve been stopped from doing it for a year.’ That was John’s favorite show; he wrote letters to everybody saying, ‘This is what we should be doing.’ So I agree with some of his concerns, but he doesn’t understand that it’s not always our call. Sometimes we’re just forced to do things because the network is the network.”

Tormé agrees when it’s suggested that it’s better to have an actor who feels strongly about his role, as opposed to not caring at all. “From that aspect, it’s valid that John’s concerned about the show’s direction. But at times he can also be a very disruptive force, and affect the other actors adversely by not really being there to support them for their scenes. Every show goes through problems like that, but the only ones we’ve had were with John. We’ve never had a single problem with any of the other three actors, so we’ll see. John says he’s very happy to be back, and I personally like his work very much, so it would have been sad to lose the character.”

While familiar faces will continue to pop up, the move to Los Angeles means a new group of recurring characters and several standing sets. “There’s a new hotel, and a bar called the Last Chance Bar. There’s also a new character I created called Elston Diggs a bartender on every world. He’s like a chameleon, changing world to world. There are probably half-a-dozen characters that our real fans will remember from the pilot that we’ve used on occasion: the eternal Russian cab driver, Bennish the deadhead physicist, Ross J. Kelly the shyster lawyer, and of course, Quinn’s mother. Three of them are played by Canadian actors, so it’s a little tricky now to bring them down to LA.

“Bennish still has a lot of popularity and we wanted to use him more, but the network made us take him out of scripts,” Tormé says. “We’ll probably try to bring him back a few times this year. Part of the fun of our show is seeing characters from our world in different guises on different worlds. So far, Bennish has been a deadhead physicist who builds an atom bomb, a right-wing Republican and a prisoner of the Kromaggs; this guy has been a lot of people.”

Changing Resolutions

One of Tormé’s biggest obstacles to overcome when Sliders returned for its second season was resolving the cliffhanger from Luck of the Draw[/permalink”, in which Quinn is badly wounded as the group slides into the next world. While some fans may have been disappointed with the resolution, as seen in the teaser of [permalink href=10]Into the Mystic, Tormé explains the behind-the-scenes battles.

“That was a terrible experience,” he recalls. “What happened in a nutshell was the network had concluded that no one would care about the cliffhanger, because we had been off the air for a year, so let’s just pretend it didn’t happen, that we hadn’t left our main character in a pool of blood.

“Then, they said maybe we could just make a reference, like, ‘It’s a good thing that bullet didn’t catch your heart!’ and move on. But again, I said, ‘Look, we’ve taken someone with us, a new Slider, and Wade has a relationship with him, Quinn’s lying in a pool of blood-you have to be kidding!’ This was one area where I said, ‘I cannot give in, this is where I have to draw my line in the sand.’

“Ultimately, the compromise was, if I could answer all of it in a teaser, I could do what I wanted. I wrote a six-page funeral scene for Into the Mystic, which turns out to be a dream, and everything is tied up and explained. Then, Fox went back on a promise they made and said, ‘We can’t guarantee that “Into the Mystic” is going first, because it’s an untypical episode, so you have to take that teaser out, because it locks this episode into going first.’ I wrote a brand new teaser, with the Sliders trying to order a hamburger on a world where everyone’s a lawyer, and attached that to Into the Mystic.

“Later on, Fox said, ‘We are going to run Into the Mystic first,’ so I said, ‘Well, then you have to let us pay off the cliffhanger.’ By this time the episode was already timed, and the scene on Lawyer World was two minutes and 39 seconds, while the original scene at the funeral was about six minutes. So, I pulled the lawyer scene to use in a later episode, and wrote two and a half minutes that would still maintain what I wanted to do.

“Given those parameters, we did pretty well, but I was sure our regular viewers would think that we just tossed it away, which I can understand, but that’s not what happened. The network maintains the right to run the shows in any sequence they want. We ended the last season on a cliffhanger with Invasion, but there was one show they didn’t like and pushed it back, so we actually had a cliffhanger and then another episode.”

Series Shifts

Despite the compromises, Tormé generally feels that Sliders has remained fresh. With the second season behind him, he’s able to look back as objectively as possible at what worked and what didn’t.

Gillian of the Spirits was a prototypical show,” he recalls. “We had a ’50s world where no one had technology and I think we pulled it off. It was done very nicely and the girl gave a really good performance. There was a lot of emotion in that show, and we also brought Quinn’s father back, which is something I had wanted to do.

“I thought Love Gods was fun, in a light sort of way, with men being the studs of that world,” Tormé continues. “The Good, the Bad and the Wealthy was a show we just didn’t pull off that well production-wise. Was it a Western world or a modern world? The idea of corporate gunslingers looked really good on paper, but it just didn’t work as well as we had planned.

El Sid was one of our more popular shows, but it moved a bit slowly. It was essentially two-thirds of an episode stretched into a full story. We got good performances from our guest actors, and I guess people dug the earthquakes. They liked it a little more than I did.

“I had some problems with Time Again and World, which really didn’t work for me. It also suffered from being the first show we shot last year, and there were still a lot of bugs in the production. Anyone who wants to look carefully can find some pretty blatant continuity errors, the result of not having our act together yet,” Tormé admits. “We had the same problem in the first season with Summer of Love, and the network actually turned on the director, which really wasn’t fair.”

Dinosaurs walked the Earth for In Dino Veritas which was “designed to be a money-saving bottle show. People think dinosaurs and big money, and that episode was immensely popular, but the original idea was to trap everyone in a cave and do a character show. Jerry was shooting a movie [Jerry Maguire] with Tom Cruise when we shot that episode, and that’s why Quinn disappears early in the story and comes back at the very end.

“The idea of Rembrandt and the psychiatrist was an old idea of mine that I wanted to for a long time, and the idea of them being home but not really being home. I was almost finished with the outline when I suddenly got permission to do Invasion, so I jumped off that story and started ‘Invasion.’ I later did the rewrite on Post Traumatic Slide Syndrome as well as working very hard in the editing room on it, so even though I’m uncredited, it feels like my show. It’s definitely one of our best.

“I had a lot of fun with Greatfellas, which turned out much better than I thought would. It was great to work my dad [legendary singer Mel Tormé], and I wrote some music for him, a little country and western song. The whole concept of casting him as everything he hates–country and western music, drinking, Bible thumping-and to turn him into a character who keeps wanting to get back to his ranch in Nashville; I got a great kick out of that. My wife also has a cameo, as a bridesmaid at the beginning, so that show was very close to me.

The Young and the Relentless was another show we had problems with. It was the last episode we did, and the crew was a little burned out by that time. We had the idea of creating a world where youth is in charge, and came up with a silly idea for why that happened; that Howard Stern or Amy Carter became President,” Tormé acknowledges. “What saved it is the odyssey that Arturo and Rembrandt go on, where they run afoul of this youth culture, and get this Tiffany-esque lawyer and Generation X judge; I got a big kick out of that. It was also fun to see Wade’s double as such an evil manipulator. Those are the saving graces, but I didn’t think it was one of our better efforts.

“To me, Obsession is middle-of-the-road. We really hadn’t done any strong Sabrina Lloyd shows and wanted a very powerful story. It was fun seeing Isaac Hayes in it, and I thought the ending was clever, the way we got out of the whole situation. The show was really more for our female fans; a romance novel-type show. Not one of my personal favorites, but solid.

As Times Go By is the one they actually ran last. Steve Brown is a brilliant writer who based the episode on some theories of Stephen Hawking, about time running backwards. It was funny, because Steve always completely understood the concept — none of us did — and he sounded so convincing when he talked about it that we all said, ‘OK,'” Tormé laughs. “It was a show the network never really understood, but I ended up liking it because it’s the same woman on three different worlds, and Quinn has three different shots at it. He thinks he’s going to set it right and be with her, but something goes wrong each time. It was a bit surrealistic, with the Sliders going backwards in time while the world was going forwards, a kind of trippy concept. When I saw some feedback on the Internet, a good percentage of people couldn’t figure out what was going on while others thought it was one of our most bizarre episodes.”

Revised Plans

Notes Tormé, “Invasion came about after a one-on-one meeting with John Matoian, then the head of Fox. I wanted to clear a few things up because I had gained a reputation as being ‘difficult’ when I wouldn’t take no for an answer on the cliffhanger, so I wanted to make sure that he knew where I was coming from. I told him I wanted to create this villain, and wanted to do something more science fictiony, and all the reasons why, and John said, ‘Great, do it; why wouldn’t you do it?’ I said, ‘Well, because they’ve been stopping me,’ so he overruled the people working under him.

Invasion was an important show for a number of reasons. Number one being, no one was sure we could pull it off. We were having trouble doing straightforward shows and meeting our budgets. So to do a show with an alien invasion, spaceships crashing and going to a prison planet; there were many people who felt we couldn’t do it. At the same time, I wanted to give the fans something special. They had wanted to see Bennish all year, and Fox wouldn’t let me use him, so I put him in a prison and didn’t give him a name, and took his eyes out.

“I also worked a lot longer on the sound editing and in the editing room than on any other show. It has a lot more layers, and in fact, we were nominated for an Emmy for the sound–our first. For all those reasons, plus the idea of setting up something in the future-an enemy that could return — it felt like the most important show we had done since the pilot.”

Ironically, Fox had always been against an alien invasion episode of Sliders, but sister film studio 20th Century Fox’s success with Independence Day could make that a moot point. “The classic example is a show we had in the first season called Fever. They were very down on it, but when Outbreak did really well, they suddenly decided that ‘Fever’ would be our first show of the year, so they’re definitely influenced by things like that. It would have been 100 times easier to pitch Invasion after Independence Day.”

That said, Tormé already has a follow-up in mind, which he hopes to do some time this season. “I have a very trippy, surrealistic show in mind involving the Kromaggs. It wouldn’t be us landing in the middle of another invasion; it would start in a way that you wouldn’t know it was a Kromagg show.”

While the third season may well be the breakout year for the series, Tormé isn’t sure he’ll be around for the duration. In order to keep Sliders up and running, he recently abandoned work on a new film adaptation of Richard Matheson’s classic SF novel I Am Legend, while other projects have been put on hold. They include a series for HBO called Dark City that Tormé likens to “film noir meets The Prisoner” (it’s no relation to the Alex Proyas movie, Dark City, now in production) and The Others, which he simply describes as “out there.”

Signed for the first 13 episodes, Tormé may then move on “because there are other projects waiting for me. The thing with Sliders is, I was never sure it wouldn’t be our last season. The first two seasons seemed like they were going to be the last, so thought, ‘OK, I’ll do the 10, 13 whatever. ‘Now, to leave when we’ve finally moved back to my hometown to do 25 episodes would seem crazy, so I’m going to see how we do with the first 13 and then we’ll decide. At the very worst, they’ll keep me on as a consultant for the life of the show.”

In the meantime, Tracy Tormé is devoting all his energies into making the latest season of Sliders the best he possibly can. “The morale has always been high on the show,” he enthuses, “but right now, it’s as high as it has ever been. We’ve seen signs of how much people like the show, more than simply in terms of a cult status. They seem more familiar with what we’re doing, and taking us more seriously than when we were a midseason show twice in a row. There’s tangible evidence of that now, and that has lifted everyone’s spirits. We’re all over the place internationally, and that’s cool too.”

‘Summer of Love

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