Brave New Slides

by Joe Nazzaro

Sci-Fi TV #1
October 1998

For three seasons, the alternate Earth drama Sliders has confronted almost every obstacle a genre series could face. There were threats of cancellation, the loss of a lead actor, an increasing number of movie rip offs and most disheartening of all, a network that just never seemed to get this quirky, yet enduring, little show.

That has all changed now, as Sliders return for its fourth season, this time on the Sci-Fi Channel, which stepped in after Fox didn’t renew the series. The new creative team promises viewers that all the really cool stuff is back: biting satire, thought provoking SF ideas and of course, lots of new worlds to explore. A new Slider has joined the show as well.

Executive producer David Peckinpah — the only member of last season’s production to return — initiated the changes by hiring a brand new staff of innovative writers. They are TV veteran Bill Dial, whose numerous credits include WKRP, Simon and Simon and Legend; Chris Black, a prolific freelancer and an alumnus of Weird Science; and Marc Scott Zicree, the Twilight Zone expert who has written for Beauty and the Beast, Beyond Reality, and Babylon 5.

Although most of the staff had at least a passing familiarity with Sliders, they quickly brought themselves up to speed by watching the previous three seasons, examining the show closely and deciding which elements worked and which did not. “The main things I don’t like were from the end of last season,” says Zicree, “where they were doing a lot of episodes that were derivative of movies, so they would have the Jurassic Park episode, or the Island of Dr. Moreau or Twister episodes. The idea of alternate worlds is such a rich venue, why do something we’ve already seen?”

“I had really only seen the show in its first season,” claims Black, “and wasn’t really impressed with it, not that I didn’t think Sliders was ambitious, clever or well-produced, but I was doing comedy at the time. The seriousness of the worlds and the situations they got into was a bit of a turn off for me. It seemed like they were going from one dire world to the next. My feeling was the show could have been a roller coaster ride — a rollicking weekly adventure, and it seemed that every week, they would go to Communism world or Plague world or Nazi world, and I got tired of that. It turned me off to the show.

“One of the things that appealed to me was that David was totally open to doing more fun, upbeat episodes. Ironically, two of the four I wrote this season are quite funny, but the others are the darkest, dourest, most downbeat episodes of the entire season, so go figure how that works out!”

“Also,” adds Zicree, “the characters were very brittle at the last season’s end. They were bitching and sniping at each other, and I felt strongly that the characters should be a family; they should be supporting each other, and while there could be some friction, when it comes down to it, they’re there for each other. So, particularly with the character of Maggie Beckett, we wanted to keep her assertive, but also make her compassionate. I think we’ve succeeded in that.

“We weren’t trying to remake Sliders from the ground up, because there were certain things we all liked very much; the idea of sliding, the alternate worlds and alternate history. In the earlier seasons, we enjoyed the humor and social satire and wanted to bring that back. We thought it had gone too far in the direction of action-adventure, and we wanted more of a balance.”

It was important to create a closer, less confrontational dynamic between their four leads — a dynamic that had changed considerably since first season. Not only had John Rhys-Davies character, Professor Arturo, been killed off in the previous season’s Exodus two-parter and replaced by Maggie Beckett (Kari Wuhrer), the show lost another Slider when Sabrina Lloyd opted to not return as Wade Welles for season four. In order to fill the gap, a new character was created — Quinn Mallory’s (Jerry O’Connell) alternate universe brother Colin — who would be introduced in episode six, Oh, Brother Where Art Thou? In an inspired bit of casting, the character would be played by O’Connell’s real life brother Charlie.

“When I came in, we decided to start with just Maggie and add Colin later,” recalls Dial. “That gave us the chance to re-establish those guys, and to really create a whole new mythology that starts this year. The first episode presents a whole new twist, and a whole new road to go down, so we wanted to spend five episodes establishing that before we brought in the brother. Colin is part of the new mythology, and he comes into play because of what Quinn found out in the first show.”

“David came up with the idea of making Colin’s world non-technological,” says Zicree. “It was a great idea, because for a long time we were thinking, ‘OK, we’re going to have a fourth Slider, how do we make him distinctive?’ We didn’t want two Quinns, so we went back and forth, trying to figure out what to do. Finally, David suggested that Colin was from an agrarian world, and then we knew what to do with him. Then, Bill wrote the script that introduced him and we all had our input. That character added a whole new note to the show.”

“To tell the truth, it was a writer’s self-protective device,” admits Dial. “None of us had worked with Charlie O’Connell before, and we didn’t know what to write for the character, so somebody in the room said, ‘What if we make him Forrest Gump?’ And then we thought, ‘Tom Hanks won an Academy Award for playing that part, so it can’t be easy to play.’ But by discarding the idea of what Charlie could or couldn’t do, we began to talk more about Colin. We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny to add someone to this group who came from such a different place that everything would be brand new to him, and therefore it would also cause all three of our regulars to re-examine things they take for granted?’ So we did.

“Colin basically comes from a world that’s technologically circa 1840, although he is scientifically adept in that world. He’s experimenting with primitive electrical instruments, making a hang glider, so he’s clearly a Mallory in terms of his scientific pursuits. I don’t think he’s a wide-eyed innocent, although in that first episode, he was pretty wide-eyed. When they slide into the next world, they go from 1840 to the middle of a freeway, and his first sight is an 18 wheeler truck bearing down on him — welcome to the new world!”

With Colin now firmly established, the writers still had to deconstruct their other three Sliders. “Everybody had a great affection for John Rhys-Davies and his character,” says Black, “and there was a lot of dismay when he was killed off. Quinn has stepped into that role now. He has really become the new leader of the Sliders. Without having Arturo around to answer all the questions, he’s the one who has to think these things through and come up with the solutions.”

“We built on what was there,” adds Dial. “In the first few seasons, I didn’t think Rembrandt (Cleavant Derricks) Brown was given a lot to do, because they thought, ‘Well, he was an entertainer and a jive talker,’ but he’s not dumb. It seemed like in the first seasons and a little bit in the third, that he was there principally as an exposition device, the guy who said, ‘Gee, what does that mean?’ Well, he can do more than that, and he has, and he has learned a lot.”

The writers paid particular attention to Maggie, who had been introduced late in the previous season. “When I go on the Net, the fans are very down on Maggie,” agrees Zicree, “and I’ve said, ‘Just wait, you’ll really like her this year!’ Kari is wonderful. She’s able to play compassion and humor and all these different sides that they didn’t let her play last year. She’s no longer adversarial, playing this kind of macho stance that was so unattractive. I like strong women characters, and when I look at ways to soften that kind of edge, I don’t make the character weak; I simply make her more rounded and human, and that’s the answer with that kind of character.”

“The thing about Kari,” adds Black, “is she’s funny and charming. When you see her laugh on screen, her face just lights up. She also has a very infectious laugh. If you look at the first few episodes where she was introduced, she was this scowling, tough, military commander, and I don’t think it was a good part for her. She played it well, but I would much rather see Kari smile and laugh. When you make her part of the team, you see there’s greater chemistry. There’s a difference between being light and having an upbeat personality, and being stupid. She’s not stupid at all. She’s very smart, and we’ve written some smart, fun stuff for her — ‘Slide By Wire,’ for example, features her prominently. She doesn’t need to be a hard ass, and I think when she was first introduced to the show, her character was being drawn as a hard ass. It put her in conflict, not only with Wade but will all of them, and people reacted negatively to that.”

Another major complaint among longtime Sliders fans is that the show’s mythology elements — many of which were introduced by series creator Tracy Tormé — were either ignored in later episodes or simply forgotten. It’s an area the current team is quite keen to re-explore. In fact, the mythology will play an important part in the current season.

“When I went back and started looking at the previous episodes,” Dial recalls, “I began to get confused about what the rules were. I discovered a very strange thing that was fairly casually mentioned; if they don’t make a slide by a certain time, they’re stuck where-ever they are for [29] years. There was never any explanation for that until we discovered via the Internet that that particular quantum phenomenon was explained by Professor Arturo in the first season, but that the page had been cut from the script. So there is, in fact, an explanation for why they stay in a place for [29] years, but it was never shot.”

“We’ve also brought the Kromaggs back,” notes Zicree. That’s the race of monstrous, other dimensional Sliders introduced in second season’s “Invasion.” They were characters that Tracy created that were offshoots of human ancestors, and we thought they were very good adversaries. I didn’t like their uniforms, and there were certain things that I thought were kind of geeky about them, but we’ve been able to address that. The whole idea of an offshoot race that’s more intelligent and more ruthless than man is very interesting, so we brought them back as our villains. They’re in a number of episodes, maybe a quarter, and that gives us something to play against.”

“If you look at some of the great franchises like Star Trek,” offers Black, “part of what makes that universe so interesting is the great variety of alien races they introduce, going all the way back to the original show with the Vulcans, the Klingons, and the Romulans. The Kromaggs are going to be our Klingons, and as the Klingons evolved from being these two dimensional nasties, to being a really interesting addition to Star Trek, with their own culture and mythology, we’re going to try and do the same thing. We latched onto what Tracy brought in as a cool idea and said, ‘Let’s run with it.'”

One of Tormé’s other cool ideas was using Sliders as a springboard for broad social satire, although later episodes began to sacrifice humorous elements in favor of action-adventure. “We’re going back to that, because this show provides a great opportunity for satire,” says Dial. “We’re going into one world, for example, where California is an independent nation. Its President is Charlton Heston, who goes out on a political limb by saying the people in Santa Monica don’t have to carry firearms if they don’t want to, strange as it may seem to those of us who wouldn’t think of leaving the house without a gun.

“We have many little, off kilter things, like a TV show in an alternative world, called ‘Touched by a Ranger,’ and Rembrandt referring to somebody in one episode as ‘the artist formerly known as Elvis.’ We’re trying to take more advantage of those things.

“There was scene that I had written for ‘World Killer‘ that unfortunately got cut for time,” recalls Zicree. “I had these two nuns who were duplicates of each other because they were from two worlds that had been fused together. One nun wears a stone around her neck. Rembrandt asks, ‘Why do you wear that rock around your neck?’ and she says, ‘That’s how our Lord died, crushed under stones.’ It’s a little throwaway line, but it suggests a whole world of possibilities.

“Many of them are in jokes that the people who get them might enjoy, but won’t really affect those who don’t get them,” claims Dial. “In one story, the Sliders wind up on a world where the theater marquee behind them says the movie that’s playing is The Man Who Would Be King, starring Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart. The joke is that for many years, John Huston wanted to make that movie, with that cast, but was never able to do it. But apparently, on that world, he was. We were told all along that audiences enjoyed the little differences, like the world in the pilot where red means go and green means stop — there are many things like that.”

Although half of this season’s episodes were written in-house, the producers have tried to bring in as many outside writers as possible. In the future, Zicree hopes to expand that circle to include some of the major writers in the genre. “One of the things I did was to go to the last World Con and talk to some SF novelists to see if they wanted to write for us. I talked to Harry Turtledove (noted for his alternate history works), who was under deadline pressure, but if we get another season, he’ll definitely come in to pitch. I also talked with Kim Stanley Robinson, Joe Halderman, Lois McMaster Bujold, David Gerrold and Dorothy Fontana, as well as Richard Manning, who wrote for The Next Generation and has now written for us. Lowell Cunningham, who created Men In Black, would also love to write for us.”

If the producers are already talking about another season, it’s probably due to the enthusiasm shown by the Sci-Fi Channel. “They’re been terrific!” declares Dial without reservation. “I’ve had every experience from A to Z in terms of what networks do, and these guys have been super. They’ve been supportive right from the beginning — endorsing David’s overall idea and providing notes that have been especially helpful. I’ve never had an adversarial relationship with a network; I always look at the notes and think of them as coming from the first audience, and we need that outside look.”

Should a fifth season of Sliders become a reality, the show’s writing staff hopes they’ll be able to re-assemble their winning team. According to Black, “Marc has a genius for coming up with nuggets of really cool story ideas. He’s the one who has spawned many of the shows we did this season; he’ll just come in and say, ‘Hey, how about something like this?’ and it will often spin off into something Bill or I or one of our free lancers might wind up writing. He has been the genesis of many of the great ideas this season.”

“I’m kind of the grey beard here,” jokes Bill Dial. “Chris is a very funny, talented writer and Marc is a talented writer with a big SF background. Marc is the guy we count on when we’re talking about stories to say, ‘They did that in the third year of ‘The Outer Limits.’ He keeps us on track. I define my role as the history professor. I’m the guy who can speculate on what would happen if the South had won the Civil War, so that has been my function.”

If it’s not obvious already, the Sliders crew has enjoyed working on the current season, and they hope that enjoyment will be felt by the viewers as well. “It’s a good, fun, solid dramatic adventure show,” declares Chris Black. “I think the fans we have, the SF fans who watched the show on Fox and watch the Sci-Fi Channel, will give us a chance. There’s also a large group of people out there who don’t consider themselves SF fans. They think it’s aliens, ray guns and space ships, which is certainly part of it, but they have to see that Sliders is also a good hour of television, with strong, fun characters, really terrific actors and solid scripts.”

“The quality of this year’s episodes,” says Marc Scott Zicree, “is very strong in structure. The concepts and production values are quite solid and the characters are cooking. We’ve really rehabilitated this show, and I think the fans are going to like it.”

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