Lost in Place

by Amanda J. Finch

Sci-Fi Universe #16
June 1996

Back in the prime-time line-up after a lengthy hiatus, Sliders stands alone in the TV universe. There are no ranks, salutes, sleek ships or snappy dress uniforms. Sliding isn’t a government secret, and no elite, specially trained task force carries out orders and fights crime. No treaties, directives or code of ethics guide their way. Basically, a random group of people fell into a hole. It’s Alice through the looking glass, a doorway discovered at the back of the wardrobe. It’s the coolest science project since Anthony Michael Hall put a bra on his head and brought a Barbie doll to life.

Jerry O’Connell (My Secret Identity) plays Quinn Mallory, a genius who accidentally discovers the gateway to alternate realities. A big sci-fi fan himself, O’Connell was intrigued by the premise of Sliders. “The first time I picked up the pilot, I didn’t find myself looking at the project thinking of myself as an actor. I read it as a viewer. I really got into it. I think it sparks everybody’s imagination. People say, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if they went to a world like this…'”

Sliders rewrites history, asking “What if…” and offering the possibilities in a bizarre collection of worlds ranging from a Communist North America to an Earth frozen in a new Ice Age. What if George Washington died during the Revolutionary War? What if women were the dominant sex? What if people got as excited about academics as they do about sports?

Quinn is joined on his journey by beautiful computer expert Wade Welles (Sabrina Lloyd), physics professor Maximillian Arturo (John Rhys-Davies) and R&B singer Rembrandt “Crying Man” Brown.

While Wade and Arturo are willing participants, Rembrandt is pulled into the wormhole by accident. In the pilot to the series, a mishap in the initial slide leaves the motley crew lost in unreality, unable to pinpoint the world they call home. Their only option is to keep sliding until they find the world in which they started.

After a brief nine episode run in the spring of 1995, Sliders went into limbo, making way for other Fox sci-fi offerings like Space: Above and Beyond and Strange Luck. A surprisingly vocal contingent of fans deluged the network with letters urging the show’s return, and “the suits” listened. As the new Fox series face an indefinite future, Sliders finds itself occupying the choice time slot directly before X-Files on Friday nights and filling an order for thirteen more episodes.

As a mid-season replacement, the young show won’t be competing with 50 other new offerings and perhaps stands a better chance of garnering the following it deserves.

“I kept getting told that there was a very big chance that we would get picked up for mid-season,” the exuberant Lloyd admits. “I was always really optimistic and people kept warning me, ‘Don’t get your hopes up too much till we find out.’ Part of me believed it was going to come back, but I wasn’t sure.”

Series creator and executive producer Tracy Tormé, a veteran of Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s first two seasons, explains his theory behind the premise: “Let’s say there are a hundred Earths. Maybe on 20 of them, you can’t exist at all. On 40 to 50 of them, you are the same person except for a few minor changes. Only in the other few worlds are you a fundamentally different person: maybe you’re more violent or a serial killer or a baseball star. All of these changes, though, are based on some beliefs you have in this world. Some things will never change. if you hate broccoli here, you probably hate broccoli everywhere.”

The show’s first season was marked by a tight budget, Tormé notes. “I think the show looks a lot better this year. I think we have an amazing cinematographer, and we’ve been real careful to give the show a better look. And last year, we really almost didn’t have a writing staff. We had three executive producers that didn’t write. We found that freelancers had difficulty in grasping the tone, and so every time we used a freelancer, we ended up with massive and hurried rewrites. This year, we’ve got a really good staff together. It’s a varied staff, not a sci-fi staff so to speak, although there are a couple of people who are really good with sci-fi.”

Tormé’s diverse writing background could explain the fresh feeling of the show. Before he took a staff position with Star Trek: The Next Generation, he worked for several years writing comedy for shows like SCTV and Saturday Night Live: “I didn’t realize it when were first created the show, but Sliders was an excuse almost to go back to my comedy days. A lot of the shows last year had the comedy inserts–the big rap song, the infomercial–and I would treat it almost like sketch writing.”

For a world devoted to academics, the writers composed a song in which the rappers expounded upon the joys of going to the library. The video was produced so believably that many viewers assumed it was simply a public service announcement promoting literacy. They didn’t realize it was a part of the episode until the camera pulled back to reveal Wade watching the video on MTV.

The humor makes the show fun for the cast as well. Lloyd and O’Connell both claim a great closeness within the tight group. Sabrina is effusive about her co-stars as well as her status as the only female regular. “I’m spoiled rotten. I get all the attention, and I love it. I think I’m the luckiest girl in the world. I’ve got three great guys, you know? When one of them gets sick of me, I go to the other one. Three good-looking, wonderful, talented great guys: what more could a girl ask for? They’re like the three brothers I never had.

“All we do is play on the set. It actually sometimes gets a little hard, because we’ve become so close and we joke so much that I find it very difficult when we have a serious scene to look into their eyes. We always start cracking up! Sometimes we’ll do scenes and it’s really funny, because you’ll notice that we’re all staring at the floor.”

“They are the best and I’m not crapping you,” enthuses Cleavant Derricks, the “Crying Man” on the series’ Vancouver-based location. “I’m not just saying it to be nice. I think 90% of your casting is real important to your project and it’s going to pretty much make or break your project. These are four people who don’t come from the same walk of life; I wouldn’t hang out with Jerry or Sabrina per se and John [Rhys-Davies] is on another planet. He’s very intellectual, like a library. So we not only don’t fit together as characters, but as people. What brings us together is that we are actors and we’re a zany bunch of people absolutely outrageous-but at the same time we’re open and giving. We joke, we tease, we play a lot together. We want to have fun together. The last time I had it this good on a project was with Dreamgirls.”

Sliders‘ lighthearted touch often masks more serious concerns. O’Connell, who recently completed filming on the urban fairy tale Joe’s Apartment, explains, ‘I think that science fiction is a separate medium and a way to tell a story that other forms of television can’t do. I think we can really not only in a show on Sliders but in all science fiction shows-talk about society without really pointing the finger at anyone, but at the same time making serious social statements. And that’s another thing about Sliders that I really liked. It’s a very socially conscious show.”

Despite the show’s social consciousness, fans aren’t exactly certain of the political leanings of the show. Tormé could not be more delighted. “I’m not that familiar with the Internet, but people would send me stacks of stuff,” Tormé says. “It would amuse me, because whenever we got into politics, there were three groups of people that would come on to the Internet. One was absolutely positive we were left-wingers and were constantly making fun of the right. One was sure we were right-wingers. And then the ones that really delight me are the ones whose political correctness quotient is really kind of disturbed by the show. That made me more happy than anything.”

The show has taken on the royal family, People’s Court, the French and Rush Limbaugh, but Sliders makes social commentary without losing its sense of humor. In the beginning, some network execs were leery, unsure of how mixing science fiction and comedy would be received by the public.

At the show’s inception, Tormé and co-executive producer Bob Weiss discussed everything from a black comedy to an animated series. “We considered a lot of things,” says Tormé. “Then it came down to choosing between straight forward sci-fi and comedy and one day Bob just said, ‘Let’s do both.’ And I remember thinking that if we tell anyone we’re going to do both, we’ll never sell this show.”

When it came time to pitch the show, the satirical elements were played down. “The People’s Court segment in the pilot the network just really didn’t think was going to work,” says Tormé. “They didn’t want to do it; they thought it was too silly. They thought it was going to change the tone. I fought like hell for that, and I think that once that became one of our more popular things in the pilot, they began to say that, ‘Yes, we can incorporate this stuff into different shows.’ Now I think we’ve reached the point where they want to do that even more than we’re doing it.”

Tormé points out that a first season is always the time for a show to feel its way, find its niche and develop its characters. “There are a few things that we learned to be very careful about. Overuse of doubles is something that we don’t like, and that’s been the rule almost from the beginning,” says Tormé. “If you’re going to meet your double then there’s got to be a really good reason for it. We don’t want that to be a crutch that we fall into every week. It’s a really interesting concept, as long as you use it sparingly.”

In the pilot, Quinn’s double comes through the wormhole to explain the nature of sliding to him. He’s shocked to learn that his counterpart is married. When Wade meets her double, she’s leading a revolution. Based upon that experience, Wade becomes a stronger character, and in that instance, Tormé says, the gimmick is justified. This year, he promises, we’ll get to know a lot more about the four sliders and see them take twists and turns that could never be done on Star Trek.

“I think we’re purposely trying to not have any pattern that people can follow,” he adds. “We’ve established that any of our characters could be killed or could be replaced by their doubles. A couple of our characters could turn evil. My complaint about Star Trek, especially in the first two years was that everyone always agreed about everything. You had this Klingon on board and he was like a big teddy bear, and there was the Captain surrendering every time anybody showed up and everybody always agreeing. I’m more interested in shows myself where the viewer is not really sure what could happen.”

In order to keep the viewers guessing, Tormé and the series writers are planning unexpected twists for
the characters. Arturo’s darker side will be revealed and Rembrandt, who has bordered on the cartoonish up to this
point, will take a more toned-down, straight forward turn.

Says Cleavant Derricks, “Rembrandt is a survivor. He really believed that he was going to make a comeback. Although his singing the national anthem at the baseball stadium was not going to be that great, in reality, we look at it and brush it right off. But to him, in his mind, it is bigger than life. I think when you have a person who believes in himself that much, you’re going to see it spread out into other avenues when you travel to different worlds. You’re going to see him become a stronger person and a stronger character.”

As the hero, Quinn’s path remains pretty straight, but some of the biggest changes are in store for Wade. The former love struck puppy turns activist.

Lloyd is delighted with the changes. “We got together, the writers and I, before the season to really talk about Wade, because I felt that Wade was the least developed character last season. It was very important to me that she be strong, that we have a strong understanding of who she was. They really wanted my input, and the writing has reflected it so much.

“I think they’ve really got a grasp now. Arturo comes from such a right-wing, male chauvinist point of view. I really felt that it was strong to have a balance to that. Wade is the real liberal, left-wing person of the group. Arturo says black, she says white. She has a strong moral value; she’s the one that’s a little bit of an activist. I really think of her as a humanitarian.”

Counters John Rhys-Davies, who essays the role of Professor Maximillian Arturo, “He’s a man of intellect, on the surface rather cold. But he’s passionate about ideas and an articulate man. So it’s funny to put a man like that into a situation where suddenly you’ve got to cope with a completely alien world. It brings out his innate conservatism.”

Another element of the show that will be less pervasive in the future is the “will they-or-won’t-they” elements of the relationship between Wade and Quinn which provided a decidedly Moonlighting-esque flavor to certain episodes of the first season. Everyone is happy to see the romance cooled off slightly this season. None more so than Sabrina Lloyd who was in favor of burying the relationship, or at least shifting it to the back burner.

“I think, for me, that this constant thing between her and him was what was really hindering us from knowing Wade,” she says. “I think it was very important to break her away from that relationship and develop her as a character. And then, once that happens, perhaps we’ll see a little bit more of the two of them together.”

Tormé agrees, “They’re both in denial. There’s definitely an attraction there, and when the world was coming to an end, they were about to finally say, ‘who cares’ and the Professor interfered with them. One thing you’ll see that we always play is that when there’s another person involved, the other one does get very jealous.”

Wade enjoyed a brief romance in Prince of Wails, and even brought a beau with her through the wormhole in the season finale, Luck of the Draw.

“Once that happens, do they become totally romantic, where do you go from there?” Tormé asks. “Then they’ll start bickering, and maybe we’ll see that in the third season. But I would say that there’s definitely still a very strong attraction there that they would both deny.”

In every discussion of the show’s future, the cast is quick to point to Tormé as the mastermind and the visionary. The talented producer and writer has a clear-cut idea about exactly what he expects from his brainchild. “The type of science fiction that appeals to me is real science fiction,’ says Tormé. “If I’m watching something and I believe in the reality of it and then it has a fantastic element to it, that’s the best thing there is. Like the first two Alien movies or the first two Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

John Rhys-Davies, who essays the role of Professor Maximillian Arturo, agrees. “I’m addicted to science fiction. I used to read four or five a day; Heinlein, Bradbury. My one great dream is to make a film of A Canticle for Leibowitz.”

“I’m not a real big fan of the Star Wars movies,” says Tormé. “For me, they’re nice and they’re entertaining, but 100 bad guys could be standing there shooting at you and they’ll never hit you. You shoot five times and they all keel over. There are so many cheats in those movies that I never feel any real jeopardy.

“There’s only so many ways you can do a cop show or a sitcom, but science fiction is just so limitless. When you’re dealing with space or with time travel or with interdimensional sliding or whatever, there’s just no limit on what you can do. Your imagination can totally run wild.”

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