Parallel Lives

by James E. Brooks

Cult Times #21
June 1997

What if your show started out as a mid season replacement? What if it was on a fledgling fourth network that got little if any respect? And what if, after struggling and refusing to die, the network finally decided your show was a winner, but changed everything that had worked to make it a success?

Like Quinn Mallory and his intrepid group of unwilling travelers, Sliders has had a bumpy ride. Almost an after-thought from the network, it went two separate half seasons before getting a permanent home on the schedule, where its fortunes finally improved when it was given the coveted lead-in spot before The X-Files. But a funny thing happened on the way to the next slide — it was decided that Sliders could be the next big hit for its producer, Universal Television, and the Fox Network. It just needed some sprucing up. So when the third season opener premiered, the executive mandated retooling had just begun to show itself.

Sliders was created by Tracy Tormé and Robert K. Weiss. The son of singing legend Mel Tormé, Tracy started as a comedy writer who sometime later found himself writing for Star Trek: The Next Generation. He took to these new waters with ease, turning out a number of scripts which still stand as some of The Next Generation’s most notable, including the controversial Conspiracy. But success on that show had its problems too. Disenchanted over behind the scenes politics and the new direction Star Trek was taking, he left during the second season. Years later, history would repeat itself.

The Sliders that Tormé and Weiss created derived its stories less from character exploration, than from exploration of the myriad strange worlds open to the travelers. Despite that, the characters were different and distinct. Boy-genius Quinn Mallory, who invented the sliding technique, overflowed with youthful energy and idealism. In direct contrast, Quinn’s former teacher Professor Maximillian Arturo, was overbearing,
egotistical, and elitist, though these unattractive qualities hid a strong core of decency and loyalty. Quinn’s friend Wade Welles was the most intuitive and emotionally centered of the group. Last, but certainly not least, came R&B singer Rembrandt ‘Crying Man’ Brown. During the first season particularly, Rembrandt seemed little more than comic relief, occasionally almost veering into stereotype.

During those first two seasons, the group slid through dimensions where the Berlin wall not only never fell, but Communism spread to take over the US; one where there were no antibiotics; another in which the American Revolution had never occurred… until now; and they also found themselves in a society where the ‘glass ceiling’ on the promotional ladder is a problem for men rather than women. Possibly one of the best episodes of the entire series was one called Eggheads. In this story, the Sliders arrived in a reality where intellectuals are treated with the same reverence and commercial reward as professional athletes in our world. The episode did a deft job of satirizing the overblown attention given to basketball and football players without preaching. The intellectual equivalent of an athletics play-off was side-splittingly funny. The producers even hired actual ESPN commentators to play themselves covering the game.

Eggheads is a perfect example of the kind of off-center approach with which the stories were told. There was an inherent wit not only in the deliberately absurd premises of the episodes, but also in the way they were presented. Sliders had a certain hipness that winked knowingly at the audience, inviting us to share the joke.

Some elements of the retooling had been before any changes were actually made. The most conspicuous one was John Rhys-Davies’s growing dissatisfaction with the show. Stemming from creative and personality clashes with one of the producers, it set in motion rumors all through the second season that the actor would leave the show. These proved false at the time, mostly because the unnamed producer left the show at the end of the second year, but this was only to be a respite — Rhys-Davies’s rumblings had only subsided temporarily.

Quinn and his friends found themselves in a very different landscape when they came back for the third year. Almost all of the original production team had been replaced and it was decided that two major changes would be made to the format. The first change was to shift the characters into a more action-oriented mode. As a result, Quinn acted less like a physics nerd and more like an uneven mix of James Bond and James T. Kirk. Rembrandt also seemed to have benefited from a confidence-building course from Steven Seagal over the summer. Even Arturo wasn’t immune. The blustery professor who usually disdained violence as the tool of genetic throwbacks now threw himself into fights with the same gusto with which he had once waged intellectual war. The only charter that bore much resemblance to her older self was Wade, who would eventually evolve into the conscience of the show.

The second change was an intriguing one. Recognizing how concept-centered the show was, the new producers set out to create stories that explored the characters more, giving them the richness previously reserved for the dimension of the week. On paper, it sounded good. In fact, it sounded great. But really only one third season episode has lived up to the promise — The Guardian. In this show, the Sliders end up in a dimension where time moves slower, giving Quinn the opportunity to befriend his younger self during a crisis period in his life that will effect everything that comes after. The long hoped-for father-son relationship between Quinn and Arturo finally crystallized as the Professor tries to make Quinn understand that helping his younger self will only result in the boy being unable to stand up for himself in the face of personal danger.

Perhaps the greatest change to the series was the departure of John Rhys-Davies. His long dissatisfaction had finally come to a head, resulting in a death sentence for Arturo. Though the Professor discovers early in the third season that he is dying, his actual exit was more immediate. In The Exodus, the elder academic was shot by a new continuing nemesis, Colonel Angus Rickman. The professor’s replacement, Captain Maggie Beckett (Kari Wuhrer), joined the Sliders to pursue Rickman, whose unique medical condition requires him to kill.

Exodus was the linchpin of the retooling. Getting home was no longer the prime motivator — now the Sliders were pursuing a killer. Forget Voyager; Quinn and his friends are doing The Fugitive from Lieutenant Gerrard’s point of view. This new motivation fits like a glove with the increased reliance on traditional action-adventure.

In recent episodes, the retooling has taken on another dimension as Wade and Maggie engage in what amounts to a running catfight. The new group of writers seem more comfortable writing for male characters; Maggie comes off less as a strong woman and more as a man with XX chromosomes! There also seems to be a move from off-camera to push Sabrina Lloyd and her character into the background and maybe even off the show. That would be a shame, since Kari Wuhrer continues to demonstrate the kind of acting talent that suited her so well as a game show hostess and B-movie siren. Perhaps they can slide to a world in which she not only can act, but also comes off just a little bit sympathetic.

Strangely enough, in its third season, Sliders seems less sure of itself than it did in its first year. But who says that it can only reinvent itself once? After all, change should be a cinch when you’re hopping through a different dimension every week.

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