Slide Rules

by David Richardson

Starburst Special #37

Just one year ago, Sliders seemed to have reached its lowest point. Fans were complaining that the storylines were derivative, viewing figures were dropping, and the Fox Network chose to axe the show. Today the series has gained a new lease on life on the Sci-Fi Channel, showcasing innovative stories and excellent scripts, but for the shows creator Tracy Tormé, who quit the series during Season Three, Sliders was a hard ride.

Sliders was a show the [Fox] network never really understood,” he says. “Every year we were up against one of their pet shows, whether it was VR.5, Strange Luck or Space: Above and Beyond; those were all either in-house projects or they had their reasons for wanting those shows to succeed. We kept surviving, and every year we survived, they kept cleaning house, so everyone else left, and I stayed with the show and continued to argue about what I wanted the show to be.”

Tormé claims he was under pressure to deliver light-weight entertainment, and steer clear of any episodes that touched on allegory or social commentary.

“Finally, in the third season they brought in an ally or two at my level who wanted what they wanted, so I was in the position, ‘Do I keep fighting like I’ve been fighting for three years?’ At that point my dad got really sick. This was taking up big chunks of my day, and I had this feature script I wanted to write, and Universal was saying, ‘Maybe you should create some new stuff for us,’ so that combination led me to choose to retreat from the show.”

As Tormé recalls, the shift from quirky, imaginative stories to uninspired gimmick of the week-type episode was already in evidence with the third season opener Rules Of The Game.

“They were so gung-ho that the first show of the season was ‘Let’s have skate boarders! We’re going to hire those kids who do skate boarding tricks; that’s cool, that’s going to get us teenagers!’

“I wrote one episode, The Guardian, which was a total throwback to the type of shows I wanted to write. I was very proud of episode, but again, there was tremendous resistance to it, and it never would have been written except for the fact that I dug my heels in. If you look at The Guardian, it’s completely different from every other show that season.”

While The Guardian was one of the most critically acclaimed episodes of the year apparently it wasn’t the kind of story that was required. “The word that kept coming back to me is, ‘This show is too cerebral’. The Guardian deals with death and betrayal and father and son issues, and Arturo is dying and Quinn’s father has died and now he’s dealing with this crush on his high school teacher; it was all these emotional-type things and that’s not the show they wanted to do. There was literally a mandate later on in the year, ‘Let’s just take a movie that people know and stick the Sliders in it’. It’s what I term ‘Chinese food television’. Five minutes after it’s over, you’ve totally forgotten what you’ve seen.”

According to Tormé, it wasn’t just a shift in story direction or tone that he found objectionable, it was the dumbing-down and glamorizing of the four main characters, Quinn (Jerry O’Connell), Wade Welles (Sabrina Lloyd), Professor Arturo (John Rhys Davies) and Rembrandt Brown (Cleavant Derricks).

The Girl Next Door

“Their attitude with Sabrina was [she was] not the sex image they wanted in the show. She was more like the girl next door, but they wouldn’t leave her as the girl next door. I think the changes that Quinn and Rembrandt went through were far more disturbing and profound. Rembrandt became just an action figure, a typical, bland TV character instead of what he was, which was a totally out of date show business icon. As far as Quinn goes, he was originally designed as a guy with long hair, who you wouldn’t really notice, who could be working at the supermarket during the day and at night he goes down into his basement and does these incredible things. As I brought out in The Guardian, he was a bit of a misfit, he wasn’t that popular, he was shy about his science. In the pilot, he’s a little bit clueless when it comes to girls, he has no idea what Sabrina thinks about him. He turned into a GQ hunk. They cut his hair really short because they think that’s what is popular.”

To support his argument, Tormé cites a scene from The Exodus, one of his least favorite third-season episodes. “Quinn lands on this world where he sees Indians dancing around and says, ‘My God, we’ve gone back 200,000 years in time!’ This is supposed to be the smartest guy since Einstein, but it seems to be that Indians were dancing around campfires in 1600, so there’s a general lack of caring, he’s lost the qualities that made him individually interesting and a bit of an outcast.

Flawed Heroes

“Originally, all four characters were very flawed,” Tormé explains. “Quinn was a bit of an outcast, Rembrandt was a failure, the Professor was a guy with lots of insecurities because he’d never gotten his just due in the scientific world and Wade was this mousey girl next door that couldn’t assert herself. [They became] like three models and the Professor is the guy who knows everything and has no dark side.”

Another source of annoyance for Tormé is the almost total disregard for the numerous sub-plots and story arcs he carefully devised over three seasons. “I continually planted seeds throughout the life of the show, that I wanted to pursue: Arturo’s illness, Quinn getting shot, the other Sliders coming through, which Professor did we take at the end of that show, was it the good or bad professor, the Kromaggs and that open-ended ending; all that stuff was absolutely 100 per cent mine, because I wanted to create arcs for the show. I thought the fans would really like it. I had nothing but resistance, and the reason was, the network didn’t want to be locked into the order of episodes they would show, so they suddenly had this idea that anything that carried from one show into another was a bad thing.”

Exit Rhys-Davies

One of the major shake-ups was the unexpected departure of original cast member John Rhys-Davies, who was replaced by Kari Wuhrer as Maggie Beckett in The Exodus.

“What they wanted in his replacement was the bimbo factor. Unfortunately, the fact that Arturo was a really good character, who was important in the mix of the four characters, meant nothing.”

Tormé has no hesitation in offering his opinion on the two-parter, which killed off the Arturo character, and introduced Maggie as well as would-be military dictator Colonel Rickman, played by Rodger Daltrey.

“I will unabashedly tell you I thought it was one of the worst pieces of television ever produced, and the low point of the entire series. If you look at it, there are signs of the lack of caring, lack of thinking; lack of everything. There are giant logic holes, scenes that don’t edit together well, poor production values, poor performances, poor writing; it was an absolute utter embarrassment. It goes way beyond either of the shows I took my name off on Star Trek.

The Widow Flirts?

“You had moments like [Maggie’s] husband in the wheelchair getting shot, so there was the scene where she almost tries to bring a tear to her eye, which didn’t work too well, so they cut out of that quickly, and in the very next scene, she’s flirting with Quinn.”

Tormé recalls another potentially emotional moment that was completely mishandled. “Only 150 people or so can slide out of this world, and this mother is being separated from her little boy, and I thought, ‘This is a perfect Sliders moment; the little boy is going to slide and live the rest of his life on another world, the mother can’t go with him; what a chance for some emotion!’

“Instead, the way the scene is shot, she says, ‘Guy, be a good boy!’ and she’s pulled away, end of scene. You have to be really dead in your brain and heart to structure a scene that is so naturally involving and turn it into something that is so unnaturally uninvolving. You almost have to not care to a supernatural level to blow that scene.”

The Death of Arturo

As for Arturo’s much-promoted death scene, Tormé was infuriated to see one of his characters killed off in such a disappointing manner.

“When Arturo is shot in the chest, there’s no blood, let alone that John Rhys-Davies got to run wild and arc out his own death so he’s killed like three different times and does the whole Hamlet thing.

“For the funeral scene, everyone was hung over from a party the night before, nobody wanted to do it, and they didn’t have time because they were behind on the shoot.

“If you ever want to see something about as lifeless as it can be, the funeral scene opens with Wade saying, ‘I don’t believe in good-byes’ and ends with Wade saying, ‘Good-bye, Professor!’

“No one was minding the store, and it infuriated me. I had a surge of intense anger as I was watching that show, because this was the great seminal episode of Sliders, the great two-part masterpiece.”

For Tormé, there were two straws that ultimately broke the camel’s back and resulted in his departure from the series. “One was when the new regime came in, and I could never get anyone to sit down and talk about the characters. I must have said 12 times, ‘We need to sit down and talk about where they’ve been, where they’re going, how they inter-relate,’ and no one was interested.

Heat of the Moment

“The second factor was that near the end of my tenure, I was writing my second script of the year, and I think it would have been the best script I’d ever done. It was called Heat of the Moment, and it was actually a show where Rembrandt is killed, Quinn and Wade are getting married, and they’re stuck on a world that’s doomed because of something happening with the sun. At the very end of the episode, our Sliders arrive, and you realize you’ve been watching other Sliders the entire time. It had Conrad Bennish, Jr. who was a millionaire on this world because he’d invented the ‘ice hat’, which people wore to keep their heads cool, so he was this great millionaire entrepreneur, and he starts working with the Professor again, which is a throwback to the episode Last Days.

” I loved that show, and thought it was going to be a great one to go out with, but near the time I finished, the word came down [that John Rhys Davies was leaving]. I’d put all this work into the script, and they were saying, ‘Can’t you rewrite it and put the new female character into it?’ and I said no I couldn’t. That was really the last straw for me.”

After leaving Sliders, Tormé has turned his attention to a number of other projects including Kung Pao, a quirky action-adventure comedy he’s creating for MTV. Nonetheless, in a parallel universe where Fox came back to the show’s creator and asked him to take over Sliders and turn it around, Tormé has very strong suggestions to offer.

“I always wanted the show to be darker, in the sense that this is a little bit of a nightmare journey; they want to go back to Earth and each world they land on has different scary challenges.

“I like the idea of the four original characters having problems with each other. I think there’s a great love between the four of them and I think that would come out. I’d also go back to the original concept of ‘what if?’ and especially say there’s no world we cannot visit. There should be no time when they say, ‘You can’t go to a Nazi world. You can’t go to a world where blacks colonized America and whites were brought over as slaves.’ Why not? With this show, why can’t you do anything under the sun that you imagine?

“The great irony of Sliders,” concludes Tracy Tormé, “is it [was] a show devised to be as wide open as possible but produced by people who want it to be as narrow as possible. From day one, when we did the pilot, they didn’t want us going to communist America, because communism was a thing of the past and no one related to it anymore.

“They didn’t want us bringing in Judge Wapner and The People’s Court because that was too humorous and didn’t fit in with the rest of the show. They didn’t want an inter-racial kiss between Wade and a black soldier because it would offend people in the south.

“Once we became a series, hands were on to the point of strangulation, and the only stuff we did that succeeded, we succeeded in spite of the way things were going, not because of it. In the first two seasons, we got away with it because we were so damn obstinate. They finally caved in enough that I think we did two really good seasons. By the third season, I was really the only one left to fight, and for the reasons I’ve
just given, I finally decided to stop fighting, hoping for the best and getting the worst.”

The Star Trek Experience

Long before Tormé created Sliders, he was working as a writer/producer on Star Trek: The Next Generation, but his two season tenure on the series was not without controversy.

“I really had an affection for the old show, and thought it might be fun to write a Star Trek. Originally, all I wanted to do was one script, and I remember one day where I went down to meet with the producers for the first time, and they were building the show all around them. I’d read the bible and now the show was literally coming to life before my eyes, so it was those factors and also Gene Roddenberry eventually considering me a protégé or almost like a grandson, that changed my mind. Gene really took me under his wing, and used to drive me around in his golf cart and tell me these wonderful stories about all the pain and suffering and excitement he went through while creating the original series.

“He used to tell me, ‘You’re going to have your own series one day, and here’s what you should and shouldn’t do,’ and that changed my career a lot. Until then, I wanted to do features, but then I suddenly realized, what a cool thing it would be to create your own show and watch it come to life. I don’t know that I ever would had that motivation had it not been for those two experiences happening with such synchronicity, and that’s really where the idea for creating Sliders and Kung Pao came from.

“The truth is, 90 percent of it was a great experience, and I look back on it with no regrets at all. The problem I ran across, after I won a Peabody award with my second show, it gave me a lot of leverage, so they made me these special deals where I could go off and do other things; in fact, Fire in the Sky and Intruders had their genesis while I was with Star Trek. I didn’t have to attend writer’s meetings, or answer to Maurice Hurley who had taken over the show. He and I butted heads throughout the second season.

“The first show I did was 70-80 percent what I wanted to do, but the next two were completely not what I wanted, so I used a different pseudonym on each of them, and that’s what people remember. The bottom line, in all honesty: it was a great experience that led me to do Sliders and I have almost nothing but good memories about it.”

It’s not often that a television writer can successfully straddle the wildly different genres of science fiction and comedy, but that’s just what Chris Black has been able to do on the current series of the alternate universe drama, Sliders.

“I’ve always been a fan of Science Fiction,” explains Black, who joined the Sliders staff as an executive story editor, “not a real hard-core fan, but I read a lot of the standards when I was in high school, and I always enjoyed the original Star Trek and Star Wars, and through my adult life was a big fan of the genre.

“When I went to work on Weird Science, which was essentially a comedy, I always thought I would be a comedy writer. I felt when I left that show, it was preparing me to write half-hour comedies, but almost accidentally, I started doing more one-hour shows, including two episodes of Poltergeist: The Legacy, which is essentially a horror show, and then I did an episode of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. It seems like everything I did wound up having either a Horror or Fantasy element to it, but it was something that I just stumbled into. What I felt my strength was and what I really enjoyed writing are basically jokes, so if you ask what I bring to this show, I’d like to think I add some humor to it.”

In retrospect, Black admits not being especially impressed with Sliders which he found a bit too dark for his taste. He sympathizes with series creator Tracy Tormé, whose attempts to add more humor into the series were often blocked.

“I wasn’t here for the Fox years, but I think what Tracy was probably trying to do and what the real strength of the show is, is the opportunity for social satire. You take the things in our society and amp them up to the level where you can turn a microscope on them and say, ‘Look how ridiculous this is’, and I think we’ve tried to do that in a few of our episodes this season. I think we have a really nice mix of shows and tones and genres in this new season. We have some flat-out funny ones, some satirical ones, and some really serious character dramas, so I think that people who tune in to the show week after week will get a nice mix of shows.

“What I hope is that Tracy will watch the show with an open mind,” continues Black, who’s well aware of Tormé’s dissatisfaction and eventual departure from the series. “It’s very tough, and I can’t imagine what it must be like for him to have created this show, to have created these characters and nurtured them along, and then a whole different group of people out there doing it. I would imagine from his point of view, it would be difficult to turn on the show this summer without a heavy dose of skepticism, but I hope he’ll give us a chance, and I think he’ll be very pleased.”

Common Ground

Having just expressed his love of comedy, it seems ironic that two of Black’s first four Sliders episodes were among the darkest of the season. “The first one I wrote, Common Ground, is a fairly dark, dramatic story, which is unusual for me, but I’m actually very proud of it. It involves the return of the Kromaggs, who were introduced in an episode called Invasion that Tracy had done on Fox, another sliding race which is actually an offshoot of humanity, and they become the ongoing villains throughout the series; I think there are six or seven episodes that feature them. What we’ve done with the Kromaggs is add a little backbone to the season, so there are these people who lurk in the background. They have the same sliding capability, so they’re going to pop up from time to time, and each time the Sliders encounter them throughout the series, they learn new things and acquire new information from them.”

After Common Ground, Black was able to lighten up with The Alternateville Horror, which he describes as the show’s haunted house episode. “The Sliders wind up stuck in the Chandler Hotel with nowhere to go, and it’s about the creepy and wacky things that happen to them while they’re stuck there. I thought that one turned out very well, and it was really a showcase for our special FX team. We’re working on a much more modest budget than we were on Fox, and the crew, the director of photography and the special FX people are all forced to make do with fewer resources, and have really stepped up to the plate and done a fantastic job.”

High and low tech

Alternateville was followed by Slide by Wire, a darker, more high-tech episode. “What we did was try to play two worlds against each other; splitting the Sliders up in one world where technology has run amuck and taken over these people’s lives, and the flip side was a world where technology is forbidden and an anathema to these people, so we see how these two worlds collide and how our Sliders react when they’re stuck on each world.”

Black’s final episode of the season is a Wild West adventure, which was pitched by the show’s star Jerry O’Connell and directed by executive producer David Peckinpah, nephew of legendary film-maker, Sam Peckinpah. “I think it’s going to be a lot of fun,” claims Black. “It’s going to have horses and six-guns and dance hall girls, and we’ve got a great western backlot, and we’re going to do some stunt work on it, so David is very enthusiastic about it. He’s a fine director, and he has a bit of a western heritage in his family, because of his uncle.

“This was a story that Jerry wrote up in great detail and brought in and pitched to us, and quite often, your knee-jerk inclination is, ‘Oh no, the star of the show has something they want to do; what’s it going to be like?’ and in all honesty, I read this thing and said, ‘This is a great story!’ It was a wild ride, and David really fell in love with it and wanted to direct it, and Jerry, between his acting and directing duties, didn’t really have time to write it himself, so I went over the outline with him and got his input and then sat down and wrote the episode.”

While Way Out West harkens back to the action-adventure elements that were a hallmark of the old Sliders, Black feels that a direct comparison may be unfair. “Again, I wasn’t around last season so I can’t speak to a lot of those episodes, but from what I’ve seen, you’re doing things the wrong way around if you have the plots driving the characters not the other way around, so the characters are stuck in a tough situation and having to punch and shoot their way out of it because it was the only thing to do.

Smart moves

“I think we’ve tried to make both the episodes and the stories smarter this season. We’ve certainly been trying to write smart characters and write them in situations that challenge them intellectually, and play into the genre more. It is an SF show, and a lot of what SF is about is speculative fiction, it’s not just about a world where you’re menaced by dinosaurs or giant mechanical spiders or whatever. You put yourself in a ‘what if’ situation, which is the great strength of the show, and then your characters have to think their way through that. Hopefully, if it’s a successful episode, they’ll slide out of it a bit differently than when they slid in.”

For the staff of Sliders, viewer response wasn’t actually a consideration, simply because all 22 episodes were shot before the season-opener debuted. That meant the writers have had just to trust their instincts and hope the fans will enjoy what they were being offered.

“The season is basically ready to go before they start airing, so we’re not going to have an opportunity to see if people respond to the show, if the ratings are solid and they say, ‘Okay, let’s keep going’. Then we could already be thinking in terms of the shows we’re writing this season, how they could lead into next season. Personally, I think it’s too easy to get pulled in too many different directions if you get too much feedback.

“I think we talk to the actors,” says Black, “and look at the episodes we’ve done. We have to be confident that between us we have enough writing smarts and enough genuine affection and enthusiasm for the show that we’re going to do the right thing, and the episodes are going to turn out well and people are going to like them and are going to be happy with what we do.”

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