by Joe Nazarro
What if there were a series of parallel worlds virtually identical to our own, but with subtle differences? Worlds in which the Germans won the second World War, for instance. Or Linda McCartney could really sing and Kevin Costner decided at the last minute not to make Waterworld… the possibilities are endless — and the potential enormous.
That’s the premise underlying writer/producer Tracy Tormé’s offbeat series Sliders, which has just started production of its third season Stateside. It follows the adventures of four companions: Quinn Mallory (Jerry O’Connell), who creates the dimensional gateways; Professor Maximillian Arturo (John Rhys-Davies), his mentor; Wade Welles (Sabrina Lloyd), Quinn’s semi-girlfriend and Rembrandt Brown (Cleavant Derricks), an ex-club singer who’s accidentally swept along for the ride.
And so to the format: Quinn is a young genius who discovers the secret to “sliding” between dimensions. Unfortunately the timing device goes wrong, so that he’s unable to open a dimensional portal on command. On each world, there’s a one-minute window when the timer can be activated to open the gate. If our heroes don’t go through, they’re stuck in that world for 29.7 years. By altering the timer, they get a countdown to when the window will open, but there’s just one catch: on one world, they could land in a utopia for just five minutes, and in the next, an Ice Age for 24 hours.
Tormé whose previous writing credits include six early Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes (“Haven,” “The Big Goodbye,” “Conspiracy,” “The Schizoid Man,” “Manhunt” and “The Royale” — the latter two under pseudonyms) is delighted that Sliders has been renewed for a full season, while other Fox genre series, including the much-hyped Space: Above and Beyond, slid quietly into oblivion.
“Space was an in-house Fox project, so they spent something like $44 million on it, and really gave it every chance to beat us. We’ve been pitted against VR.5, Strange Luck, Space, as well as Profit and The Kindred, and never got the benefit of the doubt from the network that those shows did. But we beat them all. If anyone looks at the reaction we got numbers-wise and demographically, you can see that, which is why we’re still here.”
The biggest change this season takes place behind the scenes. After two seasons of shooting in Vancouver (alongside The X-Files), the production has now moved to Los Angeles where it will be based in and around Universal Studios.
“I guess there was some kind of change in the tax laws that enabled us to make the move back there,” says Tormé. “The feeling was that the better weather, longer daylight hours and being able to do things on the lot just about offset the financial advantages of doing it in Vancouver. We’ve sort of become the first show to return to L.A. and it will be interesting to see if that becomes a trend.”
Despite rumours of a possible defection by John Rhys-Davies this season, Tormé insists that all four regulars are back for 25 episodes. “There was some talk at the end of last season about creating a new character and killing his character off, but ultimately that didn’t happen.
“After two years, it really came down to the fact that John felt the show should be Professor Arturo and His Three Friends Go Sliding. He felt that his character should be in the lead, and Quinn should be learning from him, and he should be teaching them as they go. He was very resistant to the character having any darker sides, and I reminded him that when I originally wrote the pilot, Arturo was a pretty dark character. But John had remembered it in his own way, that Arturo was this heroic positive force of good, and that’s where our creative differences lie. I think he’s come in with a renewed attitude this year. He says he’s very happy to be back, and he’s been very mellow so far, but we’ll see how that lasts.”
Tormé admits, however, that since the characters move from world to world on a weekly basis, it can be difficult to develop characters — though he reckons it’s a problem he had to deal with in other series, too.
“When I was at Star Trek, one of my complaints to the Star Trek people was that everybody was just one big, happy family that agreed about everything all the time. I wrote an episode called ‘Conspiracy’ at the end of the first year, which was a purposeful attempt to do something where they all got irritated with each other to some extent. The same thing goes for our show. I don’t want it to be the four Sliders patting each other on the back every week and saying how much they love each other. We’re turning the professor a bit darker, we’re showing how the four of them possibly have different motivations on different worlds, and certainly differences of opinion on the way to pursue things, and whether or not to get involved in situations they come across in these different worlds. Through that, we’re trying to get more into the background of the characters, to learn a bit more about the scars they carry.”
But that a hip, quirky and frequently satirical series like Sliders should survive more than a handful of episodes comes as a surprise, even to its creator.
“In our first season, I think we were successful in establishing the characters, and the premise of the show,” says Tormé. “We also quickly developed a fiercely loyal audience. They put in a big letter and Internet campaign to bring us back, so we were very successful in that sense, of laying the foundations.
“What I wish we had done more of was take more chances with the stories — and believe me, that is something that we wanted to do on the writing side from day one. Drama-wise, Fox are very conservative, and they’ve always resisted anything we do that has political overtones or about anything that gets too far out science fiction-wise.”
One element of the series which Tormé is especially fond of is the inclusion of throwaway gags and parodies within each episode. “That’s one of the icons of the series that everybody looks forward to, our ‘cross-cultural allegories,’ as we call them. I would love to do more, but one out of every two things we want to do is squashed for legal reasons.
“In The King is Back, for example, we had a small group of Mexican boys, called Pequerio, whose manager has them singing Led Zeppelin songs in Mexican. It was a takeoff on the group Menudo that was pretty popular years ago, but we couldn’t get the rights to do any Led Zeppelin songs, so that had to go by the boards.”
Looking back at the initial run of Sliders, which was aired Stateside as a mid-season replacement, Tormé still feels the show would have performed stronger if some episodes had been broadcast in order. “They actually aired our first episode fourth, and we had a big scientific explanation in that episode about how the ‘sliding’ process would work for the rest of the series, but once that show was moved they decided we didn’t need that explanation, so it was cut out. We spent the entire year never really explaining the rules but somehow got away with it.”
But does he have any particular favourite episodes? “Probably Last Days, about a meteor that was going to hit the Earth; and The King is Back, about Rembrandt being Elvis on a different world. My least favourite was Eggheads, which was about an intellectual world — that was the thinnest in terms of the plotting. I had worries about the last episode, Luck of the Draw, too, but that ended up turning out fine.”
Tormé’s biggest bone of contention with the network, however, was the season-ending cliffhanger, which introduced a possible replacement (The X-Files’ Nic Lea) and left Quinn lying in a pool of blood.
“They felt the whole cliffhanger could just be paid off in a sentence or two, and we had monumental arguments about that. I certainly made myself a big pain in the ass about this issue. I thought it absolutely had to be paid off, and would be a slap in the face to the fans if it wasn’t. The biggest problem was Fox not wanting to be locked into which shows could air first, second and third. They felt that was more important than paying off a cliffhanger that harked back to the previous year.”
When Sliders returned for a second season of 13 episodes, the producers finally found themselves with a little breathing room to experiment with the format. “Again, I’d like the show to be a bit darker and the plots a bit more fantastic in nature. If they said, ‘Just do your show and we won’t say a word,’ we’d probably go off into the stratosphere more often, with the satirical humour and controversial subjects. We’ve wanted to do a black/white reversal thing for a long time, and they’re very uneasy with that. It gets to the point where you can’t even talk to them, because they don’t want to do it.
“To me, this show could be all of those things. You could do a world where Africans colonized America and whites were brought over as slaves, and what would it be like 300-400 years later? My attitude is, why not do shows like that, but the network doesn’t want to do them.”
Strangely, though, Fox weren’t averse to a bit of Blighty-bashing in the episode entitled Prince of Wails.
“It’s going to be interesting to see the response to that one in the UK!” laughs Tormé. That was written by two writers who had just spent a year in England, and although they had many good things to say about the place, it was also their way of exorcising a lot of things they didn’t like — the food, British engineering breaking down… It was almost a parody of British things. I think in general terms, the show is fairly universal. Even the parts that deal with American history. A lot of Europeans know American history pretty well, so there really shouldn’t be a cross-cultural problem there.”
Into the Mystic was another episode that barely got to the screen intact. “I liked the look of ‘Into the Mystic’ very much. One thing that was taken out was a big Wizard of Oz allegory that they kept making us cut down to the point where it was almost lost. There were also some special effects scenes — we had a flock of bats attacking the cab and the driver turning his windshield wipers on, the bats hitting the cab like locusts — which again we couldn’t afford to do properly. Ultimately, that was a show where the original script had a lot more in it, but I did like the look of that one.
“Post Traumatic Slide Syndrome was one of our best shows. It didn’t necessarily have that much tension in it, but I liked all the stuff with, is Quinn crazy? Are they really home? What happened to the Professor? Why has he turned evil? I also liked the ending, where the two professors battle it out and we don’t know which one comes with us, and then framing it all with Rembrandt and the shrink, which I always thought was a fun idea.
“I really liked Invasion a lot, too. That’s one of my personal favorites actually. It pays homage to my favorite Outer Limits episode, as well as The Prisoner to some extent. There was a lot of stuff I really loved in there, and I worked very hard with the guys who do the make-up for The X-Files, who were fans of the show and came over for that episode, and we carefully sculptured the Kromaggs [that episode’s baddies] out. Looking back, there are a few things I wish we hadn’t done, but given the time and the money restraints, they turned out pretty well.”
Which begs the obvious question: what’s going to happen in the newly extended third season, currently in production? Tormé gives a few hints: “We have one where Quinn meets a female version of himself, in a place called San Angeles, where there’s one giant metropolis running the entire length of the coast, from L.A. to San Francisco. I’m also doing a character show where Quinn lands on a world where his father has just died, and he meets himself at the age of 11. It becomes a Lord of the Flies-type story, where he knows there are certain events on the playground that scarred him for a long time, and he steps in as a bodyguard and mentor for his younger self.
“We’re also doing one where California is plagued by tornadoes. Then there’s Melinda Snodgrass, who I worked with on Star Trek, who’s writing a Halloween show, which is pretty interesting and spooky. There’s also one about very wealthy people who contact these computer games, but they happen in real life, where you have to survive from level to level, and finally win a prize when you make it to the end. The Sliders accidentally slide right into it, so that’s going to be a very visual affair.
“In another, justice has been turned over to television, so basically all murder trials are done like game shows and the audience votes on them. I’ve also got a film noir episode in the works, where Rembrandt’s double is a detective in a world where the ’90s look like the ’40s, and he steps in for his double.”
With 25 episodes being shot, and the international market finally beginning to sit up and take notice, Tormé hopes this new season will finally mark the breakout point for his long-ignored series. “One of the double-edged swords of this show is that everyone has a different version of what it should be about. I think there’s only been one terrible show; the rest have been pretty good, and we’ve managed to say something with each one to make some points about the world.
“Given where we are at the beginning of season three, I’m relatively happy, because nobody expected us to get anywhere near this far, and here we are, getting ready to do 25 more. In that sense, I count my blessings.”
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