by Robert Martin
When Sliders reached its concluding episode — just eight short weeks after its debut on the Fox network — a lot of questions remained unanswered. A fifth “slider” had abandoned his own world to join the group; and Quinn Mallory, the show’s central character, had taken a bullet. On Delphi, the Fox TV’s official online service, and in the unofficial Usenet newsgroup “alt.tv.sliders” on the Internet, questions flew: Was Jerry O’Connell’s Quinn character out of the series? Was the interloper from another world about to become the focal point? Would Quinn recover? Or would another Quinn, from a parallel world, be recruited to lead the Sliders?
All such questions faded into background noise when, in mid-May, Fox announced its fall 1995 schedule. Both VR-5 and Sliders, Fox’s two new SF entries, were absent, and the fans found a new priority. Fox’s e-mail and postal addresses were widely disseminated via the computer networks, and a deluge commenced. Fox soon responded to the Sliders’ fans with the announcement that Sliders was not cancelled, but merely “in hiatus” — a limbo state that could as easily lead to its return as to its extinction. (VR-5 viewers are still sending letters, but that’s another matter.)
If you think all of this put Sliders’ fans in suspense, consider the situation of Robert Weiss, with Tracy Tormé a co-creator of the series, and one of its executive producers. According to Weiss, Fox had to face “a complicated task because they have lots of stuff in development. The have to consider the overall direction that they want to take the network — they have the individual strategy they’re trying to create each evening; and then it gets down to half-hour by half-hour, where each network struggles to maintain a patch of ground. And Fox is further limited by the fact that they have less prime-time hours than the other three networks.
“After taking all of that into account, we didn’t show up on the original announcement of the fall schedule. We immediately planned to go back to them to make our case for mid-season replacement.
“We went back and made our case, talking about the potential of the series, and about what we had learned in doing the first shows. We knew, for instance, that it was best to keep the Sliders mostly together, rather than splitting them up, because it’s far more difficult to service three or four stories in one hours. We discussed other kinds of stories that we might do, running themes, and I think that, in the course of the discussions, we were able to reinvigorate Fox’s excitement for the show.”
The deluge of fan mail, Weiss grants, had to help Fox in making the right decision. And additional ratings information — demographic breakdowns that showed the right advertiser-targeted groups were tuning in — helped to clinch the deal.
Fox ordered production of 13 new Sliders shows, and filming began in October, the show’s return is most likely to be near the start of 1996, in a time-slot yet to be determined.
Weiss tells us that parallelism was at work even in Sliders’ origins, as the seed of the idea was carried in two minds. “It had been a concurrent thought in both my mind and in Tracy’s,” he says. “For years, I’d wanted to do a show about parallel worlds. I’d been a great Time Tunnel fan, and there had been a few Twilight Zone shows about alternate realities that stuck with me. Over the years, there have been a few series involving time travel, but nothing about parallel universes.
“The shorthand in my head for this was ‘Time Tunnel sideways,’ where it was the present year in each universe visited universe, but small or large details were different, with alternate histories and cultures producing variations on our own.
“Tracy, meanwhile, had read a story that, if I recall properly, concerned a world where George Washington had been killed in a Revolutionary War battle, and how things had turned out differently. Then he and I met, and right around that time, Discover magazine ran a story about parallel universes, and right on the cover was an illustration depicting parallel Earths, multiple images of the planet with each one colored a bit differently — in fact, you’ll see some resonance with that image in our main title.
“So when the two of us began to talk about working together, and this particular topic came up, we wound up talking for hours. We made a list of the Earths we might like to visit, and that’s what sparked it. We decided to work together on this as co-creators.”
The scientific rationale behind Sliders is firmly rooted in theoretical physics, particularly in the realm of quantum mechanics, via the “many worlds” theory, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat (not incidentally, “Schrödinger” was the name of Quinn’s cat in the series pilot). But when it came to selling the series idea, neither Weiss nor Tormé felt a seminar on theoretical physics would make an effective approach.
“It was tricky selling it,” Weiss grants. “For people who are well-versed in science fiction, or in the theoretical sciences, parallel worlds are not difficult to grasp. For someone who isn’t, it’s another matter. So, when we pitched the concept at first, very early on we were surprised by people stopping us to say, ‘What do you mean, a parallel universe? What are you talking about?’
“We came to build our pitch around the phrase, ‘What if?’ ‘What if there was a world where…’ and we’d fill in the blanks. People would be intrigued with those notions, once there were hooked, we’d go on to the idea that all those worlds exist right now, and if there was a way to open up a wormhole, you could slide to them.”
Weiss and Tormé felt that the main title for Sliders should serve to ease the viewer into the show’s unusual premise. In a voiceover, Quinn’s character sums it up: “What if you could find brand new worlds, right here on Earth, where anything’s possible? Same planet — different dimension. I’ve found the gateway!”
“A lot of shows don’t have a main title anymore,” says Weiss. “It’s just bang! and you’re in the middle of it. The networks regard some titles as clutter that add nothing to content. Fox agreed that ours was a special case, and that it required a main title just to allow us to recap the main premise each week.”
This summer, Sliders repeats graced the Sunday 7p.m. time-slot — a perilous position for any series that isn’t 60 Minutes. This fall, Sliders disappears for a few months, yielding their slot to Fox’s new SF series, Space: Above and Beyond. By making the hour that precedes The Simpsons a regular spot for SF programming, Fox hopes that the legendary loyalty of science fiction fans might help to crack the CBS grip on that hour, and expand its already successful lineup. This strategy is somewhat reminiscent of similar attempts at 8p.m. Fridays, with M.A.N.T.I.S. and VR-5, in a continuing effort to reach the audience of The X-Files. Both attempts to create a Friday night science fiction block failed.
“But conventional wisdom says you don’t precede a highly rated show,” Weiss explains. “You follow it, so that you get the benefit of the audience it has drawn. Unfortunately, what follows X-Files is the news. The only way that the show’s audience could provide a lead-in is if it were moved to 8p.m.
“In our current status as a mid-season replacement, we’ll be waiting to see what falls off the schedule — we could wind up anywhere on the schedule. Sliders can be programmed with some versatility.”
Plans for next year remain largely unsettled, but Weiss did offer some hints as to the general direction of the show would take. “Looking over the shows, some of them did better than others, and I think we did better with our edgier shows. They’re chancier for us to do, because you don’t know how they’re going to hit the audience sometimes. I’ll give you an example from the first eight; when we did the show ‘Fever,’ this was one that some folks were nervous about, and it turned out to be one of our better shows.”
Weiss also expresses a preference for the final, cliffhanging episode, “Luck of the Draw.” “The nice thing about that episode,” he says, “is that it strikes one tone in the first half. They’ve come to a world that is nearly utopia; Wade’s found a nice guy there; and you think that maybe they’ll stay. Then at the halfway point they find out what it’s all about, and the whole show takes a giant left turn, and the whole tone changes. That’s the kind of show we’d like to do more of, because it assumes that the audience is smart.”
The attentive viewer may also note that the arrival on that world refers back to the pilot episode, when Quinn Mallory is visited by another Quinn, a slider from a parallel world. The visitor makes mention of a world he’d visited “where everyone is happy,” and that he was going to keep sliding until that world was once again found.
Though it may be hard to accept that Quinn Two’s ideal was so terribly flawed, that world was indeed the world he had been seeking. “When we were deciding where we were going to take the series, we thought immediately of the other Quinn’s speech in the pilot, about a utopia,” says Weiss. “We didn’t want just a series of negative worlds. He had also mentioned a world where the Cubs won the pennant three years in a row, but we didn’t think we could get an episode out of that one. So there was that utopian world, but of course we put a spin on it, to create dramatic conflict.”
The new season is also bound to benefit from lessons learned in the difficulties of administering a Canadian production from Los Angeles. Although the series is set in San Francisco, the bulk of the show is made in Vancouver, where a weaker Canadian dollar allows maximum production value on the smaller budget allowed to Fox shows.
“We were fortunate in the last season, as I was able to spend time in Vancouver, During most of the shooting period I was in the editing room in Los Angeles, and my partner, Leslie Belzberg, spent a lot of time in Vancouver. But it would be a lot easier if it were shot in Los Angeles, so you could walk right from the writer’s offices to the set and back, if there were questions or problems. But because we shoot in Vancouver, the writers aren’t accessible from the set, and we put a lot of stress on trying to have the material fully formed before it goes up there.”
Once the completed shows started arriving at Fox, another “major cause of hair loss” began for Weiss, as the broadcast order of the shows diverted from the continuity established in a certain number of the shows. “There was a very specific order,” says Weiss. “We’d had a lot of discussion at the outset about how tightly the shows should interlock, because when shows go into syndication, they are often not shown in the order they were broadcast; it turns out that many one-hour shows that must be seen chronologically don’t fare very well. So we didn’t want to do too much of that. However, since we had our characters escaping one world to slide into the next, we had a built-in problem.
“As we laid out the air order, it all would have made sense. When the network started seeing the shows as they came in, their consideration was how to build viewership. They wanted to start with what they felt was stronger material, and that was how ‘Fever’ moved up in the viewing order.
“They were absolutely right, because if you start off with weak shows, you’re never going to build an audience. But it affected us in two ways; it affected how we went in and out of shows, and it also affected a couple of shows internally.
“For example, there was an explanation of the timer in the ‘Summer of Love’ episode, which was originally to follow the pilot. On each slide, a window would open up after a predetermined amount of time, which was random. So, each time they arrive on a world, they look at the timer, which tells them how much time they have before that ‘window of opportunity’ opens up. They miss that window, and they’re stranded for 29.7 years.
“So when the air order was changed, that scene didn’t play properly, and we eliminated it. When we went into repeats, there was some discussion of what order they should be rebroadcast, but — as they weren’t about to re-edit the episode to put that material back in — we decided that there was no point in going back to the original air order. For the purists who are out there spotting there ‘continuity errors,’ they are absolutely right, but it was done for the overall benefit of the series.”
Meanwhile, Weiss is making good use of his time on “hiatus” — he is also president of Broadway Pictures, working with Lorne Michaels on the feature film comedy Black Sheep, starring Chris Farley and David Spade. And by the time you read this, that film should be wrapped, and a new crop of Sliders scripts should be coming out of the pipeline as production resumes on the series that almost slid away.
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