The Universe Interview: Tracy Tormé

by Amanda Finch

Sci-Fi Universe #24
May 1997

According to Star Trek, “in every revolution, there’s one man with a vision” — and, in the case of the Fox Network, they would prefer that he work somewhere else.

Writer/producer Tracy Tormé watched the show he created and nurtured through two seasons butchered at the hands of network executives, and early in its third year on the air, he decided he’d had enough. His contract was up, and Tormé, weary and wiser, walked out on Sliders, a show he had co-created and shepherded to the small screen.

“It’s really interesting to look at the pilot and look at the show now,” says the passionate producer. “My take on it is that all four characters have become much more conventional, much more what you’re used to seeing on TV. They’ve become more what you expect and more of what you’ve seen on other shows. They’re ready to fly off on the Enterprise now.”

Instead of learning about the show’s characters and what they’d been through in two seasons, Tormé says that executives ignored his vision and treated the third season as though it was a brand-new show. “They took the attitude of ‘Oh, we don’t want to get into politics, we don’t want to get into dark humor, we don’t want to get into cerebral stuff. We’ve got four characters, and they’re sliding from world to world, and if they land on the world where everyone’s a pirate, they can chase each other around with swords, so that’s going to be fun. That’s show Number One.’ That was kind of the attitude all year.”

Sliders, under Tormé’s creative touch, began as a kind of Quantum Leap with an edge. Rather than traveling through time, the Sliders navigate dimensions, exploring worlds which vary in degrees from our own with the help of a device invented by whiz kid Quinn Mallory. “Quinn was originally sort of a long-haired guy,” Tormé explains. “Not a good dresser. He worked in his basement, and he was kind of a geek. Now there’s been a real conscious effort to make him more of a hunk. Now he’s Jerry Maguire. Now he has the short hair and the suntan and he’s always punching people out.”

Quinn, played by Jerry O’Connell, is joined in his journeys by his physics professor, Maximillian Arturo (John Rhys-Davies), the girl-next-door, Wade Welles (Sabrina Lloyd), and an out-of-touch R&B singer named Rembrandt Brown (Cleavant Derricks). Tormé feels that all the characters have suffered from watering down: “There was virtually no time at all where we ever had a meeting — EVER — to discuss who are these characters and where are they headed and what have we done in the past. And that’s why the show is what it is now.”

Sliders‘ quirky concept is a natural combination of Tormé’s talents in comedy and science fiction. A veteran of both Saturday Night Live and Star Trek: The Next Generation, the screenwriter of Fire in the Sky is also a professed UFO junkie. When he created Sliders, he conceived a show with as much social satire as science fiction, realizing he had an uphill battle on his hands from the very beginning. “From day one, going back to the original pilot, back to The People’s Court references and other things, there’s always been this resistance. The people there just don’t get it. They don’t understand the humor in the show. They don’t really give us the freedom to back off and say, ‘Try this.'”

After one rocky ratings season, cast and crew faced an uncertain future off-screen, fighting for the life of Sliders against other Fox shows facing a tenuous future. But despite network resistance to some of the more subversive elements in Tormé’s first-season scripts, the show was green-lighted for a second season. However, Tormé wasn’t out of the woods yet. In fact, he couldn’t even get approval on the teaser for the first episode.

Hardcore followers of Sliders had been waiting a long time for that second season after the shock of the first season cliffhanger: Quinn Mallory was shot. Fans were afraid they would never know the fate of their favorite slider. Speculation sizzled on the internet. Would O’Connell come back? Would the mysterious Ryan replace Quinn as a regular character? These questions came very close to not getting answered.

“Originally, Ryan was going to be in several episodes at the start of the second season,” says Tormé, “and I worked out with Jacob Epstein, who was also executive producer that year, the path that Ryan would take. We had in mind three or four shows to do with him. By the fourth show, something shocking was going to happen with him.”

Tormé ran into a problem: the network didn’t want Ryan (Nick Lea) in any of the second season episodes. In fact, they didn’t even want to resolve the cliffhanger. “Their attitude was ‘We’ve been off the air for so long no one is going to care, so let’s just say that Quinn got shot but he’s better now, and let’s pretend the other people never came through the gate with them.’ I know people find this hard to believe, but I argued with them over this for months and got the reputation for being a troublemaker or a loose cannon, because I wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”

In the end, the network acquiesced and allowed Tormé to pay off the cliffhanger in a two-and-a-half minute teaser. “Whenever anyone sees ‘Into the Mystic‘, the first episode of the second season, the whole funeral/Quinn’s dream scene is a very rushed two minutes and twenty seconds instead of seven minutes. And a few of the ideas I wanted to do are in there, but others aren’t. The dog that went through completely disappears.”

The precedent had been set for another embattled season as Tormé found himself opposed on other key creative issues. “You know, Fox told me very directly — and I respected them for their candor — that they can’t afford to be hands-off. They’re fighting for every ratings point. They are not big and don’t have as many affiliates as the other networks, so they have to be the hands-on network. They’re much more involved in their shows than the other networks are.”

“Pick your fights” quickly became the motto around the Sliders production offices. “I guess I’ve learned the political ramifications of being obstinate about things,” Tormé admits with little regret. “My instinct is to battle about everything, because I believe in it, you know? I also learned that the key to really doing what you want is to have power, and power comes with the ratings. If you’re an unqualified success in the ratings, then my impression is that they leave you alone and let you do your show.”

Even after Sliders came back in its second season, though, it walked the ratings borderline. As May sweeps approached, Tracy pushed to air what he thought was the season’s best episode, Post Traumatic Slide Syndrome, an episode with a controversially ambiguous ending and few special effects. The network vetoed Tormé and slid in instead an episode featuring dinosaurs, complete with a “Jurassic Park”-ish ad campaign.

“I saw the promotion and I thought, ‘Oh, Christ,’ ’cause we can’t do Jurassic Park, and we can’t do Twister like the movies can do it. To me, that’s worrisome.” However, the dinosaur episode, In Dino Veritas, aired to the season’s best ratings, and Tormé isn’t afraid to admit he was wrong.

“It worked,” he says. “That’s probably one of the reasons we came back for another season; the ratings on that episode were that good. I’ll give the devil its due.”

Still, there’s a little bit of a sting in knowing that no matter how good the writing, in general, dinosaurs will get higher ratings.

“That’s more a frustration with the world in general, though, as opposed to specifically Sliders, though, you know? I’m a really big Beatles fan, and the thing that’s interesting about the Beatles to me is that it’s the only time in history when the thing that was the best was also the most popular.”

In Dino Veritas” had humble enough beginnings. It was originally conceived as a ‘bottle show.’ Sliders was way over-budget and the producers had promised the network a cheap episode. Steve Brown, the show’s creative consultant, came up with the idea of doing an episode in which the cast is menaced by a dinosaur. They would remain in a cave the entire episode, and therefore, the story could be accomplished with one inexpensive set. “I thought that we could use it as a way to explore the characters,” Tormé says.

A couple of complications arose to thwart this ingenious plan. “We decided we’d let Jerry [O’Connell] do this thing in Jerry Maguire. So that’s why Quinn leaves the cave and you can’t find him for a long time. Jerry was off shooting Jerry Maguire during those days. And then we realized we could do a better dinosaur than we thought we could for the money. At that point the temptation came to broaden the story a bit and take advantage of it, so ultimately what started as our very simple little bottle show ended up as one of our most popular shows and certainly one of our most promoted shows.”

One of the joys of Tormé’s second season of Sliders was an episode entitled Greatfellas, in which he had the opportunity to cast his famous father, Mel Tormé, as a Bible-thumping, whiskey-swilling, country-music-singing government informant. “Everything he’s not,” Tormé says, “in this life. This show was special to me obviously, because my dad was in it, and my wife also has a cameo in it. She’s one of the bridesmaids at the beginning of the show. I was there for the whole shoot, and I wrote the song for my dad. Writing a country music song for my dad was definitely a trip.”

For a long time, Tracy had toyed with ways to work his father into his show before settling on this anti-icon in an alternate Vegas-styled universe. “He was originally going to be the Prime Oracle in Obsession. He was going to do the Isaac Hayes part. And then I thought that was kind of dull. I thought, ‘if we’re going to use him, let’s really use him.’ He enjoyed it, and the cast really liked him. But he kept trying to change my song. I kept saying, ‘Will you do the song? Will you do the damned song like I wrote it?'”

Tracy was particularly happy to have had this experience with his father, because shortly after he was greeted with the bittersweet promise of a third season, his dad got dangerously ill. “I wanted to spend the time I needed to with my family,” he says. “It took me away from the show also. So with all those things happening at once, I made a very conscious decision that not only was I going to leave the show, but I could not be simply half-involved with what was going on, because that would be too frustrating, especially since I didn’t agree with a lot of the decisions that were going to be made.”

He met with one of the new executive producers for a screening of the dark, second-season episode
Invasion, a hardcore science fiction episode for which he had fought hard.

“I thought this was exactly the kind of show we should do. Our necks were on the line to prove we could produce an out-and-out kind of sci-fi show, doing it under budget, doing it in Canada, so I worked very hard on that one in a very small space of time. I worked with the makeup guys from The X-Files who were fans of the show and were willing to do this as a one-time shot, and we designed the Kromaggs carefully. Of course, there was a lot more in the script than hit the screen.”

However, despite a warm reception by fans, the network was convinced that Tormé’s vision was too dark to draw mainstream audiences. “I screened it for the new executive producer, and after it was over he said, “Well, this is exactly the sort of show we should not be doing this year.” That was one of the reasons that I did leave, because he said that it was ‘too dark.’ It was sort of the ‘anti-family values show.’ We did it and he felt that was not what we should be doing. When I heard that, I realized that he and I just were not going to see the show the same way.”

Tormé cringes as he describes the ill-conceived one-line high concepts which mark the third season. Executives chose Rules of the Game as the first episode to air, suggesting what Tormé can only laughingly describe as ‘video game world’ as a prototype for the season: sleek, fast-moving and replete with eye candy.

“The cross-cultural stuff that we did is completely gone,” he points out. “And what’s particularly galling to me, because this shows that people aren’t taking enough care of the show, is that we’d sort of established this precedent of doing these Twilight Zone-like endings with these twists at the end of each episode.

“Now virtually every week the adventure is wrapped up, and we’ll say goodbye to everybody. Then the gate opens up off-screen to save money and one, two, three, four: we jump through. The end. It happens show after show, and to me that’s not what Sliders is about. That’s what they want to do now, so what can I say? Can’t fight City Hall after a while.”

Other than writing The Guardian, and adding bits and pieces of himself to a couple of scripts early in the season, Tormé has completely disassociated himself from the show. “I am called an ‘executive consultant’ on the show now, but really it’s just a title in name only,” he says. “I’m really not involved.”

Instead, Tormé is moving on to new projects, including a futuristic Western feature which he plans to shop around and a couple of new TV projects he’s developing for Universal, each of which has science fiction elements.

“I’ve always bounced back and forth between TV and features,” Tormé says, “and I think whenever I spend a lot of time in TV, I want to do features and vice versa. I always hope to work in both.”

He reveals that the feature he’s working on is called Stormriders. “It’s a western but it’s actually set in the future, an American Road Warrior-type of thing. You think for the first twenty or thirty minutes that it’s set in the old west, but then you discover it’s actually set in the future, a post-apocalyptic thing. It’s a very classic Western, almost like The Magnificent Seven, set in a world where, for reasons explained in the movie, the United States has been conquered. All the machinery in the U.S. won’t work because of these satellites that are beaming down this electromagnetic pulse, so in areas like west of the Mississippi, the Big Sky country, everything has reverted back to the days of the Old West.”

Tormé’s story follows the first U.S. Marshall into these badlands to re-establish constitutional law, an overt homage to The Magnificent Seven. “I love playing around with the past versus the future.” He also loves to include music in the worlds he weaves. “I have a character in Stormriders that you meet early on named Dylan. He’s sitting in the corner of the saloon, playing what sounds like a very ancient song from the 1800s or the
1700s. In reality, it’s not. In reality, when the war happened, his great-great grandfather was a huge fan of Bob Dylan and decided that all of his music needed to be saved, so he named his son Dylan and that guy named his son Dylan, and they all have basically memorized every word of every Dylan song. At the point of the movie, the character doesn’t even know who the original Dylan was or even what the significance was. I’ve picked a bunch of sort of old-sounding Bob Dylan songs that he plays throughout the film, almost like a troubadour.”

Clearly excited over the prospect of creating new projects, Tormé claims it would take a miracle to lure him back to Sliders. However, he’s not discounting the possibility out of hand. “If we got renewed and they said, “We were wrong. Let’s go back and do it the way it was supposed to be done,” then I might. “If they loosened the reins a little and let us take off in directions that it would be interesting to take off in I would consider coming back. But for that to happen a lot would have to fall into place, and I don’t anticipate it, you know?

“I love the show. It’s my child in a lot of ways. But just because you create something and you’re running it, it doesn’t mean that the powers that be are going to treat you with a great deal of respect. Their bottom line is they want to do a certain show a certain way and that’s not the show I want to do.”

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