Universe Builder

by Frank Garcia

Starlog SF Explorer #7
June 1995

After a long, winding road of paying dues and learning his craft, screenwriter Tracy Tormé has reached a stage in his career where producer and creator have been added to his résumé. Tormé has two TV series of his own creation in the works, with a movie in development.

Tormé’s Sliders is a mid-season replacement series now airing on Fox. An SF adventure show, Sliders explores alternate Earths while following a group of characters in their travels though these new universes. In addition to writing and producing the pilot, Tormé is also the series creator. Andrew Tennant directed the two-hour premiere, which was produced by genre vets John Landis and Robert Weiss (responsible for Amazon Women on the Moon and the USA Network’s Weird Science).

And this isn’t the only TV series in the works. Tormé and ALIENS producer Gale Anne Hurd are teaming on Dark City, a potential series for HBO, which may film either in Australia or England.

“It’s a Raymond Chandler-type piece set in the near future, a world where the environment has changed radically. The greenhouse effect has kicked in. It has gotten very hot. People now have to stay out of the sun. The whole city basically comes alive at night. Sunlight is sort of lethal.

“I’m sure we’ll be compared in some corners to Blade Runner, although I’m not a big fan of Blade Runner. I like the genre. It’s very ambitious. Our show is very influenced by The Prisoner. If you took that show and put it into a Raymond Chandler story, that’s what you would get. We’ll see what happens.

“I’ve always wanted to do something like this with HBO. The wonderful thing is they’ve allowed me to really go wild in my imagination; to be unconventional. Much more than networks would let me do.” But Tormé cautions that “it’s not definite yet.”

Tormé has grown considerably over the years. He scripted 1988’s Spellbinder. He also wrote and produced the 1993 Fire in the Sky, starring Robert Patrick and James Garner. “It worked out very well. It made a lot of money for the studio and was considered a success,” says Tormé. And he wrote a 1992 mini-series about alien invaders for CBS called Intruders.

Worldly Parallels

Prior to those projects, Tormé penned several celebrated episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Now, he has reached a plateau where he has a chance, with Dark City and Sliders, to put his own personal stamp on science fiction television.

Sliders is about a young genius who accidentally discovers a passageway/gateway to parallel universes,” explains Tormé. “It’s about him and three others who get trapped in traveling to parallel Earths and different dimensions. It’s about their efforts to survive and try to make it back home.”

Sliders stars Jerry (My Secret Identity) O’Connell as 25-year-old physics student Quinn Mallory. “He’s way ahead of his time,” says Tormé. “He turns the basement of the Victorian house where he lives with his mother into a laboratory. That’s where he has accidentally created this gateway to who knows where.”

Dragged into the fantastic journey are actors John (Raiders of the Lost Ark) Rhys-Davies as Professor Maximillian Arturo, and Sabrina Lloyd as Wade Welles from the local computer store.

“The three of them know each other quite well,” continues Tormé. “But the fourth character is accidentally sucked into this adventure just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. His name is Rembrandt Brown, played by actor Cleavant Derricks. Twenty years ago, Brown used to head the Spinning Topps, a popular four-piece, black Philadelphia soul group. He left them and went on his own. He has been drifting steadily downhill for the last 20 years. Now he’s about to make his comeback. Unfortunately, on his way to doing that, he’s taken along for the ride. So these four decide to explore where this gateway leads them.”

In the course of the first adventure, four different alternate-universe permutations of present-day San Francisco are visited. “Some of the worlds are very different. In some worlds, 1995 might be more like something in the 1800s because the pattern of civilization may be different. What if America was not discovered for 100 more years? There can be shows where the time period seems different but, yet, it’s always 1995.”

Fox has commissioned, so far, nine Sliders entries — including one scripted by former STARLOG contributors Lee Goldberg and Bill Rabkin. The show’s now airing on Wednesday nights.

Reluctant to reveal the exact nature of the adventures, Tormé provides some clues to the possible worlds that may be visited on Sliders. “There are a lot of ‘what ifs,'” says Tormé. “What if history had been a little different? What if certain amendments had not been passed in the Constitution? What if certain people had died or not died? There are those sort of historical changes. There are also worlds where we center around our characters exploring their own lives.

“What if you met yourself in another world? What if in the other world, the sister that you had who died as a kid was still living? What if you married a woman whom you could never get to first base with in another world? All of those things. In some worlds, our characters meet doubles. In others, they were never born. It’s different from place to place.”

Making the passage from one universe to another is not done at will. The foursome must be constantly vigilant as they visit an alien universe.

“They will know when they have an opportunity to jump and then they’ll have one minute to do so,” Tormé explains. “If they’re not all together, and ready to leave in that one minute, they’re stuck there for another 29.6 years.

“There’s a finite amount of time that they need to spend on in each world in order to escape that world. In some worlds, it will only be a few minutes; in others, several months. In some places, they have to take on new identities for several months in order to survive, so that they have a chance to leave again.”

Tormé cites no specific inspiration for his latest brainchild except for a recently increasing fascination with history and how people learn about history. “In school, it was boring,” he sighs. “They teach in a way that you’re supposed to memorize dates and things like that. I’ve gotten interested in history on my own. I’ve found that people aren’t aware of the little moments in history that made the world a completely different place.

“There’s that old philosophy that if you change one grain of sand on the beach, the whole world would be different. That’s sort of where the idea stemmed from. What if there are other worlds where, for example, George Washington had been killed during the Revolutionary War? Would we be here today? Would there be a United States? How would the world be different? Just that one moment when a bullet went past his head, everything might have changed. That’s where the idea started with me — the idea of exploring parallel existences.”

Earthly Legends

Besides these two TV series, Tormé reveals that his feature project is about to go active. An avid fan of SF/mystery/Western novelist/screenwriter Richard Matheson, Tormé plans to adapt Matheson’s classic novel I Am Legend as a feature film for Warner Bros. As most fans know, Legend was previously filmed as The Last Man of Earth (1964) with Vincent Price and remade as The Omega Man (1971) with Charlton Heston. It also inspired George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.

Tormé calls Matheson “the most underrated figure in the [SF literary] field. The breadth of what he has done in SF and fantasy has always had great intelligence.”

Scripting I Am Legend has been a life-long dream for Tormé. “I read it as a child and I’ve never been able to get it out of my mind. I’m a little embarrassed that I’m writing it because I don’t think anyone can do it better than Matheson.”

Scheduled to direct Tormé’s adaptation of I Am Legend is Carlo Carlei, who helmed the film version of James Herbert’s Fluke. “We both read the book when we were young. Carlo read it in Italian!” says Tormé. “Contracts still have to be signed, then… it will be official. At least, for me writing the script.”

He isn’t prepared to speculate on who will follow Price and Heston as “the last man on Earth” Robert Neville, but Tormé does entertain ideas of utilizing Jack Nicholson as the antagonist, Neville’s enemy.

“We don’t know if we can get him. It’s a little early for that. One of the interesting things about the book is that [Neville’s] best friend is his worst enemy as the world changes. That’s one of the areas I want to play up which wasn’t addressed in the first two movies. Hopefully, I can do the story justice. It’s a great challenge for me.”

Prior to reaching this point in his career, Tormé had been typecast as a comedy writer, with SCTV and Saturday Night Live leading his résumé. He expanded his writing arena on The Next Generation during its hectic first two seasons, serving as a “boy wonder” while other writers came and went.

His introduction to The Next Generation came when he heard the show was returning to television. Although staff members were deluged by aspiring writers both professional and amateur, Tormé’s initial discussions were positive enough that a meeting with executive producer Gene Roddenberry was arranged.

Tormé recalls that he pitched two stories. One was “The Dream Pool,” which never got made, and the second was “The Blue Moon Hotel,” which was later produced, heavily rewritten, as “The Royale.”

“That’s a bit of a heartbreak for me. I really believe it would have been a tremendous show,” says Tormé, who terms the final product almost unrecognizable. “‘The Royale’ was really my attempt to do a Prisoner show. The hotel was [The Village] and the astronaut living there was like Number Six. This is all allegory. Every day he woke up and lived this strange life inside the Vegas Hotel. Being among all these people, who weren’t really people. It was very surrealistic and kind of sad. Very touching and very lonely and he didn’t understand his own existence. It was like being in a Vegas casino in this barren alien planet. And the Enterprise people come aboard and realized there’s only one human being there — the astronaut — and you never see the alien entity, the hotel manager, until the end. That’s my Number One. The assistant manager was Number Two. It was a very complex and surrealistic story. It’s about loneliness and isolation.

“What happened to ‘The Royale’ was that there was a stupid rule that said they had to utilize the cast more. The astronaut was too good a part and took away from our cast. They turned the astronaut into a skeleton in the bed. They decided to rewrite all the casino stuff. To me, it was like bad comedy.

“I’ll give you a perfect example of someone who doesn’t know anything about Vegas writing a cliché Vegas scene. They came up with this whole thing about the book and [the trapped Enterprise crew] had to win enough money gambling to buy their way out of the hotel.

“I just watched the whole show in complete horror. I had no idea what the show was about. I still don’t know what the show was about! I’m really sorry they couldn’t do the original. It was terrific. All through the first season, we talked about doing it. It was just a question of doing it right, spending the money and taking the time. When we were going to do it second season. I thought, ‘Great!’ and it turned into a disaster.”

But the first episode to air, of what ultimately would become six scripts written by Tormé, was “Haven.” First called “Love Beyond Space and Time,” the script originally wasn’t going to be produced because no one liked it. Instead, Tormé took it upon himself to rewrite it. A tale of Deanna Troi’s arranged marriage, “Haven” introduced Deanna’s eccentric and very telepathic mother, Lxawana Troi (Majel Barrett). Tormé confirms that the role was specifically written for Barrett.

“They wanted to do something for Majel,” he says. “As I recall, it was being tailored for her before I came on board. What I did was change and reshape the characters. Another writer was involved before me.”

With some 20 or 30 percent rewritten from the original story, “I think it was a more caustic, black comedy piece originally. The biting comedy between the characters was toned down. The dinner table scene was a lot more cantankerous.”

In retrospect, Tormé says that he wasn’t initially fond of the final product. “It had some syrupy moments, particularly between Riker and Troi. The Tarellian girl was too much of a bimbo type and not real. There were certain things in the execution that I thought were a little bit soft for my tastes. All in all, I was fairly pleased with it. As time goes on, I’ve grown to like it.”

Alien Conspiracies

The second episode to air with Tormé’s name attached was “The Big Goodbye” (in which Captain Picard takes on a Holodeck case as Dixon Hill). It earned the prestigious George Foster Peabody Award, the first one-hour TV series so honored.

“I got a call one day out of nowhere saying they had some wonderful news. ‘You won a Peabody Award!'” Tormé recalls. “It was very nice. Gene Roddenberry, Bob Justman, Rick Berman and I all flew to New York to receive the award. It was a great experience.”

“Conspiracy” may have been the first season’s most daring experiment. The beginnings of this story came from an idea called “Assassins.” Tormé inherited that script from another writer but felt it was unfilmable, so he rewrote it from scratch.

“There was a lot of resistance,” recalls Tormé of “Conspiracy” which concerned a Starfleet riddled with alien-possessed fifth columnists. “Many people said, ‘You can’t do this kind of show on Star Trek!’ I thought, ‘Why not?’ Push the envelope a little bit. To be honest, my vision of that show was even more in that direction.”

It was Roddenberry who liked it enough to commission the episode.

Says Tormé, “I felt Next Generation was way too soft, too complacent. Everyone liked each other, every ending was happy and everyone was always hunky-dory. So, I really wanted to do something different at the end of the year that was different. I wanted that ending where the beacon was sent and you didn’t know whether Picard won or not. I was surprised they didn’t follow up with a sequel. They never did one.”

Until now, Tormé was unaware that in DC Comic’s Star Trek Annual (1992), Michael Jan Friedman followed up on the story’s plot threads. In “The Broken Moon,” Geordi LaForge returns to a planet that he visited years before, eventually uncovering a similar alien conspiracy controlling the world’s leaders.

The major theme in “Conspiracy,” alien possession, echoes Tormé’s love for SF literature. Both Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters (recently filmed), and Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers (filmed three times) influenced “Conspiracy.” “I loved the novel of Body Snatchers and the first two movies. I love The Puppet Masters. But originally, ‘Conspiracy’ was meant to be much more. It’s really Seven Days in May.” Tormé refers to the classic 1964 film (starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas) directed by John Frankenheimer from a Rod Serling script. “It was intended to be completely non-alien. It was going to be a story about the Prime Directive and it restrictions and the fact there was a militant wing inside the Federation. The Prime Directive was too restrictive, the Federation was going too soft, making the enemies out there think that they were too complacent. Picard’s old friends were starting a coup inside the Federation. That was the original idea. It just wasn’t something Roddenberry wanted to do. Then, we moved it much more in the science fiction direction with aliens.

One reason for the episode’s notoriety is its gruesome ending. Picard and Riker discover the “mother creature” living inside Commander Remmick, and together, as the creature burrows its way out of Remmick’s body, they phaser the alien into smithereens.

Reminiscent of the ALIEN films, this is heady stuff for television. Apparently, it was not the original ending envisioned. “There was some other kind of creature,” Tormé explains. “It was a conglomeration of all the parasites rolled into one hideous humanoid form. I think Rick [Berman] and Bob [Justman], came to me and said, ‘Oh, no! We figured out a great way to do this. You’re going to like it. We’re going to have it all inside Remmick and he’s going to be disintegrated.’ I remember it was their concept. I said, ‘Great!’ so Bob and Rick really went to bat for me because Maurice Hurley [the other producer at the time] never wanted to do that show. I felt that anything they want to do, I won’t argue with them. Anyway, it’s hard to do a scene like that in an incredibly spectacular way. They did a pretty good job.”

The title of the second season’s “The Schizoid Man” was an obvious homage to one of Tormé’s favorite shows, The Prisoner (which produced an episode called “The Schizoid Man” in 1968).

“I wish it could have been the show I wanted to do,” he confesses. “The second season was a struggle to let me do anything the way I wanted to do it. There was a real battle of words between myself and someone on staff. ‘Schizoid Man’ is definitely my favorite of the second season. It was a really fun to do a show around Brent Spiner. I liked Brent’s abilities. I really wanted to do one that was more about him. He got to do some interesting things in that one. I was pretty pleased with that aspect.”

The last of Tormé’s scripts, “Manhunt,” was a sequel of sorts to both “Haven” and “The Big Goodbye.” Originally conceived as a vehicle for Majel Barrett, rewriting on this episode was so pronounced that Tormé removed his name and used his pseudonym Terry Devereaux.

Vulcan Histories

There remains one one last unproduced treatment, “Return to Forever.” It was intended as the second season-opener to guest start Leonard Nimoy as Spock.

“When I was contacted between the first and second season, Nimoy was going to kick off the second season and Roddenberry had chosen me to write the episode,” remembers Tormé. “They wanted me to come up with something in a day or two. I came up with this sequel to Harlan Ellison’s story [‘City on the Edge of Forever’], The premise was that if a planet like that had been discovered, that planet would be the most dangerous thing in the universe. ‘If the Federation ever discovered anything like that, they would have to guard it like crazy because if anyone wanted to ruin the Federation, all they had to do was go back in time and change history.’

“The idea was that the planet would be the most forbidden place in the universe. I came up with the story where the team guarding the place was suddenly found dead. No explanation. The Enterprise races there. Through the gate, they glimpse Spock in the past. It was the story of Spock of the [movie era] past and Spock of the [Next Generation] present who was very old in my version. And both being on the Enterprise at the same time, and I think the older Spock was in a coma. I’m sorry about being fuzzy about it. It has been a long time.”

What Tormé does remember is that he wanted a very special conclusion to this story. “I wanted to do an ending that’s sort of an homage to an old Star Trek segment, which is why the older Spock doesn’t remember the younger Spock’s experiences.”

So, Tormé pulled out a page from Trek’s third season, “Requiem for Methuselah,” where, in compassion to ease Captain Kirk’s pain for his love of the android Rayna, Spock mind-melded with his friend and intoned, “Forget…” In his script, Tormé had the older Spock mind-meld with his younger self so there would be no memory of the experiences as he grew older.

“He stops himself from remembering that he did this, putting himself into a self-induced Vulcan coma to keep himself out of the action. He knew if the two Spocks interacted, it was would have screwed everything up. It was very convoluted and complicated, and for some reason, Nimoy pulled out and decided he didn’t want to do the show.” (Of course, Nimoy later did guest star on the series in the fifth season’s “Unification two-parter.)

As Tormé moved on from working with The Next Generation, he confesses that to this day, he has not seen any episodes since the second season. “I don’t want people to misunderstand. Every show I’ve been on, that I’ve left, I don’t watch. I was with Saturday Night Live, SCTV, and I didn’t watch those for years. What I’ve always known is that one day I’ll sit down and watch all these shows in syndication. It has nothing to do with the show or to say I don’t like the show. It was just me wanting to move on and not wanting to go back and see what they’re doing now.

“I just felt I did my thing with Star Trek. I’ve done everything I could do and now it’s time to move on. I’m glad at that point in my life I was able to be there. I wish I was there later in the show because I probably would have gotten more freedom. I was a survivor of the early years, with people getting fired every other week. It was a kind of strange atmosphere. But I’m really glad I did it. It was a good experience for me.”

From Next Generation boy wonder, to mini-series and feature writer, to TV series creator, what could be next for Tracy Tormé? “I just signed a three-year deal with Universal Television to produce TV,” he explains. “So I’ll be doing some shows with them. And much of what they’ll want from me is in the SF, fantasy or horror genre.”

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