by Kyle Counts
It has been one of those days for dimension traveler Quinn Mallory (Jerry O’Connell). Not only did he injure his head while falling into a new dimension, but because he doesn’t have the money to settle his bill, his attending physician — a man obviously one sandwich short of a picnic — has demanded that the whiz kid inventor give him something else as payment: his brain.
That’s the premise behind this second-season episode of Fox Broadcasting’s action-adventure series Sliders. The show, bumped from the network’s fall schedule, is scheduled to return this year as a mid-season replacement. This episode, the third of 13 to be lensed for this season, was written by co-creator/executive producer Tracy Tormé.
Titled Into the Mystic, the script posits Quinn and his trio of fellow world-tripping cohorts — Wade Welles, Rembrandt “Crying Man” Brown and Professor Maximillian Arturo (Played by Sabrina Lloyd, Cleavant Derricks and John Rhys-Davies, respectively) — into a world where black magic seems to have replaced organized religion as the belief system of choice. There, they meet up with the ruler of this Earth, a being known as the Sorcerer, who appears to have the ability to “slide” into other dimensions. Their hope is that they’ll be able to get an audience with the Sorcerer and solicit his help in returning them to their San Francisco.
Today, the cast has assembled at a redecorated private residence in Vancouver, British Columbia, the city that serves as the series’ home base. The scene being rehearsed finds a sedated Quinn strapped to an operating table by the aforementioned mad scientist, Dr. Xang (Christopher Neame), who plans to use his fiendish “brain-sucking machine” to relieve Quinn of his precious grey matter. When the word is given, Wade, Rembrandt, and Arturo are to run in to save the day, with a desperate Wade even trying to seduce the crazed doctor in hopes of rescuing her friend and erstwhile love interest.
After a couple of false starts, director Richard (Babylon 5) Compton calls for a rehearsal. Lloyd and company rush in, pleading with Dr. Xang not to go through with the procedure. “I warn you, sir,” bellows Rhys-Davies, his eyes following his script, “we are friends of the Sorcerer.” When that fails to convince Xang, Wade turns on her feminine wiles: “Take me instead,” she purrs in a voice that would turn Hugh Hefner’s Head. “I’ll do… anything you want.”
It’s the old bait-and-switch stall, it turns out, allowing Derricks to disarm Dr. Xang’s tiny bounty hunter assistant and pull a (at the moment, imaginary) rifle on Dr. Xang. “I’ve got one shell left,” the actor intones menacingly. “Who wants it?”
The camera rolls, and several takes later, Compton calls “Print!” Lights and cameras are struck, and the actors retire to their trailers (amusingly labeled by their character, rather than real, names) while the next scene is set up.
Lloyd is eager to share her thoughts about the evolution of her character, whom she thinks is much tougher this season. “I’ve noticed the difference in Wade already — she is being written much stronger this year,” she says. “In the very first episode, she saves the day. It’s something I really wanted, and it made me realize my voice was being heard, that the writers believed in me. Through these adventures, I think she has become a bit of a wild woman. She’s getting more and more daring. That scene we shot earlier where she tries to seduce the doctor to save Quinn? That’s something she would have never been able to do before.”
Part of Wade’s new-found strength comes from her belief in her womanhood, Lloyd believes. “I think she’s much more comfortable in her sexuality now. She has really changed. I think she’s one of the strongest characters in the show in the sense that she knows what she wants, she’s a fighter. She now goes into these parallel worlds and tries to help when she can, and learns from the experiences. Before I think she was more of an observer.”
As for this particular episode, Lloyd says “I’m loving it. Everything is dark and dreary, with monsterish-looking people and the Grim Reaper serving people subpoenas. I’ve been having a blast. We get to walk on air in one scene, which is really cool. And I got to do the seduction scene, which is really exciting because Wade has never done anything like that. This is my favorite episode [of the new season] so far.”
O’Connell is carrying out his lunch tray when he’s ambushed for an interview. Asked about the camaraderie the set visitor has witnessed while observing this morning’s shooting, O’Connell confirms it’s genuine. “We have a very good time on the show; we just have a ball. I’ve never worked on a project where the cast got along so well. Usually you hear these horror stories abut fistfights and eyes getting scratch out. There’s none of that whatsoever on this show. It’s terrific.”
Derricks seconds the emotion. “John says it’s very rare that this kind of camaraderie happens on a set. I know for a face that it’s very rare. I had this same type of relationship with cast members when I was doing theater. But never before with television. Much of it comes from Jerry — he’s such a down-to-earth young man and has a great sense of humor. John is wise beyond belief and very funny also. Sabrina and I are joking and laughing all the time. I think we all came into this show in that frame of mind. We all wanted it to work.”
Rhys-Davies, who can be intimidating presence, especially in the confines of a small trailer, seems to melt when asked about his co-stars. “This is the sweetest bunch of people that I have ever worked with,” he says. “There’s only one old sourpuss, and you’re looking at him. Jerry is the easiest and most accomplished young actor that I have had the privilege of working with. You have to be a member of the Screen Actors Guild for 10 years before you can become eligible for a pension. He managed that last year, at the ripe old age of 21. Sabrina is absolutely charming ad wonderful to work with. Cleavant is possibly the nicest person on the planet — for that matter, any planet, anywhere, any time. Actors are always obliged to say polite things about their fellow actors. But in absolute sincerity, I have never worked with a sweeter, more even-tempered and more delightful bunch of people. They’re just a joy to work with.”
O’Connell shifts gears to talk about Into the Mystic plotline. “We’re going to a black magic world where voodoo and potions run society and have made people slaves to the occult,” he explains. “It’s a real spooky, Gothic sort of episode. Within that, it’s a Wizard of Oz spoof. The four of us meet a sorcerer who’s not the apparition we have been looking at, but a human being. My parallel world counterpart is the Oz character, the guy who’s hiding behind the apparition. So I get to play a nice, Frank Morgan-esque character.”
If the episode has a message, Tormé says that it is in the form of a wakeup call to the scientific community. “Up until about 100 years ago, most of the world was completely superstitious about almost everything. Now, in the past, say 50 years, mainstream science has decided it knows everything: If you don’t see it, it doesn’t exist. There are many true mysteries in our world that are not looked at by mainstream science, because the people in it are afraid to expand their horizons and are afraid of things they can’t explain. The Professor takes on that tone in this show; he serves as our voice of skepticism.
“What I’m trying to say [in this episode] is that, occasionally, there are things that go bump in the night in our world that are ignored rather than investigated. And now the Sliders are in a world where everybody is open to those ideas. It’s not about Satanism versus Christianity; there’s really nothing of that in it at all. It’s more a classic tongue-in-cheek look involving voodoo and sorcerers and wizards, things like that. We steered clear of any religious trappings.”
Discussing possible changes in his character as the second season gets into full swing, Derricks’ face lightens up. “Hopefully, this season you’re going to see more of the human aspects of Rembrandt,” he offers. “There might be a little bit of a darker side to him. He says to one character [in one show], ‘I ought to kill you.’ I thought about maybe changing that line, because it might sound too harsh. But then I realized that might point to a different side of him. Maybe he actually take somebody out of it was necessary. Little things like that help Rembrandt stretch and grow.”
Reminded that some critics found the freshman-season Rembrandt a tad stereotypical in his shuck-and-jive funnyman-isms, Derricks nods his head. “I think the writers and the producers understood that criticism, so they’re looking for other aspects of his character to bring out. They’re honestly trying. I think you’ll find out as the second season goes on, Rembrandt will be stepping up to the plate much more. He’s a little smarter, and he’s taking the initiative to make decisions for himself and not follow the pack all the time.”
Tormé is obviously bothered by the “very vocal and noisy 10 or 15 percent of the audience” who had a negative reaction to Rembrandt. “I think most people don’t see him like that,” he says. “I feel responsible for the perception, and I’m sorry if Cleavant has taken any flak for it, because Rembrandt was my creation. I think it’s a sign of the politically correct time we life in. You can watch Nike commercials or other shows on Fox that are black’ shows, and there are people doing things that are probably a million times more stereotypical than anything that Cleavant has done, but it’s viewed completely differently And that’s unfair. If we were black producers and this was a black production company, I don’t think we would be getting that flack that we’re getting.”
Tormé suggests that detractors failed to look beyond Rembrandt’s comic side. “He was meant to be a way to explore show-business realities. He’s a guy who had been in show business all his life and is out of touch with the real world. He wasn’t designed as a social statement or to represent a certain race or political philosophy. There were pressures on me early on to make him a more PC-for-the-’90s character, simply because he was black, which was something I resisted very strongly. He’s the Everyman of the show. He’s not a physics genius; he represents that part of the audience that wonders, What does this all mean?'”
One challenge Tormé continually faces as one of the show’s producers is dealing with the cast’s morale. While everyone agrees that Sliders is a happy set, it is Derricks who points to a lone disgruntled voice among the principals. “There have been reports that John rags the writing on the show a great deal,” he says somewhat sheepishly. ” The writing is not this, and the writing is not that, it’s horrible’ I think John says that only because he wants the show to work. I don’t think it has anything to do with him, per se. It’s about making the show work, and I think we all came in with that hope and that dream, because we all believed in the show.”
When asked about his role in Into the Mystic” Rhys-Davies smiles impishly, as if he’s holding back in the name of good sportsmanship. “My role in this episode is, uh…well, I’m there; I’m certainly there. I don’t see myself as a vehicle for the plot so much as… sort of walking furniture. It’s a very special episode written by the remarkable producer, writer and originator of our show, Mr. Tracy Tormé. And I’m sure I have a function.”
It’s obvious that Rhys-Davies’ ideas for his character haven’t met with overwhelming enthusiasm by the show’s co-creator. “Saving the world is out this year,” the actor says disappointedly. “Thy don’t want the Professor to save the world anymore. This is very much a make-or-break season, I think. And setting the actual direction that we want the show to go in has been a difficult one. There are those who see the show more as light comedy, and those, like myself, who would rather push it into a harder world of science fiction. At the moment, the light comedy people have the assent. Who knows? They may be right.”
Apprised of Rhys-Davies’ comments, Tormé decides to air his difference with the Sliders co-star. “I created the character, and I always saw Arturo as having dark shading. If you look at the pilot, there were many things that showed he’s a complex person with a dark side to him. John has always felt that the character should be heroic across the board, and that Quinn should learn from Arturo and be almost like Arturo’s protégé. I’ve never seen the show that way, and I still don’t.
“When working on Star Trek: The Next Generation, one of my complaints [about that show] was that everyone got along with each other at all times. I found that to be a little boring. So, I didn’t want this show to be about four people patting each other on the back every week. I wanted there to be some spark between the characters. I also wanted to make sure that Arturo didn’t step all over Quinn, because I think Quinn is more fundamental to the show.
“One of the interesting things about John is that at times he seems to have trouble distinguishing himself as a person from Arturo as a character. So if Arturo does something that John sees as cowardly or underhanded, John seems to take it personally. That’s what we’ve been dealing with for two seasons. The choices were to make it the Arturo and Friends go Sliding Show, or keep it what it is. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to give in to that. All I can do is ask John to be professional and to do the scripts as written, and when he has input, I’m happy to listen. He often adds good little touches to the scenes, but fundamentally, we have a difference of opinion about the character.”
Rhys-Davies wants it understood that his complaints about Sliders extend beyond his participation. “This show could be Fox and/or Universal’s Star Trek,” he remarks. “It could be the most considerable show they have, with a worldwide audience and a lifetime that will more than amply reward its makers. I do not think they fully understand the potential of this franchise.
“I think Sliders could be the most audacious show on television. It can go anywhere, any place, any time. It should have an edge like Quantum Leap or The X-Files. I believe that the balance of this show should be the pursuit of reason and man’s use of intelligence, understanding, intellectual excitement and passion in completely alien situation, rather than situations which simply lend themselves to light sitcom.”
The actor appears to have given considerable thought to his character’s function — or lack thereof — in Sliders. But today, at least, he doesn’t sound very optimistic about Arturo’s future. “Unless the Professor has a purpose, he could easily evolve into a cliché character, sort of the standard butt of jokes and things like that. That would be a sorry way to do it. I would certainly prefer not to do that. If you want the show to go in a certain direction, particularly if you’re aiming for a more youthful audience, it might actually be better to do with one less Slider. If I was producing this show, and if the professor truly didn’t have a function, it would be better to let him go and concentrate on the others.”
If the Professor sticks around, Rhys-Davies has his own ideas as to which of his qualities the writers should emphasize. “I think he should be the father figure to young Quinn, the one who’s pushing his student, whom we know had got more in him to go father than the Professor has. And yet I know there is a feeling that there should be more tension between the characters, to make it more interesting. I think this is a mistake. The conflict should come with the limits of our intelligence against completely haphazard and irrational occurrences in each parallel universe. The question for the writers is, do they want to make Arturo jealous of Quinn’s genius — which I think diminishes the character — or do they want to make the Professor a sort of teacher who expand the possibilities of his prodigy? Because that is part of the Professor’s genius. It’s an unresolved argument at present.”
Differences between Tormé and Rhys-Davies aside, O’Connell believes that the scripts he has seen thus far indicate an upswing in Sliders‘ overall quality. “Sliders is a smart show. The second season is a lot smarter; the show’s first season was a little dumbed-down. Everyone involved has pretty much been feeling their way around to see where they wanted the show to go. This year I think we nailed it; we know exactly what we want. The storylines are much better and I think it’s much sharper.
“A series can be a grind. It’s very easy in episodic television to do the same thing every week, to recycle stories and use the same setting. We’re doing our best to steer away from that. Sliders gives us an opportunity as actors to really test our abilities ad push us to the limit. This show really keeps you interested. I’ve found it very hard to get bored. That was part of my original attraction to the show. I knew I would be playing different characters all the time.”
Sliders fans can look forward this year to plotlines with a more controversial edge. “We’re going to see a parallel world where men are sterile and Quinn, Rembrandt, and Arturo are the only virile men on the planet,” he offers with a big smile. “That’s going to be fun. We also visit a world where San Francisco is a penal colony — the Big Quake is about to happen and that’s why the city is turned into a big prison, because they think it’s going to slide into the ocean.”
O’Connell is clearly pleased by the direction things are taking this season for his alter ego. “You’ll see me playing parallel Quinns more this year, which is always fun to do. That’s very exciting for me as an actor. Aside from more ‘Quinn Twos,’ you’re going to see a lot more love interests for my character. Basically, he’s older, he’s smarter, he’s sharper, like the rest of the show.
“I realized this was a show with endless possibilities when I went out bars a couple times and people would say, Hey, you’re on that TV show Sliders! I’ve got a great idea for a parallel world.’ Everyone seems to have an idea. And they were all very creative. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this show really sparks people’s imaginations; it really gets people thinking.'”
Everyone involved with Sliders hopes for a long run. But if cancellation were imminent, both O’Connell and Tormé would like to see a final episode where the show’s loose ends are resolved. Says O’Connell, “I’m an old-fashioned moviegoer. I’m a big fan of The End.’ So, if the show were to get canceled some day, I would like to see a definite ending. I always feel cheated when a movie leaves me hanging.”
“If I absolutely knew I would never film another episode of Sliders, then yes, I would love to have closure on the show,” explains Tormé. “I would love to leave the show in a place where the characters have either come home or, maybe more interestingly, have chosen another world to live on. We would resolve the Quinn-Wade relationship, we would resolve the Crying Man looking for his niche in the world again. That might mean them coming home, or maybe they end up in another society where they feel they can make a difference.”
Jerry O’Connell offers his ideas for a “last episode” finale. “We get to go home — that would be a happy ending. The Sliders find a world where they prefer to stay — that would be a happy ending too. A sad ending would be they split up, or they all perish… you could really go anywhere with it. But I would prefer a happy ending. I’m a happy ending kind of guy.”
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