by David Z. C. Hines
As anyone who follows television knows, the majority of series die early on. SF and fantasy shows, in particular, have a high casualty rate. But if most shows die in the great war with the ratings, there are a few weathered veterans. And every once in a while comes a regular hopping vampire — a show that seemingly can’t be killed.
Case in point: the alternate-worlds adventure Sliders, which has been resurrected yet again by the Sci-Fi Channel. New episodes began airing last June (moved from January in order to maximize its ratings against the networks’ summer reruns). While this latest resurrection is probably the most surprising of the several Sliders has experienced, its whole life has been a series of such breaks.
“Sliders was a show that really accidentally got on the air to begin with,” said David Peckinpah, executive producer and the sole veteran on the Sliders writing staff. “They made a pilot that nobody liked at Fox. They ran the pilot; the pilot did good numbers, which shocked and surprised them; they then put the show on two seasons as a midseason show to very lackluster numbers. But, because they had had decent luck with it in certain timeslots, and it did well in its demographics and tested better than shows they would put in behind it — or they would pull it off and put something else in which would do worse — it kept coming back on. The fact that it stayed on the air as long as it did, I think, is miraculous.”
While Sliders did win a following during its first season, it proved a controversial show within fandom (in large part because lauded fantasist George R.R. Martin had pitched Doorways, a series with a nearly identical premise, to Fox the season before) and never won a huge audience. The second season was more frustrating than the first, as Fox restrictions on the show proved chafing for co-creator and executive producer Tracy Tormé. Tormé had some ambitious plans for the show, including the introduction of some long-term storylines; but Fox nixed his idea, arguing that Sliders should be a traditionally episodic show. According to Tormé, Fox even wanted the cliffhanger that ended the first season to be ignored entirely, and only grudgingly agreed to give him a few minutes of screen time to resolve the cliffhanger.
Matters only got worse in the third season.
“Well,” Peckinpah explained diplomatically, “Fox executives were very supportive but very unclear about what it was they wanted the show to be. They knew what it had been wasn’t something they were interested in continuing with; they felt it only appealed to the sci-fi audience, which the numbers seem to bear out is a small but dedicated share group… But Fox was interested in expanding and getting more people into the show, which they felt would be accomplished by making it more of a fantasy adventure show and less the pure sci-fi.”
Whose idea was it to make scripts by shamelessly haircutting movies like Species and Anaconda?
“That would be Fox.”
The third season didn’t live up to Fox’s rating hopes. In addition, it was a critical flop, especially among long-time fans of the series. Even detractors of Sliders had to admit that they’d rather watch the first and second seasons than the third; some cynics even made unfavorable comparisons to Star Trek: Voyager, along the lines of “Voyager‘s bad, but at least it’s not Sliders.”
And then the walk-outs began. Co-creator Robert K. Weiss had effectively left after the first season; during the third season, Tracy Tormé took a reduced role, then left the series entirely. The famously diplomatic Cleavant Derricks (“Rembrandt”) and Jerry O’Connell (“Quinn”) expressed dissatisfaction with the series’ direction. Series regular John Rhys-Davies (“Arturo”), who had complained vociferously about script quality from the beginning, left the show. His replacement Kari Wuhrer (“Maggie”) failed to win a fan following, perhaps because more screen time in the third season was devoted to showcasing her breasts than developing her character. (The printable nicknames with which the fans dubbed Wuhrer included “Dangerbunny” and “Woo-woo.”) When Sabrina Lloyd elected to leave Sliders at the end of the season, many fans threw up their hands in despair.
The prospect of having to build on such foundations might inspire many producers to do the same. The third season, noted new executive story editor Chris Black, “was no longer about their odyssey, and this quest to find a way home, it was just about eye candy. ‘The Breeder‘ is a great example, because it was all about looking at [Kari Wuhrer] in this slinky seductress sort of mode and it was about just trying to garner people to watch the show, which I think was the wrong approach to take. We’re going to try to sort of get away from that, and just write what we think is good for the show and good for the characters. And we hope people will appreciate that and want to tune in to see that,” pointing to the series’ new lease on life which begins on the Sci-Fi Channel.
Sliders‘ staff faces the daunting challenge of breaking new ground and winning back their old audience. They’re looking forward to it.
The rescue by the Sci-Fi Channel was facilitated by the relationship between the Channel and its until-recently-direct-owner Universal (SFC is now owned by HSN, but is still connected to Universal), a relationship that also promises to benefit Sliders with creative freedom that the series has not enjoyed until this point. “Being with Sci-Fi now, and the complete freedom and content they’re giving us,” Peckinpah explained, “we can really get in to do some much more cerebral kinds of stories and not so much the run-and-jump action. I mean, we’ll want some of those because Universal has the vested interest in the foreign sales on the show, but we can also take some time out to do some of the more quiet, reflective shows as well, which will be fun.”
Those “more quiet, reflective shows,” will also see some much-needed character development for the regular characters. “Definitely we want to explore Rembrandt and Quinn and Maggie more deeply,” emphasized producer Marc Scott Zicree. “We’re going to have Rembrandt taking a more active role, not so much falling into the victim’s role or the butt of the joke role. If there’s a joke, he’ll be in on it, and if there’s action, he’ll be driving it as much as any of our other characters. Additionally, with Maggie, we’re going to have her have a softer tone, not be quite so in your face. She’ll still be strong, but she’ll be someone that people will want to be with, will want to spend time with. So already in the scripts we’re deepening her character a lot. Chris Black did a really good script that has a very good take on Maggie, where she’s strong but human, and we get a sense of her — she seems much more real and reflective in the episodes I’ve seen that deal with her. And I think that’s a good template; in fact, I’m rereading Chris’ script again, to just get that voice in my head.”
Peckinpah elaborated: “Rembrandt becomes more a co-leader this year, less the follower. We’re looking at it because we now have three Sliders — more of an equal decision-making process. That was one of the other edicts from Fox last year; they really wanted Jerry to be the leader, and they wanted everybody else to be kind of following behind him — and the cast was uncomfortable with that and we were uncomfortable with that. So this year there’s really much more of an equality among them. Which is more fun to write and more fun for them to play.”
As for Maggie, continued Peckinpah, “What we are looking at as far as her character evolution this year is her actually becoming a Slider rather than an independent operator who just happens to be sliding with them. There is a definite attraction between her and Quinn that was explored at the end of the last season which we are trying to keep on the simmering stage. At this point we’re really not thinking of getting them together in a romantic way. And she will step up to the plate and really assume a lot of the storyline.”
Quinn will also go through some changes, but Peckinpah was reluctant to discuss them. “All I can tell you is that he’s going into a whole new life. That’s all I can reveal at this time,” he chuckled mysteriously. He was willing to admit that Quinn’s life will be changed when a new regular character will appear on the show beginning in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, the sixth episode. “Jerry’s real-life brother is going to be coming onto the show as a regular playing his brother from an alternate world — Charlie O’Connell — who’s actually a year younger than Jerry but will be playing a year or two older.”
Colin, who hails from a non-technological world and thus has more of a wide-eyed quality to him about the alternate worlds he encounters than do the other characters, proved more of a writing challenge than the producers had anticipated. “Initially we were thinking of him more like Quinn,” recalled Zicree, “and it became problematical because you didn’t need two Quinns. So we met with Jerry O’Connell, we met with his brother Charlie, we talked with them, we got a sense of how they were alike and how they were different as individuals, and then just started batting stuff around in-house. And then we came up with a few alternatives that we didn’t care for, that just didn’t really click, as we were starting to work out stories. They really weren’t giving us enough juice. And finally David Peckinpah came up with an idea, a take on the brother that we all liked. And as soon as he said it, it was one of those ‘of course’ moments, and that gave us our insight into his personality, and now we’re starting to generate stories dealing with him. And we’re having a lot of fun with it.”
In addition to improved characterization, promised Peckinpah, viewers can expect to see more ambitious stories, including some long-term storytelling. “We’re going to back into the exploration of the Kromaggs that were introduced in Tracy’s script ‘Invasion.’ They were an interesting idea that we’re now going to expand on, so that we’ll have this kind of warrior Viking race of Neanderthal-like people that are dominating and conquering every parallel world they come in contact with as recurring foes for the Sliders over six shows.
The Kromaggs made their presence felt in Genesis, the season premiere, written by David Peckinpah. “At the end of the season last year,” Peckinpah elaborated, “Remmy and Wade were sent to Earth Prime with Rickman’s timer and our people Maggie and Quinn were left behind with their timer and with the idea that they would be able to follow the photon trail back, left by Rembrandt and Wade, and they would be able to return to Earth Prime. And so we have established that the timer has malfunctioned, and they have been three months behind them, kind of random sliding — and finally do end up on Earth Prime to find that it’s been overrun by Kromaggs and Remmy is in prison and Wade is nowhere to be found… it’s a fairly tough show; it’s dark emotionally, it gives the actors a chance to stretch, and I hesitated to make it so dark but to introduce a race of higher primates that are absolutely ruthless you need a rather dark palette. The Sci-Fi Channel is willing to play ball with us, so we’re going for it.” The episode, Peckinpah hinted, will also contain several surprises for the characters and the audience.
Although the Kromaggs will be “ruthless and relentless,” the writers hope to make them more than Mongols of paratime by developing them as individuals and as a culture. Zicree explained, “Although they’re the enemy, they do have, from their viewpoint, a valid reason for what they do. So although we’re going to keep them as the adversary and fairly dark characters, we’re going to get to know them as people and as individuals. So far, in David’s script and in Chris’, we really get to know them better, and there’s another script that we have in story at the moment called ‘The Dying Fields,’ in which we meet a hybrid Kromagg/human and get to know her. So each Kromagg story we do, we’re going to be delving deeper into that culture, deeper into that backstory. So the face of the enemy will become — I was going to say ‘a human face;’ it’s not quite a human face, but it’s certainly a personality that we can connect with… and also we’ll find there are differing philosophies in the Kromagg culture, so some of the Kromaggs we encounter will be more hard-edged than others; they aren’t a uniform mindset. As with any culture, there’s diversity.”
The greatest challenge for Sliders‘ writers remains dictated by the series format: telling a new story in a different alternate world every week poses logistical problems, both within scripts and in the real world.
“We’re having to tell these beginning, middle and end stories, set up a world and resolve everything in 48 pages,” said Peckinpah ruefully. “That doesn’t leave a lot of room for character development, and for moments that are off-story, that aren’t simply plot mulling the next story point from A to B. And it seems that in this kind of storytelling it’s very hard to develop these characters with a degree of consistency over the season when the shows by their nature are so busy with plot. And we’re trying to figure out a way to open the show up a little bit, so we have a little more room for those character scenes, which are everybody’s favorite scenes.”
Another problem the producers plan to fix is Sliders‘ long-standing lack of internal consistency. Said co-executive producer Bill Dial, “There’s a lot of evidence in reading the show bible and reading the material by people who watched the show that there could have been a little more consistency in the way the stuff works. We spent a couple of weeks up here with the new staff guys just trying to figure out what the hell the timer was and how does it work, because there were two or three different versions of it. Particularly last year. The third year there were two or three versions of the timer and how it worked and what it did and what it couldn’t do and so forth. Just getting stuff like that cleared up.”
To meet the challenge of building a new world every week on a syndicated budget, Sliders is taking steps to tell its stories efficiently. Zicree toured the set of Babylon 5 to study that show’s low-cost, high-impact production model — although, he cautioned, “We’re not really utilizing the Babylon 5 model in terms of production, because that’s all set on one soundstage, it’s all interiors, they never go on location. Our show really can’t do that; we do have location shooting. The way we’re trimming back is — we’re not trimming back at all in terms of the kinds of stories we can do. There hasn’t been a single instance where David’s said, ‘Well, we could have done that last year but we can’t this year.’ Mainly what we’re doing is using what we’ve got very efficiently. For instance, we know that we can do either one big stunt or one interesting optical per act. So we basically structure our stories to make use of that.”
As opposed to previous seasons, Sliders is shooting on the Universal back lot, which gives the series several existing sets to work with. The series is also making some use of a standing set, unusual for an anthology series. “There’s a hotel that we’re calling the Chandler Hotel,” Zicree explained, “and we’ve built this massive set that includes the lobby and the bar and so forth, and pretty much every episode we’ll be redressing that; in every world it’ll have a slightly different function, be dressed in a different way, so I think we’ll get a lot of use out of that.”
All told, the Sliders crew doesn’t see their lowered means as a limitation, and they’re looking forward to premiering on the Sci-Fi Channel. “The Channel,” said Peckinpah, “has been incredibly supportive. I worked for USA for a few years. I knew some of the same people. But our programming executive at Sci-Fi I happened to work with before, Steve Sardelli, and he’s very bright, and a big fan of the show, and very supportive, and his notes are without question the most articulate I’ve gotten at any network.”
Concluded Chris Black, “I hope that people who’ve watched the show in the past, who are probably justifiably concerned about the change of the guard — because it’s changing networks, it’s a completely new writing staff and very few of the people are around who conceived of the show — realize that we’re going to try to be true to the show, we’re going to try to be true to the characters, and make it a fun, interesting show to watch. And we’re just going to write the best episodes we can do.”
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