"You have NO right to remain silent, you have NO right..." — police drone.
Review by Mike Truman
There might be an unwritten rule about how to make things sound dystopian, and that’s to create words that end in -ica. It’s a twisting of “America” into something perverse, something unrecognizable. The America of “Narcotica” is indeed twisted; the War on Drugs is over, and drugs won. They are not only legal, they’re mandatory; food is tainted with performance enhancers or worse, and the same is about to happen to the water supply unless — surprise, surprise! — our four can stop it.
In this sense, the comic does nothing to differentiate itself from a standard first season episode. Arturo and Wade have doubles in positions of improbable power or influence. Arturo is an anti-drug leader who is presumed dead. Wade is the head of the Food and Drug Administration. (The world would have to be on drugs to put a 23-year-old in charge of the FDA.) This puts Arturo and alt-Wade on a collision course that may decide the fate of the country. Along the way, the Sliders will run the typical catch-and-release game with their would-be oppressors while attempting to overthrow the societal order. What would the multiverse do without them?
Upon arriving, it is readily apparent that something is terribly wrong with this San Francisco. Rembrandt remarks he’s played gigs in Iraq that look better than this place. The streets are filled with drugged-out wasters, kept in line by policemen straight out of Judge Dredd. The plan is to get off the streets but hunger compels them to search for food. After Wade starts exhibiting an unusual attachment to her cotton candy, the rest wisely decide not to eat until further analysis can be done.
They don’t make it back to the motel before the crowd starts screaming out for Arturo, drawing the attention of the police force. Quinn and Arturo manage to escape in the melee, but Rembrandt is picked up for questioning. Wade, drugged from her food, slips into the crowd and starts to slip out of the storyline.
A friendly stranger (shades of the pilot) escorts Quinn and Arturo to a safe haven run by the healthy and drug-free Timothy Leary. Here Arturo learns his role in the anti-drug movement as well as alt-Wade’s plot to taint the water supply. Feeling guilt over the death of his never-before-mentioned brother to drugs, Arturo takes up the cause as his own and decides he must warn the populace. From this point on, it’s all action as they struggle to get the message out and unite before the slide as government agents close in on them.
Despite a pretty good idea, a smart finish, and a scrupulous dedication to the traditional Sliders formula, “Narcotica” fails to satisfy. There’s this overwhelming impression that we’ve done this before and I say this without giving any consideration to the fourth season episode Just Say Yes, which would work with the same themes. The formula is too “formula” — instead of working out of the template, the sequences here are borrowed directly from prior episodes, Feverin particular.
Both stories have a burned-out back drop where the streets aren’t safe and basic civil rights have been thrown out the window. Both feature a double of our leads in an iconic folk hero role beloved by some, but despised by the establishment. You can’t help but call to mind the scene in Fever where the pharmacy tech freaks out over Quinn when reading of the cries of “Arturo Lives!” in the streets of “Narcotica”. There’s also a parallel race to get off this dimension before disease/drugs brings the team down. Last but not least, the leader of an otherwise marginal government agency (Surgeon General, FDA Administrator) is behind the sinister plot against its own people. What’s next? An evil cabinet member from the Department of Education trying to bring the country to its knees with a plague of leetspeak?
The story also suffers from a lack of balance over the drug question. We see glimpses of why otherwise good people might support the policies of the country. As Rembrandt learns in intoxication, the water bill will ensure that every child gets their immunity vaccines. There will also be freedom from crippling depression, a serious disease that causes considerable pain and misery. But it’s just one page. The rest of the pro-drug argument is presented by alt-Wade, whose lust for power and control is the dominant theme. We do know steroids are perfectly legal here; why would people turn down the opportunity for enhanced performance? It’s an interesting question that’s never seriously entertained.
The water bill is something of a weak excuse to move the plot anyhow. From what we see, pretty much the whole of society has bought into the drug culture. With rare exceptions, all food is heavily processed and tainted. The battle is over. Slipping a mickey into the water isn’t going to change much of anything, and that point is hammered home at the end when no one pays Arturo a whit of attention. Besides, in an authoritarian regime such as this, who is really going to stand against such legislation? The Congress of our (ostensibly) sober United States is easily bought and manipulated; this one could be had for a shiny toy and a Big Gulp.
It’s too bad this story doesn’t deliver as much as it could. It’s a clever premise and there were opportunities for excellence. Sadly, most of the energy goes toward moving the plot in nondescript action sequences rather than any thought provoking analysis.
The comic is done by two pencillers with very different styles which leads to a sloppy presentation. Personally, I favor the first penciller by a wide margin. The characters start out in first season form and end in second season form as a consequence of the shift in artists. Arturo’s hair grows four inches in the space of a day.
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