Comics vs. The Screen

When the Acclaim comic series was introduced, it was hailed as a way to do all the things the show could not given budget restraints, risky content, or technical limitations. Yet when all was said and done, almost every comic made its way on screen in one form or another. This raises a fairly obvious question: if all stories ended up on television anyway, why bother with the comics? In this essay, we’ll take a look at how at how each comic stacked up against its on screen counterpart. It’s print media versus electronic media. Who will prevail?

“Armada” vs. “Invasion”

It’s evident that both stories originate from the same place. Writer and co-creator Tracy Tormé conceived of the basic idea fairly early in the series’ run, but was stopped from making it into television due to network interference. It would seem probable that, having decided he’d probably never get to do it, he moved the idea to the comics as issue #1. To his surprise, he was finally able to convince the network head to let him do the idea for television and suddenly one story is heading down two parallel tracks.

So which villain came first? The two dimensional Zercurvians or the apish Kromaggs? We don’t know for certain. However, we know it would pretty much be impossible to film two dimensional creatures. It was difficult enough to draw. Still, certain similarities remained. The Zercurvian ships are akin to the Kromagg mantas. Though never stated in the comic, the ships certainly appear to be organic, if not alive. Their modus operandi are different, but the results are the same: any dimension either force encounters is doomed.

Despite their common themes, the approaches taken couldn’t be more different. If they were both films, Armada would be the summer blockbuster and Invasion would be the late fall entry looking for Oscar considerations.

To paraphrase seemingly every TV trailer for an action movie, “‘Armada’ is an all out thrill ride that will keep you glued to your seat!” Each improbable situation is topped by another, if not more, improbable situation with a premium put on mayhem and destruction. There’s no time for introspection and any spare moments are spent explaining the new situation being encountered. Formulaically, it ends with the good guys winning and the bad guys getting what’s coming to them, whether it be an eternity trapped in the void or a fight to the death with angry warriors from the lost continent of Atlantis.

In comparison, “Invasion” seems almost quiet. None of the Kromagg destruction is seen as it happens. It’s already happened or about to happen. To compensate, the show relies on outstanding script work, dramatic tension, and a surprising amount of humor given the circumstances. The threat is ever present, and as a viewer you’re just waiting for that sword to fall on one, if not all, of the sliders. Though they get away, the coda tells us that all may still be lost.

Personally, I’m not one to dismiss something because it’s popcorn theater. I like superhero movies and I do watch Michael Bay films. But for me, there’s still no comparison.

Winner: Invasion

“Ultimatum” vs. “Prophets and Loss”

The religious right was too big a target for a social satire to ignore in the late 90s. Organizations such as the Christian Right were at the apex of their power with a Congress sympathetic to their cause. How best to approach it? In both cases, Sliders decided to go after them with a blunt object. Prophets and Loss took the carnival like revivals to the horrific levels of the Holocaust, while Ultimatum took dead aim at the Rapture.

Sliding, by its nature, seems to go against God. There is nothing in the sacred texts that allows for it, and the nature of the Soul is somewhat compromised if there are infinite copies of you. So sliding is a natural conduit for taking on organized religion. In “Prophets and Loss”, a religious and political sect known as the Oracle knowingly uses faulty sliding equipment to murder its own followers with the promise of being transported to the next world. It’s a sideshow to the real intent — power — of which they’ve accumulated so much as to turn the United States into a one party system.

“Ultimatum” goes a step further. Equally faulty sliding equipment is randomly sliding people off the planet, in effect, simulating the Rapture. In the face of what appears to be final evidence of God’s Will, the planet is repenting.

It’s freaking brilliant.

Yes, like its counterpart, there is a religious fanatic hellbent on power behind the phony deliverance, and instead of being teleported to heaven, everyone caught up by the Rapture is being killed. But unlike “Prophets and Loss”, it’s not presented as a choice between blind faith and rationalism. Even rational people are being forced to concede that something they cannot explain is happening and that it fits into a worldview they had dismissed. How they react, and how our four Sliders react, is fascinating. It makes for great storytelling.

In the end, “Ultimatum” probably goes a little too far by presenting the world everyone is being slid off to as one enthralled with Satan. But it’s not nearly as far as declaring the Oracle’s work as “the Final Solution.” That heavy handedness is very off-putting and paints the religious right in such a cartoonish light that your sympathies can start to switch.

Winner: Ultimatum

“Darkest Hour” vs “State of the Art”

You may question why I’d make this pairing as conceptually, the two stories have almost nothing in common other than robots. I make the comparison because one story did it absolutely right and the other has almost no reason to exist.

Though Darkest Hour is a tale about the Sliders battling their own internal demons, the substories that move the action are above average. Rembrandt’s temptation was vanity, and it was presented to him in the form of eternal life in the shell of a robot. To our knowledge, the entire society has chosen to give up their fleshy bodies to switch to more powerful and non-aging cybernetic ones, a decision considered to be a step forward in evolution.

This is how you tell a story about a society inhabited by robots. Contrast that with State of the Art, a run of the mill outing where approximately three thousand robots killed… everybody. This isn’t “The Terminator” either. As the episode shows, they’re quite easily disabled and defeated.

In the end, both stories feature sliders having their brains put into robot bodies against their wills, but one is just so much cooler. One presents an opportunity for enhanced being; the other is a science experiment rendered moot.

Winner:Darkest Hour

“Narcotica” vs. “Just Say Yes”

It’s possible “Ultimatum” influenced “Prophets and Loss”; it seems almost certain Narcotica begat Just Say Yes. “Narcotica” was written by Jerry O’Connell and his role had only increased by the time “Just Say Yes” came along. To their credit, they didn’t simply remake the comic book even though it would have been fairly easy to do so. While “Narcotica” approaches the subject of a world on drugs with seriousness and horror, “Just Say Yes” takes a more comedic approach.

The basic principles are the same. The government is controlling the populace by mandating that everyone be on drugs. The altruistic reasons remain the same too: drugs stave off depression, everyone is reasonably content, no one is dying needlessly from disease. One of the Sliders’ doubles (Arturo’s in the comic, Quinn’s on screen) is an anti-drug leader believed dead and the reappearance has the potential to spark conflict. So in come the authorities to detain or eliminate the threat.

The on-screen world is a lot more functional than the inked version. There is less impetus to overthrow this society. Because the harshness is subdued, there’s a freedom to explore the loopy sides of a few of our Sliders. Maggie and Colin present much needed comic relief in between Quinn and Rembrandt’s flights for their lives. In comparison, a drugged out Wade melts away from the comic book, essentially lost.

Both governments are ruthless in their pursuits of their fugitive rabble-rousers, and both show a willingness to sacrifice their own men to achieve that goal. But “Narcotica”‘s team is far more sinister. Its ruthless leader, alternate Wade, seems in it for the power. The overzealous agent in “Just Say Yes” seems genuinely afraid the country would fall apart if people weren’t sedated. He doesn’t want to do what he’s doing, but he will do it. You don’t like the guy, but it’s not that intense contempt you feel for Wade’s corrupted self.

“Narcotica” doesn’t fail, but it never presents itself as anything different from what we’ve seen before. I can see no reason it couldn’t have been filmed other than its redundant themes. If you’ve seen Fever, you’ve kind of seen “Narcotica.” “Just Say Yes” recycles the idea and twists it enough to become fresh again, and yes, a little fun.

Winner: Just Say Yes

“Deadly Secrets” vs. “Season’s Greedings”

I’ll forgive you if you chuckled or just said “What the hell?” aloud just now. On the face of it, these two stories may not seem to be logical candidates for comparison. One is set in space and the other is set in a shopping mall at Christmas. And yet, they essentially share the same A and B plot. That’s crazy coincidence.

Though lacking inside knowledge of the relations between Acclaim and Universal, I would hazard a guess that David Peckinpah and Alan Barnette had far less (if any) interest in the comics once they took over day to day operations of the show. Tormé and Robert Weiss were the connections to Acclaim. The show had never paid homage to the comics, and the comics began evolving into a universe of their own. So it’s funny to me that both mediums would attempt to break huge stories about Wade’s family and combine that story with critiques of commercialism run rampant.

Season’s Greedings drops us in a mall where Wade encounters doubles of her father and sister. They don’t know her because she died during childbirth in this dimension. Her sister has become someone she doesn’t recognize, putting money ahead of decency. Decency is in short supply all around. Everyone is up to their ears in debt, and those who can’t afford to pay back their debts have become slaves of the creditors. In a telling moment, Arturo explains to one poor woman that the system is rigged and she’s never getting out of the debt. It’s such a poignant moment that you’d swear he was talking to the audience. I think that’s because he is.

Deadly Secrets launches us into space fleeing from an environmental disaster known as ‘Green Thumb’. Before the group gets into orbit, Wade encounters a double of her father, except it’s a father we’ve never seen. When she next runs into her alternate mother, we learn that both were killed when she was young and the parents we know are her foster parents. As in “Season’s Greedings”, neither parent recognizes Wade because in this dimension, she was killed in their stead. The debt situation here is serious as well, with many people working the minimum wage to work off their credit. The mall has been replaced with a space station, but everyone is as captive and will likely never be able to leave.

Same stories, different backdrops. The only variants are the C plots. Arturo’s quest to find a child’s mother on television is replaced by the introduction of Arturo’s illness to the comic book universe. Oddly enough, we learn Arturo was nearly orphaned as a child in one version while Wade is orphaned in the other. Can this possibly all be coincidence? I’m forced to conclude… yes. The television show got the jump and got their story out first, but they were probably both written in the same time period. The parallel storylines are impressive, but they don’t appear planned.

Which story wins out? If the tiebreaker is sentimentality, “Season’s Greedings” has the unfair advantage of being set at Christmastime with all of the holiday trappings. However, I can safely still give the victory to television here because its message of commercialism transcends the episode. It’s a warning to the audience to beware of the invisible mall surrounding them, that the episode is a more pronounced version of reality, but still an accurate reflection. “Deadly Secrets” can’t quite reach that far, though it does sound an alarm of profit over planetary gatekeeping.

Winner: Season’s Greedings

“Get a Life” vs. “The Seer”

It’s the last television episode against the last comic book. I’m not sure what the odds are that they’d be the exact same topic, but that’s Sliders for you. Both feature a world where a psychic has been chronicling the adventures of our Sliders, turning them into cultural phenomena. The key difference is that one respects its fans; the other slaps them around.

The word fan is of course short for fanatic, and the line between supportive and obsessive can be mighty fine. Every television show or comic book series needs fans in order to continue production. They help build ad revenue, buy books, design massive websites to act as central hubs for other fans, etc. They’re necessary. They can also be royal pains in the ass. Fans of The Simpsons are so ruthless in their critiquing that the show runners felt compelled to give them voice through a pathetic character known as the Comic Book Guy. “Worst. Episode. Ever” has become a recognizable quote across all genres.

So how do you deal with these people? If you’re Andy Mangels and Jeff Gomez at Acclaim, you celebrate them. Get a Life, seemingly a barb at us, is actually a reference to the Sliders themselves. Fans at the conventions are portrayed as a little nerdy, but enthusiastic and happy. Furthermore, plenty of nostalgia is peppered throughout its pages. We’ve got “props” from past episodes, inside references, and some network bashing where studio executives are concerned that the group isn’t Asian or gay enough. There’s plenty to laugh at and it’s none too serious. While Arturo grouses that the fans are more interested in the celebrity than they are the real Sliders, he’s not abusing them to their faces.

Then there’s The Seer’s approach. What may have started along similar lines of nostalgic homage unfortunately degrades into abuse. Maggie dismisses fans’ letter writing campaigns as “some people hav[ing] way too much time on their hands.” She’s also quick to blame an attack on Mrs. Mallory on the fans, and treats the fan boys helping them with as much contempt as possible. Maggie may be just staying in character, but if the writers want to take out their frustration on their impending cancellation, focus it on those putting you out of work.

Even good intentions go awry with the return of Professor Arturo, or more accurately, the return of his stunt double. What the producers didn’t understand is that fans wanted John Rhys-Davies’s Arturo. That would have been a face saver. That would have been a true gift back. Instead, this is like telling your kids you’ll take them to Disneyland and then dropping them off at the state fair.

Winner: Get a Life

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