Salvaging “Stoker”

A single candle burns on the table. Wade is sitting before a vanity mirror putting on makeup.  She’s wearing a black muscle T-shirt. The ROCK music underscores her actions as she applies dark eye shadow, dark lipstick. She’s turning Gothic.

– actual line of action from Stoker’s script

What is the woman next to Tommy Chong doing? Or wearing?Here at Earth Prime, we like to trash the bad episodes of Sliders almost as much as we enjoy praising the great ones… oh, who are we kidding? It’s much more fun to trash the bad ones. And my goodness, there are oh so many!

Take Stoker. This episode, part of an epic string of bizarre trainwrecks that embody the late third season, still stands out for its absurdity. Vampires?! Rock and roll vampires at that?! TOMMY CHONG?!?

And yet, it almost challenges you to try and make it less ridiculous. Consider it: David Peckinpah gives this assignment to you. He wants vampires; ‘real’ vampires. How do you not embarrass yourself? Presume the beat sheet is his idea and he wants this very plot. How do certain scenes get rewritten so that the episode remains stupid (there’s no choice there – we’re talking vampires), but that some fans look back and say, “Well, it wasn’t a total loss…” Better yet, treat it as if you were the story editor. You need a script for tomorrow and you get handed the production draft to Stoker. You do not have time to do a page 1 rewrite; you need to salvage what you can. Go!

Define the conflict

Stoker Quinn and WadeUnfortunately, the current conflict is largely Sliders vs. vampires. Letting the alt-world drive the story is typically a recipe for mediocrity. The best Sliders stories are built around character and conflict. And surprising as it is, there is a character conflict in this story crying out to be exploited, and that is a conflict between Wade and Quinn.

Since the death of Arturo, these two have been slipping away from each other. Or perhaps more accurately, they’ve been driven apart by a one woman wrecking crew named Maggie. But whenever Wade turns to Quinn for support, he hedges, unwilling to take on their new companion. Times are bad. Wade’s really hurting. She’s in a place where it becomes possible that she’d give up and go her own way.

So that’s the thrust of this episode – the divide between Wade and Quinn. Everything else is ultimately subservient to that.

Laying the groundwork (aka Build your Alt-world)

Stoker Duff McKaganLet’s begin with the vampires. Because the show spent very little time explaining the mythology of vampires, the viewer could only default to what they ‘know’ about them from other sources. Such as: vampires are immortal, they can only go out at night, they can turn themselves into bats, etc. But what we see is all over the place. Morgan (the leader, played by Ryan Alosio) and Harker (the drummer, played by actual rock star Duff McKagan) seem to have different sets of powers. While Morgan conforms to the more traditional view of vampires, Harker is able to walk around in the sun, employ telekenesis, and shoot lightning bolts from his guitar. It’s highly confusing.

Those familiar with Dracula know that Renfield is human and controlled by Dracula, but if you didn’t know that, the Danny Masterson character (also named Renfield) makes little sense. He too walks around in the sun and does Morgan’s bidding. But as shown in the blood clinic, he is NOT a vampire as he was killed by bullets. And yet everyone else in Stoker’s employ is a vampire.

So these things need to be laid out or not included at all. When it comes to Harker, I’d cut all of his superpower scenes. The killing of the music critic is expendable. What does it prove? That vampires are bad? Yeah, we figured that out. And since Harker never employs those same abilities again, it’s not even foreshadowing. It’s just a weird, mythology-busting scene.

Stoker Harker skeletonWe could also use some consistency in how vampires die. Most vampires in the show fall oozing black bile, but not Morgan. He is skeletonized. What’s the difference? And Van Elsinger’s claim that taking out Morgan will stop them all; how does that work? You kill the head vampire and every vampire disintegrates? That’s a reach. But let’s assume it’s true: killing Morgan is an instant victory. THEN GO AFTER MORGAN! Don’t waltz into a building full of vampires. Walk into a club while he’s performing and open fire on him from the mosh pit. Since that doesn’t help the narrative of the episode, cut any nonsense about Morgan being the key to victory. He’s just the toughest opponent, nothing more.

To further compound the confusion, most of the characters are named from Dracula (with the band named after its author). And yet, Van Elsinger (played by Chong) doesn’t get the reference. It’s a joke, but it’s messed up. By invoking Dracula so frequently and then ignoring its mythology, it just further confuses the issue. And how is it that this world’s reality coincides so much with a work of fiction? It’s never addressed (nor could it be). If the band wants to call itself Stoker, I think that’s acceptable. And the band itself could go by names from the book. That’s all theater. But the book needs to exist for any of the other references to apply. And Chong cannot be called Van Elsinger, a fictional character that ‘died’ a century ago.

Stoker Quinn and  Van HelsingAs to explaining the mythology to the audience, it has to be part show but part tell. Van Elsinger explaining how to kill vampires to Quinn is good; they’re in a fight. But once the battle is over and Quinn has regrouped with Rembrandt, the Quinn we used to know would be learning everything he could to gear up for the fight to save Wade. Then we could get the broad strokes of the mythology out as he explains to a disbelieving Rembrandt.

Morgan’s mind control skills need not be explained, but they certainly must be displayed.  Rather than ADR that she’s under a spell, make it clear to at least Quinn that she is under Morgan’s control. I hate to say it, but Maggie and Rembrandt are just too dumb to pick up on it, at least how they are now (although they’ll later trump themselves in Lipschitz Live).

One final note on mythology before we move on: the police don’t care about vampires for the same reason they don’t care about the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. They don’t exist. There’s no law outlawing vampirism. Vamps are careful; they don’t attract unwanted attention. The Van Elsingers of the world tend to be kind of weird and easy to dismiss. When Quinn does his research, it’s all written by crackpots. And yet, for the purposes of this story, it’s true.

Rewriting the Main Story

Now that we know how this world works, we can start to make sense of the jumble of scenes that comprise this episode. With some minor shifts, we can create viable throughlines for both plot and characters.

Let’s take a look at the teaser. We are introduced to a rock band comprised of vampires. Actual vampires. The game is given away before any of our regular cast even appears in this episode. We then cut to their show where we find Wade in the audience, singing along to a song she should have never heard of before. And the lead singer has his eye on her. So we’re left with the impression that Wade could be next on the menu.

I’m actually going to keep the teaser but I’ll consider that it might be backwards. Perhaps we should start with the show. The band is rocking. Wade is in the audience, entranced with the lead singer. The lead singer seems entranced with her. In fact, it seems like he’s singing directly to her. Lots of focus on their eyes.

Stoker backstageCut to end of the show, backstage. The band is getting ready for the afterparty. Have Renfield, behaving like a roadie, bring the groupie to Morgan. Leave the two alone. Morgan kills her. Then show him concentrating. Cut to Renfield, who’s packing stuff up. Suddenly he stops. He returns to Morgan, less like himself, more like a servant. Morgan instructs a shaken Renfield to dispose of the body. Morgan looks into Renfield’s eyes and Renfield complies with no objections. Give Morgan a little monologue where he laments his hunger. Renfield hopes that his master is sated. Cut to Wade leaving the club. Morgan voices over that on the contrary, his appetite has only been whetted.

This serves two purposes. One, it explicitly puts Wade in the crosshairs. But more importantly, it demonstrates that Morgan has some hypnotic power that he can use at a distance. With this demonstration, Wade’s next set of actions start to make some sense.

And what are her next moves? After a mild confrontation with Maggie, she starts to become “gothic.” Why? Well, now we can presume that Morgan has acquired some hold on her. It’s not complete, but it’s enough to influence her. It is Morgan that pulls her back to the Mayan.

Stoker: Wade singingOn screen, the next thing we see is Wade playing keyboards and singing. I have long blasted this as completely out of character, but for the sake of conjecture let’s assume Sabrina Lloyd has requested she be able to do some singing. Because we’ve put her through hell the last few months, we agree. Trouble is, Wade has no known musical abilities. And we know she has none because if she had, it would have come out by now seeing as Rembrandt is a professional musician. How do we remedy this? Morgan.

Morgan shows her a ballad he is working on, one he feels would be better suited for a woman’s voice. Wade demurs. She can’t sing. Morgan insists. He plays the keyboard. They lock eyes. Wade finds the courage to sing. But it’s all Morgan. He is controlling the scene; he is controlling her. The character discontinuity is resolved.

At this point, Morgan has some control, but not total control. Here we would benefit from a scene where Wade threatens to leave the team. Is it her? Or Morgan? Have her say all the things she feels right now and turn those feelings against Quinn, who rightly is to blame for a lot of it. He has made a lot of bad decisions as of late, one deadly. Make the confrontation credible. Quinn will ultimately learn experienced vampires employ hypnosis (God I hated to type that) and he can tell himself that is what’s going on between him and Wade, but the words Wade says are no less true.

With this new powerful scene, Wade’s rounding into form. But we can go much further. Why should Quinn get to be the hero at episode’s end (other than Jerry O’Connell directing the episode)? This is a Wade ep. She got into the mess; let’s consider her getting herself out of it.

Stoker Quinn and Wade talkRight now, we have a one off comment from Quinn saying Wade won’t become a vampire until she makes her first kill. But Wade never threatens anyone. Perhaps we change that. Morgan may be reluctant to take her with him until she is one of them. Maybe he intends to have her kill one of the Sliders when the timer is “exchanged.” And since we’ve had one blowout between Quinn and Wade already, it should be Quinn that Morgan encourages her to kill. That’s where we’re heading – an actual showdown between Wade and Quinn.

Of course, Wade could never hurt Quinn. Her affection for him breaks the spell. She turns on Morgan and kills him instead, probably with Quinn slipping her the weapon when he sees that she’s herself again. All’s well that ends well, and even Maggie’s got to admit that messing with Wade again may not be a good idea.

Do all this and that final scene between Quinn and Wade will be earned, not another throw off line that you know Quinn won’t feel obligated to honor next week.

Vampire Fighting

Van Elsinger and Quinn’s battle royale in the museum is cut. I think a scenario could be written where Quinn is compelled to go on a murderous rampage, but only after he’s become thoroughly convinced that something he cannot understand is happening and he has no other alternative.

We can re-order things so Van Elsinger and Quinn encounter a single vampire (the security guard) and retreat, rather than charge into battle immediately. This gives us two big boosts to the script. One, as stated before, it gives Quinn time to learn about the situation as best he can and fill in the remaining blanks to Rembrandt (and the audience.) Two, it sets up a frantic, climactic battle where Van Elsinger is killed as they fight their way to Wade. And you know what? They can still fight Harker (and his magical guitar) before advancing to the final showdown with Wade and Morgan in this scenario.

Deal with Rickman Subplot

Stoker Maggie confronts RickmanRickman is a secondary villain in this episode. The threat he poses to this world is secondary to that of… vampires. So why include him? Well, the series arc is to chase him. And this is a probably rare example of a situation where Rickman’s MO can be confused with another villain. And we probably agreed to pay Neil Dickson a certain amount of times, so here we are.

The first scene of act one needs to be rewritten. By now, our team should know what to do when they arrive on each world. None of the suggestions made are revelatory. They can conference to divide up tasks, lament not having a good lead as of yet, but let’s try and show some intelligence in our scheme to capture the mad colonel.

Rickman’s relationship with the blood bank doesn’t really work because as they say on screen, blood banks don’t do much DNA work. Besides, Rickman has a coma patient that he’s draining and Rickman’s almost out of here. He wouldn’t need another list. Assuming the coma patient died (which needs to happen), he’d need just one more name. So let’s do that instead.

As for Quinn, he does not need to go to a hospital and confirm that someone has been put into a coma by Rickman. That is given. What he needs to know is the circumstance. Where was the person found? How long ago? So he must interact with the hospital. And let’s unite our two stories here a bit. Get a nurse talking and learn about another body, also with puncture wounds. Except this one had the blood drained out of her. Ok, that’s unusual for Rickman. Give Quinn the first hint that Van Elsinger isn’t completely insane when Quinn puts two and two together.

Let’s pair Maggie and Rembrandt together as they search Skid Row. Let them interact a bit. Have Rembrandt inquire about what they’re supposed to do when they find Rickman. Maggie’s plan is to kill him. With what? Rembrandt counters. How? Where? What is the actual plan, Maggie? Put some pressure on her. After they get him, then what? Maggie can’t follow them home. Let’s use this opportunity to learn some things about Maggie. This replaces the grave digging. We can have them visit the blood clinic in place of Quinn, who doesn’t need to visit the clinic to know where Wade is. There should be enough here to suggest to them that this place should be staked out and they alternate duties.

So that leaves us with the final scene between Rickman and Maggie. Currently, we have Maggie just hanging out there for no apparent reason. In this scenario, she’s there on stakeout, but all this time sitting around has left her dozing. But we can up the tension. Let’s say Maggie has the timer. Wade could have vampires converge on the blood clinic to capture Maggie. We could have the vampires attack as Rickman and Maggie are fighting it out. Rickman could stun the vampires by making his escape and Maggie could show some rare intelligence and run while the vampires are distracted. She then regroups with the others for the big assault at the end.

In Conclusion

Stoker Harker and WadeAt the end of the day, “Stoker” is still an episode about vampires. But with a greater focus on the central conflict between Quinn and Wade, a more consistent mythology for the parallel world, and a lot more intelligence, we have an episode remembered more for how it took something insane and sort of made it work than as just another of the late season failures that cost “Sliders” its place on network television.

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