Luck of the Draw

"Who's that?"
"Another lucky winner." — Quinn and Arturo.

Review by Matt Hutaff


You’re Wade Welles. Three months ago, on a whim, you jumped into a swirling vortex in the basement of a guy you have a crush on and got lost in the interdimension. Since then you’ve almost died, led a revolution, been proposed to by a King, helped avert global disaster and watched your three friends see fame and idolatry visited upon them.

And now, having just left a world you thought to be paradise, you congratulate your friends on another safe slide out. A casual look at your friend the entertainer. The Professor seems ebullient. And then there’s Ryan. You’ve just taken him for the ride of his life. He’s handsome, adventurous and articulate. In fact, you momentarily lose sight of your best friend, your soul mate as he struggles to stand after a rough exit.

Are you okay? you ask. Your mind is elsewhere. It’s in the arms of the new Sliders as you dance around the ballroom that’s a world away. It’s in the gaze of his eyes… in your arms as you feel the soft fabric of his tuxedo. It’s in your ears as he quotes poetry.

And then your friend collapses. You feel his back and the moist warmth of blood seeps into your palm. And as you scream the most haunting scream you’ve ever yelled, your world collapses to the ground faster than he did.

Cut to black.

· · ·

I hate cliffhangers. Sure, it’s one thing for an established franchise to do it at the end of the season, a la Star Trek, but when you’ve become emotionally invested in a show that’s teetering on the brink of never coming back and one of the main characters is lying in a pool of blood while a new Slider looks at his slightly jaundiced face, “cliffhanger” just doesn’t seem like such a good idea.

However, “Luck of the Draw” is about as good as television can get, and while I wait to see the resolution to everything brought up at the very end, I can ponder the moral and ethical ramifications of an hour of television that is so smart and engaging that it’s no wonder writer Jon Povill won an awareness award for his script. Everything works, and while episodes like Eggheads get perfect marks from me for being such on the ball satire, “Luck of the Draw” gets four stars because it’s such an emotional ride.

Before I get ahead of myself, the logline: the Sliders land on a seemingly idyllic world where a Lottery system dispenses cash whenever you need it. When Wade wins the Lottery (an additional prize of millions of dollars), Quinn discovers that the price for winning the lottery is greater than any dollar amount — death. The Sliders must try and escape before it’s Wade’s turn.

From the synopsis, the plot could have developed in any number of directions, the most obvious being the paradise city that hides a terrible secret. Fortunately, it grew logically and organically, drawing us into this peaceful reality where established birth control methods began en masse in the 19th century and resulted in a world population less than one-tenth what it is on Earth Prime.

After a rough landing on cobblestone, Wade finds a particularly playful stray dog and brings it along with her. They find San Francisco to be calm and relaxed. Food prices sound like they belong in the 1950s. Arturo’s lost wallet is retrieved by a happy teenager (how often you see one of those nowadays?). There are no taxis; automobiles are free for anyone to use.

Best of all is a kiosk on a city corner called the Lottery. Essentially, you walk up, state your name and location and the amount of money you need. Rembrandt pockets five grand, Wade one thousand and Arturo five dollars. Quinn absconds because he’s too busy trying to keep Henry the dog from humping Arturo’s leg (a poor dub job changes it to a mere bite).

The Sliders enjoy a picnic before splitting up; Rembrandt and the Professor head to the pond for some fishing while Wade and Quinn go for a horseback ride. Back at the hotel, Wade crosses her fingers with anticipation in hopes she’ll win the Lottery’s big prize. As someone who took money from the kiosk, she’s eligible to win millions of dollars and White Card privileges (more anon).

Wade wins, and enjoys the lap of luxury courtesy of the White Card, which allows her to buy anything from a merchant at no cost — she cannot be refused. Wade buys a BMW, shops at Cartiers and other fine shops, looks at expensive diamond rings and samples the Spring fashion collection from France. Rembrandt and Arturo enjoy the pampering such wealth brings, and indeed Rembrandt meets another Lottery winner, Julianne Murphy (Alex Datcher), with whom he establishes an immediate rapport.

Quinn… well, Quinn looks bored. And even though he tells Wade he’ll escort her to the Lottery Winner’s Ball, he seems more determined to figure out why you can win millions by asking for more free money while at the same time worrying that Wade will stay behind and keep her new fortune.

At the Ball, Wade meets Ryan Simms (Nicholas Lea of X-Files fame), an adventurer who becomes infatuated with her. Rembrandt and Julianne share some tender, intimate moments. However, it’s when Arturo is talking to the man in charge of the Lottery (Ken Neisser) that things start to get hairy. Arturo intuits something’s wrong at the same time Quinn bursts in, shocking Wade out her state of bliss. Quinn plainly states that the Lottery is population control, and that tomorrow morning, Wade will die.

It’s at this point that the episode kicks into high gear as the four of them try to figure out just what to do with this information. Wade can’t leave; she’s chaperoned every step of the way, and hotel security is tight. Rembrandt doesn’t want Julianne to die and presses Arturo and Quinn to figure out a way to take her with them. And where does Ryan fit in all this? Quinn’s obviously jealous, but if Wade harbors the same feelings Rembrandt does, will the vortex fit seven (including the dog)?

For once, everyone gets something to do, and it’s all gold. The Professor is the calm observer who can take a look at what must look like a barbaric idea and empirically state it’s better than us. I like that — it’s refreshing for them to finally find a world that isn’t in need of being set right by our fearsome heroes. Just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s bad. Science fiction needs more gray areas like this and less absolutes, since there’s nothing absolute about human behavior.

Rembrandt also finally gets a chance to not act like a stereotype, and he gets the second most powerful scene in the episode, when he’s forced to watch Julianne happily “make way” by following through with Lottery procedure. Rembrandt put his neck out on the line to help her, but she would rather die in a room with pretty scenery than trust someone she’s come to love. In retrospect, I’m left wondering if Julianne’s emotions were real at all; since she knew she was going to die, why not have one last fling? However, there’s no circumspection in Rembrandt’s feelings, and these feelings put him in peril. The Lottery Police arrest him for tampering with the system and drive him off for a very painful execution.

Wade, meanwhile, confesses to Ryan. He’s already aware he’s an outsider after the group’s meeting in the atrium, kissing Wade only to have her rebuff him only adds to the confusion. He doesn’t buy Wade’s story but he doesn’t turn her in, either.

After hearing of Rembrandt’s arrest, Quinn and the Professor leave the timer with Wade and steal off to rescue their friend. They retrieve him and race back to the hotel, where they find Wade and Ryan standing over the unconscious form of the Lottery commissioner. Ryan’s saved Wade from death, and with the timer counting down, the Sliders make the hasty decision of making their quartet a sextet.

Bringing us to the cliffhanger mentioned above. As I said, this episode really didn’t pull any punches — everyone is left feeling an emotional backlash.

One excellent scene that seems like an aside yet fits so well into the themes of this episode is one Quinn and Wade have during their ride. Quinn falls and while Wade attends to him, his feelings resurface, something that shocks Wade. “I thought we agreed we weren’t going to do this?” she asks.

“When did we say that?” Quinn asks back. The conversation quickly shifts to the group dynamic; that they should settle down where it’s safe rather than face another unexpected danger. To Quinn, this is an utter reversal of their policy and he is left reeling, stuttering, unsure of what to say. Give up? They will get home, he says. He’s never been more resolute. Wade, however, casts doubt on the whole affair. For the first time, someone staying behind hasn’t sounded more plausible.

The use of their relationship, previously established in Last Days also accentuates a story told entirely between the relationships of the characters.

“Luck of the Draw” will profoundly change the Sliders’ lives. Sliding isn’t quite so safe anymore. Hell, it might even be fatal.

I briefly want to mention Dennis McCarthy’s music. McCarthy, who scored the pilot and innumerable Star Trek episodes, brings this episode to life. When things are good, he conjures the halcyonic overtures that sound like standard Federation chords. You can help but feel this world is larger than life. And when things get bad, he’s right there with the strings to make your skin crawl.

However, the most powerful sound comes from Sabrina Lloyd’s anguished cry as she holds her friend in her arms. It’s a sound that affects me every time I hear it, and it’s an ending that, unsettling as it is, really makes you think about just how far they came since this episode opened.

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