Murder Most Foul

"There are no small parts, only small actors, right?" — Quinn.

Review by Matt Hutaff

Really Good

Say what you will about David Peckinpah’s techno-Dickensian parallel world, but I like it.

Think about it: children have IT capabilities that would make most computer engineers blush, doctors have unlocked the mysteries of the human brain, and the workforce not only dresses cleanly and professionally, they’re not distracted by indulgences like alcohol or fun. Granted, the trade-off is a one-hundred hour work week, but you can’t dismiss the results, and given that Earth Prime struggles with a chronic level of unemployment, the fact that the Americans that inhabit “Murder Most Foul” must work as hard as they do says a lot about their country’s infrastructure.

Sliders is hardly a weekly economics treatise, however, so this alternate take on civilization is mere backdrop to one of the more entertaining episodes we’ve seen this season. While there are some minor plotting problems, it’s a solid, fairly inventive outing that reinforces the Sliders’ “family” and the lengths they go to keep one another safe.

How is this accomplished? By brainwashing the Professor into thinking he’s this world’s equivalent of Sherlock Holmes, Reginald Doyle. A messy slide and a bad attitude put Arturo at odds with the local Thought Police, who detain him in a nearby reality park for high-powered “fractures” (loose cannons so overworked they lose their mind). The parks are a network of immersive environments that help coax the sanity deprived executives back to productivity and Arturo is given the royal treatment based on his double’s success. Naturally, it’s up to the rest of the Sliders to rescue him — both mentally and physically.

I’ll admit — the premise is pretty ridiculous. In a series where the principal cast meets different versions of themselves on a routine basis, why should anyone care about a case of multiple personality disorder? Likewise, why would the viewer invest themselves in a traditional mystery when they’ve tuned in for science fiction?

The answer to both questions is execution. While the notion of doubles is interesting, it also limits our characters to interaction with “themselves” in a consequence-free environment. Doubles are designed around their personality defects. We don’t think for a minute the Sliders will sympathize with Wade’s doppelganger from The Young and the Relentless, but take the Professor and essentially transform him into a “double” and how would you react? It’s an interesting spin on the series’ premise.

Likewise, a mystery is something new for Sliders (the only thing similar in execution was the tightly plotted Obsession), and I appreciate innovation. The gang can’t fight a revolution, encounter CGI or solve the world’s problems every week, so trying something different — particularly when it works — is a welcome diversion.

Eventually the Sliders learn of Arturo’s abduction and find their way into period actor roles at the park — coveted positions in this workaholic society. How? The audience is left to scratch their heads when the Sliders nab choice assignments with no prior acting experience. Quinn in particular is given “lead billing” as Marple, Doyle’s sidekick, while Rembrandt and Wade are relegated to background fodder. This ranks as a very large plot hole… but we soldier on.

As with all mysteries, the park has its usual cast of characters and suspects: Erin (Brigid Brannagh) fulfills her role of disposable expository device while Doctors Dunhill (Brian McNamara) and Bolivar (David Purdham) oversee the park and Arturo’s therapy. Then there’s Trevor (Adam Wylie), the child prodigy who can disassemble and reassemble the timer effortlessly. All are instrumental in helping Arturo-as-Doyle solve a real murder while the Sliders try to figure out how to reverse the effects of the Professor’s brainwashing.

It’s a pretty elaborate simulation. Arturo reinforces his hypnotic suggestion with a period pocket watch, dresses as Sherlock Holmes would and lives in an authentic recreation of a Victorian era neighborhood. One of the local prostitutes is “dispatched” by Jack the Ripper so that Arturo can arrive on scene and point out deficiencies in the “investigation.” The Sliders are mortified at this, particularly when they discover that the woman really isn’t dead — she’s a Designated Victim, one of the featured roles! But that’s not the only problem — the timer is stolen as well.

Now, few things bring an episode to a halt faster than the “stolen timer” subplot. It was thankfully pulled from State of the Art before hitting the screen but it’s appeared in enough episodes to merit a healthy roll of the eyes. Really, should the Sliders be so lax with their most important possession at this point that Trevor could pinch it from Quinn’s jacket pocket? It’s done simply to shoehorn Trevor’s presence into the story and it isn’t needed. The fact that Trevor has a vital clue later in the episode is enough to merit his appearance; the episode could have benefited by using the screen time in other ways.

For example, the episode shines when they focus on the interaction between Quinn and the Professor. There’s an air of desperation in Quinn’s actions and words as he tries to help the Professor solve the murder mysteries. The Arturo he knows has been hijacked, but Quinn keeps himself in check with the hope that what he’s saying and doing is getting through to him. I’d liken it to the way a family member tiptoes around someone with Alzheimer’s; the person you know and love is standing right in front of you, but they have no idea who you are. That would be incredibly frustrating and Jerry O’Connell does a fine job in conveying that.

That’s not to say the others don’t shine as well. Sabrina, Cleavant and John are clearly having fun throughout the episode and while Rembrandt is more muscle than anything this time around, Wade plays the damsel in distress card with aplomb. As for John, it’s tough to tackle multiple personalities regardless of the situation, but the confusion and anger he feels as his programming fails is well done.

Should I explain the mystery? Well, someone dies for real and we need to determine which of the remaining three guest stars did it. Was it the kid who stole the timer and who may be a fracture himself, the callous park administrator who prides Arturo’s therapy over the tragic death of some “civvie worker” or the doctor who’s spent his life crafting the technology that allows for personality overrides? Wait — did I just spoil who doesn’t make it to the end credits? Sorry about that. If it makes you feel better, the victim goes out wearing a push-up bra that essentially pushes her chest out of your television set!

There are some other fun moments, like Trevor decrying the timer’s technology as “strictly last year” and Elston Diggs referring to the Sliders’ normal attire as dressing “tramp.” The best moment, though, comes when the Sliders magically levitate to a wormhole 10 feet off the ground and slide through it.

Stupid special effects, when will you learn?!

Other than that the episode is fun, well acted and interesting. This is hardly Double Cross but you definitely won’t leave the room wondering how to get an hour of your life back. Heck, check it out for no other reason than to see John Rhys-Davies dressed properly for a change instead of in a T-shirt and sports coat! You won’t be disappointed.

On a side note, this episode marks the end of Tracy Tormé’s involvement with Sliders. After a diminished presence since father Mel Tormé’s stroke, Tracy’s contract has ended and it wasn’t renewed. It must be good to go out on a high note, but it makes one wonder where the show can go from here now that the creator has left the building.

Previously: Next: