Applied Physics

"I had no right. I can't control my own life; what makes me think I can control someone else's?" — Diana.

Review by Matt Hutaff


If last week was building toward anything, I’m glad it was “Applied Physics.” This is simultaneously both the best episode since Asylum and a contender for most important outing of Sliders since the pilot.

Why is this episode so essential? Simple: it is the first time the audience is treated to an intelligent, realistic examination of what happens when the Sliders mess with the internal affairs of a parallel world. The size of the intervention is negligible – can Diana help her less-than-successful double? – but the consequences are enormous and far-reaching. By the end of the hour distrust is high, lives are changed, and everyone’s a loser. Even worse, they know it.

As much as I love the early seasons, I’d never describe the original Sliders as cautious. In the first season alone the gang fomented multiple revolutions, saved the world (twice!), blew up gender roles on a global scale, and indiscriminately stepped into the lives of their doubles. Their actions were often brash and myopic but the nature of both the timer and episodic television meant never having to deal with the consequences.

Yes, it’s fun to watch dueling Rembrandts belt out “Tears in My Fro” or see Quinn play MIT in a match of “Mindgame.” It’s even a little heartwarming to watch Arturo make peace with the double of his dead wife or see Wade hug Judge Nassau. But think about the tempest brewing in the teapot. If you spend more than five seconds doing so, congratulations – you’ve put more thought into it than any of our intrepid wanderers.

No one strings together a cogent argument for or against intervention during The Guardian, which also tackles a small story involving a double. Any blowback over Sid and Michelle is brushed aside when more random Sliders accompany them in the next episode. Even the Professor’s murder doesn’t hamper the Sliders’ zest for jumping in head first. Why lay low and consider a course of action when you can bumble in and out of inexplicable situations, right? It’s embarrassing.

So we have two new Sliders with no idea how to parse their situation and two veterans who don’t seem particularly interested in teaching them the ropes. In short, it’s a recipe for disaster – one a long time coming.

Picking up shortly after the events of The Unstuck Man, “Physics” shows the new team still struggling to adjust. Is Doctor Geiger out of the picture? Can Diana separate the Quinns? Can Maggie and Rembrandt cope with losing the Mallory brothers? Can Quinn – now called Mallory for some reason – acclimate to the other consciousness floating around in his head?

The answer to all this is no, and these tenuous relationships start unraveling the moment Mallory flashes back to a particularly violent (and previously unseen) assault vanilla Quinn experienced. Realizing separating the Quinns is less important than stabilizing them, Diana visits the local university hoping to use their state-of-the-art equipment to patch the situation.

It’s here she meets Didi, her single mom college dropout doppelganger. Even though Didi’s energetic, friendly, and positive, Diana only sees this double – and herself by extension – as a failure. The mission to save Mallory is sidetracked as she uses Combine technology to “fix” Didi’s situation.

Meanwhile, Maggie attempts to help Mallory with a nifty technological hiccup – a portable holographic device capable of recreating any environment. In a flash, Mallory’s transported them to his childhood home, complete with porch swing and happy parents.

What’s great is each plot is driven by best (but ultimately selfish) intentions; Diana wants Didi’s daughter to have a responsible father. Maggie wants Quinn to live. What’s could be wrong with that, aside from the fact that help is unwarranted and unsolicited?

Instead of giving Mallory some recovery time, Maggie deliberately floods him with emotionally charged memories hoping to bring Quinn to the surface. It backfires spectacularly, and Maggie admits her motivation was getting Mallory out of the picture. Meanwhile, Diana’s tweaked lab settings allow Doctor Geiger (a returning Peter Jurasik) to stabilize and manipulate her into altering the entire universe.

Is there time to undo the damage done? Diana scrambles to salvage the situation, but Rembrandt eventually cuts their losses and throws her in the wormhole seconds before it closes.

And there it is – an episode of human people looking out for themselves, making bad decisions at the expense of those around them, and realizing their “cover your ass” mentality doesn’t work. The coda alone sells you on Diana’s guilt over her actions. And she should feel guilty – she erased a little girl from existence.

This is, by and large, a treatise on control – how much people exercise over their lives and the lives of others. Diana attempts to control Didi and Doctor Geiger while fully aware she’s spiraling out of control herself. Maggie wants nothing more than to banish Mallory and bring Quinn back, and it ends up almost killing both of them. Only Rembrandt, whose levelheaded approach to interacting with a double is perfectly in character, walks away from this one with his moral compass intact. Maybe it’s because he’s made plenty of similar mistakes in the past.

After watching this episode, I thought back on the times Quinn, Rembrandt, Wade, and Arturo should have had a conversation about intervening. Because impersonating the Sheriff of the Americas should have gotten them all killed. Because they didn’t need to investigate the Manta ship they downed. Because Quinn didn’t need to destroy a universe to save Daelin Richard’s life. I hope the season five gang gains a sober appreciation of caution out of this outing.

Aside from some awkward technobabble and the unclear capabilities of Combine technology, this is as close to a flawless character study as we’re likely to get this season. David Eagle’s direction is crisp, colorful, and vibrant, the locations give the production some much needed breathing room, and Tembi Locke and Jurasik settle into their roles perfectly. Everything missing from “The Unstuck Man” is present and accounted for; it’s a shame this couldn’t have been the premiere.

Few episodes of Sliders pack such an emotional wallop, and when they do the conclusion is usually uplifting. Yet I find myself more affected by Mallory’s heartache over the Professor – a man he’s never met – than almost anything the show has thrown at us over the years. Thanks to Chris Black for putting the newbies through this crucible.

Previously: Next: