"How did this happen?" — Diana.
Review by Matt Hutaff
As production began on the fifth season of Sliders, newly-promoted story editor Keith Damron pitched two ideas of his own to Bill Dial, Chris Black, and David Peckinpah. The first — dreamt up as an afterthought during his morning commute — focused on a “baptism by fire” for Mallory and Diana when the Sliders find themselves engaged in trench warfare; the other dealt with the erosion of the group dynamic as Rembrandt gets “swept up in an eccentric inventor’s dream of traveling into space.”
A wise idea; after the events of The Unstuck Man and Applied Physics, reconnecting the audience with Rembrandt’s emotional state should be a top priority. More than ever, he’s a man alone in the world, separated piecemeal from everything he knows and everyone he loves. We need to see how our sole original cast member is holding together, and as we’ve watched in Asylum, Cleavant Derricks has the acting chops to make that character study ring true.
Can Rembrandt trust his sliding companions? Not really — Diana essentially murdered Colin, Quinn, and her double’s daughter only a few days ago. Mallory’s little more than an unstable amalgam of vanilla Quinn. And Maggie? She’s drifting along, clinging to the chance for closure after the Combine accident.
None of the Sliders can relate to Rembrandt’s background or ideology. Two are virtual strangers and the other is a loner by nature. Why shouldn’t he step away and forge a new identity, one built around the infinite wonder of a Victorian world trying to reach the stars? Then, after his experiment fails, Rembrandt emerges a stronger leader — one able to embrace his role as mentor of a group of unlikely friends born across three different Earths.
It’s exactly the kind of episode the show needs in its struggle to redefine itself. It’s the perfect end to the ad hoc trilogy begun by “Unstuck Man.” And it was passed over so the Sliders could fight Kromaggs outside Acton, California.
Passed over for an afterthought.
While I tend to keep my reviews focused on the matter at hand, I find it’s impossible to do so for “Strangers and Comrades.” That’s thanks to the Year 5 Journal, an online exclusive Damron now releases right after each new episode airs. The behind-the-scenes information it took fans years to collect is now offered up by the production team in real time. It’s a level of intended immediacy we’ve never seen before, and it makes it difficult to separate what I’ve just seen from what I read. Particularly when the alternative to “Comrades” is so much more compelling.
It’s a shame, too, because I get what Damron was trying to accomplish with his script. And I won’t deny the result is ambitious, fantastic looking, and important to the overall arc of the series. But it’s just so damned dumb.
This is an episode where the elusive anti-Kromagg weapon – one Rembrandt, Quinn, and Maggie spent a year searching for – is dismissed with a laugh as useless garbage. Where we discover Mike Mallory not only had time and resources to build a Slidecage – an expansive labyrinth housed on a toxic earth with two moons – but a military garrison camped on an asteroid in hyperspace as well. (That guy is smart.)
Where Diana’s post-traumatic stress is reduced to a piece of beef jerky.
We’re treated to a number of lazy storytelling tropes as well. There’s the pointless flashback sequence that pads out the tension-free teaser, the voiceover that disappears the moment the episode abandons Diana’s narrative point of view, and foreshadowing that would pull the trigger on Chekhov’s gun. So, since it’s fruitless to analyze the plot – it sucks – and nitpicking all the dopey science flaws is best left to the episode capsule, I’m going to break down each character’s beats and how they succeed or fail:
Everything good about this episode boils down to one scene between Rembrandt and Sergeant Vernon Larson (an appropriately world-weary Jerry Doyle). Trapped in a trench designed to guard a mysterious bunker, Rembrandt reveals his quest to find the weapon Larson’s people used to rid their world of the Kromaggs.
“You mean a Voraton device?”
The soldiers laugh. A Voraton device – something Rembrandt bet his future on – is a “really bad idea.” It basically kills the ecosphere of the world where it’s detonated. The men of Larson’s platoon prefer life on this dried-up wasteland because, ultimately, they’re better off than being home.
Throughout this scene, Cleavant Derricks perfectly plays, with very few words, the collapse of a man. He sits there, soaks it in, listens to the laughter. Then he just walks away. As I said above, this is the kind of understated character work we need to see.
It’s a shame the emotion of this moment is undercut in the ridiculous teaser, where Maggie confides in Rembrandt she just had a dream the weapon would be a huge bust. Why telegraph that at all, especially after another embarrassing “Rules of Sliding” lecture for Diana and Mallory?
What’s to say? She’s military; conscription into a ground war shouldn’t – and doesn’t – faze her. She takes being manhandled and shocked with relative ease, dons the uniform, and jumps straight into battle. At least this is consistent characterization… up until she climbs up a tank, kicks open the top and starts shooting the Kromaggs within. Even at her worst, I don’t think I’ve seen her behave quite so bloodthirsty before today. And why contrast that with a quiet moment where she talks about opening up to Diana, learning the science behind sliding? When did she have time for that?
Damron drafted this scenario to create “a baptism of fire for the newbies.” The working title was even “Baptism of Fire.” So where’s the baptism for Mallory? For someone who’s never been involved in warfare, he seems decidedly nonplussed about killing a previously unknown enemy or watching fellow soldiers atomized in front of him. (He “adapts,” we’re told.) The most worked up he gets is when Diana disappears, and that’s more a function of his disbelief that Rembrandt and Maggie are cool and collected about it.
Remember: weeks ago Mallory was a street-wise lab rat. He’s not Patton; hell, he’s not even MacGyver. If he’s going to go through the ultimate nightmare scenario, at least let him freak out. Just a little bit. Please.
In a better world, this would have been another Diana episode midway through the season. An episode where the self-professed mollycoddled rich girl finds herself in a position that is utterly alien to her. Everything about her reaction for the first few acts is dead on – she shuts down physically from shock. Terrified by the noise and death, she flees and finds herself in a protracted battle with a Kromagg. And when she shoots him? It’s all she can do to keep from drowning herself in a three-inch puddle of water.
And then the final act arrives, and Diana somehow miraculously walks through a live battle zone. And they breach the mysterious bunker. And Diana somehow manages to stuff more technobabble into a redressed Quinn’s basement than I’ve ever heard before she shuts off the stasis field around the asteroid (one that should have prevented them from ever arriving in the first place) and rejiggers the last Voraton device in the multiverse to blow everything and everyone up. But they escape. And Diana’s A-OK.
If you’re a completist, I’ll grudgingly recommend you give this one a watch. Damron’s previous work for the series was solid and I do give points for effort. Between that and the gorgeous cinematography, something that’s as rare as a Voraton device for this show, you won’t feel like you wasted an hour of your life the way you would catching a re-run of The Chasm.
That said, “Strangers and Comrades” is a deeply-flawed episode masquerading as important character study. It hopes you’ll overlook the inconsistencies and errors (why does an asteroid have a moon?) in favor of the tragedy of war. Don’t be fooled by the propaganda.
|Previously: Review: Applied Physics
|Next: Review: The Great Work