"Quinn and I are gonna take a spin around the universe!"
"Coming?" — Wade Welles and Quinn Mallory.
Review by Matt Hutaff
Parallel universes have been a science fiction staple for decades. It features prominently in television franchises like Star Trek and Stargate and serves as the bread and butter of genre authors like Harry Turtledove. It stands to reason a series based solely on the escapades of visiting parallel Earths would thrive in the cable-ready market of the 20th century, so why haven’t we seen one before?
Probably because previous attempts have bombed. Big time. George R. R. Martin’s Doorways, a failed ABC pilot which blends parallel universes with fantasy elements, is so bad Sliders co-creator Tracy Tormé once commented, “when it had mercifully ended, I could truly understand why [ABC] not only didn’t buy the series, but deemed the pilot so unwatchable that it never aired, even as summer fill.”
So he decided to try his own hand at it. And you know what? It gets better… a lot better.
The hero of Sliders is Quinn Mallory (Jerry O’Connell), a loveable, bashful nerd who falls asleep reading books on hyperspace, wears his clothes three days in a row, and cracks wise with his widowed mom (Linda Henning). He’s a grad student lost in the romance of his studies, a twentysomething who works in an electronics store for the employee discount. And, in the first thirty seconds of the pilot episode, it’s clear he’s a genius.
How do we know this? Well, there’s the thing. The big weird thing. He made it. He doesn’t know what it is. But it knocked out the power. And through a series of clever video diaries that fast-forward the exposition without feeling forced, the audience learns it’s something truly unique – a wormhole that could possibly open the doorway to other earths.
The uncertainty of what’s on the other side drives the first part of the Sliders pilot. In a moment of bravery, Quinn throws himself into the mouth of the vortex… only to find himself back in his basement! Dejected, he dusts himself off and heads to school.
That’s when things get a little screwy.
At first the minor differences trickle in across the radio – vinyl winning the audiophile war, Americans emigrating en masse to Mexico, President John F. Kennedy. It’s only when Quinn slams on the brakes after a near-fatal drive through an intersection where green means stop that he figures it out. Elvis Presley live in Vegas dominates a nearby billboard.
Wherever Quinn is, he ain’t home. And, on cue, the timer he’s cobbled together out of an old cell phone and whatever was laying around his workshop chimes, opens the vortex he left only minutes earlier, and sucks him back to our Earth.
Eager to share his discovery, he inexplicably finds himself shut out by friends and colleagues. Maximillian Arturo (John Rhys-Davies), Quinn’s insecure and bombastic physics teacher, storms off the moment he sees his student. Even Wade Welles (Sabrina Lloyd), the cute coworker who can talk circles around customers when it comes to faulty microchips but can’t work up the courage to ask Quinn on a real date, pushes him away. What’s going on? Did the wormhole mess with his mind? Or is something else at play?
More like someone. One of the quirks we quickly learn about parallel universes is that there’s other versions of you out there, and in the case of Quinn, his double’s been roaming our San Francisco, pissing off Arturo, kissing Wade (despite being married!), and being a general ass. The reveal floors Quinn, who finds he’s looking at a literal mirror image camped out in his basement.
Alt-Quinn lays down the fundamentals to what he calls sliding – think of a roulette wheel, he says, where each slot corresponds to a parallel earth. He’s seen heaven, he’s seen hell, and he’s seen ports of call in between. It’s amazing, he tells Quinn. You’re gonna love it. Quinn, flush with excitement, invites Wade and Arturo over to take a spin around the universe.
It’s at this time we’re introduced to Rembrandt “Cryin’ Man” Brown (Cleavant Derricks), a washed-up R&B singer driving to Candlestick Park to sing the National Anthem. Is this guy Amos or Andy? Or maybe Kingfish? Who cares — Rembrandt’s jaded take on celebrity is hilarious, right down to his clueless addition of multiple AIDS ribbons to his gold tuxedo lapel. (Yes, you read that right.)
Rembrandt’s just looking to kickstart a career sidelined 20 years earlier when one of Quinn’s vortices, overpowered to accommodate three people, breaks free of the basement and takes the Cryin’ Man’s Cadillac along for the ride to a world in the midst of a nuclear winter.
The dangers of sliding arise immediately when an ice tornado bears down on Rembrandt’s car. Quinn activates the timer early to escape, but when the four Sliders land safely on the next world, they find themselves in Golden Gate Park, not his basement. They didn’t make it home – they’ve landed on a parallel earth where the Soviet Union overwhelmed and conquered the United States.
The bulk of the remaining time finds the Sliders wrapped up in a standard revolution plot. On Communist Earth, Wade’s double is a general in the American uprising and Wade fills in for her. Arturo, conveniently, runs the penitentiary where this world’s Wade is held. The Sliders must agree to help plan a prison break when Rembrandt is arrested on suspicion of being a revolutionary.
The pilot does what it needs to do and it does it very effectively. The characters are all well-defined; Arturo’s jealousy of Quinn really stands out, not only in dialogue but in subtle mannerisms. Quinn comes across as the shy genius we see in high school from time to time, working on doodles that we can never understand but are nonetheless meaningful to him. While Rembrandt’s “aw shucks” dialogue is at times irritating, he really does represent the everyman, and his shock and confusion to events unfolding around him feels genuine. Wade gets the lightest treatment; yeah, we know she likes Quinn, but what else is there? She’s a pretty girl; why dress her in such a dumpy outfit?
I have a few reservations about the use of doubles in this episode, however. The doubles of the secondary characters — the cab driver, the bum, shyster lawyer Ross J. Kelley and the computer store boss all work really well. And while Quinn’s doppelganger is perfectly utilized, Wade and Arturo’s border on the unbelievable. We’re supposed to believe the mousy shop clerk is a revolutionary mastermind, or that a blowhard intellect would rise in the ranks of a society that eschews a vibrant education? Come on. When Arturo puffs up his chest and says, “always a leader of men, no matter what the circumstances,” it smacks of Tracy Tormé and Robert K Weiss trying to shoehorn the principals into a lucky situation.
The biggest problem I had, though, was with the story on Ice World. Why, under any circumstance, would the Sliders choose to freeze their asses off in Rembrandt’s convertible Cadillac when there is a house 20 feet away? Why choose to potentially ruin the sliding device by activating it early instead of taking shelter in said house? It survived a nuclear winter, I think it can take a strong wind. I understand the need to move the plot along, but have the tornado destroy the house, don’t have it float over the Golden Gate Bridge because it looks pretty.
Fortunately, those minor issues aside, the Pilot really hits the nail on the head in dark satire and parallel culture development. Communist World’s “People’s Court” scene is one of the funniest moments in television, particularly for a primarily sci-fi show, and the awe and wonder of the discovery of sliding is handled very well.
The final sequence, which is perfectly realized, showcases just what kind of emotional resonance traveling to different worlds can have. Arturo’s speech on the dangers of sliding, Rembrandt’s thoughts of gospel music, Quinn’s overwhelming enthusiasm… all leading to a crushing conclusion where they realize that their journey is far from over.
Visually, the pilot is a treat. Vancouver serves as a wonderful stand-in for San Francisco, and the cross-cut scenes filmed in San Francisco really give a sense of location. The production values for the locations are high, and the SFX used to generate the wormhole look gorgeous; when Quinn walks slowly around the thing in his basement, you can’t help but wonder at the marvel of it all. Musically, Dennis McCarthy adds to the visual elements with his superb score. He’s done a lot of stellar work on the Star Trek series, so he’s hardly out of his element.
So, despite minor plotting problems, Sliders is off to a rip-roaring start. I can’t wait to see what they can do with this concept.
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