The Fire Within

"Five more seconds I'd have been Beef Wellington." — Arturo, on his "heated" experience with Fire World. And that lousy pun is all the humor I can derive from this episode.

Review by Matt Hutaff

Really Bad

What did I just watch?

Correct me if I’m wrong, but did I just see a living, sentient (and apparently omniscient) flame? Did I just see Arturo giggling like a school girl about a late-model Cadillac?

And did my eyes deceive me, or was Rembrandt wearing wrap-around Oakleys?

I know what I didn’t just watch, and that was an episode of Sliders.

I’ve put up with a lot lately. Magic. Water witches who come from a mystical underground civilization. Groups of geeks who can enter dreams with crazy psychotropic drugs.

I’ve seen a transsexual Murdoc and a midget with healing powers (not necessarily a bad thing, mind you). Now I’m supposed to suspend disbelief and accept that the Sliders have discovered a wandering minstrel of flame that knows the laws of quantum physics, can take the shape of a human and slide at will?

Sorry, I’m not buying.

Josef Anderson’s “The Fire Within” is easily the worst episode of the series to date, which is saying a lot considering the laundry list of stupid plot devices I’ve just rolled out. It’s not remotely thought provoking, and its production values are laughably sub par. Where is the budget going? Obviously not to the guest stars, who turn in wilted, one-note performances that only accentuate how lifeless their characters are.

While in some of the other bombs dropped on us this season there’s been a conversation, some dialogue or a sincere display of affection between the main characters that salvages it for me, this episode misses completely. All the scientific enthusiasm between Quinn and the Professor is hokey and artificial, and Wade’s maternal revelations, while interesting, don’t come across realistically.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

“The Fire Within,” ostensibly, is about the consequence of unleashing a misunderstood but potentially dangerous life on an unsuspecting environment.

Did I really just write that? It makes it sound much more profound than this episode really is.

The reality is that “The Fire Within” is about a living flame that tags along with the Sliders from its world (a world on fire, naturally!) to a world where Southern California is loaded to the gills with petroleum. While Quinn and Arturo learn how to communicate with the flame and send it home, Wade joins up with a pregnant woman to fight a greedy company town.

What does Rembrandt do? Well, he gets to play video baseball in the teaser and lose everyone’s money — crucial character development.

Don’t get me wrong — several of the themes in this episode strike me a particularly fresh and intriguing if pulled off correctly, but they aren’t. The idea of a life form that’s completely foreign to us yet undeniably intelligent is something that hasn’t been done on the show and could potentially spark some excellent philosophical discussions about the nature of self, or even allow the characters to realize that humanity isn’t the only way to evolve. “Invasion” touched on this but not to the extent that this episode tries to.

Making the creature a flame was the worst possible way to go about this, though. Unless this show is making a biblical tie to the Flame (via Moses’ burning bush) — and I sincerely doubt that it is, since the rest of the metaphysical aspects are ignored — the Flame is just plain fire.

Last time I checked, fire is an easily explained chemical reaction between a reactant, heat and oxygen. It’s therefore easy to dismiss the idea of fire-as-sentient because it’s such a simple scientific reality. This episode actually would have benefited more if it wasn’t a flame but some ethereal force, since the Flame seems to exhibit otherworldly powers to begin with.

The biggest loser in all this is Arturo. A man who prides himself on his knowledge of the nature of the universe suddenly abandoning his skeptical nature and embracing the idea of a living flame is unbelievable. The most exciting time in his life? Please.

While all of this is going on, Wade is saddled with a thoroughly unremarkable side plot. On the world they’ve landed, the workers of an oil refinery concern are being exploited and maltreated. Many die without adequate health benefits (Quinn is told to “hold his breath” when he complains about the air quality damaging his lungs) and as a result, the labor is starting to unionize.

The Sliders get jobs as scabs to pay for their living accommodations and Wade befriends Amanda (Brigitta Dau), whose husband was likely killed by the company. They investigate the refinery foreman Ashton (Anthony Tyler Quinn) and find that he was responsible for a lot of the arson that’s being blamed on the fledgling union. Of course, this necessitates Wade being captured by Ashton and thrown into a part of the refinery he’s decided to torch.

Since Rembrandt had nothing better to do, he gets to go with her.

All of this culminates in the most absurd climax I’ve ever seen. I’m well aware that Sliders production is now in Burbank, most notably on the Universal Studios backlot. I’ve seen New York Street and the same tired props enough. But using the “Backdraft” attraction from Universal Studios as some epic, fire-riddled time bomb? The entire illusion is dispelled the minute you see the wide-angle shot of the room. Each time a barrel of “oil” ignites on top instead of exploding, the credibility of the act sinks lower and lower. By the time Wade and Rembrandt are rescued by Quinn and Arturo, you really don’t care. All you really want is to stop watching.

During this “intense” rescue, Wade blurts out to Rembrandt that she wants to have a baby. Now, she doesn’t say she wants one now or that she wants to have one with Quinn, Rembrandt or Arturo, she just says that she wants one… someday. This exchange is so typical of the kind of character interaction in this episode — noncommittal and ultimately meaningless. This is a big revelation, and it’s handled very, very poorly.

Obviously the Sliders escape this world unscathed and take the Flame with them. You wouldn’t want the show to have a controversial ending where they kill the Flame or leave it to ravage Southern California, now, would you?

This episode looks and feels like they spent every spare penny on the CGI shot of the Flame taking the form of a man during the abovementioned climax. Backlot locations are easier to spot than ever thanks to shots saturated with light and minimal set design, sets built for this episode look hokey (witness the strip bar location which is constantly loaded with smoke to diffuse the eye from cheap production) and half of the Flame shots look like someone hooked a Bunsen burner up and placed it next to a car tire. It’s just pathetic.

The guest stars don’t cut the mustard either. I don’t know if the casting director has a Boy Meets World fetish or not — both Brigitta Dau and Anthony Tyler Quinn appeared in the show — but their work on Sliders is abominable. Amanda is a thief, a militant, and a caring mother — why not pick one and stick with it? Ashton spends more dialogue discussing hair treatment with his girlfriend (Lynn Clark) than he does his diabolical plans.

The remaining plot and alt-world references can be summed up in one word: bland. Corporations are bad? Unions are good? There’s no real discussion since Pan Global Oil’s only representative is a shady arsonist, and since they don’t give out health benefits they must be evil. Especially since the union is angry.

I could get into the logistics of Wade buying a laptop and projection screen on a half-day’s pay, the warehouse full of women typing on typewriters but talking on wireless phones, Quinn and Wade’s drunken kiss, or the weird unexplained 40s retro feel and a host of other things but I think I’ve said enough. “The Fire Within,” to me, goes up in smoke.

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