Sliders doesn’t have the benefit of history.
It exists as a time capsule, made in a time of peace and stability. The 90s were great! But if you look at our culture, you’d think we lived in a post-apocalypse. The X-Files is probably the apogee of cultural darkness— paranoia, the feeling that evil is seeping in between the cracks of reality. But it wasn’t true, not then. We put that evil on a pedestal and revered it because it seemed impossible. We couldn’t trust what we had— hence the paranoia— but we still had it great.
But then the bubble burst, the camel’s back cracked, the tub was emptied. Our perfect little soufflé of a country fell flat. The Great Disappointment. Death. Destruction. Recession. Comparing 1998 to 2008 to 2013 is an act of depression. Not only in the sense of economical downturn‚ but one of emotional depression. This country, in its cowboy hubris, took itself down the tubes. You could argue that we’ve pulled ourselves out of the worst of it, but have we?
I’d argue no.
And the simple fact of that makes “California Reich” at times both infuriating and terrifying. The evils that “Reich” posits aren’t really science fiction— in 2013, they’re fact with fiction glaze. That’s not to say that the lead singer for The Germs and some immaculately coiffed thugs march around rounding up black people and throwing them in concentration camps. But we live in a country where a majority of the population doesn’t believe in evolution. A country where a very vocal portion of the population refused to believe that our President was actually a citizen— something that most certainly wouldn’t have happened if he wasn’t black. A country where, in so many of our cities, “poor” neighborhoods are just a nicer way to say “non-white.” We don’t live in a fair country.
But it isn’t as if things weren’t like that in 1998. It’s not like immigration wasn’t still a concern. It wasn’t as if there wasn’t racial tension. It wasn’t as if poverty didn’t exist. Today, though, all of our mild concerns of 1998 are magnified to tremendous levels— the tension is all around, not just seeping into the racks, but simply all we know. It’s worse now, because things haven’t gotten better.
So now, in 2013, it’s impossible to watch this episode and not recoil. Because a lot of things that happen in the episode are truly terrifying. But they’re cut with inanity and sci-fi bollocks and bad ideas and over-proselytizing— basically, it’s just an episode of Sliders.
Which is frustrating— but it’s understandable. I understand why the episode keeps throwing around the name of Hitler like the name is water and there’s a brush fire. It’s because we couldn’t believe, in 1998, that something so terrible as Federal Racism could exist, so we need to frame it in the eye of history. So, yeah, bring up Hitler. It makes the entire episode an uncomfortable joke.
The episode posits that maybe, if this world was fortunate enough to have a Hitler, then it would have realized that violent prejudice is bad, and the Eddie Program (where minorities/mudbloods are converted into Cybermen-Janitors) wouldn’t exist. But wouldn’t the episode be more chilling if they had a Hitler on the world, and still didn’t learn the lesson? Removing Hitler form the equation gives the parallel world too much of a free pass for its bad behavior. “Oh, well of course the racism that is still a constant problem everywhere ever because white people are the worst is taken to a ridiculous degree on this world— they didn’t have a Hitler!”
Seriously—stop blaming Hitler for everyone who has ever committed an atrocity. It’s not all on his shoulders. Yes, Hitler committed some atrocities. I’m not saying “I love Hitler.” But, hey, what about the indigenous population of America? Y’know, the ones that we raped and murdered and pillaged and tortured and burned off their land and stole their land and their lives and all that was rightfully theirs— all because God told us to? What about that? That clearly happened before Hitler.
Racism and Slaughter is a fact of human beings— it makes us despicable. We still haven’t overcome this awful truth. We’ve made progress— but it’s baby steps. Sliders, in 1998, 2008, or 2013, or 2036, or in the next Universe after the Collapse, is embarrassing to watch. I know this is a piddling comparison, but the reason “Eggheads” is one of the best episodes of the show isn’t because they made up “Mindgame.” It’s because it showed us a world that seemed tangibly intellectually better than our own, and humanity was just as corrupt and evil and foul-minded as our world.
“California Reich” tries to have its cake and eat it to, pointing the finger at the easiest target imaginable. It’s so blind to the reality of the situation that it slops on more sci-fi bullshit, trying to make this idea of “America for Americans” a joke, a story, a fiction. But when it’s not, in any way, a fiction, it comes across as insulting.
I like the idea of the Eddies. I like the idea that they’re humans. That’s scary. It’s like the interesting parts of “The Breeder” taken to an asexual extreme. It fits in with the ‘sci-fi enchilada’ vibe that this season is going for. But, I don’t know. Make them prisoners. Try to make an episode that fixes “El Sid.” Don’t take on racism and pass off some half-baked warmed-over vaguely sci-fi bullshit as ‘activism’ and sprinkle a little ‘shit explanation of Naziism’ on the top to cover your ass. That’s lazy. That’s offensive.
I almost want to say that I can’t even appreciate the attempt, especially since the writer’s room on this show is a bunch of affluent white dudes. But I can’t, really, and it’s because of the show’s not-secret-anymore weapon.
Again, Cleavant Derricks steals the episode, bend it to his will, and makes it more compelling than it has any right to be whatsoever. When it’s just Harold and Rembrandt together, fighting, talking, arguing— that’s when there’s fire. For some reason it seems ridiculous that Harold would still have been at Selma ON A WORLD WITH NO HITLER, but whatever. It’s interesting that Rembrandt has all this fire in him. And it’s funny to bring it up again, but the only time we’ve seen it before is in “The Breeder.” There is was out-of-place and inane. Here, it’s neither.
But as much as Cleavant Derricks puts honest emotion into his performance, there’s still a disconnect. Because they come off as that thing that’s haunted Sliders for so long, something that only recently has been on the downswing— tone mashup. The Eddies, and Shane West, and Governor Shick— this is all firmly in the ‘camp’ sense of sliding. It’s “Season Three Science Fiction.”
The thing is, though, that this is coming directly from the Sci-Fi Channel’s “Make It Smarter, Make it Sci-Fi” edict. This episode is taking a concept that isn’t really science fiction at all, and mashing it up with a concept that purely is. And while the two ideas are not mutually exclusive, you do have to work to make the two concepts connect. This episode, though, just doesn’t do that work. And that lack of work ruins both concepts. The Eddies seem slapped onto a vastly more interesting story about Racism. But the Racism part of the story amounts to nothing more than “Racism is Bad, Don’t Do It.” Which is obvious. We know that already. What else?
If you’re going to do a story about Racism, you can’t just settle for the what. You’ve got to make it about the why. What causes it? Where does it come from? Why is it so ingrained in our minds? Why does it keep rearing its head? Those are interesting questions— ones well worth asking. Sliding, as it sometimes was shown to be in the early days of this show, is about asking these questions. Windows into the Human Condition. Do things change? What changes them? Should they change?
Racism, of course, is something that should change— but you can’t just say that, over and over again, close your eyes and pat yourself on the back. Good job. Now get off your soapbox and let someone who actually has something to say have the megaphone. So bring up good points, say nothing about them, and then just blame it on Hitler is insulting. Because you can’t just blame it on Hitler. You have to ask the deeper question— why was Hitler Hitler? Why was he so ‘evil,’ if that’s what you’re choosing to posit as ‘evil.’ What is it in people that lead to such atrocity?
“California Reich,” and Sliders in general by this point, have no interest in these questions. It contents itself with trifles. With ideas that go no further than “that was cool.” And was it cool? If that’s the only thing you’re going for, is this cool? No— it’s not. It’s lazy. It’s lame. The end of the episode rushes by in less than five minutes. They slide, taking two people with them, see a bunch of black people in positions of authority, and dump them there. Sliding away in front of strangers. Abandoning all responsibility. The story ends, neatly wrapped, tied with a bow.
But inside that shiny packaging, there is nothing.
Next week: A love story between the children of coercion (The Dying Fields).
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I remember always feeling like I SHOULD like this episode, because “Nazi/Racism” world is, like, a quintessential theme of any parallel world story (for better of for worse.) But it always felt off to me; I used to think the Eddies just felt forced into it, but I think you hit the nail on the head. The sci-fi stuff isn’t really the problem here, odd as it may be. It’s playing the up camp against something so visceral and close to home. The show deals with it like you’d expect a children’s show to deal with the broader concept (and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it done better on kids’ shows, especially in terms of integrating sci-fi/fantasy.) If it couldn’t go the full mile, maybe it should have used more subtlety, went full-on sci-fi and played up something more allegorical, rather than having black people getting kidnapped straight-up. But I guess this is Sliders, after all.
Beautifully written opening, by the way. Probably more impassioned than I’d have been explaining it, but I can’t fault you for that. Brilliant way to put it in perspective in the current state of things.