Sliders doesn’t have a legacy. It didn’t leave a mark on popular culture the way that The X-Files did. The X-Files has a lot of shitty episodes. Any show does. But the pop-cultural memory of The X-Files forgives it these missteps. Sliders has not experienced this forgiveness. It isn’t even that it’s remembered for its mistakes. it’s that it’s not remembered at all, and therefore can’t possibly be respected in any way. It can’t even be respected enough for its DVDs and Netflix Queues to be listed in the correct order.
Sliders legacy is subtler than that. It lives on as a shadow, a branch against the window in the corner of your eye. It’s only the tiny quirks that become remembered. I remember an evening at a friends house and seeing Mel Torme in “Greatfellas” and not knowing why I should be interested. A friend of mine did a skit in his middle school history class that was called “Slippers.”
When I was first championing Sliders in high school, another friend of mine beamed with delight: “Oh, fuck yeah! I remember that show. Wasn’t there an episode where the sky was purple?”
Here’s where that friend is today:
Okay, that was cruel. But you see my point. It’s the tiny details that the general public (this is discounting most of us, the chosen few of the Sliders Fan Community) may remember. And yes, a World with a Purple Sky is quite a memorable thing.
Not so memorable, however, is the episode that gives us the Lilac Sky. “State of the Art” isn’t the worst episode. We haven’t gotten there, yet. It’s nowhere near as bad as “The Fire Within” or “Time Again & World,” though it shares a lot of the same problems with those two monoliths to crap. Let’s just go through it, I guess it’s worthwhile. First off, there’s the lilac sky. Sure, it’s pretty. It’s an interesting idea. It makes sense— why shouldn’t the light reflect differently from World to World? It gets you to thinking about the nature of, well— nature. But why is it here? Why is it in this episode? That’s a quirk, sure, but it has no bearing on the episode. It has no bearing on the plot, or on the weird emotional undercurrents (more on them later) that anchor the episode. The sky is just …there. And that’s fine, I guess. Things just are, sometimes.
But this is a piece of television, where nothing should ever just be if you’re doing your job correctly. If you write an episode about a desolate yet immaculately kept world devoid of humans but brimming with Androids at War with Nothing, why would you just throw a Lilac Sky onto the heap? You’ve got Androids— you certainly have enough to talk about.
So there we have it. This is the “Robot Episode.” I’ll try to bullet point the alt-history to this:
I feel like there was a Hummer in “Rules of the Game,” but I also feel like this is the real first example of the Sliders Hummer, a terrible beast that will rear its ugly more than the dreaded Cave-Set. I guess it makes sense for the Robots to drive Hum-Vees. But I think they look stupid. They look like what someone would think a cool military vehicle would look like. Just like how when Doritos redesigned their bags they looked like what someone would have that “cool” was in the year 2012 would be if they were living in the year 1989.
Except Doritos have more personality than these so-called Personality Robots.
Let me have a slight tangent here. “Prometheus,” a movie I’m sure all of you were very excited about, was not the cure for cancer that I feel like most of the world thought it was going to be. it was certainly exciting for most of the time, and coughed up some wonderful imagery. But it had little to no soul, and every time it pulled up an amazing idea, or touched on God’s place in the Universe, it reeled in horror from what it had done and instead had someone get crushed to death or whatever.
But undoubtedly the most enduring part of the movie will forever be Michael Fassbender’s “David” Android, a Milk-and-Baubles masterpiece of present-day acting. Fassbender took the general “look intrigued and cock your head” school of Robot-Acting and made it genuinely believable. Robots would be awkward. They are the living embodiment of the Uncanny Valley. But there’s a difference between acting like you’re made of plastic and acting like you actually don’t have a soul. This “DEREK” robot is the worst kind of lazy acting you can find on television. Ostensibly hired because he’s “Cute” in that 1996 sort of way, he’s also dumb and lifeless as a board. Which I guess is fine if he’s supposed to be a robot. But nowhere in his behavior does he actually come off as one. The only time he actually pulls off being a robot is a complete accident— the scene near the end when a PAUL rips out his robo-girlfriend’s spine (which, if it weren’t for the last minute of the episode making it all okay, I would give this episode high marks for the insane body count it amasses). The dude is so unconvincing as an actor (not to mention he is totally marble-mouthed and unable to say any line straight), he doesn’t convey any sense of emotion whatsoever. Which I guess is perfect if you can’t feel anything. But frustrating for us if you can tell he’s actually trying to.
His robo-girlfriend Erica is certainly more convincing as a robot, in that Blade-Runner-sort-of-“I’m-a-robotic-adolescent-unable-to-control-my-urges” kind of chilling way. But when they’re paired together, the tone is wrong. They’re mashing up in a way that doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t read as “differing make of model” or some sort of fanwank-y kind of reasoning. It reads as one actor at least making an attempt at robotics and another either not even bothering because it’s too hard, or (and I’m guessing this is closer to what it really is) he’s being actively directed not to seem too Alien, so we (as an audience/key demographic) can fall in love with him easier.
Since I’m going to be going back and forth throughout this episode pointing out all the inanities, I might as well get down and say why this one’s a bewildering dud. “State of the Art” is the most bizarre failure of screenwriting I’ve ever seen allowed to be on a screen. It reads as if someone explained what an action teleplay was, and what a ‘plot point’ was, and then said, well, “go with it!” So we have action sequence after action sequence after action sequence where either nothing or the same thing happens, or just both. A conversation is interrupted by a surprise attack from the PAUL robots— even though we’re told they scan the buildings every 22 minutes, they’re still a surprise. But seriously, every scene seems tacked on to the last. It’s so banal and repetitive that it actually makes it difficult to follow what’s happening. There are two scenes set in the same prison room. When Quinn is re-captured in the last 15 minutes, I blinked at the screen, confused that there was still more to the episode. Ten minutes later, I blinked again.
It’s almost impressive how much they actually managed to cram into 45 minutes. But it’s all wasted, as anything that’s worth developing is interrupted by another endless chase-and-capture scene. I mean, let’s sit down with this World’s premise. There are only robots left on earth. Most of these robots are hunted by other robots. There’s a scene where DEREK watches his friend-bot get picked apart by scavenging robots, the door is opened on a more fulfilling avenue of storytelling: this World is cutthroat— ragtag gangs on ‘bots scavenging their dead? Roaming the streets in gangs? Wary of the central compound? That sounds great! The Warriors with Robots. Can you imagine?
So like I said earlier, the tone in this episode is all mismatched. The beginning of the episode, where there’s what I suppose is a comedic moment of Wade thinking that she’s “got a bad feeling about this,” and the other sliders finishing her thought in unison. Is this supposed to be funny? It kind of just doesn’t make sense, as a joke, or as something real people would say or do. Likewise, in the “touching” scene where Rembrandt all of the sudden feels worthless, and says to Quinn “I see recessed lighting, you see wires and electricity.” Rembrandt, that’s the same fucking thing. All of the emotional beats are tone-deaf to the scenes at hand, and kind of also to humanity in general.
I mean, this is an episode that gives us Quinn paired with Rembrandt and Wade paired with Arturo. I don’t think that’s ever happened before. But it’s squandered with a sudden return of Season Two Wade, shrilly defending the civil rights of Robots while Arturo quite rightly tells her to shut the fuck up. There’s actually a ton of genuinely revealing character moments in this episode, if you can prop your eyelids open with toothpicks enough to pay attention. Wade, before DEREK puts the robo-moves on her, is actually opening her heart up a little (why? I don’t know, because he’s a robot and whatever?). The lilac sky’s made her homesick with its alienating difference. She admits that even though she’s surrounded by friends, she feels completely alone. It’s a stunning revelation. This is Wade, and so far we’ve never seen her anything less than plucky. Even when concerned or shrill, she’s still a happy wanderer. So to hear her admit such a deep level of emotional defeat is a little depressing. And sure, we can chalk this off to the fact that its shoehorned into the script and should maybe not even be considered canon.
But this sort of gets in to another piece of the midden puzzle. You can tell throughout the majority of the scenes that the cast is actively bored with what they’re doing. This is the moment where they’ve stopped trying. But Sabrina Lloyd noticed that there’s actually the tiniest bit of actual substance to be chewed out of her ‘I’m alone’ scene, and she fucking jumps on it. She sells the shit out of the scene. So we sort of have to believe the scene, or at least Wade’s end of it. It’s one of only two convincingly acted scenes in the entire episode. Same goes for the ‘reconciliation’ scene with Wade and Arturo. The only time the cast enjoys themselves is with each other, that much is certain. At this point, they probably aren’t even talking about their characters anymore— the loneliness they feel is the show’s fault, and these actors are stuck in a job that wasn’t what they thought it was. And just like the in-show Sliders, they’ve only got each other. So why should they bicker? They bicker because the screenwriters want them to bicker. So when they get to patch it up, it’s a relief for them as characters and actors. It’z a bizarre bit of accidentally meta action. It goes back with the complete tonal mismatch of everything going on in the episode.
At the head of this miasma of lack of direction, of course, we’ve got Aldon.
Hey, guess what? He’s a robot, too. Wow. Who knew. But let’s focus on his performance throughout the episode (willfully ignoring his strange near-neck-beard). He’s a cartoon, chewing scenery and being such a ham as to make Kirk blush. Which on one hand is fine— if I read this crap heap of a script, I’d treat it with about as much of a lack of respect. But his hamminess is at odds with everything else happening in the episode. Quinn and Rembrandt are too bored to work well with his ridiculous posturing. It’s an age-old story cue: Mad Professor, All Alone, Grasping at the Only Friends He Has Left, Becomes a Jailer of Friendship. But there’s still something to mine out of that plot other than “NOW YOU WILL STAY WITH ME FOREVER btw experiments.”
But there it is again: loneliness. You’d think it an accident, but as much as it pops up, it truly can’t be one. But all the robotics and mad scientisting is all in the service of the real plot: how we deal with being alone. We know how Aldon deals with it: he makes a robot sex slave, and tries to turn real humans into robots, twiddles his thumbs for all eternity. We can freak out like the old ERICA model, or mindlessly put the moves on anyone in front of us, like DEREK.
But there’s a stranger kind of loneliness that inhabits the sliders: the loneliness that occurs even when you’re with your friends. These four people might be closer to each other than anyone else they’ve ever known, but at a certain point, it’s going to stop being enough. They may be each other’s constant, but the anchor is starting to get rusty. Over the course of this season, the show’s started to take a lot of time opening up the cracks between these four people. Quinn’s started to take charge and not really include anyone else in whatever he’s doing. Wade’s lonely in a way the others can’t help. Rembrandt’s starting to think more and more about the life he left behind. And Arturo is going to die.
So amidst all of this Dream/Desert/Dragon/Fire/Robot/Twister nonsense, we have a subtle arc growing through the season. The team is drifting apart. And as much as I don’t have faith in the show to give me a satisfying conclusion, I’m almost excited to see what happens when the drift becomes permanent. Something big is coming soon, and when it finally comes, it’s going to change everything.
Next Week: Merry Christmas, you Bastards (Season’s Greedings).
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