For so long, there’s been a lack.
A lack of clear definition. What is this show we’re watching? What kind of show is this? What is it trying to tell us— about people, about the world, about the universe, life itself, itself. Sliders has never known what it really wanted to be. It had all these ideas, all these things it thought it wanted to say, and this great mix of social satire, black comedy, and compelling drama.
But then it could never decide what exactly the mix was going to be? How much black comedy? How much drama? Who are we supposed to care about, laugh at, cry with? The show couldn’t decide. There were too many people with different interests all working to make the show they wanted— but all those different visions didn’t add up.
So we get “The Comrade Rap” and “The People’s Court” in the same episode as Soviet Thugs gunning down people in the streets. A meta-joke about Devo in the same episode as a man threatening to slit Rembrandt’s throat. Season One being the same show as Season Three. “Time Again & World” airing in the same season as “As Time Goes By.”
So what is this show? It’s whatever it wants to be in whatever given minute you’re watching it. And that’s fine— our memories probably do this show a better service in memory than our eyes do in viewing. As long as we remember the best moments of the show, we can forget that “The Weaker Sex” is the episode that has the “Yellow Plastic” line.
But behind all this, there’s always the question of “what should it be.” What should Sliders really be? What is this show about? What should this show say about The Human Condition? When someone asks you what Sliders is, what do you tell them? What is this?
Put simply, it’s this.
This is it. This is what Sliders should be, should always be, should always have been. Whatever show we’ve been watching is flawed, and I love it, and sometimes it brushes the stars with the tips of its fingers. But this is the moment when all those flaws are smoothed and gelled into something that I’m not afraid to call a perfect hour of television.
This is the best episode of Sliders. If someone asks you what they should watch, tell them to watch this. “World Killer” is the high water mark that should have been the goal in the first place.
You can tell from the start that this is somehow different from everything else. There’s more care attended to it. The teaser is swaddled like an infant. There’s a consideration to the shots that’s been decidedly lacking from the last two years of the show. I don’t even know what the reason for that is— Reza Badiyi, while actually being basically an institution of American Television, as IMDB would have you know, has already directed “Genesis” and “Common Ground” this season— fine episodes, but hardly worth mentioning for the direction.
But there’s things that haven’t really been done on this show before, except almost in “Fever.” There’s a shot of them running out of sight into an alley, and then the World shifts. It’s a tiny moment— but effective to imply sliding without actually showing it. And the little shifts in the new world, the dust, the tumbleweed, are small, but add up to the real money shot— the extended crane-pan through an empty backlot.
We’ve seen the backlot a lot on this show. Far too much, really. Part of the reason that it sticks out so much like a sore thumb is the lack of care that goes into it. It’s just a location. It could be anywhere. “Oh, hey, look— it’s Los Angeles, except no part of Los Angeles and/or any city on Earth looks like this.” I don’t know, it’s lazy.
But there’s something different about the approach to it “World Killer” takes. Part of it is that crane shot— it’s ambitious for the show, and the care that’s placed in the extensive dust that’s coated this new world. But another part of it is the actors— they’re looking around like they’re really in an environment that they want to learn about. So often they’ve been cast into some new world and then not even bother to look around. You can’t even read it as “seen one cave seen ’em all” because they just look bored.
Here they aren’t bored. And it’s funny, too, in light of what’s really going on, that when the cast at first starts making assumptions about what happened, they call out everything we’re worried the episode is about to be about: War, Kromaggs, Etc. It’s easy to guess at this point in the show’s run that it will be one of those threats: the War Torn World, the Ravaged Kromagg Earth. And frankly, even though it’s still new to the show, who cares? The end of the teaser is literally the only false note in the episode— Quinn is attacked by a Dog.
But from there, it’s perfection all the way. Most of the boring plotting we’d usually get is stripped away— no discussion of what’s next, no more “I hope it’s not the ‘Maggs.” We go right to just about the last place on any Earth you’d expect us to go to: Quinn’s house. I missed Quinn’s house. It feels like since “The Guardian” we’ve actively tried to avoid Quinn’s house. Out of embarrassment, or a lack of things to say, I don’t know. It makes sense that we’d visit it now, even if it isn’t discussed on screen. But it’s a straight fact that we haven’t been to San Francisco in a good long while.
But inside is no comfort. Quinn finds inside a host of awards his double won but he himself had not. I don’t know if Quinn was looking for comfort anyways— after all, this isn’t even a copy of his actual Home anymore. No matter what he tells himself, no matter how calming it must be to walk down the steps to the basement for the first time in so, so long, it can’t possibly be the same, because it was always a lie.
Maybe not a lie, per se, but it’s probably hard for him to reconcile the warm memories of his Mother with the fact that the Linda Henning he knows isn’t the Linda Henning he should have known. So to see this double of his as ‘more successful’ than he is hurts. But nothing really compares to the hurt Quinn can feel at meeting this lout:
His first appearance is played for laughs. And why shouldn’t it be? This season so far has been pretty devoid of humor, and its one attempt (“Cheese Nukes”) was a total disaster. So when we see Alt-Quinn, we laugh— he’s got a funny beanie, and he hasn’t seen anyone in years, and he’s so goofy and he hugs Maggie soo hard!
But he’s not funny, is he? He’s a monster. He doesn’t know he’s a monster, not really. It’s not like he’s had anything to base it on. But there’s a simple truth to his monstrosity, and it’s apathy.
And it’s here that we have to sit down, because something’s going on here— we need to talk about Quinn. And I don’t mean Alt-Quinn. Our Quinn Mallory. Over the weeks Jerry O’Connell’s been replacing Quinn’s sense of facial expression with a nothing-face that will come to define his last year on the show. It’s easy to read that as apathy— and it probably is, to a certain extent.
But how do we reconcile that with Jerry’s performance as Alt-Quinn? Because his performance as Alt-Quinn is nothing short of a masterwork. Playing a double is a lot more complex of a task than it would seem on the surface. You have to play a new character, sure. But you still have to play that new character under the umbrella of your old one, in such a way that the double is still recognizable as the old one. It’s a tough sell (it’s also something that the actors on Fringe have done chillingly well). But Jerry O’Connell fucking nails it, and he nails it so completely that it calls into question his portrayal of Our-Quinn.
Because if Jerry’s clearly got the chops still (and there was never a reason to believe he lost them), then it’s entirely possible there’s more going on than just boredom. The “Quinn-Face” that we’re becoming so used to might be a conscious acting choice.
I’ve postulated this before— all the upheaval in his life has led to extreme numbness, a forcing down of all that’s assaulting him. But here, in this episode, we see Quinn rage, we see him suffer, we see him fight for the things that are obvious and right.
But all this is almost sidelined to the story being told in this episode. Because alt-Quinn is alone for a reason— he too, invented Sliding. But instead of just sliding himself, he created a Slidewave (which is a term I absolutely adore), and instead shifted the entire population of a planet one dimension over.
So look, I could walk you through every single plot point of this episode and talk about why it’s the best. I really could. But I don’t have the rest of time and space and everything that’s ever been. And besides, I’d be denying you the ability to watch this episode as I did: cautious, but hopeful. And amazingly proved right. It’s amazing to watch a show correct itself.
So look, I’ll give you three reasons, instead of a thousand, why this is the best. Moments, bits, pieces, whatever.
The Two Nuns
Rose Portillo is the best guest star the show’s ever had. Part of this isn’t really her fault— it’s the first time the show has bothered to write a believable, non-ridiculously one-note character in years. Though, to be honest, that’s not even what’s going on here. The show’s using one of its oldest concepts— doubles— and using it for more than just easy antagonism. It’s using doubles to underline one of the deepest explorations the show originally (almost) engaged in: what makes us us.
This is a part of what this episode is about, though I’ll soon argue it’s about much much more than that. These two Nuns are different people, through and through, as much as they might look at each other. But they’re similar enough to at least both be Nuns, which is significant. More significant is the clear understanding they share, even if they’re constantly saying the things the other would never dare to. That’s their connection— they’re the mirror of the person they could be, and they understand and respect this.
Besides, even without the philosophical triumph of the idea of these characters, they’re still astounding. The nuns split into “Sassy” and “Moody,” more or less, and they both get a few lines that speak to each side that are contenders for best moments on the show. One of those is a joke about a quiet bath, which is delivered with perfect timing.
But the other speech is a total shock. One Nun explains how someone of Faith could explain the intensely scientific happenings: it’s a cruel inverse of Noah’s Ark— Two by Two, but now on Earth, as punishment for our sins. Rembrandt’s “Oh, Lord” reaction is basically my own. That speech comes out of nowhere, but it’s the smartest bit the show’s ever done.
We never really see people try to process Sliding in any meaningful sense on this show. Most of the time, the guest stars stare at the Vortex as if they’re seeing what’s actually there in real life— a light behind a swishing bucket of water, and a fan blowing in their eyes. If there’s any actual reaction, it’s a “wow, okay, that’s crazy,” and the plot moves on. Religion has never entered into it. Which, sure, fine, maybe stay away from that, it might get ugly (especially for a show that produced “Prophets & Loss”). But it’s not mocked here. The tone is reverent, and it should be. Because that speech is delivered not only to us as an audience to fully understand the spiritual plight of this World, but also to hammer home the point to Alt-Quinn.
The Conscience of the Universe
In earlier seasons, the idea of “non-involvement” was used as a plot-mover. There were discussions, sure, but there isn’t really any chance that they won’t get involved— the plot demands it of them. But as time went on (even as the show got worse), it seemed like there was more of a pull towards being a force of change.
“As Time Goes By” took that idea and crumpled it into meaninglessness. It took the basic core of the show— insert these people in a place where they can afflict their political and ideological leanings— and showed the consequence. Sliders has the ability to veer perilously towards xenophobia at times. The sliders unquestioningly view what they perceive as ‘wrongs’ and work tirelessly to ‘right’ them. But like I said way back in Season One, there’s nothing in “Prince of Wails” that actually shows suffering. Sure, we see Skid Row, and that scene is very important for the Prince to understand the plight of the common man. But despite Sheriff Arturo saying taxes are over 70%, we don’t see the populace actively suffering. People go about their business, living.
What I mean is, the sliders never stopped to think about their actions until “As Time Goes By” (I’m ignoring “Luck of the Draw,” mainly because the show itself was forced to ignore it). There, Quinn tried to act as a force of selfish change, and destroyed an entire universe. That’s the most brutal of costs.
But it’s a little vague, isn’t it? As great as “As Time Goes By” is, it’s almost too poetic to get the point across. It’s telling Quinn to be careful. But it’s probably difficult to understand that when the heavens are wigging out.
It’s much easier to understand when it’s you who blew it. I mean, sure, it’s a double of Quinn, but we know Our Quinn Mallory far too well. What better way to needle him for his endless guilt that throwing a heartless husk of a man with his face at him?
But guilt’s not really what the episode is about— this is about responsibility. This is about what it means to be a good human. And it’s not cynical. You’d think that at this point in the show, we’d be so consumed in pessimism that Quinn would take one look at Alt-Quinn and throw him under the bus. We would only get half of the line that could very well define the show: “you blew it.” Show over, move on.
But that’s not what we get. Alt-Quinn is so blind to his responsibility that he feels nothing, despite the intense amounts of suffering he’s caused. So Quinn drops a bomb of a line, one to get tattooed on the arm of eternity:
The universe doesn’t have a conscience, so we have to.
Quinn Mallory is the only person who understands the universe enough to say this. And the thing is that he’s obviously right. The universe, as understood as fate, makes no sense to him— otherwise, there would be no Kromaggs, no Wrong, no Death. Naturally, this view of the universe doesn’t gel with reality. But Quinn doesn’t live in reality. He lives a life outside of it. If sliding does anything to a person’s psyche, it reveals the patterns of the universe as zoomed out to show how little can happen: death, or not. But Quinn’s only been paying attention to the Death, the Darkness of the Multiverse.
But in the face of all this Death and Darkness can (/should) come with responsibility. If you give your life up to the universe, how are you supposed to cope? We’ve seen that if you use the Multiverse selfishly, dire consequences occur. But if you use it as an honest force of good, there is reward. “Fever,” as mildly disliked as it is, should really be the template of the show. “Sliding made a difference.” Yeah, it did, on a wonderfully small scale. “Last Days” was on a huge scale, but the result is the same: humanity lives on.
There’s a difference between the ‘help’ they give in “Last Days” and the help they ‘give’ in “Prince of Wails” or “The Weaker Sex,” and it’s the human element. They aren’t saving lives in “The Weaker Sex,” they’re righting some perceived wrong that’s based entirely on personal belief. This is the wrong way to define ‘conscience.’ Death is a moral wrong, if you have the chance to prevent it. If you can save a life, then do so (so basically, fuck you, “City on the Edge of Forever.”)
This is the discussion we should have been having, and Quinn has it with his double, who can’t see past his own nose. He’s violated the tenets of the moral universe, and it’s his responsibility to fix what he’s done. At the end, it’s no surprise that he ‘learns a lesson’ and is a better person for it. But the path the episode gives him— driven by the humanity of our characters, no less— it so completely earned.
We Will Make New Stars
There’s a scene, late in the episode, where Alt-Quinn and Maggie are sitting in the dark outside of the Mallory house. They have a conversation, and in it Alt-Quinn relates something that his Father once told him.
We’re all made of star stuff, and it’s up to us to blaze across the sky and burn ourselves into the world. So we’d never be forgotten.
We’ve had cases of Sliders occasionally remembering that it has a past. Most of the time it’s haphazard, and only serves to piss us off. The show’s selective memory produced one of the show’s most frustrating hours, “The Other Slide of Darkness,” which apparently decided it was high time that we dealt with all the ‘loose ends’ that had been dangling for three years. You could even argue that the entire plot of Season Four is a case of the show’s selective memory.
But here, in “World Killer,” we have an example of continuity done right. The above quote is, of course, a reference to the “star dust” speech in “The Guardian.” But it’s more than just a simple reference. The scene is filmed to mimic the earlier episode. If you’re a diehard fan who’s been paying attention, it’s a sweet little nod, a wink of a gift.
But it’s better than that. It’s one thing when a show puts in a bunch of nods to its past just because it can, and they don’t hinder the actual plot of anything. It’s fine when you freeze frame the latest Star Trek movie and see that there’s a Tribble in Scotty’s laboratory, or that R2-D2 is floating in the wreckage of the fleet, or when the Colonial Anthem in the Re-Imagined Battlestar Galactica is the theme to the Original Series, or that Tricia Helfer’s Number Six is a nod to The Prisoner, or whatever. Those are small, and don’t change anything.
But it’s another when you make something like Doctor Who’s “Attack of the Cybermen,” which tries to tie in loads and loads of continuity bits— a former Dalek henchman here, the Cybermen’s original homeworld there, Trotters lane here, all of the UK falling asleep there. Then, it’s fanservice that serves as a detriment to storytelling. That was “The Other Slide of Darkness.” That was “Genesis.”
But that isn’t this scene. If you haven’t seen “The Guardian,” you’re fine. The scene still works. If you do know what’s being referenced, then great— you might enjoy it a little more. But the scene isn’t just working to keep the fans sated, it’s working to enrich Alt-Quinn as a character, and it does so. It’s why this episode is called “World Killer” instead of “Slidewave.” It defines his scientific blindness, his hubris. The “Star Dust” story can be told to the same person, but in different contexts, it can change the foundation of who that person is.
That’s what “World Killer” is really trying to get at. That question of “what makes us us” is at the forefront, and it proves to be an enduring concept for the show. The best hours of the show have dealt with this question, and if “World Killer” doesn’t answer it, it at least tries to answer the question of why we should be.
The episode shows Quinn an ugliness, and he tries to right it. And he does right it. And that righting is more important to him, and to us, than any society that needed rebuilding, than any plague in need of curing, than any asteroid or pulsar in need of destroying. It’s the human element, returned and triumphant. The show has pretended that it never left— as much as an hour like “Common Ground” comes close to humanity, it clouds its message in interdimensional war drama too heavily.
I’m not kidding when I say that this is what was missing from the show. For too long the show has been mired in an ugly cynicism that, however realistic to life it may have been, was ultimately deadly to the show. But in “World Killer” we have a character who embodies that cynicism, and he is made to see the light.
I’m tentatively hopeful that this is the future of the show. But even if it isn’t, and no episode is this good ever again, “World Killer” is good enough for me to maintain my faith in the Heart of Sliders.
This was a show worth making, and this episode is why.
Next Week: Bachelor Who? (O Brother, Where Art Thou?)
|Previous: Reality Hasn’t Done Much For Me Lately (Virtual Slide).||Next: Five In The Hand, White Soul Man (O Brother, Where Art Thou?).|