The Great Work

Our fourth episode in the production schedule came from one of our many contributing freelancers, Robert Masello. Robert’s credentials include a number of non-fiction novels (Falling Angels and Raising Hell) and scripts for Poltergeist: The Legacy and Early Edition.

I’ve mentioned freelance writing several times before without going into too much detail. Now might be the time to elaborate a bit and to answer the question often asked by our viewers, “how do I sell a script to Sliders?”

Because our writing staff was small we relied on freelance writers to help us fill out our order of 18 episodes. Freelance writers work on their own, outside the staff, usually at home. They are agented professionals who typically have some kind of track record of produced credits. Most first-time sales (that first big break) for television writers are also freelance sales.

The first step in the process is to submit a writing sample to the staff for review. This is done through the writer’s representation, a literary agent who handles television and feature properties. A production company will not look at a script unless it is submitted by an agent who is signatory to the Writers’ Guild of America. Scripts submitted without prior solicitation usually end up in the circular file (trashcan). It should also be pointed out that a show will rarely look at a sample script of its own show for fear of copyright infringement lawsuits. In other words, we at Sliders never looked at a Sliders sample. One of my roles on staff was that of the gatekeeper in this submission process. I read stacks of scripts from such series as Star Trek, The Outer Limits and even Ally McBeal. It’s a screening process to determine whether or not the writer in question is capable of emulating the tone, style and voice of the show in question. If the script is a good read, if it really jumps off the page, this writer may be someone who can do our show. If that is the case, a pitch meeting is then scheduled.

“Pitch” is slang for sales pitch. The writer comes to the meeting with anywhere from three to six verbal presentations prepared. They then proceed to tell us their stories in hope that we might buy one. Each presentation is five to eight minutes long and feedback from the staff is immediate. Usually a thumbs-up or thumbs-down is given on the spot, then the writer moves on to the next story until all his/her ideas have been pitched. If we, the staff, like one or more of the ideas, we write up a brief synopsis and send it on up the line to higher powers. The idea passes over the desks of several executives. If it survives, the story is purchased outright or the writer gets the full assignment — the story and teleplay. If the latter is the case they are then sent off on their merry way with anywhere from two to three weeks to complete the product.

It has been said that pitching is an unnatural act. Not everyone has the knack for it, and there are a lot of pitching do’s and don’ts. For starters, brevity is golden. It should be short and to the point: a high concept with a beginning, a middle and an end. It should also include some sense of a character arc. That’s where our pitchers made some of their biggest mistakes. Quite often people pitching for Sliders would detail a well-thought-out premise for a parallel world but would give little lip service to the beats of a basic plot or what the characters’ involvement was in the story. Those pitches were inevitably passed on. Sliders, above all, is a show about four people interacting with one another as they overcome the hardships of their strange journey. Each world is simply a backdrop — a stage for them to play on.

Well… enough said about that.

Robert Masello’s original title for his story was “Lindisfarne.” It was based on the historic island of the same name. There ancient monks once labored to preserve the knowledge of mankind for all, much like they did in our story, sans the high-tech wizardry of course. In Robert’s original concept the monks were an order who were gathering not just the knowledge of their world, but the knowledge from many parallel Earths. The monastery was to be a sort of pan-dimensional library at Alexandria. The monks’ mission was to protect this legacy from Kromagg invasion and conquest.

The story was bought and notes were given for the needed changes. But rarely is a story bought “as-is.” It’s typical for it to go through a number of versions and a number of drafts. One rule we on the staff tried to live by was that our four main characters were unique in their ability to slide from one dimension to another. We didn’t want too many people to possess the sliding technology. We would always strive to make the four sliders (any four) travelers on a one-of-a-kind journey. When it was vital to a story in development, this rule could be broken (Exodus, World Killer) but not very often. In the case of “The Great Work” it hardly impacted the story at all, so it was decided to drop the multidimensional library in favor of a single Earth venue. We also found we didn’t need the Kromaggs in this episode for that same reason.

This story came to us early in the season, and as such we hadn’t fully defined the new characters for our freelancers. Mallory was still Quinn-like and handled the laser transfer to the crystal. Diana had the romance (or near romance, as it were). The roles were later obviously switched around to accommodate the character evolutions.

The story was pitched September 9, 1998; went through two subsequent drafts by the writer; and was delivered on September 23. The script was then polished by the staff. Polishing changes typically reflect and accommodate everything from budgetary considerations, to location availability and episode timing or length. Often these are last-minute changes. Also, at times because a freelancer is not as close to the show as the staff (they don’t live it on a daily basis), they might not get the character voices quite right. Our Sliders need to consistently sound like themselves from episode to episode, so occasional adjustments in the dialogue are required. Finally, after numerous rewrites and adjustments, “The Great Work” began filming on November 10, 1998.

Working with Robert was fun. One particular lunch meeting stands out in my mind between he, Chris and I. Bear in mind that, at first glance, Robert comes across as a quiet college-professor type. Naturally, Chris and I were shocked and amused to learn that one of Robert’s early jobs in the literary field was for a number of adult magazines. Apparently, those reader confessions, anecdotes and stories are in fact written by the magazine staffers and freelancers… and Robert was one of those writers! This immediately conjured up, in our sordid little minds, countless new Sliders scripts that Robert could write for us. These, of course, never came to pass. After all, Sliders is a family show.

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