The Fall of Sliders

Essay by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1997

Steven, I'll be back. I'll be with you at the end of this world, or at the beginning of the next one.

The recent two-parter Sliders episode, "Exodus", is an epitome of all that is good and bad about the fledgling television series. For those of you who have been following it faithfully, you have probably been patient with the inconsistency of the series, vacillating between well-written drama and hokey melodrama. But you still watch, hoping that Sliders will hit the right combination of science fiction to take us where we have never been before, and drama to focus in on the moral dilemmas and issues we all face. "Exodus" succeeded in some respects, and also failed miserably in others.

For the uninitiated, Sliders started on the Fox Network in 1995 as a sci-fi vehicle to explore the context of social issues, such as disease and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, much like any of the Star Trek series. However, unlike Star Trek, which takes us to the distant reaches of space to embody the moral dilemma in some alien culture, Sliders uses the concept of alternate universes, such as an alternate timeline where the Russians occupy the United States ("Amerika" anyone?) or a world where antibiotics were never invented and a bacterial plague runs rampant. The series began with Quinn Mallory (Jerry O'Connell), a physics grad student who creates a stable wormhole that allows for interdimensional travel ('sliding') to alternate universes where it is the same year, but the circumstances are different. During a test-slide with co-worker Wade Wells (Sabrina Lloyd) and his physics professor Maximillian Arturo (John Rhys-Davies), they accidentally take on a fourth 'slider', an R&B singer named Rembrandt "Crying Man" Brown (Cleavant Derricks). Unfortunately, due to technical glitches, they are unable to return to their original universe, which they dub 'Earth-Prime', and slide from world to world every week in an attempt to find their way home. Though this is tempting from a narrative point-of-view, full of dramatic possibilities (problem-of-the-week), it does have its pitfalls. Because the core characters are essentially thrown into a new situation every week, it is difficult to create a developing story arc. And so it is crucial that the only constant in the series, the main characters, grow and develop. Unfortunately, Sliders was weak in this regard in the first two seasons.

As a result, to keep Sliders fresh, the writers have had to re-invent the show a couple of times since its inception. In the first season, the show took place in the geographical confines of the San Francisco Bay area. During this season, a modification was made on the timer (a device that looks like either a cellular phone or a television remote that creates the wormhole) that plunked the characters anywhere within a 200 mile radius of San Francisco, opening up the possibilities of stories set in other parts of California, such as Los Angeles. Another attempt at reducing the 'churn rate' of viewers (minimizing the number of dedicated viewers that they annoy) would be the introduction of recurring characters, which showed promise but has rarely been carried through. During the second season, two recurring 'characters' were introduced. The second season opener introduced a Wizard's assistant with sliding capabilities, who thwarted the foursome's return to Earth-Prime (he oiled the gate in Mallory's front yard that squeaks, so Mallory thought it was an alternate Earth; besides, they read the newspaper which had the outrageous headline that said O.J. Simpson was on trial for murder). However, since the second season-opener, he has never been heard from or seen again. Another missed opportunity would be the Cro-Mags, a race of hominids evolved from the Cro-Magnon species who possess sliding technology and use it to invade other universes. It was an excellent opportunity to introduce a recurring group of villains, much like the Klingons or the Borg in Star Trek, but alas, so far they have only appeared in one episode.

So what hath "Exodus" brought us, in light of the historical development of the series? Fortunately, the writers did not rely on their typical Sliders episode template which goes something like this:

1. Sliders arrive on the alternate Earth where things are different.

2. Wade says "Professor, look at this Earth... people here are... blah blah blah"

3. Professor replies, "It seems Ms. Wells that on this Earth, the chain of events have occurred differently... blah blah blah".

4. Rembrandt says, "Hey Q-ball, how long before we slide?"

5. Quinn says, "Professor, do you have the timer?"

6. Professor replies, "What the devil are you talking about? I don't have the timer... I thought you had it."

7. In the search for the timer, which is in the possession of the fascist government of the Earth they've landed on, they make an alliance with some underclass or rebel splinter faction.

8. Everything gets wrapped up neatly and they slide to the next world.

In "Exodus", the Sliders land on an Earth that is about to be destroyed by fragments of a destroyed pulsar star which will irradiate the entire surface, killing everyone (I didn't know that pulsar stars were made of solid rock!?). On a military base, a psycho military base commander, Col. Rickman (Roger Daltrey-- an interesting bit of casting, considering he can't act, plus I was expecting him to burst out shouting "Would YOU like to go MARCHING UP and DOWN the SQUARE!?") is prepared to use sliding technology to resettle survivors on an alternate Earth. Unfortunately, Rickman is also killing people for their brain tissue to treat some disease he got in the Gulf War (!). The Sliders are forced into helping Rickman achieve his goal and Captain Maggie Beckett, a tough-talking-I'm-in-charge-here-Dana-Scully-wannabe, is responsible for watching over them. As the pulsars get closer to the Earth, panic breaks out in the outside world, the Professor and Quinn try to perfect Rickman's sliding machine, Wade must draw up a list of who on the base gets to slide (essentially deciding who lives and dies), Rembrandt befriends a boy living on the base, and Quinn and Beckett go sliding to different Earths in an attempt to find a suitable home for the survivors.

QUINN: We're not leaving.
REMBRANDT: Wait a minute... who the hell put you in charge? You're the reason why we're in this mess! Because of you, we've been taken away from everything that we knew and everyone that we loved. Or have you forgotten that?
QUINN: You never let me.

First of all, there were some truly inspiring moments in this two-parter. For example, during one of the expeditionary slides, Quinn finds Earth-Prime, but must leave shortly after being reunited with his mother because Beckett can't breathe the air there. Using the newly-developed timer, the coordinates for Earth-Prime are saved. As soon as the other three hear of Quinn's success, they want to leave right away and go home. However, Quinn is unwilling to leave right away because he promised that he would help Rickman evacuate the base. And so a conflict arises where Rembrandt and Wade, who blame Quinn for their involuntary sliding for the past two years, question Quinn's judgment.

REMBRANDT: What it comes down to is that we mean less to you than a bunch of strangers!
REMBRANDT: I am sick of you acting like God! You're just a guy who just screwed up and stuck us with the bill!

Another interesting internal conflict arises when Wade is faced with coming up with a list of evacuees and Rembrandt pleads for a young boy to be included.

REMBRANDT: It's just one more name!
WADE: It's more than that! If Malcolm goes on the list, that means someone comes off. You have no idea what it's like knowing that each name that you erase off the screen means that person dies. You know, all you think about is saving one life. All I'm thinking about are the people I'm not.

However, there are a lot of really bad moments in this two-parter, with dialogue that would make you cringe. On one of the expeditions, Quinn and Beckett spy a small settlement of primitive natives, dancing around a fire. As they watch the bizarre ritual in a thicket, the following awkward scene ensues:

BECKETT: It looks like some kind of mating ritual.
QUINN: I think it is.
BECKETT: It looks so fluid... so smooth.
QUINN: Like each body is telling a separate story.
(long knowing glance between BECKETT and QUINN)

There's also a scene in a hospital room, where the Professor has just been attacked by Rickman. Wade gives the Professor some medication:

WADE: Here Professor, take these.
QUINN: What are you giving him?
WADE: Muscle relaxant. Don't worry, I used to be a candystriper. They always give these to trauma victims.

Syeah, right.

I could go on about things that didn't quite work, such as the plot-device recycled from the Keanu Reaves movie "Chain Reaction", the generally bad-acting of all the guest stars (Daltrey being the worst offender), the cheesy carnivorous bunny scene, the small-scale riot at the base's gate... but you get the idea.

"Exodus" also introduced some elements to re-invent the series once again. The most significant would be the departure of John-Rhys Davies from the series, with the death of Professor Arturro, having been shot by Rickman. His place on the sliding team will be replaced by Maggie Beckett, who joins the Sliders temporarily to track down the wayward Rickman, who now possesses the new timer with the coordinates for Earth-Prime. The Professor was always a bit of a redundant character, since his role as technical guru was already being done by Quinn (Wade is the sensitive touchy-feely member of the team, and Rembrandt is the Action Jackson), leaving him only to spout technobabble. The introduction of Beckett to the team has another affect on team dynamics. Throughout the last two years, a budding relationship has developed between Wade and Rembrandt (in the first season, the relationship was between Quinn and Wade), leaving Quinn to fall in love with a different woman on every world (kind of like an inter-dimensional Captain Kirk!). Now a relationship has been hinted between Quinn and Beckett, especially in the cheesy scene mentioned prior. It should be interesting to see what they do with it and how it affects the group dynamics, since there is no neutral 'mediator' in the group.

All in all, it was an average episode-- I've seen better in the past. The same type of issue, an impending cataclysm that will destroy the Earth, was done better in the first season episode "Last Days", where a large asteroid was about to slam into the planet until the Sliders help a scientist develop a nuclear weapon which Einstein flubbed to spare the world from possible nuclear annihilation. This is not surprising. In terms of dealing with such issues, between the first and third seasons, there has been a shift from a 'social commentary' stance with often biting satire to a more action-adventure tone. All you have to do is compare some of the better first and second season offerings, such as "Weaker Sex" (where sex discrimination and sexual harassment worked in reverse), and some of the recent third season offerings, such as "Slide Like an Egyptian", where the Sliders are in a world where the Egyptian empire is still flourishing, the Royal family are sliders, and the Sliders are locked in a pyramid with a man-eating scarab (whatever...). Is it a coincidence that Tracy Torme, the series creator and executive producer, has also just departed?

So it should be interesting to see what direction Sliders takes off in now, with the changes both in front and behind the camera. Maybe this is the frame-breaking change needed to propel Sliders from mediocrity... but then again, it could just provide more ammunition to those that say "just cancel Sliders and bring back Space: Above and Beyond".

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