alternate wednesday: Sliders Re-Watch: “Pilot”

I’ve been kicking around the idea of blogging more about some of my favorite stories about parallel universes and time travel in books, film, comics, and television, but it’s been hard to set aside time to do it, and I didn’t want to write posts randomly based on whenever I get around to them. So I’ve finally hit on a blog series I’m calling Alternate Wednesday: Every other Wednesday I (and/or a guest blogger) will highlight a different take on multiple worlds, time travel, and related topics—movies like Back to the Future, shows like Quantum Leap, and so on.

Given the rich history of science fiction and fantasy, I don’t anticipate ever running out of things to cover for as long as this series continues. I’ve decided on a bi-monthly schedule to hold me accountable while also ensuring I still have time to write other things, like fiction; I’m timing this series so that I can update this blog on the alternating weeks when I’m not writing a Star Trek: The Next Generation Re-Watch post over at The Viewscreen. If this somehow gets popular or I have a lot of extra content for it, I may just have two different tracks of posts alternating every Wednesday. Who knows? Anything is possible.

To start things off, I decided to follow through on another ill-conceived plan I had a while back, to rewatch Sliders. (You remember Sliders, don’t you?) I’m flattered that my editor at Pyr, Lou Anders, describes my book Fair Coin as “Sliders if it were good.” I’ve wanted to defend the show as at least occasionally good, but I couldn’t back that up since I hadn’t seen it in such a long time; knowing the obvious similarities, I consciously tried to make my novels as little like Sliders as I could, with mixed results.

But I recently picked up seasons 1 through 4 on DVD on the cheap, and I’ve never even seen the last two seasons (along with most other people), so I figured I would give this a shot. I don’t know how often I’ll post recaps and reviews of subsequent episodes, but I do intend to watch them all eventually, in the originally intended order. It all depends on if anyone cares–and hey, if another blog wants to pay me to do more of these, that would be all the justification I need! (Hint hint, nudge nudge, wink wink.) At the very least, you can expect sporadic Sliders Re-watch posts here until I or my readers lose interest. Posts will loosely follow the Recap/Analysis format Torie and I established for our Star Trek Re-Watch.

That’s enough exposition for now. Let’s enter the wormhole…

Sliders: “Pilot”
Written by Robert K. Weiss and Tracy Tormé
Directed by Andy Tennant

Season 1, Episode 1
Air date: 03:22:95
Same Earth, Different Dimension: A world running backwards and Soviet America

Recap

A videotape plays on a TV in a basement somewhere in San Francisco, showing a teenage boy who says excitedly, “I think I just knocked out the power.” Fortunately his camera was running on a battery, hmm?

When we next see the same kid, Quinn Mallory, he’s fallen asleep with an open copy of Hyperspace by Michio Kaku (who hasn’t done that?) and—surprise!—he’s late for school. He barely has time to grab breakfast and exchange some witty exposition with his mom, who tells him he’s just like his father, a workaholic who was hit by a car and killed on his way to work one day. Truly a cautionary tale about the dangers of having a day job. Though he’s in a hurry, Quinn does have a few minutes to stop in the basement, his dad’s old workshop, to change his shirt and replay a couple more of his home videos, which he avidly watches as though he has never seen them before.

Dr. Horrible he’s not, but Quinn’s video diary shows he has been working on something interesting and world-changing: While trying to invent an anti-gravity device, he’s accidentally discovered how to open a nifty-looking wormhole instead. Mwa ha ha ha! It’s just big enough for three or four people to fit through, and maybe a Cadillac. Too bad he still has to go to school… Dang it, mom!

Quinn drives off to college, where he sits through a physics lecture by Professor Maximillian Arturo—who has all the charm of an irascible dwarf—though Quinn is obviously far too advanced for the class. Then he reports for work as a computer technician at Doppler, where we meet his snarky best friend, Wade Wells. She has all the characterization of a comic book sidekick, as well as a crush on a hopelessly oblivious Quinn. Unsolvable quantum physics equations are no problem for this boy genius, but girls? An utter mystery.

When he finally gets back home, he’s eager to resume messing around with the natural order of things. He has somehow sent a basketball through with a timer, which bounces back through the wormhole at the appointed moment. It seems none the worse for wear, but the real test will be sending a living creature through to see what’s on the other side. Unwilling to sacrifice his cat Schrödinger, especially since Quinn wouldn’t know whether or not the feline was alive or not at the other end of the wormhole, he decides the only sensible thing is to go through himself.

Quinn sets up a wormhole and dives through with a portable timer set to reopen the portal for a return trip—only to be deposited back on the floor of his workshop. So much for that. He drives to school, but encounters some strange new traffic regulations: green means stop and red means go. And an announcer on the radio talks about “global cooling” and how vinyl is replacing CDs. He has no idea what’s going on, but the real shocker is when he gets home and discovers his mom wearing 80s-style glasses and looking much more pregnant than when he last saw her; their gardener, Jake, knocked her up. What is going on? The wormhole opens up behind him, right on time, and he’s sucked back through…and lands in his basement workshop again.

By now he’s figured out that he has just escaped from some zany backwards world. But hey, it’s time for school again, so earth-shattering physics revelations will have to wait. But his day in his own world holds even more perplexing and personal mysteries for him to unravel: Professor Arturo is angry with him for criticizing his work, Quinn finds out he’s been fired from his job for insulting his manager, and at some point Quinn kissed Wade. Ew!

He gets home and is surprised to see that someone has finished the physics equation on his blackboard in the basement—and his strange visitor is still there! Quinn encounters an exact duplicate of him, only his hair is messier and he’s kind of an asshole. Quinn Prime assumes that the wormhole has split him into two personalities, but the other Quinn explains that he’s a “slider.” He’s also discovered the ability to open wormholes between parallel worlds (say it with me: “same planet, different dimension”) and he’s been slip-slip-sliding his way through them for fun and profit. This is the other Quinn’s eighth slide; he tells Quinn Prime about one of them that he particularly yearns to get back to:

“I once stepped onto a world just this side of paradise. No pollution, no crime or hate. People were happy…and a stranger was welcomed with love. No one was afraid there, Quinn. Think about it. I’d set the timer for twenty hours that day, not nearly enough time for a place like that. I hope I find it again.”

He explains some of the show’s premise to the audience Quinn Prime: he can only slide randomly, and the timer will reopen the wormhole automagically when the episode ends. Oh, and there’s one really important thing. He should never—

The other Quinn disappears into his home wormhole before he can quite get the words out. Oh well, Quinn Prime will figure it out.

Arturo and Wade arrive at the house, each demanding an explanation for Quinn’s uncharacteristic behavior. He explains that it wasn’t him and repeats what he’s just learned, but they aren’t convinced until he tears a hole in time and space to prove the science. He tweaks his timer using the knowledge bestowed upon him by his other self and prepares to go for another trip with his friends. But he decides to juice up the power for three people; after they each jump inside in turn, the wormhole expands and drifts outside the house to the street outside, into the path of a Cadillac with one Rembrandt “The Crying Man” Brown behind the wheel.

The washed-up singer was on his way to belt out the national anthem at a baseball game, hoping that it will revive his long-dormant career, but instead he and his car end up stuck in an iceberg in a frozen version of San Francisco. Quinn and the others emerge from the house, rattle off the requisite “We aren’t in Kansas anymore,” and meet up with Rembrandt. They huddle together in his car waiting until the timer counts down so they can escape. But they can’t last that long, because they’re freezing to death and a super tornado forms which will kill them much sooner if they don’t go early.

Quinn reluctantly reprograms the timer before the timer runs out and sets the wormhole to open above the car, where it’s really hard to reach, just to add additional dramatic tension. They all eventually make it through and are deposited in Golden Gate Park on a beautiful, sunny day. The timer is now fused but all else seems normal, and they go their separate ways, until they each independently discover that they aren’t back home after all.

Wade encounters a totalitarian phone operator from People’s Phone & Telegraph, Rembrandt is arrested for trying to spend a dollar bill, and Arturo and Quinn discover that the statue of Abraham Lincoln has been replaced by one of Vladimir Lenin. It seems they’re in a world in which the U.S. lost the Korean War. Bozhe moi!

Quinn, Arturo, and Wade cross paths with the imperial resistance group and learn that their leader is this world’s Wade Wells, who has been captured. They briefly join the ragtag revolution to find Rembrandt and free the other Wade. Their plan mostly works, but the other Wade is shot and killed during their great escape, causing Quinn to realize how much his Wade means to him. The emotional moment passes quickly.

Quinn manages to repair the timer, with some help from Arturo and his trusty slide rule, and decides to improve their chances of returning home, they must reopen the wormhole in the same place they entered this world: Golden Gate Park. The enemy is in hot pursuit, but the group squeaks through the wormhole in time. They aren’t sure if they’re home or not until Quinn tests the gate in front of his house, which has been squeaking since he was twelve.

It squeaks! With this incontrovertible proof that they’re back in their own universe, they all celebrate with dinner at Quinn’s house. But the festivities are interrupted when Quinn’s dad joins them, apologizing for being late. But of course Dr. Mallory is supposed to be late, which means this isn’t their world either…

Analysis

I’m embarrassed to admit that when this episode first aired, I considered it to be the best pilot for a science fiction show I had ever seen, and a pretty decent TV movie-of-the-week. In my own defense, at the time there really wasn’t much competition, and I was only fifteen. Or maybe my TV picked up a pilot episode from another Earth.

Okay, so this clearly doesn’t hold up to my juvenile memories of it, but it does some things pretty well. The opening of the episode, aside from the cliché of a kid waking up late for school, is solid. In some ways, it reminds me of the beginning of Back to the Future because of the way it focuses on seemingly incidental, irrelevant details which later become important and clue the viewer in to what is going on. I was impressed that Quinn not only has a single mother, but that he has a nice relationship with her, and she has some semblance of a personality which is only partially defined by the tragic loss of her husband. When Quinn thinks he’s trapped in another world, he worries about her worrying about him, at which point Arturo reassures him, “You aren’t lost. You’re only misplaced.”

Though at this point in network television we’re still a ways off from the popularity of arc-driven shows, Sliders will make some forays into that strange new world, and the basic characters and their relationships that are set up in this episode will not remain static throughout the series. In particular, Arturo and Quinn’s relationship is always complex and growing, since Arturo is jealous of Quinn’s brilliance as much as he’s in awe of it, and Quinn is a bit too naïve and inexperienced to bear the weight of his responsibility for stranding them all in time and space.

The weakest aspect of the pilot for me is Rembrandt Brown. To have one of the main ensemble characters be a black man was still forward-thinking even in 1995, but he’s played as quirky comic relief, who is not all that funny or likable—he’s probably the least “PC” of the group. He says some things that made me cringe, like his comment on immigrants in America needing to learn the language, and his cavalier attitude towards wearing those ribbons to show support for various causes. It’s weird and frustrating that by the end of the series, Rembrandt is actually the only remaining original member of the group—I never would have predicted that.

The premise of the show is still damn cool. I used to think of it like a parallel universe version of Quantum Leap, but now I realize it’s a bit more like Irwin Allen’s The Time Tunnel, with a hint of the Sixties camp that invaded all his shows, and much of the genre television of that era. Viewed as a campy science fiction romp, Sliders isn’t bad; and considering that the shocking revelation at the end of the episode is followed up by a music video of the Spinning Tops and The Crying Man, it can’t really be viewed as anything else. And there’s no other explanation for the too-long People’s Court segment and dialogue gems from Rembrandt like “That trip was a trip!” (Which is fortunately balanced by more palatable lines, like one of my favorites from Arturo: “My stomach has no political preferences.”

So my disappointment in the series stems more from the fact that I want it to be a different show, a smarter show—and obviously I would do it differently if I had the chance. I mean, where’s Quinn’s confrontation with the father he idolized who’s been dead for many years? Not at the end of this episode, and not at the beginning of the next one, which just launches them on another wacky adventure conveniently free of the emotional baggage they’ve picked up along the way.

I know the show gets darker. I know the show has some real character moments, offers thought-provoking social commentary, and at times is as smart and serious as science fiction is often capable of. This episode shows two different versions of Sliders: the goofy, barely plausible world running backwards towards the Eighties, and the grim, dystopian horror of a communist America. The former is a quick, sometimes fun shorthand way of illustrating in a non-subtle way that this is a similar yet different world, but the latter scenario does a much better job of it, while also emphasizing that there aren’t just different Earths out there, but different versions of our protagonists. The clever computer geek girl Wade is commanding a revolution on another planet, and we get a hint at the fire and strength in her when she escapes their pursuers with an exasperated, “I don’t have time for this,” with a swift kick to her attacker’s groin. Unfortunately, I also know some of the fate that awaits her character, and it makes me a bit sick to think about it. And “mistaken identity” plots where one of our protagonists pretends to be their double on another world are going to be a staple of the series.

So at this point, the series still had a lot of potential, even if it’s immediately playing to the lowest common denominator to sell the network and viewers on the idea; Fox has rarely taken a chance on edgy, smart shows, or known what to do with them once they find their audience. I liked the way Quinn’s videotapes helped them hit the ground running with the concept, and even having another Quinn step in to explain things to himself had its charms; the most compelling moment for me in this episode, the one that most suggests the show it could have been, is the fact that this dickish version of Quinn is pining for a world that is free of fear. You wonder what circumstances made this Quinn into such a pompous, mean-spirited ass.

The direction, visual effects, and production quality are decent, especially for a 90s show, with one notable exception. The wormhole effect still looks very cool, even after Stargate ripped it off; I love how it has a very obvious “front” and is see-through from the back, while being entirely invisible when viewed from the sides. But the effect of them moving through the wormhole is atrocious, worse than anything on Doctor Who, new or old, and reminiscent of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, but not in a good way. I can’t believe anyone signed off on that! Better not to show anything at all, I think. And here’s the first of many nitpicks: Why do they enter the wormhole one at a time? If it can take a car, I’m pretty sure it can fit four people, or even take them two-by-two.

Messiness aside, and factoring in my obvious weakness for parallel universe stories, I’m still interested in re-watching more of these, and perhaps even making it through the fourth and fifth seasons for the first time. I look forward to seeing how the characters develop over the course of the coming episodes, and how the timer is changed and upgraded along with the premise, especially knowing that there are some bright points ahead. Unless that’s my swiss cheese memory from more than fifteen years ago leading me astray again.

Trivia: Actor Jerry O’Connell was probably best known for his role as Vern in Stand by Me, which co-starred another teen SF star, Wil Wheaton. His other SF claim to fame was as the star of the superhero kid show, My Secret Identity. Most recently, he played Herman Munster on the Munsters reboot series, Mockingbird Lane.

Show co-creator Tracy Tormé had a brief stint writing for the first two seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Quinn’s annoying boss Hurley was named for an unpopular director of the series, Maurice Hurley.

Next episode: “Summer of Love”

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17 Responses to “alternate wednesday: Sliders Re-Watch: “Pilot””


  • The interesting thing I picked up that I didn’t, first time I watched this is that “our” Quinn Mallory is not the full inventor. He gets it from another Quinn.

    In a sense, that other Quinn provides the “call to adventure”.

    And yeah, I thought Rembrandt was sort of randomly shoved into the quartet. He and it gets better but even back then, it seemed awfully random.

    • That’s true–he did take that first journey on his own, but it may have freaked him out enough to stay put until he knew more about what he was dealing with. The other Quinn gives him a shortcut and actually seems impressed that our Quinn took the leap so soon.

      Quinn Prime was really close of course, he was just missing one crucial component of the equation, but I’m not exactly sure what piece that provided. I suppose it allowed him to design a proper timer. He would have arrived at the answer on his own, or perhaps with the Professor’s help, but as much of a “cheat” as this approach is, I think it highlights the fact that our Quinn isn’t ready. He’s impetuous and a little arrogant, but good under pressure and able to be really creative and flexible in his solutions. He also has less grounding him in his own universe–he isn’t married, and he has his best friend with him.

      I know we encounter other Quinns later, but I don’t recall if this particular double turns up again. I’m fascinated by the factors that lead one to develop the technology over another, decide whether to use or destroy it, etc.

      The quartet they end up with is pretty balanced, which may be why Rembrandt is along for the ride: You have two older men, providing some wisdom and experience; Quinn is the brains; and Wade is brilliant in her own right, with a different perspective. At least, that’s how I can see it this early on, drawing on some of what I remember from later. We’ll see how it actually shapes up.

      • The quartet they end up with is pretty balanced, which may be why Rembrandt is along for the ride: You have two older men, providing some wisdom and experience; Quinn is the brains; and Wade is brilliant in her own right, with a different perspective.

        Eugene, you know I loves ya, but dude, what part of this is balanced? Three men, one woman. Two of the men are sold as brilliant, the other a former huge success as a musician; the lass is eye-candy, or meant as.

        Also, this happens in San Francisco, one of the cities with the highest Asian populations in North America, and the only way we get someone who isn’t white is the Black man randomly driving by? Whhrgarbl.

        I do have a practical suggestion for why not to go through together, only it’d have been nice if they’d discovered it, then explicitly avoided it next time: if they go through at the same time, they’re more likely to end up in a tangled heap on the other side together? :)

        • What I actually meant is they balance Quinn, not that we would consider the group balanced in race or gender by any stretch of the imagination. We essentially have a token black character and a token woman. The Professor balances Quinn’s inexperience and rashness, and Wade, alas, balances him emotionally. And as DemetriosX points out, Rembrandt provides the everyman, more to serve the show than the group, though he also adds a little humor, even if it doesn’t always work for me.

          Very good point about the lack of Asians on the show. Come to think of it, I don’t even remember many as guest stars, let alone protagonists, but that’s pretty common in most of the shows of the 90s. I think I remember like, one episode of Lois & Clark where they had a Chinese guy, and that was all about a villain using Chi as a weapon. Though of course, Dean Cain is a quarter Japanese.

          • As balance to Quinn, I could see it, but I guess as time has gone on, my tolerance for the “straight white guy and the crew around him” model of show-building is running thin. It was most evident in a couple of recent shows, ironically both about dinosaurs: Primeval has had a string of alpha males who show up out of nowhere, have no knowledge base to speak of, and become the head of things because…well, because.

            And among the wretched things about Terra Nova (and to be fair, it was well-accompanied by many, many other wretched things) was the straight white guy who cheated his way in, and within a couple of days was one of the most important security dudes in the Era because…just because, alright, don’t question the show, LOVE the show, or you won’t get nice things, you geeks!

            • My tolerance for contemporary shows with this model is certainly very low at this point, but I can still credit a show from the 90s making even the slightest attempt to have a multiracial cast, however ill-executed.

              I’ve been meaning to check out Primeval for a while–somehow I ended up with the first season on DVD–but my enthusiasm is waning if it’s as you describe. But now that I think about it, I suppose Doctor Who falls into this pattern too, doesn’t it? :(

          • I had no idea Dean Cain was a quarter Japanese.

  • I liked Sliders a lot, but it did go downhill quickly, especially once John Rhys-Davies left. I never saw the last season, but the third was bad enough. And you know, this may well have been the best SF pilot you’d seen. It’s better than “Farpoint”, the DS9 and Voyager pilots weren’t all that, and the B5 pilot film showed promise but plodded.

    Rembrandt did get better, but perhaps the most interesting thing about him is that he is essentially the everyman in the show. The other 3 are all brilliant; Remmie needs things explained to him. As the person on the receiving end of the exposition, he is basically the person that the average viewer is supposed to identify with.

    • Yes–that’s what Rembrandt is for! I couldn’t quite pin down how he balanced the group, other than to add to the humor (and provide continuity as series regulars fled the sinking ship). It’s a bit clever then, how they’ve set this up.

      I might have seen some of the fourth season, but much of the appeal for the show for me was Jerry O’Connell as Quinn. They found a Doctor Who-like way to keep his character alive without him, since he’s pretty essential to the series, but it was probably a bad idea to keep the show going at that point. Still, I hear the fifth season returned to some of the original tone of the more promising first season, so I’m interested in checking it out—with only slightly more enthusiasm than I have for eventually giving Enterprise another chance.

  • Sliders hasn’t aged well, but I actually found it less bad than I was expecting when I did a rewatch a few years ago. The biggest problem with the series overall was the lack of progress it made as regards its characters. Episodes became formulaic and repetitive: the Sliders went to a dystopian world, led a revolution, left things better than when they found it, lather, rinse, repeat. But so were a lot of mid-90s TV shows. The fact that they cottoned on to serialization late is not their fault, really. It’s just a shame the timing didn’t work out better–they started this show just years from the start of good genre serials like Buffy.

    • I remember it really slipping when they started doing their own versions of Hollywood films, like Twister, Anaconda, and Species. Even the Wizard of Oz! Once Arturo left, the show seemed to be really dumbed down. Did you get all the way to the end in your re-watch?

    • Unfortunately, even when they did figure out the concept of long story arcs, the one they picked was really bad. The Kromags just never made much sense. I think they might have “borrowed” the idea from a concept George RR Martin was pitching about the same time this show was being pitched. I forget the title, something about doors, I think. IIRC, there was an overall pursuit theme that would have made the show more like something from the 60s, like The Fugitive or Run for Your Life.

  • Don’t you hate looking back at your younger assessments and seeing how little you knew?

    I am so with you on Rembrandt. He’s the worst part of the show, I think. He tries to hard to be funny, and just isn’t. They try to make him more serious later, from what I recall, but he just doesn’t have the acting chops for that. I didn’t finish the show, but I heard he becomes the main character in the last season, and that that puts the nail in the coffin.

    Good point about going into the wormhole one at a time. They end pretty much every episode with a time crunch to get into the wormhole before someone or something kills them, but they still go through one at a time. O_o

    There can only be one squeaky fence in the universe. Surely.

    • Just to clarify, I totally compiled this comment while reading the episode recap for episode 2, so this might be confusing. I read in Google Reader, and popped to this one but was reading in that one, and…oops.

    • I know he ends up being the last member of the original cast in the fifth season, which isn’t much motivation to watch it all. I’m hoping I can mostly ignore him, like Jar Jar Binks, and enjoy the rest of the show–if it gets any better, that is.

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