Sunday, July 03, 2011

Re-gaining an Appreciation for Sliders

Much like I did last year with "Alias", I took the free time with my limited live TV schedule during the summer to reacquaint myself with an old favorite from my DVD library, "Sliders".

This isn't the first time I've rewatched the series since it went off the air, at least in some portion. When the DVD box set of Seasons 1 & 2 came out, I watched the entire thing, and loved every minute of it. When the box set for season 3 came out, I watched it and loved less of it, so much so that I didn't pick up the DVDs for Seasons 4 and 5. As I remembered when I watched the series originally, those seasons were horrible, and not worth watching.

I assumed that'd be the case again when I got around to them, but... well, we'll get to that. First, the early seasons.

Seasons 1 and 2 of "Sliders" (really, one season's worth of episodes, split over two years by FOX) were science fiction at its most brilliant potential. The best science fiction is never the kind that's wildly unbelievable. No, I'd say the best is when the science fiction is used allegorically to explore a more down-to-Earth theme. That's what the first two seasons of "Sliders" were really about. On the large scale, there was the overarching theme of  scientific responsibility in innovation, with multiple characters frequently reminding Quinn Mallory (Jerry O'Connell) that they never intended to go on this never-ending sliding journey, and Professor Arturo (John Rhys-Davies) specifically chiding Quinn for not testing his invention responsibly before dragging him, Wade Welles (Sabrina Lloyd) and, inadvertently, Rembrandt "Crying Man" Brown (Cleavant Derricks) along.

On a more micro level, the early episodes of "Sliders" frequently used the alternate Earth premise to explore alternate history scenarios, something that's been a staple of science fiction and general genre fiction since probably about as long as people have been writing. These episodes fill up most of the slots among my favorites in the show's five-season run (a list that's coming later this week), and represent the high point of the show's creative arc. The show didn't always execute perfectly, but damn if it didn't try, and more often than not come really close.

In those early seasons, the show is about so much more than just exploring alternate worlds, and trying to find a way home. The character development is very well done, primarily with Quinn and Arturo. For the former, there's so much great material balancing the young genius's scientific curiosity with his guilt at getting everyone, particularly Rembrandt, caught up in this. But as good as that stuff is, everything with Arturo is so much better. I always felt like the show went drastically downhill after his departure, in part because Davies is such a great actor but also because Arturo was always good for solid dramatic tension on the show -- and not just because the vast majority of his alt-Earth doubles were evil.

However, re-watching the show, I started to get a different opinion of the quality arc of the full run. The decline that I'd always pinned to Arturo's departure actually starts earlier in Season 3. Hell, technically it starts right at the beginning of Season 3, with "Rules of the Game", a crappy "Running Man"/"Death Race" knockoff episode that marks the shows shift from alt-history focused to action focused. And while the very next episode, "Double Cross" (originally intended to be the Season 3 premiere) is one of the show's best, it's a rare bright spot in a season that doesn't nearly live up to my memory. It also introduces one of the show's great unsolved mysteries: what ever happened to Quinn's female double Logan St. Claire (and that, and other loose ends from the show will make up another Sliders post later this week)?

Interestingly, the introduction of a female "double", while creatively interesting, probably was also a precursor to the general de-emphasis of doubles as a narrative technique*. So many of the early episodes hinged on the sliders' encounters with their counterparts from the Earths they slid into. However, only two episodes in Season 3 feature a true appearance by doubles, not counting "Double Cross", since Arturo's double is dead by the time the sliders arrive, and Quinn's "double" obviously isn't a duplicate of Jerry O'Connell. I missed the doubles a lot in Season 3, because the exploration of how you might have turned out different given different circumstances (i.e. "nature vs nurture") was a great theme for the first couple of seasons.

*It's fair to note here that many of these changes were brought about as a way to save costs. The technique used to have one actor appear on screen twice was crude, and kind of expensive, so that could go a long way to explaining why it happened so much less in Season 3. Another casualty of the cost cutting were the random recurring characters from the first couple of seasons, including the setting of San Francisco itself (as the show moved from filming in Vancouver to filming in L.A.). I particularly missed the cab driver, Pavel. He was like the precursor to Ranjit on "How I Met Your Mother".

While much of Season 3 was worse than I'd remembered, which may have contributed to Rhys-Davies's desire to leave the show, my memory didn't fail me when it came to the end of Season 3. The post-Arturo episodes were as bad as I'd remembered them, both from my original watching in 1997 and when I got the DVDs 10 years later. All of those episodes have the tie-in to the Rickman story, which is probably the third-worst continuing story during the show's run (behind Season 5's "Mallory" debacle and the Kro-maggs). But even on an individual basis, they're just bad in a lazy kind of way. Each episode seems to just cover one mediocre sci-fi trope after another: we get an "Alien" knockoff, a "Tremors" knockoff, zombies, snakes, dinosaurs, vampires and finally some "Island of Dr. Moreau" bullshit. It's just episode after episode of unwatchability, and it's no wonder that FOX canned the series after that run (whether or not they're primarily responsible for the decline in quality is a matter that's still up for debate).

Now, again, as I remembered it, Season 4 got even worse, but as it turns out, that wasn't entirely the case. I'm currently about two-thirds of the way through it, and for the most part it's significantly more watchable than the end of Season 3*. Yes, the special effects definitely suffered from the shift from FOX to Sci-Fi (as it was spelled back then), most notably in the form of the sliding vortex, but there was also an increase in some of those alt-history type of episodes that made the show so good in the first couple of seasons. I'm even finding myself not hating the general Kro-magg story as much as I originally did, if only because it gave them a way to get the sliders back to Earth Prime and yet have their journey continue beyond it. I will say that upon re-watching the series, the episode "The Other Slide of Darkness", with its revelations about the Kro-maggs, makes almost no sense given what we see of them in Seasons 4 and 5. In fact, I'd almost like to pretend I didn't see that episode, or at least the part with alt-Quinn.

*To be entirely fair, though, I'm just getting into the human/Kro-magg hybrid episodes, and it's entirely possible that this is really where things go astray. If that's the case, I'll be sure to come back here and revise this, so I don't look like a complete idiot.

I think one of the things that made Season 4 work on some level is the re-writing of Maggie Beckett (Kari Wuhrer). I hated Wuhrer's character at the end of Season 3, but in Season 4, she almost seemed like a different person (and not just because her hairstyle was SO different). Her military background was de-emphasized, and in most episodes, her character basically served as a stand-in for Wade, who she'd replaced in the cast, and she provided a lot more comic relief than she did, or she even seemed capable of, in Season 3. And while in '99 I'd resented her for bumping Lloyd from the show, time has healed that wound, and I can appreciate her performance for what it is now.

I'm not going to get into Season 5, partly because I haven't gotten around to re-watching it yet but mostly because I think it's an abomination. Whether it's good or not from a storytelling standpoint (and I don't remember it being good) is besides the point. "Sliders" without Jerry O'Connell, and with a bastardized version of Quinn Mallory, isn't "Sliders".

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