Sunday, February 07, 2016

Nostalgia Theater: Sliders Slides Into Oblivion

The success of Fox's X-Files revival, now in the middle of a six episode run, got me thinking about other genre series from that same era. That, in turn, slid my mind over to Sliders, which began airing on Fox as a two-hour movie in March of 1995. Created by Tracy Tormé (a Star Trek vet and son of singer Mel) and Robert K. Weiss, the series had a terrific premise and cast, and with novels, comic books, etc., it also had the makings of a genuine crossover hit. That is, until network politics scuttled the whole thing and left Sliders as a gruesome reminder of what happens when art and commerce have a head-on collision.

The series starred Jerry O'Connell (already a genre vet thanks to his stint as the teen superhero at the center of My Secret Identity) as Quinn Mallory, a genius grad student who invents a device that can open portals into alternate Earths. So, same planet, same time, but one where a slight change in the past has resulted in a vastly different reality. Testing the portal alongside his professor (John Rhys-Davis), a ladyfriend (Sabrina Lloyd), and a blues singer who's accidentally caught in the vortex (Cleavant Derricks), everything goes fine initially.

However, when the little doodad that's able to "phone home" is damaged, our quartet finds themselves "sliding" from one Earth to the next, hoping they'll eventually get home. So yeah, take a dash of Quantum Leap, toss in a little bit of string theory, and boom, you've got a show. When it started, Sliders really was something unique. With stories that explored compelling ideas like "What if the British won the Revolutionary War?" and "What if we lived in a matriarchal society?", it's easy to see how it quickly became a cult fave.

I really championed this show when it first started, even writing a thing about it for my high school paper. And while it did get picked up for another season, that's also when the shenanigans started. The second season's thirteen episodes often aired out of order, but things didn't really get bad until network execs started taking a more active role (always a bad sign), leading to to a precipitous drop in quality from years two to three. What had until then been a fairly grounded sci-fi show that worked within the rules it established suddenly tossed verisimilitude out the window and went in for schlocky dinosaur and alien stories.

(This was when Fox started leaning extra heavily on O'Connell's burgeoning heartthrob status, moving away from Quinn's "quirky inventor" persona in the process.)

The continued dumbing down proved too much for original co-star Davies, who decided to bolt in the middle of the season (with his character, Professor Maximilian Arturo for dead on an alternate Earth while suffering from a terminal illness). Of course, by the end of year three, creator and exec producer Tracy Tormé had also had enough of the network interference and bolted. And then Fox cancelled the show anyway. Normally this would have been a mercy killing, but it turned out there was still further for Sliders to...well, slide.

Even after Fox axed the show, thanks to the dedicated fanbase, Sliders managed to get picked up for a fourth year by the Sci Fi Channel (with the financial incentive for this move being that Universal both produced the series and owned the channel). Of course, the move to basic cable meant even more budget cuts. Sabrina Lloyd was ignominiously cut from the cast, and without creator Tormé, a key part of its identity was irretrievably missing. Despite that, they did the best they could with season four, even adding Jerry's brother Charlie O'Connell to the regular cast.

Amazingly enough, this version of the show, even in a severely diminished format, still managed to emerge as Sci Fi's top-rated original, leading to another renewal -- one that would end up extracting the final pound of flesh. Thanks to a pay dispute, both O'Connells exited, leaving reliable second banana Cleavant Derricks as the sole remaining cast member from the pilot. The less said about that final season, the better. By the time Sliders aired its final original in early 2000, it felt entirely different from what had premiered with such promise five years and 87 episodes ago. It's like it left all of its appeal on some alternate Earth.

One Year Ago in Nostalgia Theater: Max Headroom Edition

Two Year Ago in Nostalgia Theater: It's Hulk Hogan's Rock 'n' Wrestling, Brother!

Three Years Ago in Nostalgia Theater: Miami Vice -- Cool Cops, Hot Town, Dated Show

Four Years Ago in Nostalgia Theater: ABC's Dinosaurs

No comments: