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Throwback Thursday - Sliders - Pilot, Part 2

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Throwback Thursday is a weekly article in which we look back at our favorite TV episodes from the past.

Way back in 1995, a little show called Sliders changed my introducing me to The X-Files, which in turn introduced me to TV fandom. Sliders aired on Friday nights right before The X-Files, creating a must-watch sci-fi TV night for me. It was created by Tracy Torme and Robert Weiss and starred Jerry O’Connell, Sabrina Lloyd, John Rhys-Davies, and Cleavant Derricks. For awhile, it was my favorite show on TV. Unlike The X-Files, which I found too creepy at first, I loved Sliders from the pilot. However, since the pilot is 2 hours long and the first hour just sets up the premise, I will be focusing on the second half here.

The basic premise of Sliders is that a college-aged genius named Quinn Mallory is experimenting in his basement and creates a portal to parallel worlds. His double from another dimension helps him unlock the final piece of the puzzle and explains to him about sliding, going from dimension to dimension using a timer to bring him back to his Earth after a certain time. Thinking it is safe, Quinn invites his college professor, Maximilian Arturo, and his co-worker from the local computer store, Wade Wells, to join him for a short trip to another Earth. However, as he sets the portal timer to maximum, he accidentally also pulls in Remembrant Brown, a former 70’s singing star who is trying to jump start his career again, and his beautiful red Cadillac. They all end up on a world encased in nuclear winter and have to make an emergency exit or else be swept up by a huge tornado. Unfortunately, by cutting the trip short, they mess with the timer and end up lost on millions of worlds, trying to get back to their own earth.

However, they don’t realize that at first. Their relief about leaving Ice World makes them giddy, although Rembrandt is upset about leaving his car behind and Quinn wonders why the timer brought them to Golden Gate Park and not his basement. The Professor suggests that by cutting their trip short, they must have changed how the timer functions. Wade doesn’t care; she just wants to call her family, while Rembrandt jumps in a taxi in hopes of making it to the baseball stadium in time to sing the National Anthem. Then things go horribly wrong. Professor Arturo notices that the former statue of Abraham Lincoln is now a statue of Vladimir Lenin. They didn’t return home. They returned to a world where the Soviet Union won the Cold War and is now running America and the world.

I’m not sure how impactful this is to younger viewers now. To them it might be just another alternate universe, but to someone who grew up in the 70’s and 80’s with Russia as the Big Bad, this is a bang up way to start the series. It is the embodiment of America’s biggest political nightmare. The writers did a great job of worldbuilding, twisting things that we saw in the first hour to show a dystopian nightmare of autocratic rule. Let’s just say that the PBS fundraising drive seems less than a choice and the telephone company has a lot more power. Yet, they also point out some of America’s failings too. The homeless man who shouts about the evils of capitalism in the first half is shown to be a senator in Russia World, bound and determined to root out the American underground resistance..

It’s a bleak, paranoid world and the sliding foursome immediately stick out in a place where people are regularly shot on the street. Even worse, the sliding timer is on the fritz so they can’t leave early. After trying to call her family, Wade is pursued by a citizen brigade while Rembrandt gets arrested for paying a road toll with American money. Luckily for Arturo, Quinn, and Wade, when Arturo hands a kielbasa street vendor an American bill, they are whisked away to the headquarters of the American resistance movement, but things don’t go as planned there either. Quinn and Arturo are immediately chained up and are forced to stay that way for the night. Wade, instead, is kissed heavily by one of the leaders. It seems that on Russia World, Wade Wells is the leader of the American resistance but she was captured 3 days earlier and is awaiting trial. It takes awhile for our Wade to convince the Underground to release Quinn and Arturo because on this world, Arturo is the head of the Russian prison system and a major Communist leader.

Meanwhile, Rembrandt is interrogated by the KGB. In a great twist, the shyster TV lawyer whose ad came on in the first part of the pilot is a KGB spy on this world. On Russia World, their Rembrandt died so the “lawyer” is convinced that Rembrandt is a major player in the Underground. Since no one believes his sliding story, Rembrandt is taken to The People’s Court. Bwaaahhh!!! In the 80’s, The People’s Court was one of the first reality TV shows in which people would solve small claims issues in front of Judge Wapner. Think Judge Judy now. This is my absolute favorite twist in Russia World. Rembrandt goes in thinking it will be a fine, like usual on The People’s Court, but instead he is sentenced to 15 years hard labor in an Alaskan gulag by Judge Wapner. They even had the same bailiff and interviewer cameo. What an awesome flashback to a terrible show!

Needless to say, Rembrandt ends up locked up in the same prison as Russia World’s Wade Wells and our sliders can’t leave him behind. They come up with a bold (and convoluted) plan to use our Arturo to start a prison break and it mostly works until an intrepid soldier double checks their story and a gunfight ensues. It’s a great action sequence that ends with Wade getting shot and bleeding out next to Quinn. They stop the truck mid-escape but it is too late. Wade dies in a devastated Quinn’s arms. But wait? It is Russia World Wade that dies. As Quinn sees his Wade, he rushes over to bear hug her - a fandom ship is born - and reassures her that he will get them home. So while the sliding quartet remains intact and ready to slide, the Underground loses its leader but gains hope. Arturo explains how Communism was defeated on our world and the weary Resistance is determined to keep fighting as the successful prison break hopefully swells their numbers.

Making the slide home is another action sequence but the best part is how Wade gets frustrated and just knees the lead Citizen Brigade man who is chasing them. I love how it shows that their characters will change as they experience these different worlds. Seeing herself as a potential leader makes Wade more confident and ready to take care of unexpected issues, which will benefit her as the series continues. Back home, the quartet is wary but things appear normal. Lincoln is back as the statue, the homeless guy is asleep in the park, and Quinn’s front gate still squeaks. They all are enjoying a good meal together with Quinn’s mom right until Quinn’s dead dad shows up. It’s the wrong world again so it’s back to sliding.

While the first part of the pilot does drag a little as it sets up the show’s premise, the second half is really well-paced and ratchets up the tension. I like how it integrates action, drama, and laughs throughout, but mostly I like how it makes me think. The whole premise of how history can change through the smallest of details fascinates me and when Sliders is at its best, it is clever and thought-provoking. Although it is a procedural, the premise allows the characters to take on a lot of different challenges in each world, making it comparable to how iZombie changes each episode depending on the brain that Liv eats. It also allows the characters to grow and the actors to play multiple roles. Overall, the worldbuilding allows for lots of different possibilities and this is one show that I think could be great in a reboot. This episode in particular remains one of my favorites because they obviously spent a lot of time creating the Russian world and adding in both subtle and glaring differences. It is also a good way to showcase the characters since they all face unique challenges. Overall, the Sliders pilot is one I can enjoy in multiple repeats and it endears the characters to me, making its first 3 years still one of my favorite sci-fi adventures and solidifying it as appointment TV for me in the 90’s.

Grade: Overall = B / Part 2 = A-

Best Character - Quinn with Wade close behind
Best Scene -tie - the twist at the end / Quinn realizing Wade is still alive
Best Moment - Arturo reassuring Quinn that they will get home
Best Reason to Watch - the details included in the Russian worldbuilding
Best Character Interaction - Quinn and Arturo
Best (If Shortest) Speech - Wade telling the rebels that they won’t fail in their very risky plan
Best Music / Most Moving - Rembrandt singing Amazing Grace over the dead
Worst Music - communist rap
Best “Young’uns” Head Shake - Arturo explaining a slide rule to Quinn
Best Twist - Wade is the commander of the Underground
Best Recurring Character - Pavel the taxi driver
Worst Recurring Character - Hurley the terrible computer store boss
Most Ruthless - the phone company
Most Convoluted - the escape plot
Smartest Guy in the Room - Quinn may be a genius but Karpov, the lowly guard, unravels the whole plan with intuition and common sense
Biggest Threat - support PBS or else
Best Allusion Only if You Lived in the 80’s - People’s Court with Judge Wapner
The “I Don’t Think So” Award - the Lincoln statue didn’t look at all like Lincoln
The “Say What?” Award - Why is a Communist court swearing by God? That makes no sense at all.
The “Are You Sure This Is San Francisco?” Award - Street food only costs a dollar here? Are you sure? Even in the 90’s, San Fran was expensive.

Best Quotes:
1. Rembrandt: “You’re gonna have to explain this to the insurance boys, Q-Ball. You’re gonna have to tell them that my beautiful red sled is on another planet where it’s stuck in a freakin’ iceberg. They’re never gonna buy that when I put in my claim.”
2. Arturo: “Anyone fancy a kielbasa?” Quinn: “Professor, how could you eat at a time like this?” Arturo: “My stomach has no political preferences.”
3. Doc: “You do know that if we fail tonight, the entire West Coast uprising will be extinguished. Everything, finished.” Wade, as the rebels look at her for inspiration: “Then, we won’t fail.”
4. Quinn: “Well, I’d like to propose a toast. To wherever you live.” Rembrandt: “And whatever your struggle.” Wade: “To the revolution.” Arturo: “And to the end of a journey.”
5. Arturo: “A bad dream?” Quinn: “I was down in my basement. My mother came looking for me. No matter what I did, she couldn’t see me. She’s lost dad, now me.” Arturo: “You’re not lost. You’re just misplaced. Don’t worry. You’ll see your mother again.”
6. Arturo: “Why, that’s the Domino Theory. In reality, in our universe, it was the Soviet Union that collapsed. The Berlin World was pulled down and Communism is virtually extinct.” Wilkins: “Sounds like a dream, doesn’t it?” Doc: “We’re on the wrong planet, my friend.”

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