When “Sliders” first hit TV in the mid-nineties it never got a fair shake. It suffered from unfair comparisons to “Quantum Leap” even though the shows weren’t really similar. It was misunderstood by Fox, as the network insisted on playing episodes out of order (even when the storyline was linear) and mismanaging the show on every level. Every step of the way was a tremendous fight for series creator Robert K. Weiss as he waded through ridiculous corporate edicts which would have had him alienating fans and basically producing mindless, numbing tripe, akin to the lame Sci-Fi stuff we’re now accosted with in shows like “Mutant X.” Fox actively worked against him to keep him from making the episodes he wanted and ironically enough one of the episodes Fox worked hardest to keep him from making was the one for which “Sliders” received an Emmy nomination. By the end of Season 3 everyone was jumping ship, including Robert Weiss who after three seasons of battling moronic pencil pushers gave up the fight. From there it was a steady downhill slide into dismal plodding as the show continued on without the people who loved it, but for awhile, “Sliders” stacked up to the best Sci-Fi in the history of television.
The show was at it’s best in its first two abbreviated seasons and even I was surprised by the quality of the episodes in my “Sliders – The First and Second Seasons” box set. I had fond memories of the show, but for some reason I’d forgotten just how intelligent the series really was.
The premise is complicated, but not overly so. A brilliant college physics student named Quinn Mallory (Jerry O’Connell) has a breakthrough in his basement and constructs what he calls a “sliding machine.” The machine enables him to travel not in time, but to different dimensions. Same year, different earth. As things often do, his experiments go awry, sucking himself, his professor Maximillion Arturo (John Rhys-Davies), his friend Wade Welles (Sabrina Lloyd), and a hapless passerby named Rembrant “Cryin Man” Brown (who drives his Caddy into the portal as it drifts out into the street) into his vortex without a way to get home. With them is Quinn’s “timer,” a remote device that lets him open a sliding portal, but due to malfunction doesn’t provide a way to find the right tunnel back to their particular earth. And so the four are trapped traveling from parallel world to parallel world, forming an impromptu family, and hoping against hope that their next slide will take them home.
Unbelievably enough, the science isn’t all that shaky and they reference real theories put forth by scientists like Einstein and Hawking in setting “Sliders” up. But what makes the show work is the freedom they have to say something by putting our little family of Sliders into bizarre and sometimes all too similar worlds. One week they might be on a world where all the men have been killed by biological warfare; the next week on a world where San Francisco has been turned into a maximum security prison. Sometimes one episode builds directly into the next, sometimes the episodes work as independent snippets unto themselves.
The real reason to love “Sliders” is the characters, brought to life by a brilliant ensemble cast that doesn’t follow the normal television rules of being young, hot, and sexy. The backbone of the show is really the gruff and often grumpy John Rhys-Davies as Maximillian Arturo. Arturo is Quinn’s teacher and is stuck grappling with the reality that he’s been completely surpassed by his student. Rhys-Davies brings a fun sense of anger and crankiness to the show, constantly shouting and bullying his way around. Arturo is often pigheaded and downright mean but he’s also brings in the right dynamic to pull this disparate group together. One of the best moments in the “Sliders” Season 1 and 2 set comes on a world ruled by the young, a place where the aged Arturo is considered a second-class citizen. John Rhys-Davies has an insane moment of ultra violence that brings to mind shades of Gimli as he channels his fat guy fury to beat the living hell out of a bunch of young people, turning back to bash a guy in the knee with a bat while he isn’t looking. I couldn’t help but hear Gimli start keeping count. You’ll find yourself hating him, being annoyed him, and loving him all at once. It’s no wonder the show collapsed after Season 3 without him.
Even Jerry O’Connell is good, though his post-Sliders resume might not lead you to think that’s possible. He’s the show’s only hot looking youngster, but he never steals the limelight from the other cast members, content to fill his role as the earnest and well-intentioned young genius. Sabrina Lloyd has her own problems to deal with, as the show’s only female cast member; she’s left battling alone for the female prospective. Cleavant Derricks is hilarious as the washed up R&B star Rembrant Brown, his character arc is probably the most compelling as he transitions from a whiny has-been who got unjustly pulled into this thing by Quinn, to a rock within the group.
“Sliders” is simply a great piece of Science Fiction. It capably tackles both serious and humorous topics with equal skill. This show knew how to be fun without being dumb, and that’s something you just don’t see anymore on television. The special effects looked cool at the time and still do, if a little dated. The show isn’t always totally consistent, a few of the first episodes of Season 2 are fairly mediocre, but the series rebounds by delivering plenty that are damn near perfect too. “Sliders” holds up well nearly ten years later, and if like me you watched it a decade ago and only remember sort of enjoying it, give the first couple of seasons another chance. It might surprise you.
As great as this show is, it still isn’t getting the respect it deserves. Universal has shoved this thing out the door in a cool looking package, but with very little inside it. The packaging really is unique though, it’s set up so you can see through half of it, and the DVD’s are arranged inside in sort of a stacked, stutter stepped fashion that’ll look really cool sitting on your shelf. Unfortunately, once you open it up you figure out that the thing is all held together by cheap foam rubber and after only taking the discs out once or twice, my foam rubber is already showing heavy wear and tear. Universal deserves credit for really coming up with a totally unique and cool looking way to package this set, but in doing so they’ve made something that’s not the least bit durable.
As for the show itself, it’s presented pretty much as you saw it on television. Except in my case the picture is clearer, since I’m not watching it through a pair of rabbit ears. It’s nice not to have to tweak the tin foil on top of my TV to sort out the snow, but I’d like to have a little more here than just a clear picture and nice sound.
But Universal isn’t giving you that. You’ve got six discs containing twenty-two episodes, one of which is the two hour pilot. The first disc also has a commentary track to go along with the pilot, but the commentary is all done by series’ creator Robert K. Weiss and co-creator Traci Torme who sounds like he was really more of an uninvolved producer and doesn’t sound like he really knows much about the show. Instead Torme just cracks lame jokes and for the most part this is another one of those useless commentaries that consists entirely of “hey remember him?” comments. I’m really disappointed that they couldn’t or just didn’t get the cast involved in this, John Rhys-Davies does some spectacular commentary on the Lord of the Rings discs and would no doubt have brought something special to this.
Disc six is supposed to be where all the special features are at. Sadly when you’ll get there you’ll discover that one of the special features is the DVD credits. Yep, if you click this little button over in the corner, you get to watch CREDITS!!!!!! White text on a black screen. Pretty exciting huh? The only other feature is a VERY brief documentary in which they do a few quick interviews with defeated series creator XXXX and throw in some really brief comments from Cleavant Derricks and Jerry O’Connell. Is Sabrina Lloyd really so busy that they couldn’t get a word or two from her? I don’t think she’s worked since “Sports Night”. How tough could it have been to get her?
That’s it. This set has no real features and has had no real effort put into it (Which makes it bit ironic that they’d include DVD credits. Is it meant as a list of shame?). Just as it was back when it first hit TV’s in the nineties, “Sliders” is still being treated like “Quantum Leap’s” ugly cousin. That’s a shame, because having watched both “Quantum Leap” and “Slider’s” first seasons in the past few months I’m here to tell you that “Slider’s” is better. Fan of the show or not, this set is worth picking up. It may be bare bones, but the show is on there and for a big series box set like this that’s all that really matters.