Just imagine an alternate universe made entirely of shrimp.
After a rocky first two seasons, the series Sliders had proven itself enough of a hit to reach a third in 1996-97. While our intrepid inter-dimensional adventurers faced danger around every corner from dinosaurs, pulsars, android dogs, and guys who eat brains, behind the scenes there were even more conflicts, evidenced by a change in cast and a questionably-handled story arc in the latter half of the season. But time has passed, and the vortex just spewed out all 25 episodes of Season Three on DVD. How does one of science fiction’s quirkiest series hold up today? Set the timer and let’s find out together.
Super-genius Quinn Mallory (Jerry O’Connell, Scream 2) has invented a miraculous new technology that allows him and his friends to “slide” from one alternate reality to the other. Each new world is a “what if” scenario from our own. Along for the ride are his best friend Wade (Sabrina Lloyd, Sports Night), his pompous physics teacher Professor Arturo (John Rhys-Davies, Lord of the Rings), and washed-up Motown singer Rembrandt “Crying Man” Brown (Cleavant Derricks, Drexell’s Class). Upon arrival on each world, Quinn’s timer begins counting down the hours until their next slide, usually giving the four of them a day or two to explore, get in trouble, and save the day.
This year, though, the professor says his goodbyes to his fellow adventurers, opening the door for a new slider, tough military gal Maggie Beckett (Kari Wuhrer, Anaconda). The latter half of the season details the characters’ pursuit of the sinister brain-eating villain Rickman, who might have the means to get our heroes back home.
At a time when sci-fi television was dominated by dark shows such as The X-Files and its many rip-offs, Sliders dared to be different by being lighthearted. During the first two seasons, creators treated even the most perilous situations with a tongue-in-cheek attitude. In this third season, though, Sliders got serious. Our heroes visit worlds marked with violent war games, harsh living conditions, and again with the brain-eating guy.
Although Quinn and company travel the whole of time and space, Sliders is nonetheless a product of its time. This season could be considered a nice time capsule for late 1996 and early 1997. As we’ll see below, a lot of what was hot in pop culture at the time gets a Sliders episode based on it. But as easy as it is to label Sliders as a rip-off series, there are still a few intriguing concepts here for the writers to play with.
Instead of sliding from world to world, let’s slide from episode to episode.
• “Rules of the Game”
Our heroes end up in the middle of a kill-or-be-killed sporting event, a la The Running Man. Armed with guns, and chased every minute by killer androids and their killer android dogs, this gritty, violent opening left the show’s trademark humor by the wayside and instead focused on survival.
The idea here is to push the characters to their limits, seeing how they might react knowing they could be killed at any second. This makes for some grim viewing. The action scenes do not help much. The costuming and effects for the androids are laughably low budget. It’s a fun concept that isn’t given a real chance.
• “Double Cross”
In this world, natural resources are down to almost nothing, Quinn’s sliding technology could be the answer. Scientist Logan St. Clair, however, has her own plans for the vortex, and they’re not nice. She’s also got a shocking surprise waiting for Quinn. Rembrandt, meanwhile, has an adventure of his own when he runs into his “number one fan.”
The writers and actors on this series always had fun with the characters running into alternate versions of themselves. This one deals with what happens when the double is not a nice person, making it more thoughtful than some other outings. The conflict between Quinn and Logan makes this one a highlight as well. Although Logan promises to find our heroes and stir up more trouble for them, we never see her again.
• “Electric Twister Acid Test”
Thanks to some mad science, this world’s electromagnetic spectrum is all messed up, causing wild tornadoes to tear apart the land. One farmer has managed to create a small oasis in the middle of the storm, where he lords over everyone else with an iron fist. It’s up to Quinn and his friends to bring about the peace, while avoiding the storms and hanging out with Corey Feldman (O’Connell’s co-star from Stand by Me) and a pre-vampire Julie Benz (Angel).
This season’s riffing on hit movies of the time starts here, putting its own spin on the previous summer’s Twister. There’s a lot of crazy pseudo-science in this one, but it’s hard to take talk about reversing polarities seriously when the villain’s laboratory looks like something from a ’50s B-movie, complete with wall-sized computers and lots of blinking pink lights.
• “The Guardian”
This time, it’s a world moving 12 years behind our own, giving Quinn a chance to meet his younger self and make up for a mistake from his youth. His fellow sliders, though, are after him not to get involved, because the choices he made then are what made him who he is today.
It’s rare to see an episode of Sliders that focuses almost entirely on character development instead of the usual campy weirdness. There’s also a cute twist to the ending, but one wonders why Quinn never tells his friends this piece of information.
• “The Dream Masters”
A creepy guy with a pentagram on his hand takes an interest in Wade and starts appearing in her dreams, where he gets all malicious and threatening. In order to pull Wade out of a coma, the other three sliders use some strange futuristic drugs to visit the same dream, and beat the so-called dream master at his own game.
Originally intended to run alongside the premiere of the Fox Network’s creep-fest Millennium, this episode promises a lot of ghoulish thrills. But what could have been freaky and nightmarish instead ends up with ’80s-music-video lighting and pink CGI snakes.
• “Desert Storm”
Now we’re in The Road Warrior territory, on an Earth with almost no water. The sliders help a young woman who has the power to find water in the desert, while being chased by Humvee-driving thugs. Meanwhile, Arturo sees a “witch doctor” for his deteriorating health.
The driving-around-the-desert-while-fighting action is nothing we haven’t seen before. What makes this one interesting is how the scientific-minded sliders are challenged by people with spiritual beliefs. This theme will carry over into the next episode as well.
At first, it looks like a trip into sword and sorcery territory when our heroes end up in a forest just in time to save a fair maiden from an evil wizard. But then a police car pulls up, and the majority of the episode takes place in a modern-day city. Still, spells are cast, swords are drawn, and a fire-breathing beastie makes an appearance.
Now it’s time to cash in on 1996’s Dragonheart. The actual dragon animation is far too silly even for this series. What saves the episode from total ridiculousness is when the sliders are confronted with spiritual answers to their scientific questions. With no other choice, our heroes turn to magic to save the day. This is dramatic because they must swallow their pride in order to do so.
• “The Fire Within”
After a quick stopover on a world engulfed in flame, the sliders end up on an Earth covered with massive oil refineries. Some of the fire from that first world followed them, though. This fire just happens to show sentience, and can communicate with Quinn. Intelligent fire on an oil planet? I wonder if that could lead to trouble.
The “living fire” concept is one of the more creative ones the Sliders writers came up with, and makes this episode a standout from the others. If you’ve never been to Universal Studios in LA, you’d think the creators spent a fortune on the big, explosive finale. If you haven’t been there, I’m going to spill the beans—the actors are actually walking around inside the pre-existing Backdraft ride. Penny-pinching aside, this is still a clever, well-crafted episode.
• “The Prince of Slides”
Not only is Rembrandt’s double on this world part of an American monarchy, but this is a world where women impregnate men, who then carry and deliver the babies. So, thanks to a series of mishaps, Rembrandt not only takes his double’s royal place, but of course he ends up pregnant as well.
Next episode, please.
• “State of the A.R.T.”
The Androids have run amok. Our heroes end up on an Earth in which humanity has been overrun by pesky automatons. Although the machines seem OK at first, there might be a nefarious scheme in the works, as there usually is.
This is an action-heavy episode, notable for a nice guest star turn by Robert “Freddy Kruger” Englund. Like many other episodes, though, the android effects are sometimes a little too low-budget for the high aspirations the creators set for themselves.
• “Dead Man Sliding”
In an alternate Hollywood, the media mistakes Quinn for his criminal double, and he’s subjected to a sensationalist televised trial. While the professor does the lawyerly duties, Wade and Rembrandt have to hunt down alternate Quinn before time runs out.
Some of the best science fiction is not necessarily about robots and giant monsters—although I love those too. Instead, some great sci-fi is metaphorical or satirical. This episode sets aside the CGI explosions in favor of spoofing tabloid media. The “trial as top rated TV show” concept gets a little exhausting after a while, but the satirical elements put this one a cut above others this season.
• “Seasons Greetings”
Not only is it Christmas, but the entire world is a gigantic shopping mall. Everyone lives there, works there, and, most importantly, shops there. While the three guys find work spreading holiday cheer, Wade meets up with the alternate version of her sister and closes the door on some unresolved family issues.
The “mall world” idea is just rife with satire potential, but the writers never really go in that direction, giving this one a feeling of a missed opportunity. On the plus side, Chase Masterson (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) guest stars, which is always nice to see. She may not be the greatest actress in the world, but she always seems to enjoy her roles. For another plus, the professor makes a speech about faith and miracles, which appears to wrap up the “spirituality vs. science” theme that’s run through some previous episodes.
• “Murder Most Foul”
It appears that the sliders have ended up in Victorian England. But actually, they’re in a giant mental hospital of sorts, where wealthy executives de-stress from the corporate life by living out elaborate fantasies on giant sets, surrounded by actors. After a bump on the head, the professor is reprogrammed into thinking he’s legendary detective Reginald Doyle, who’s on the hunt for a mysterious killer.
It might not be Data and Geordi in the Holodeck, but it’s close. The series’ trademark quirky humor makes a welcome return, Rhys-Davies clearly relishes his role as a certain great detective, and the attention to detail in the sets and costumes make this one another winner.
• “Slide Like an Egyptian”
This time, the Egyptian empire is still around, and has spread its influence all over the world. But even though there are evil priests, mummies, and giant scarabs around every corner, our heroes have an even bigger problem to deal with: Thanks to their misadventures, they’ve missed the window to slide to another world, stranding them in the land of pyramids.
It’s an episode packed with various twists and turns, that plays around with the idea of what the sliders would do if they couldn’t move on. On the negative side, though, the scarab monster, like the dragon before it, is a little too silly-looking, and an extended escape scene is quite obviously filmed on two separate sets. Again, the production’s limited resources don’t quite live up to all the crazy ideas in the script.
• “Paradise Lost”
It’s a small town with a youthful population, and within walking distance of the beach. Sounds like a pleasant place to spend a few days. Unfortunately, the locals are hiding a deadly secret. Hey, did the ground just move?
The obvious choice would be to compare this episode with Tremors, but it’s really more of a take-off on the many X-Files episodes that use the “small town with a secret” plot. It’s also here that the series almost fell into a regular monster-of-the-week routine. But, as we’ll see, big changes were about to happen.
• “Exodus” Parts I and II
Here’s where the season takes an enormous left turn. On this world, a giant pulsar is about to wipe out all of humanity, and the sliders have a choice. They can either use this world’s technology to get home, or they can help several hundred people escape extinction. This is when they run into tough girl and mega-babe Maggie Beckett, who becomes a regular after the professor bows out of the series. The sliders also have their first encounter with the sinister Rickman, who, when not eating people’s brains, has sliding technology of his own. From this point forward, our heroes have a new mission. Instead of having the characters slide randomly from world to world seeking a way home, the rest of the season becomes a multi-dimensional take on The Fugitive, as each new slide is one step closer to bringing Rickman to justice.
Roger Daltrey of The Who chews the scenery appropriately as the first actor to play Rickman. In later episodes, Rickman morphs into other forms. A lot of bizarre things happen in this two-parter, especially the tribal mating ritual and the gigantic fanged bunny rabbit. Maggie gets a decent introduction, and the Professor’s exit is tastefully done, if a little drawn out. Introducing Rickman and then pursuing him through the multiverse is what really changed everything, though. Because of this story arc, the season’s quality took an instant nosedive that almost doomed the entire series.
• “Sole Survivors”
Zombies! Well, not really. There’s this bacteria that has infected most of the population, turning them into zombie-like flesh eaters. One of our four sliders might just hold a cure, though. Wuhrer overdoes it with the “tough girl” routine in this one, playing her character way too over-the-top. A lot of the post-apocalypse visuals are better than other episodes that have tried similar settings, though.
Sex! We’re back in “movie take-off” territory, as Sliders does its own version of Species when Maggie is possessed by an alien in heat. Clearly, this was an excuse to show off Wuhrer in a series of revealing outfits and skimpy lingerie, not to mention one scene with her in just a towel. There’s some subplot about organ donors, but overall this one’s obviously an attempt to generate interest in the series by showing some skin.
• “Last of Eden”
Continuity! Quinn and Wade are trapped in a surreal underground kingdom after an earthquake, where Wade learns about Arturo’s big secret from earlier this season, resolving that subplot. This episode was filmed before “Exodus,” and features the professor. A new beginning was added at the last minute to set it all up as a flashback. On one hand, it’s odd to see Arturo again so soon after his departure, but on the other, it does provide some closure in a strange way.
• “The Other Slide of Darkness”
More continuity! The episode starts out with Maggie confronting Rickman on a hillbilly planet plagued by poisonous fog. But then a second villain shows up, one whose appearance dates all the way back to the pilot episode. Then another group of villains get name-dropped, ones who won’t become major players until the next season. The two big fights at the end are some of the better action scenes in this season. As weird as it is, this is arguably the best episode in the otherwise weak Rickman arc.
Snakes! The four Sliders are separated in a tropical world where they have to face a bunch of psychic snakes. This episode was obviously made to coincide with the release 1997’s Anaconda, and everyone knows it. Next!
Dinosaurs! It’s more fun with Rickman as he and the other sliders are reunited with the survivors from “Exodus,” who are being terrorized on their new home by a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Checking my 1997 pop culture calendar, looks like the hype was well under way for Spielberg’s The Lost World when this episode aired.
Vampires! While searching for Rickman, Wade falls for a goth rocker who’s actually a bloodsucker with a taste for groupies. Rickman and his evil antics get a lot of screen time here, and yet he seems to be filler material in between vampire scenes. At least Sabrina Lloyd looks cute in her rocker outfit.
• “This Slide of Paradise”
Michael York! Checking the calendar, The Island of Dr. Moreau had already bombed a year before this episode aired, making it an odd choice for the creators to rip off. But the sliders nonetheless find themselves on an island with yet another mad scientist (York, Logan’s Run) and bunch of genetically engineered beasties. This is the setting for the final confrontation between our heroes and Rickman. It’s supposed to be the epic showdown between good and evil, but actually it’s kind of anticlimactic. Fortunately, the last shot in the episode is a memorable one. It suggests that the dark times are over, and new, brighter adventures are on the way.
Picture quality here is good, sometimes so good that the value-priced CGI stands out a little too much from its surroundings. The audio is decent, with no apparent flaws, but it is hardly a rich aural experience. The only extras here are a slightly amusing gag reel and one episode each of Earth 2 and Cleopatra 2525. Given all the behind-the-scenes rumors out there about the making of this season, especially about Rhys-Davies’ exit, it would be nice to have more bonus features. Perhaps they exist in another dimension.
The packaging here is a cool see-through orange box, but it’s made out of fold-out plastic that instantly snaps back into place when you’re not holding it open. This means it takes three hands or more to get the discs in and out of the box. Because the four discs are double-sided, they are in danger of being scratched if the box decides to snap shut on one while you’re trying to remove it. Also, you know the Universal logo with the bright, glowing Earth and the stately music? I can see why they would have that play when you first put the disc in the machine—but why also at the start of every single episode? Talk about overkill.
This was a tough year for Sliders. First there was a change in tone, then a change in casting, and then a wholly unnecessary story arc about the characters hunting a killer. Rumors persist to this day about behind-the-scenes strife and personality conflicts. There are times during this season where we can see the qualities that made this quirky series tick, but at other times all we get is lazy storytelling created only to cash in on fads. The acting is sometimes great, and sometimes hammy. The production values and special effects are sometimes clever and sometimes sloppy. It’s hard for me to say these things because I am in fact a fan of the series, but I cannot deny that this season contains some of its lowest points.
I’m afraid I can only recommend this season for hardcore science fiction fans—the ones who tend to be more forgiving of a program’s flaws as long as it offers plenty of otherworldly fun. Casual viewers, however, might have a tough time making it through all of these episodes without wondering, “What else is on?”