The television series Sliders, a mid-90s series about sliding between parallel worlds, has come up in conversation a few times recently.  I still believe that Sliders had the potential (still does, given the right reboot) to be a strongly American counterpoint to Doctor Who-- the type of anthology series that could last, and maybe even say interesting things about American culture along the way.
I actually watched the first few seasons of Sliders as they aired. I wasn't able to follow the final move to the Sci-Fi Channel, but did catch most of its seasons in rerun. (It does flavor some of my opinion of those seasons that I originally watched them out of order.)
The first season, in particular, of Sliders has some great moments, and sets up a lot of potential that ultimately never quite gets followed through. Most importantly the show never quite hit the right rhythm across multiple seasons. Part of that is the changing requirements of the double network swap, and part of that is that the show just didn't have the "luck" necessary for longevity.
An American whiz kid latches on to an effective, albeit not entirely accurate or sound, method to slide between alternate earths. Along for the journey are his girlfriend, his professor, and a down-and-out soul singer who happened to pass by.
Each episode or so brings a new slide to a different earth, that may be better, worse, or entirely different than the last destination. It is easy for episodes to be one-offs, and to tell anthologized stories.
For the most part the focus is on the journey, rather than the destination of "home", which is elusive (and possibly illusive), and generally impossible, with the show's tech, to pinpoint exactly.
The key piece of technology is a remote control-like device. (See The Technology is Broken and in particular A Basement-Full of Equipment below for what began as a footnote here.) A remote control between worlds, albeit a finicky and unpredictable one. (Which seems quite appropriate as American keystone device to emulate-- sliding as channel surfing.)
Versus Doctor Who
The American "whiz kid" archetype seems almost as common as Doctor Who's professorial archetype. I certainly prefer that Sliders' tech is grounded in human genius, rather than alien intelligence. Both Doctor Who and Sliders rely heavily on the companions the main character brings with them.
In both, the technologies are often buggy. Certainly I think Sliders is at its best when the technology is buggy and an impassive force of nature. I think many agree that many of the more interesting Doctor Who stories revolve around the TARDIS being a finicky, sometimes broken extension of the Doctor's personality.
One key difference, I think, is the way the shows respond to horror/fear. Horror tales is a key part of Doctor Who's balance, and Doctor Who generally works with a healthy dose of it. This is partly because the Doctor himself is often older and scarier than horror-of-the-week. This often works well in Doctor Who because the audience can borrow both the Doctor's Companion's dread and their trust in the Doctor to make things right in the end and protect them from their fears.
On the other hand, contrary to the balance that certain seasons pushed, I think Sliders is often at its worst when there is a heavy amount of horror/fear tales. Sliders feels much better when there is a better balance of hope and faith in humanity against the fear.
I think that Sliders was in a good place for longevity (and could well be, again). Passing the baton between companions is quite straightforward in Sliders. (More so, I think than Doctor Who.) Companions are generally free to stop at any slide, hopefully with a fitting character arc. More importantly it is easy to leave characters in good places (slide somewhere that needs just their expertise or compassion). It's also the easiest to schedule the inevitable return cameos (doppelgängers are everywhere), and even to keep their memory alive just by intelligently dropping hints of their doppelgängers' existence, just off screen.
However, I have heard it said, and I have heard some claim the series' final season supports this point beyond question, that the concept can't support the changing of the guard for the main character spot. I don't think that this is true, I just think that a combination of bad luck and few wrong choices set things up to seem like a larger failure than they should have been.
I think there are two key ingredients in what I see as the failure in trying to move the series forward, past its Jerry O'Connell stage: home and relatives.
The show is obviously about the journey home, but home isn't necessarily the real destination, and I think too many people focused on that (and the series gets really muddled around and because of that)-- it's a classic epic journey about a character learning more about themselves, and perhaps landing some sort of catharsis. In the end it shouldn't have mattered if Quinn Mallory ever landed at his exact "home" universe, because ultimately that wasn't what he was looking for; it was only what he thought he was looking for.
It is a key piece of the Doctor's makeup that the regenerations are still, ultimately, him-- complex, ineffable and god-like figure. For whatever well intentioned reasons, the attempted mythology of Sliders tries to make the main slider too Doctor-like, by invoking retconned family members and mind transfer silliness. I don't think it works, and I think it ignores key strengths of Sliders.
The technology of Sliders, as it is setup, is that it is built on (pseudo-) science. It is technology that anyone can use, but more importantly it is technology that anyone can build, given the right quirky combinations of genius, intuition, and luck. In the show, Quinn Mallory could have just given the timer to just about anyone and expect them to make their own journey. He might be kind and make sure that the recipient has the requisite pseudo-physics to fix things when they go pear-shaped, but that's about all that's needed.
More interesting, to me, is the idea that you skip to the next nerdy gal or guy to build their own sliding device. This gives you chance to bring in entirely new companions, jump back to "our" collective home (without figuring out, necessarily, how to "find" it for the current sliders), and maybe even establish a new variation on the technology tuned to the personality of the new slider.
The obvious criticism is that each new slider would thus feel like a reboot, but it doesn't have to be a full reset (again, there is plenty of room through subtle mentions of doppelgängers to connect with the characters that have come before). But I don't think that an occasional reboot/reset every now and then is a bad idea. Unlike Doctor Who, I think the anthology nature of Sliders is generally better with less mythological baggage.
It's an interesting paradox that American television tends to seemingly loathe both deep continuity arcs and actual reset buttons. Some of that is changing in modern television, but I like the idea of having the ability to do some deep continuity across short arcs and yet have a big reset button to push every couple of seasons to keep the audience and the writers on their toes and interested in the long haul.
It's the Characters, Stupid
The best stories, and the best arcs, happen when they say interesting things about the characters. It's easy to get lost (or forced) in the "what cool things can we do" mindset, but when Sliders matters most, the worlds visited reflect and refract the characters of its worlds.
Sliders should be an exploration of character development, exploring the ways that traveling amongst one's own doppelgängers provides the ability to learn more about one's self. Sliders works best when the worlds travelled to are stepping stones in self-actualization and discovery-- sliding as an externalized map of the characters, their minds, and their relationships with each other.
Obviously there is a wellspring of epic tradition in this: The journey is what matters, not the destination. "Home" is the destination, but... you can't go home. Home is ultimately where you find it. However the journey shapes you before you get there.
Certainly there is room in the journey for awesome one-offs, pit stops, and side quests, but at the end of the season arc, it is the characters that matter.
Beyond the Odysseus-like main characters and their journeys, Sliders also has the power that it can provide awesome character moments almost solely in recurring cameos. The doppelgängers that get re-encountered will almost always provide interesting ways to explore how characters change or remain the same against different backgrounds. Conrad Bennish is the best example in actual Sliders episodes, and interestingly is restricted to a sole arc in Season 1 (apparently by decree from above, sigh).
I like that Fringe understands how important it can be to show, not tell, a character across worlds. I think it can be done well outside of the two-and-only-two worlds restriction, and I think that Sliders in Season 1 shows some of that as well. (I like how Fringe is slowly building a vocabulary that can be useful in discussing such things as a Sliders reboot/revival.)
The Technology is Broken
Sliders bounds back and forth between making the technology better and worse. Overall, the technology is relatively inconsistent and could use something of a reboot. One thing that I think is key, though, is that the technology is broken. There can exist, off screen, sliders with perfect tech, or at least better tech, but the journey is often more interesting with subtly broken, quirky tech. The journey seems best served when the next slide is unknown and the timer/countdown a source of anxiety and maybe even hope.
A Basement-Full of Equipment
Something the show waffles on is the importance of the basement-full of equipment plays on the technology. The early episodes imply that the timer is merely a "return device". In Star Gate terms it might be a GDO (Garage Door Opener) that signals a responsive basement elsewhere to open up a new wormhole.
This would be a useful restriction, if it were indeed the case, as it would establish the "neighborhood" of worlds to travel as the (still potentially huge) subset of universes in which the basement lab exists in a useable and powered state. Unfortunately, even in the pilot this possibly isn't the case. Even if it was the case, it still doesn't quite explain why different timings seemingly affect different basements, particularly when the basements themselves seemingly have no corresponding timer to synchronize.
Technology usage seems very inconsistent across even neighboring episodes in the same season. If there is one key thing to reboot about Sliders it would be about building a more consistent technology framework.
On Possibly Rebooting the Tech
I do think that to reboot/reinvigorate Sliders, something needs to be done about the tech. The important points, to me:
- There is a timer, it tells you when you must/should slide
- The timer is handheld, resembling a television remote and/or cellphone
- The timer may have some influence on slides (adjusting the timer, "power", etc...)
- There should be some sort of "penalty" for early/late slides
I think there are some potentially useful ideas that can be used or combined to define a useful sliding tech. I think that if there remains a basement-full of equipment, it effectively limits the "world radius" that the sliders travel between. However, I like the idea that the technology is compact enough that the timing device is indeed all that is necessary for sliding (perhaps with a basement-full of theorems and design systems used only for bootstrapping instead).
The original Doorways-inspired idea for the timer has something to do with the idea that the wormholes are something of a natural phenomena and that the timer is attempting to work out the time until the next wormhole in the "right direction". Of course, I don't think the series is ever really consistent on the matter.
One of the ideas that I like is that the timer could represent a "charging time" (from background radiation or "localized quantum flux" or some other sci-magic fuel source). I like the idea that taking a slide early may be dangerous due to potential unstable wormhole (particularly dangerous to the sliders themselves, possibly destabilizing during transit), and the potential that the timer may take longer to charge before the next slide. I like the idea that taking a late jump could be dangerous due to potential unstable wormhole (particularly dangerous to worlds connected by the wormhole, potentially destroying one or both).
The "charge" metaphor also makes it handy to explore, as things progress in the journey of a slider, potential things like "charge grounding" to reset the timer or "slide batteries" that can quickly or even immediately charge the timer.
To be honest, I don't feel that such an approach would feel that different from the existing (inconsistent) records of slider technology.
A War Amongst Sliders
One of the things that the later seasons toy with is the idea of a war between groups of sliders. Certainly this is an "interesting" idea, but I honestly think that it is often contrary to the best spirit of Sliders (the "epic journey" ideal). A good war needs accurate tech, and I'm of the opinion that broken/quirky tech is generally more interesting to watch. (Just as I think the Pilot would have been much less interesting if it focused on the more successful, somewhat more of a jerk, Quinn Mallory doppelgänger, rather than the just so subtly less successful protagonist we actually follow.)
I think the most useful place for any war amongst sliding groups is off-screen, much as the recent Doctor Who revival treated its Time War. It provides a great excuse why other sliders may so rarely be encountered, because when their tech gets good enough they often end up at war with each other. It could help to establish a reboot/revival as being somehow in the same multiverse as the original by dropping a few, basic hints of the (imho, silly) war that the last seasons worked to establish, but never actually worrying about getting into any detail.
|||Including its mention in Telltale's BTTF survey. I'd love to work on BTTF or JP, but if I can prove that I know way too much about Universal-owned IP maybe Sliders isn't a bad place to start. I do think Sliders might make a great episodic video game franchise...|