Believe it or not, that old science fiction standby, multiple or infinite "parallel universes" - including those in which Mr Spock has a beard - is now intellectually respectable. It seems that cosmologists are so unhappy about the improbability of this universe as it is currently observed that they are increasingly open to the notion that ours is just one of an indefinite number of potential universes.
What if we could travel between those universes? This simple but brilliant premise could be the basis of a truly great show. In the end, Sliders was not that show. Its tragedy is that it might have been.
It started strongly, when a precocious young physicist Quinn Mallory (played by Jerry O'Connell) creates a technology that enables him to "slide" between universes. It has two drawbacks: it is restricted to universes close, which is to say similar, to our own; and it is impossible to control if things go wrong.
Predictably, it all goes wrong. An impetuous experiment results in our hero being condemned to "slide" between random universes with no idea how to get home. So far, so 'Quantum Leap.' The difference is that he is not alone. His girlfriend (Sabrina Lloyd), his mentor (John Rhys-Davies), and, bizarrely, a fading blues singer who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (Cleavant Derricks, Tony Award Winner for the original Broadway production of 'Dreamgirls') travel with him.
So, instead of the desperate loneliness of Quantum Leap, what Sliders offers is an interesting group dynamic, which at first worked very well. The quartet are good company but there are tensions among them, especially between Mallory and his mentor, Professor Arturo. The great Professor and his prize student are actually substitute father and son, and, as such, there are the traditional difficulties that come when the Old Lion knows that the Young Lion will replace him.
Arturo knows that Quinn will surpass him, and indeed in some ways he has already. The Professor has understandably mixed feelings about this: while he accepts his role is to be the wise and benevolent teacher, he is a proud man who has invested his ego in his intellectual superiority and sometimes his jealously of Quinn cannot be hidden.
Otherwise, Sliders owes a great deal to the highly respected Quantum Leap - which is no bad thing - especially in its format and style.
This means that, as there was with Quantum Leap, there is a wide variation in the quality of Sliders episodes, according to the strength or otherwise of the premise of each episode. The strongest were very good indeed. One of the most memorable proposes a state in which people can draw as much cash as they want from ATMs, but every note they draw is a ticket in a lottery for execution. This actually poses a serious question about the best way to live, "a short life and a merry one" or a more cautious one with a greater chance, but no guarantee, of longevity?
The best episodes are the ones that ask similar interesting questions, or which show how a relatively minor change can make a big difference to the way the world turns out. The problem is that such episodes became less frequent as the show went on.
It does not seem to have been a happy show on which to work. A happy show is not one in which the cast have fun on set and hang out together afterwards - while fans like to imagine they do, television studios, especially in America, are serious places where people work very long hours to tight schedules and are usually in no mood to socialise together afterwards: Star Trek: the Next Generation is a rare exception in that principal cast members forged genuine friendships. Yet most shows develop a certain camaraderie based on common purpose. The opposite appears to have happened with Sliders.
There were frequent major changes in both the production team and the cast which were disruptive and very much to the detriment of the show. Derricks was the only member of the original quartet to survive all five seasons. Some of the changes were strange. At one point O'Connell was joined as a series regular by his real life brother playing his fictional brother - as was Derricks, but playing his double and only in guest slots - and later another version of Quinn was played by a completely different actor, no relation.
The first to leave was Rhys-Davies. The rumour was spread that he had been dropped because he was not sexy enough for viewers. In fact, the opposite was true: veteran of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' among many other things, Rhys-Davies, was easily the biggest name in the cast even in his pre-Gimli days, and also the biggest draw. The show became less successful after he left, both commercially and artistically. At the end of the season it was dropped by Fox and survived only on the Sci-Fi Channel. It is also no coincidence that viewers' lists of favourite episodes tend to concentrate on the earlier episodes, the ones in which he appears. Without Arturo's spiky competitiveness with Quinn, the group dynamic became rather bland.
The truth seems to be that he actually left "by mutual consent" after "creative differences" with the production staff. Being of the Welsh persuasion, Rhys-Davies has never been shy about expressing his opinions and he has since made his frustration public, stating that Sliders could have been a great show if only the writers had been been allowed to exploit the full potential of the original concept.
It is hard to argue with that. It is certainly an accurate summary of how it all turned out. Blessed with a clever premise and a strong starting line-up, some of the its early episodes ought to rank as classics, and the show itself could have been another Quantum Leap or X-Files. Yet it proved be less than the sum of its parts and even those parts were discarded, one by one, over its run until there was nothing left in the end except a wasted opportunity.
Rhys-Davies and O'Connell are reported to be talking about relaunching the show. That could be interesting. At the very least, it could tidy things up and give Sliders the belated send-off it deserves. Alternatively, this is one of the relatively small band of shows that might actually benefit from a "reboot."
About the reviewer: John Winterson Richards
John Winterson Richards has a law degree from the University of Bristol, an MBA from the University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology (UWIST), almost 30 years' experience as a management consultant, and a fascination with organisational structures.
An experienced freelance writer as well as a consultant, John has been commissioned and paid to write over 500 articles in print and online. He was a regular guest on the Mind Your Own Business podcasts and a major contributor to that website's blog.
John has also written The Xenophobe's Guide to the Welsh: A
guide to understanding the Welsh that explores their nature and outlook with
benevolence and humour, and How To Build Your Own Pyramid: A Practical Guide to
Organisational Structures for Managers. Both are available from Amazon (see
Published on November 20th, 2019. Written by Laurence Marcus for Television Heaven.