Topic: David Peckinpah's SLIDERS: A Vision of COMMUNITY
Murder Most Foul" is one of my favourite episodes of SLIDERS and possibly one of the finest episodes of the series. It is beautifully filmed, cleverly conceived, sharply written and delightfully performed. Fans have often watched it, expressed great appreciation for it and then wondered: how can this uplifting, thoughtful, imaginative episode be David Peckinpah's script?
Throughout Season 3, the SLIDERS confronted horror movie villains, dragons, Mad Max photocopies, intelligent talking flames and deathtraps. David Peckinpah commissioned these episodes. The average Season 3 script was an unedited, unrefined mess with characters not being given names or introductions ("Rules of the Game"), nonsensical exposition ("The Dream Masters"), clumsily considered world-building ("Electric Twister Acid Test"), witless exposition (Elston Diggs), and a startling lack of imagination and ideas ("Desert Storm") -- all of which were David Peckinpah's responsibility as showrunner.
Peckinpah's stewardship of SLIDERS was so lax that poor safety standards got actor Ken Steadman killed on the set of "Desert Storm." Peckinpah's oversight of SLIDERS was so vacant that the first 13 episodes overspent the season-long budget so badly that the back nine were operating under severe cost restrictions. In Season 4, Peckinpah used SLIDERS to express violent sexual fantasies towards Sabrina Lloyd and curtailed a season-long arc in order to annoy his story editor, Marc Scott Zicree. In Season 5, Peckinpah bought a pitch for "Easy Slider" in order to give his mistress (not his wife) stuntwork for an episode.
David Peckinpah clearly did not care about SLIDERS and was grossly incompetent -- and yet, "Murder Most Foul" is great. Why?
The Initial Explanation
Some people like Temporal Flux argue (quite correctly) that Peckinpah, a cop show veteran, wrote "Murder Most Foul" in a genre he knew well -- crime fiction. But "Murder Most Foul" is so intriguing, so innovative in its concepts that it goes beyond a firm grasp of procedural tropes. The science fiction in this story is brilliant. Mental fractures. False personalities to give the conscious mind a rest. The characterization is wonderfully contradictory and truthful: Arturo is humiliated by a fall into garbage and a bad temper but is nevertheless a brilliantly problem-solving detective even when he's not in his right mind.
Rembrandt intimidates a secretary into giving the sliders information while still being Rembrandt. There's young Trevor's wonder and joy towards the sliding concept. There's Quinn's cleverness and Arturo's strength of character saving the day.
"Murder Most Foul" is everything an episode of SLIDERS should be written by the man who destroyed SLIDERS. How is this possible?
A Terrible Loss
The terrible truth of Season 3 is and always has been this: David Peckinpah was a *great* writer. A brilliant director. A capable, skillful talented man who truly understood the TV medium. He introduces guest-characters correctly. Names and points of distinction so the audience will remember them later. He knows how to stage confrontations. He knows how to tell stories through action and dialogue. He even does the thought-provoking ending as the episode ends with us looking at little Trevor, the first of a new generation of sliders. Trevor was named after one of David Peckinpah's sons.
The sad fact is that David Peckinpah had *all* the skills needed to make SLIDERS great. He was a fun guy to work with. A gifted storyteller. Decades of experience. He had also known hardship; Peckinpah was a recovered drug addict who put his recklessness behind him to be a good father to his four children. He was sober for 20 years. And then, shortly before being assigned to SLIDERS, Peckinpah's 16-year-old son, Garrett, died of meningitis.
This broke Peckinpah. He fell apart psychologically and fell back into his drug addiction. He had a two-year development deal with Universal and they assigned him to SLIDERS -- a show that Peckinpah simply didn't care about. It is unlikely Peckinpah cared about much of anything at this point. His son had died. It left a hole in his heart that never healed. Note how Peckinpah was generally vindictive and angry towards people who made his working life challenging. Sabrina Lloyd. John Rhys-Davies. To those who asked little or nothing of him, Peckinpah was perfectly amiable.
The midpoint of Season 3 was the "Exodus" two-parter, a production commissioned largely to hire Roger Daltrey and his band, The Who. The filming was an excuse to have a rock band perform for the cast and crew over two weeks of binge drinking with making the actual episodes as something to do between the performances and the parties. According to Temporal Flux, Peckinpah used SLIDERS as a line of credit to feed his addictions and loneliness. He started cheating on his wife with would-be actresses. His presence on SLIDERS was as a figure of indifference and laziness and vindictiveness towards people who demanded his efforts (John Rhys-Davies, Sabrina Lloyd, Marc Scott Zicree).
But he was a great writer. And when writing scripts, he couldn't hide that. "Murder Most Foul" and "Dinoslide" are well-written stories. "Genesis" is actually quite good in its execution even though the content is misguided. His work on SILK STALKINGS and FARSCAPE was solid. Peckinpah brought his A-game to the scripts he wrote with his own hands. He just didn't care to bring that same A-game to the other scripts on his show. He was not careful or considered in commissioning stories, he was not deliberate or attentive in reviewing teleplays, he was not interested or invested in revising or editing them. This attitude was present throughout the rest of SLIDERS' lifetime and quite sadly, throughout the rest of Peckinpah's life as well.
Where SLIDERS Was Born
Some time after SLIDERS, Peckinpah moved from Los Angeles to Vancouver. His stated reason was to rent a home and create a personal space to work on film and TV projects. But the reality was that it was simply a drug den and now he was far from the family and friends in Los Angeles who had monitored him and reduced the harm he was causing himself.
SLIDERS fans have compared Peckinpah to the devil, described him as a villain and a monstrosity who should burn in hell. The death of Ken Steadman and the cover-up that followed is most certainly on him given that he commissioned "Easy Slider" to grant his girlfriend stuntwork when she was not part of the stunt union. Despite a man's death due to lax safety standards, Temporal Flux reported that Peckinpah perpetuated the same laxness as late as Season 5.
In the end, Peckinpah was a broken and very sad man. He lost his son and he lost himself. He never addressed his grief; he never learned to live with it; he never moved past it. All he ever did was medicate his loss and in the end, it killed him. In 2006, Peckinpah experienced heart failure brought on by a drug overdose. He died in Vancouver where SLIDERS was born. He died alone, apart from his family, distant from his friends and a joke to the majority of his viewing audience on his highest profile production.
A Forgiving Family
Shortly after his death, Peckinpah's family posted on the SLIDERS forums, hurt and upset by the fans' vitriol. One of his other sons shared on IMDB the tragic story of his father's decline. For all of Peckinpah's many, many faults and infidelities, Peckinpah had loved his wife and children dearly and they forgave him his misdeeds. Informant remarked, "What you have to understand is that when you produce a show like SLIDERS, you are leaving behind a legacy. People really need to put some thought into what the hell they're making if they don't want that legacy to be people making fun of their work.
"I have no doubt," Informant continued somewhat facetiously, "that David Peckinpah was a solid citizen. Unmatched in his moral integrity. The last good man on Earth. His show still sucked."
Informant's right. And yet -- I find myself contemplating the legacy of Ed Wood, often considered one of the worst screenwriters and directors to ever lens a film. Students of Wood have enjoyed affectionately poking fun at his disastrous projects while wondering -- is it possible that Wood's vision was actually worthwhile and meaningful and he merely lacked the ability to turn that vision into an enjoyable, professional product?
A Multigenre Vision
What was David Peckinpah's vision for SLIDERS? Had he been engaged, focused, devoted and invested, how would his vision of SLIDERS be realized? Certainly, he liked monster movies, he liked genre pastiches, he liked references to popular films -- so what would his work have been if his work had truly grappled with the SLIDERS format, an infinite storytelling engine that could most definitely render his ideas?
I think David Peckinpah's SLIDERS would have been like COMMUNITY, a sitcom in which the students of a community college regularly step outside the dramedy format to engage in parodies of Hong Kong action movies, procedurals, APOLLO 13, Westerns, post-apocalyptic dramas, superheroes, space opera, martial arts movies, documentaries and more. In each of COMMUNITY's parodies, the characters were modified slightly for the genre while still emphasizing their core characteristics and how suited or unsuited they were to the material. SLIDERS' genre pastiches were often presented as bloodily savage horror whereas COMMUNITY maintained its comedic bent, a choice that would have been far more suited to SLIDERS' light comedy origins.
When writing the final SLIDERS REBORN scripts (my fanfic magnum opus), it was always my wish to bring the Season 3 monsters into a script featuring a restored Quinn, Wade, Rembrandt and Arturo and find some way to make them part of SLIDERS' grand tapestry while presenting the Season 1 - 2 mythology and characters as the core and definitive version of the show. In incorporating the monsters and finding non-violent ways to defeat them, SLIDERS became a Peckinpah-style pastiche -- a pastiche of the superhero movie. The content led to an unexpectedly celebratory attitude towards Peckinpah's ideas, and I decided to include a note at the beginning of the script dedicating the story to his memory.
In the end, David Peckinpah had a truly unique vision of SLIDERS that was paradoxically derivative. Had he committed to executing his vision as loving homages rather than clumsy ripoffs, SLIDERS would have thrived. Plugging the sliders into popular films didn't have to be empty so long as it was done with some irony and humour, and it could have been well-received by genre fans just as the parody episodes of COMMUNITY proved so popular that they became the majority of the show.