On the Set : Sliding Face First Into a New Wormhole : FOX'S SWIRLING SCI-FI VORTEX OPENS UP PARALLEL UNIVERSES

John Lekich is a free-lance writer based in Vancouver

"Can you imagine being thrown into a situation where you're moving between parallel worlds and meeting someone who looks just like you," says actor Jerry O'Connell with a grin. He's standing in a light rain on a street in Vancouver, which this time around doubles for San Francisco, setting of "Sliders," Fox's latest venture into sci-fi. The quirky show about time travel bows Wednesday. ("VR.5," Fox's other recent entry into the time and space universe airs Fridays at 8 p.m., followed by the cult favorite "X-Files" at 9.)

The "Sliders" crew has been filming a street scene on the same patch of wet pavement for hours. But O'Connell, clad in a bright yellow rain slicker, can't help smiling.

"It's like sliding face first into chaos," says O'Connell. As physics grad student Quinn Mallory he discovers the gateway to another dimension in the basement of his Bay Area home. "But it's not the kind of show where you sit around waiting for an explosion at the end," the amiable actor explains. "It's more like a science-fiction version of the 'Wizard of Oz' in the sense that each of these four characters grow to really care about each other."

Going along for the ride with Quinn as he figures out a way to slide through "wormholes" in time is his curmudgeonly professor Maximillian Arturo (John Rhys-Davies) and his best friend Wade Welles (Sabrina Lloyd). Completing the quartet is Cleavant Derricks ("Dream Girls") as R&Ber; Rembrandt (Crying Man) Brown, who becomes a reluctant "slider" inadvertently pulled into the vortex while driving past Quinn's house.

Together--along with a malfunctioning transporter device--they end up on a precarious journey to parallel worlds that seem like present-day versions of Earth--save for a different historical twist in each episode.

Derricks finds getting to know Vancouver a welcome contrast to the frenetic pace of shooting the series. "You'll be walking on the street and people will greet you with a smile," he says. "It's really a great feeling because my character spends a lot of time caught up in confusion. He's not a scientist. He's not a brain. He's just the ordinary Joe who's not afraid to say, 'What do you mean? What's going on here?' "

Sabrina Lloyd's Wade leaps into the spirit of being a "slider" with fewer reservations. "Wade is an adventurer waiting to happen," she says with a laugh. "She's just never had the opportunity to do anything this exciting. Once that opportunity presents itself she goes from being a shy girl to a kind of wild woman."

What's it like being one of the few women in a predominantly male cast? "It's a real treat," she says. "We all get along really well, although they tend to treat me like one of the guys. They keep punching me in the arm and telling me jokes. Sometimes I have to remind them that I'm a woman. But, like Wade, I'm determined to hold my own."

The show itself is determined to hold its own as a fertile field for moral exploration, peppered with humor.

"I came up with the idea for the show as sort of an allegorical canvas to explore various historical and personal questions," says series co-creator and co-executive producer Tracy Torme. "I liked the idea of asking, 'What if?' What if you'd taken a different road in your life? Where would that road lead?"

Torme's writing credits range from "SCTV" to "Star Trek: The Next Generation." He sees "Sliders," executive produced by John Landis, as an opportunity to mix satire with drama and science fiction. The pilot includes everything from infomercials to an incongruous appearance by Judge Wapner of "The People's Court."

"I started out writing black comedy, so it just seemed natural to include that along with a little bit of everything else," says Torme. "Maybe that's why I like to think of the show as speculative fiction, rather than science fiction."

It was the pilot's offbeat humor and a chance to play multiple roles within each episode that attracted O'Connell, a veteran of features ("Stand By Me") and series ("My Secret Identity").

"A lot of actors value the security of a series but they complain about playing the same part every day," he says. "We have the best of both worlds here. We get to play our regular roles and any number of others as well. It's a dream come true."

Rhys-Davies, a veteran actor recognized for his Shakespearean and "Indiana Jones" roles, concurs. "Sometimes it seems as if there are 10,000 good actors out there and only four good scripts. But 'Sliders' is completely charming. I think the premise has hugh potential because the setup is so open-ended in terms of story ideas."

Rhys-Davies is also pleased that the show intends to explore values. "Television is a very powerful medium," he observes. "So it's wrong to use violence irresponsibly or glamorize evil. But if you have something high profile that takes an adventurous attitude toward exploring the human spirit, then you've really got something."

"Sliders" premieres Wednesday at 8 p.m. on KTTV, then airs in its regular time slot Wednesdays at 9 p.m.

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