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Feature: The Dead Zone

Firm Foundation

The Dead Zoners…

The name Michael Piller may look familiar to long-time readers due to his co-creation of two Star Trek spin-offs. Now he’s working in somebody else’s universe, overseeing events in The Dead Zone.

High school teacher Johnny Smith swerved off the road to avoid being hit by a truck, and he ended up in a coma. Now, six years later, he awakens to discover he has psychic powers. By touching someone or something, he is able to see into a person’s past or future. Such is the premise of the new hit USA Network TV series The Dead Zone, based on the Stephen King novel, and feature film, of the same name. When USA was looking for a showrunner and someone to write the pilot they offered the job to Michael Piller. A veteran writer/producer, he served as executive producer and head writer on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Piller also helped co-create and executive produce Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager as well as Legend.

“I went out and bought Stephen King’s book, read it, and then watched the movie,” recalls Piller. “In it I saw the potential to do something that I think every writer wants to – certainly those in the field of genre programming – which is explore themselves and the universe in which they live. With The Dead Zone we have a circumstance where an everyman, Johnny Smith, is basically thrown into a chaotic situation. He’s stripped of everything he knows and loves and turned into something he doesn’t quite understand. It’s just an extraordinary canvas on which King has given us to work.

“That said, we still needed to convince The Powers That Be that this concept could succeed as a TV series,” he continues. “Everybody loved the pilot script as well as the pilot itself. My philosophy was one of, ‘We need to satisfy the Stephen King fans first and foremost. To do that we need to give them Stephen King.’ I wanted to use the novel as a tentpole for the first season. We talked about doing a slightly more serialized type of show. However, the TV business changed during the project’s evolution – you see very few serialized dramas because they don’t re-run well. So we switched gears and wrote the stories as more self-contained while making sure the character arcs grew. The challenge remained, though, to explain to the network executives what the series would be every week.

“Give them a cop show or one about doctors or lawyers and they understand how that works. However, Johnny Smith isn’t a cop or any of those people, so how does he fight his battles every week? My argument was his powers are his franchise. We can use them to go anywhere and tell all kinds of stories. That, to me, is much more interesting to a genre audience, which is a specific type of audience that I’ve come to know very well over the years. They’re extraordinarily smart, demanding and they respond to thought-provoking programming. I also think they are impatient. They aren’t willing to settle for formula TV. These people want to be surprised and shocked, and I wanted to do all that and more with this series...”

by Steven Eramo

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Cult Times #84
September 2002
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