Sunday, June 08, 2008

The Alternate Realities of The Dead Zone

TV series adapted from hit movies walk a very thin tightrope, especially when they’re based on movies that were based on genre novels or comic books. Generally, writers are either faced with altering the original concept, or backtracking to fill in the “gaps” the source material omitted. Especially in works based on fantasy, it entails a great deal of fleshing out, usually with very uneven results. It more or less worked in Beastmaster, in which the episodic version actually surpassed the rather lame movie, a reworking of a novel by Andre Norton. The Crow: Stairway to Heaven didn’t fare as well in its attempt to reinvent Eric Draven as a really cool Hulk, sans the green skin and such.

Every once in a very great while, the TV guys, enamored with the source material, get it right and make a series that actually transcends its origins. USA’s series The Dead Zone, inspired by the movie of the same name, which was, oddly enough, inspired by the Steven King novel of the same name, was one such rarity. While the original material focused on the premise of what would you do if you knew in advance a person of power would bring about global destruction, the series honed in on coming to grips with such a dubious talent. It had a phenomenal six season run on USA, and can still occasionally be seen in syndication markets.

Casting Anthony Michael Hall in the Johnny Smith role originally played by Christopher Walken was in itself a risky proposition. It required transforming the protagonist from a character mired in mood to a guy next door using his powers for good. What made The Dead Zone so successful as a series was that, with the exception of a few transitional episodes, it was largely episodic. Instead of welding itself to the premise that Vice-President Stillson will eventually bring on the Apocalypse, the series wisely dealt with more pressing day-to-day visions of changeable futures.

That approach made it possible for The Dead Zone to remain engaging throughout its six season run. It was by no means a rehash of the movie, or even the novel—it was about inalterable pasts, and futures with infinite possibilities. That being the case, The Final Season peppers its standard formula (bad thing may or may not happen, depending on how Johnny reacts to one of his visions.) This allowed the writers and producers rare latitude in the strorylines, with often unexpected plot twists. I won’t bore you with the teasers of each episode— suffice it to say that every episode of this season work as mini-movies, stand alone episodes that subtly weave more intricacies into the overall theme of the show.

This approach gave the production great latitude in presenting individual stories. Resultantly, every episode was a surprise—going from family drama to noir-inspired romance to puzzling mysteries to light-hearted adventures. At its core, though, The Dead Zone was the best kind of science fiction, making alternative realities a backdrop for the more important issues of the human condition.

This 3-DVD set features all thirteen episodes of the final season, presented in 1:78:1 aspect, enhanced for 16:9 screens. Sound is Dolby 5.1. The transfer on this set is flawless, both in picture and sound quality. It also includes a few special features, mostly in the form of featurettes:

“A New Home For The Dead Zone- After nearly a two-year hiatus. "The Dead Zone" returned for a sixth season and moved the production from Vancouver to the other side of Canada - Montreal. Join members of the series as they discuss the new challenges everyone faced with remounting the show.;

“All Aboard: Filming The Dead Zone On a Train”- Go behind the scenes of the episode "Switch" and discover how cast and crew tackled the difficult task of filming on a train and produced an episode that became one of the season's fan favorites;

Audio commentaries (4 episodes)

The Dead Zone was a rarity among science fiction TV series. It immersed the viewer in the concept, and then moved along as if its reality was a matter of course. It never pounded the audience over the head with the premise. That is the benchmark for not only science fiction, but fiction in general. That The Dead Zone was able to present engrossing episodes continuously for six seasons is a testament to the idea that good television drama exists. That it ended on an ambiguous note reinforces the idea of limitless futures.