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An ancient group of ghoul chasers invades Showtime in Poltergeist: The Legacy
As Poltergeist: The Legacy gets ready to take flight this March on the Showtime cable network, executive producer Richard Lewis has discovered that making the show is an "evolutionary process, taking me places that I did not expect to go."
The series centers around "The Legacy", a fictional secret organization that took root centuries ago as a radical extension of Socratic empiricism – one of modern man's first attempts at quantifying and categorizing phenomena in scientific rather than religious terms. Academic research aside, the Legacy spends its time investigating and battling paranormal occurrences across the globe. Operating under the guise of a philanthropic organization known as the Luna Foundation devoted, blandly, to "the betterment of the human condition" the Legacy uses its near-limitless financial and political clout in its struggle against the dark forces of the world. In an earlier discussion with CINESCAPE, Lewis compared this group to the Center for Disease Control substituting spirits for germs but now that he has some episodes in the can, he has rethought the analogy somewhat.
"Originally," says Lewis, a partner in Trilogy Entertainment, which also produces the revamped Outer Limits, "I wanted to have a show that blended the mystical and occult with high-tech. What I've found is that the more hardware that intrudes on this world we're creating, the more it stretches credibility. We've found that the more we focus on the traditional forms of paranormal experiences the room shaking, people feeling a spiritual presence viscerally the more understandable and accessible it is to people. If you sit there and say, '0kay, what we've got is a spectral entity, let's run the information through the computer,' it takes you to nowhere land."
Still, Lewis wants his fantasy series to be rooted in reality, something he accomplishes by playing with the notion that famous real-life authors and scientists such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Edgar Alien Poe and Albert Einstein were members of the Legacy. "That puts a spin on history for us," he enthuses. "It says, 'You didn't know this, but while Stevenson was writing Kidnapped, he was also writing a really scary short story about seeing a ghost. And why did he write that? Because he was part of this society and was experiencing such things.' Obviously I'm making this up, but it's the kind of thing that could be true. The more I'm grounding the show in historical, literate material, the more comfortable and acceptable it is."
Emphasizing the point, he turns to two of the first season's scripts. The first is "The Twelfth Cave," which posits that beyond the 11 known caves that contained the Dead Sea Scrolls, there is another cave in which a scroll has just been found and kept secret. "It has tremendous power," Lewis says. "And a former member of the Legacy [portrayed by David Ogden Stiers] has gone bad, gotten ahold of it and comes to the Legacy because he needs their fancy equipment to decipher it. He lies to them, saying that the scroll was given to him, but actually he stole it, killing someone to get it," Lewis explains. "The fantasy element works in part because we're working from a known historical item like the Dead Sea Scrolls."
Similarly, "Doppleganger" deals with the transfer of the remains of a mummy and various artifacts buried with it from a museum in Cairo to one in the United States. "It's an incredibly rare opportunity [for the Legacy] because they've never been able to identify this particular mummy," says Lewis. "The way mummies work is that they are wrapped so that their souls cannot enter their body and take it to heaven. The Kai is their spirit, and this spirit is wandering around somewhere, desperate to get into a body. When the Legacy gets the mummy shipped to them, all kinds of hell breaks loose. Then the question is, 'Did someone do this on purpose? Is there a malevolent force that wants to destroy the Legacy for some reason?"
What the Legacy ultimately discovers is that this spirit was once the daughter of a Pharaoh who died by accident and whose death was covered up. Now that spirit wants to enter the body of 8-year-old Katherine Corrigan (Alexandra Purvis), the daughter of Legacy member Rachel Corrigan (Helen Shaver), to live the life she had been denied. Discovering all of this takes a toll on Legacy leader, or precept, Dr. Derek Rayne (Derek de Lint), whose "visions" became overwhelming.
"This spirit visits Katherine and tries to kill her and then join with her body. It's really frightening," Lewis says. "Our characters are truly at risk and it seems almost believable, at least in terms of the ancient Egyptian belief systems we're dealing with in the episode. Once again, using those things that exist in history and that support known paranormal phenomena works for us. It's when we sort of get off and just make up our own stuff that the stories start to get pretty fragile."
Coming up with stories for a show like this is hard work," Lewis says. "Not that something like ER is easy. But in something that is a contemporary drama in a hospital where people come in with their heads lopped off, body parts missing and all the trauma that ensues, you have a somewhat natural direction to travel. There's really something funny about homo sapiens they are the only animals that run to the epicenter of a disaster. We have this innate curiosity about human tragedy. The deer and other animals just want to run the other way; they don't want to see what happened to Bambis mother. But we do! So there is a specific challenge in all this paranormal material because they're tales that have to be grounded in human experience, they have to involve your characters in a real way and be treated seriously."
Shrugging off comparisons with that other reality-based paranormal show, The X- Files, Lewis offers: "I don't think anyone on television has tackled this genre in this way. American Gothic's in the same region, but that's a pretty malignant, evil take on the subject. I guess I'm a Jeffersonian. I believe that people are basically good and there are a few bad apples. Not that we sugarcoat everything. All the regulars have their Achilles' heel, which is really what makes this show work."
"If you were to go back to the original movie Poltergeist, you'd see that it dealt with a family that moved into a home built over sacred ground," he continues. "Suddenly they've got a problem and poltergeists went after the Achilles' heel of each of those people. The tone of the series pays homage to that film. Each character in the Legacy has some cross to bear that they're constantly being confronted with. That tests each character. We're dealing with peoples' foibles and the idea of evil spirits, which are a metaphor for our own personal demons. How do these spirits destroy someone? They find your weaknesses and exploit them. That's pretty relatable. We've all done things that we regret doing and oftentimes we can be brought to our knees by them. Gary Hart was. Looks like Bill Clinton is about to be. We all feast on that, on stories like that, because we understand them. At the same time, we want to tell good stories that have endings that make you feel good about humanity. Evil does not win on this show. Good will be victorious, though there will often be sacrifices in the struggle."
Returning to the X-Files comparison, one which every spooks-oriented series must face, Lewis praises the Fox shows quality but says that, as a storyteller, he's not interested in its notions of government conspiracies or its "dry, slow-paced" style of exposition.
"The X-Files says that the government is hiding all kinds of things from the American people," he says. "We're not positing that anyone is hiding anything, just that there are things that are not understood. There are cracks in the world or in our existence and there is something in there. Evil is there. Evil is present, and in many ways it is trying to take hold of our life, our world and our society, and this group has been fighting it for thousands of years. There are moments when the police will contact the Legacy and say, 'We don't know what to do. Will you help us? This can't get out because people will flip.' It's just our own take on the material, and it's as unique as the world postulated on The X-Files. When you enter the world of Poltergeist, you have to believe."
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