One of the delights of Dead Zone fandom is that after each episode airs, both the script and the original story treatment are made available for downloading. I never would have learned that if I hadn't been so intrigued by the censorship of "The Hunt" that I went deeper into USA's website. The early posting of this script was a special case; as far as I know, the story treatment wasn't posted until after the episode aired. I've read it now, and it sheds fascinating new light on the controversy.


The story treatment, by Joe McMoneagle (supposedly an expert on the CIA) and executive producer Michael Piller, is dated 11/13/02. It's surprisingly broad in scope, including, for example, a lengthy description of the way Johnny was recruited. It could easily have been developed into a novel.

Here's one major difference that strikes the reader. Johnny is told the CIA is searching for a new psychic because the best one it had died in the attack on the Pentagon on 9/11. Later, he periodically runs into an agent who gives him helpful advice--sometimes when he's discouraged and needs it most. He learns in the end that his supportive friend was the ghost of the dead psychic.

My initial reaction was that this was a great idea and should have been retained. But as I thought it over, I realized why it was cut. The subject matter of the story was too serious, too painfully real, for a fictional embellishment of this type to be appropriate or even in good taste. Later, I reread a statement of Michael Piller's with new appreciation: "['The Hunt' is] a very unique episode that avoids adding fake stuff for the sake of pumping up the drama--one of the things I learned [producing docudramas] was that the truth was usually dramatic enough. So this is a lean, no-nonsense look at this incredible story of unusual soldiers in the war on terrorism."

On balance, it seems the writers didn't intend that al-Qaida knew it was being spied on by psychics. But this passage in the story treatment muddies the waters:

"...[T]he enemy is smart and is very much aware that U.S. intelligence is tracking Osama... and they are taking extraordinary security measures that often frustrate Johnny. There is most definitely a game of cat and mouse at work here and the adversary knows he's in a game – certainly not aware that a psychic named Johnny Smith is the cat – but it seems that way as the two sides joust and the day draws closer for the mission that will take out the man the unit believes may be Osama. And it almost seems like Osama was talking about someone like Johnny in an interview just after 9/11 in which he says to one of his men who spoke of dreaming of the planes flying into the WTC building: 'You must command your dreams, you cannot dream these things as they can hurt us.' "

I suspect the reference here is to a "home video" found in Jalalabad, in which bin Laden and a visiting supporter discuss friends' supposed psychic dreams regarding 9/11. For what it's worth, I interpreted it differently. At that point, bin Laden was talking about someone who'd regaled him at length--after the event--with his "dream" story. His smiles and body language told me he hadn't taken it seriously. He had just pretended to, solemnly telling the man something like, "You'd better not tell anyone about future dreams you have--you might be giving our plans away!"

I may be wrong. And even if I'm right, it does not by any means prove bin Laden rejects the possibility of psychic phenomena. But I think Messrs. McMoneagle and Piller wrongly jumped to the conclusion that he accepts it.

Some of the logic problems I found in the episode were created inadvertently when the final script veered away from the story treatment. The original idea called for only two psychics--Johnny and Reg Granowitz--to pick up impressions of the same al-Qaida "play" being staged in different locations. Frustrated CIA handlers and military would decide to go with Johnny's reading because they had some confirmation on the ground at that location, and because his track record and attitude were better than Granowitz's. No one would realize the visions were suspiciously similar until the psychics compared notes.

In that scenario, Colonel Halsey's not immediately recognizing the dialysis machine as medical equipment would have been understandable. And it would have been clear that the Americans had not blundered into traps and lost men in previous pursuits of this will-o'-the-wisp.

Unfortunately, the writers never seem to have realized al-Qaida shouldn't be shown acting out decoy scenarios indoors, where no one but psychics could see them.

There are two more startling differences between story treatment and episode. These make me wonder if either censorship or fear of censorship changed the course of the story.

First: While the story treatment goes into more detail, both it and the episode show us something of how the CIA initially tested Johnny's psychic ability. In the episode, he's failing the test. As the disgusted CIA operatives get up to leave, one of them wonders aloud where she left her car keys. Johnny spots them, picks them up--and has a sudden vision of the woman's father suffering a heart attack. He even knows the address. His warning saves the man's life...and needless to say, he passes the test.

A good fictional idea. But here's what happens in the story treatment:

"...[T]he final test is shocking... Johnny is given an item that belongs to a government official and asked to describe what that person is doing right now.

"Johnny sees -- An the process of assassinating an enemy agent in the field with a garrote.

"Johnny is outraged by what he is witnessing and fights for self-control. The observers receive a phone call confirming the hit has been made. This was a test to see if he could deal with objectionable targets."

As the lead-in to the story treatment, the authors wrote:

"Although constructed as fiction, many of the facts from which this story was created are real and were provided by sources close to the investigation. The U.S. government will neither confirm nor deny that events like those depicted within this story actually occurred."

At a later point, they wrote:

"As the story unfolds, we the relationships we've established. There will be...incidents of withholding information, surprising him, testing him to see how firmly he believes in his findings. There will be internal politics between agencies that pull Johnny in different directions. Personal jealousies. Disbelievers. Plus the mysterious nice fellow [the ghost] who shows counsel him when things get rough.

"We will take creative license in these areas to craft dramatic fiction. However, in the sequences when we examine the search for Osama, we will stay as close [sic] to the facts as we have been able to determine them to the best of our ability."

Which category does the assassination by garrote fall into? It isn't directly connected with the search for Osama. But was it included because common sense (or actual knowledge) told the writers intelligence agencies do such things?

And why was it taken out, replaced with a completely fictional psychic stunner? In "a very unique episode that avoids adding fake stuff for the sake of pumping up the drama"...

Second: In the episode as aired, the military has sent commandos into a trap before Johnny recognizes it as such. He stays "on the scene" psychically, giving his CIA handlers information they pass on to the military, and they save all the commandos while taking out some low-level al-Qaida. Johnny is a hero, though the commandos have had such a close call that everyone's principal emotion is relief.

The viewer takes for granted that in that situation, the U.S. would send in commandos. They certainly wouldn't risk a bomb in a populated area!

But here's what happens in the story treatment:

"Johnny finds clear and incontrovertible evidence that...much of what he has seen in his visions – simply isn't real. It has been created by the enemy as one of multiple misleads throughout the Arab world to throw off the U.S.'s constant pursuit of Osama Bin Laden.

"And he sees what happens if we send in a strike force to 'grab' Osama: they'll be wiped out. It's a trap.

"The generals are not at all happy to hear this... [T]he Generals have made their command decisions, given orders, their names and reputations are on the line and they don't want to accept that they've been fooled. But...their ground forces are able to confirm that this could very well be a trap.

"The answer is simple: forget the strike team and send in a smart bomb -- wipe out the bastards. In so doing, they take down a couple of Al Qaeda lieutenants and a cousin of Osama - the men that Johnny saw in his visions. They issue a press release declaring a major victory.

"Johnny is declared a washout..."

This portrays the military in a far less favorable light than does the episode as aired. The generals cavalierly decide to use a bomb, populated area or no. They trumpet the less than satisfactory result as a "major victory." And Johnny, after all he's done, is essentially fired.

Why was the concept changed? It's hard to say. The final version, with Johnny's directing a battle, is undoubtedly more dramatic. But the producers had supposedly eschewed "adding fake stuff for the sake of pumping up the drama."

I'm picking up a nasty whiff of censorship.