If there was any hope for a new Knight Rider series (premieres Wednesday, Sept. 24 at 8 pm/ET, NBC) to meet the expectations of today's entertainment consumer, Gary Scott Thompson is the man you want behind the wheel. Last spring, after NBC put in gear a TV-movie reboot of the '80s series, the former Las Vegas boss was tapped to look under the hood and figure out how this baby could purr on a week-to-week basis. "I did see every episode of Knight Rider as a kid, so I felt, as the viewers and the press did, 'Ah, they missed a few things [with the movie]," Thompson tells us. "NBC told me, 'We don’t know what the series is. Do you?' I did, and I really haven’t deviated from that."
First up was finding ways to make today's viewer ooh and ahh at a series that used to impress us with a talking car (gee, thanks, but we all have GPS now) . "The audience just wants more," he says. "You can't give them a 10-minute scene with a car talking to a guy and not have them change the channel. They're not going to sit still for that."
So, whereas the original series focused squarely on Michael Knight and his car KITT, and the TV-movie added in the notion that KITT could morph into… different colors (yawn), Thompson's take talks to the Transformers-trained world. Here's a look at Knight Rider's assorted upgrades, and a hint at the big mystery Season 1 will unfold.
Upgrade: The Thing of Shapes to Come
KITT now has different modes, brought on by "mechanical transformations you can actually see," says Thompson. Attack Mode turns the Mustang GT into "a monster-looking, supped-up car that is like a tank going into battle. It just looks scary." There's also a 4x4 Mode which shape-shifts KITT into a pick-up, handy for… well, picking up Mike Traceur (Justin Bruening) and any other agents being pursued on foot and in need of a ride home.
Upgrade: Home, Truly Sweet Home
Noting that the TV audience is eroding thanks to videogames, Thompson was determined to make his Knight Rider "visually stimulating and interesting." So whereas the original series was basically Michael Knight and KITT as lone wolves, "One of the ideas I came up with was to be able to communicate back and forth between the car and a base of operation… what we unofficially call the KITT Cave." Think CTU meets Jiffy Lube. On steroids. (Watch video of the new set being built.)
Upgrade: Cave Dwellers
Thompson carried over the four principals from the TV-movie —Bruening, Deanna Russo (as Mike's ex-sweetheart/fellow agent), Sydney Tamiia Poitier and Bruce Davison — then added three newbies. "Yancy Arias is the overseer who sends them out on the missions," he says. "Paul Campbell, from Battlestar [Galactica], plays Billy, who's basically our head tech and super brainiac. And Smith Cho plays Zoe, an attractive foil to Billy." The result: A bigger cast delivers more interplay and yes, a bit of flirtation among the tech-head set. (Watch our video Q&A with the new cast members.)
Upgrade: A Truly Special "Touch"
The KITT Cave can tap into any satellite in the world and send data straight to the car. But how to access it in a super-cool way? "We built a touch screen that goes right across the windshield, hanging in the air, like Minority Report or Iron Man. We did that to make the pace faster and ratchet up the tension."
Upgrade: Effects that Look Special
Thompson's big dreams have yet to be crushed by bean-counters. "The effects are looking awesome," he boasts. "No offense to some of the bigger effects shows, but this is the biggest show on TV. We have multiple cars and wrecks and explosions…. There is so much going on." Thompson trotted out a few minutes of footage at this summer's Comic-Con. "People were like, 'Holy crap! That’s Knight Rider?! 'It's like being in the middle of a big Hot Wheels toy."
Upgrade: A Big Mystery Fuels Season 1
One secret we cannot reveal here pertains to KITT's very reason for being. Sure, he's tricked-out and cool and all, but to what end, really? "KITT has artificial intelligence, and you want artificial intelligence to learn. But why would you put artificial intelligence in a car?" Thompson teases. "That’s our big arc, and by Episode 13 we find out exactly why."