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Pilot Error: The TV Shows You Never Knew Existed, Part One

piloterrorThese days it’s more common to for people to realize that for every TV show they see there are an increasing number they don’t see. Amazon even allowed the people to choose what pilots would go to series recently which left many would-be series left hanging after only a single episode “aired”, a pilot episode.

Why a “pilot”? Too see if this thing can fly.

For every TV series that makes it to the air, there are 5 (or more) pilots which the network passes on. These are shot and shown to Network Executives (Monkeys really) who proceed to kill any future episodes and usually bury the pilot completely. These invariably leak out but are still frowned upon by the studios.

There are times as well that a show does go to series but with major changes made from the original pilot. Recasting, altered music, added subplots or even a completely new pilot shot with the same script. These are sometimes even more interesting than the unaired series pilots as these give a glimpse into what works and what does not. A different lead actor can completely alter the tone and feel of a show so these reshot/redited pilots are fascinating to see.

Of the unaired pilots I have viewed (and I’ve seen A LOT), over half of them are as good or better than the shows that actually make it on the air. Hell, there are some pilots that are just brilliant and would make amazing series, but whatever network forked over the dough was too scared to put it on the air. Sometimes though these things are so BAD that it boggles the mind to think they were even made without SOMEONE stopping the coming travesty.

To be fair though, you DO see some of these pilots hit the air from time to time. You would not believe how many “TV Movies” are really failed 2 hour pilots. They also aired pilots that were not being turned into series in the past a lot of times as specials (CBS once did this for an entire summer in prime time in 1987, they burned off all of their pilots that never went to series). So, some of these are merely unsold pilots as opposed to unaired pilots.

Often a cable channel like Trio or Sci-Fi (err…Syfy) would air the pilots as a treat to viewers and other times they just air the “TV Movie” without letting you know what the hell just happened.

Gene Roddenberry has no less than 5 “TV Movies” to his credit which were all pilots for proposed series and 2 of those are the same script with a different cast.

There are also “proof of concept” pilots. These are quick and dirty versions (usually under 15 minutes) to simply show the network what the show will be like. Animation utilized this quite a bit with shows such as The Real Ghostbusters and Defenders of the Earth even including these on their DVD releases as a gift to fans. These test pilots often are vastly different than what the regular pilot will be like from music to style to character designs and even voices.

In at least two cases I can think of there were multiple episodes filmed of a series rather then just the pilot prior to the simians in suits deciding to stop production. Manchester Prep (A television sequel to Cruel Intentions with Amy Adams got 3 Episodes) and the NYPD Blue spin-off Public Morals (13 Episodes) are two such series (bet you didn’t even know that NYPD Blue had a spin-off, let alone a sitcom one).

Some of the pilots I am going to discuss did indeed make it to series, although in a very altered form from how they were originally filmed. I will try to give a good breadth of information about the pilots I discuss as best I have the information (as most of these were never meant to be seen there is very little info out there about them at times, I even have a few that don’t officially exist, meaning there is ZERO documentation about them ANYWHERE other than the fact I have a copy, they are not even on the actors’ IMDB page).

Alaska

4e27a0a9a9927ef2debc099cfa83ab79-79694Brad Johnson from Soldier of Fortune Inc. stars as a small Alaskan town sheriff right on the boarder of the US and Canada. A vile murder has been committed just over the Canadian border but by a U.S. citizen, and Johnson and the DA (Michael Ironside!) attempt to find out what happened without crossing jurisdictions. Not a bad pilot and a great cast yet I am not sure how far “small town sheriff and DA in the middle of nowhere solve crimes” would have gone as a series.

Alligator Point

A sitcom pilot staring Nathan Fillion well before Firefly and Paula Marshall from David E. Kelley’s Snoops. The plot was that Fillion was a former Nascar driver who married his high school sweetheart years ago, and works for her father at his seafood restaurant in Alligator Point. Now divorced and with her father dead she owns the restaurant. Since her father loved Fillion she keeps him on as an employee. Paula Marshall is a big town doctor that just moved to Alligator Point and Fillion and Marshall go on a date which upsets his ex-wife. Let the “hilarity” ensue. The show was not picked up because it’s not the least bit funny.

Callahan

In 1982 Jamie Lee Curtis was just coming off Halloween II and was attempting to not get typecast in the horror field. I guess she thought a comedy pilot that combined Raiders Of The Lost Ark with goofy slapstick would be the answer.

Hart Bochner is Callahan, an adventurer completely in the mold of Indiana Jones but not as serious or qualified, Curtis is his new Secretary and together they would have adventures. That’s it. This honestly was not bad if a bit thin but the thing that makes it unwatchable is an obviously tacked on laugh track that completely pulls you out of anything the story is setting up and yanks all the humor from any jokes. Could have worked if not for that intrusive and downright insulting laugh track.

Darkman

Yeah, they attempted to make a Darkman TV series. Sam Raimi produced this 26 minute pilot in the early 90’s in an attempt to sell Darkman as a TV series (I think it was between Darkman II and III judging by the use of DMII footage but none from DMIII). The pilot is mostly clips from the movies used to tell the origin of the character with new wraparounds filmed with a new actor under the bandages. More of a proof of concept than anything meant to air for audiences but an interesting curiosity nonetheless. A friend of mine made the mask for this and he never even knew this was actually shot, when the left KNB he was told they scrapped the idea of it. Guess he was wrong.

Day One

This was an amazingly great pilot. The most expensive pilot in the history of the WB (as of 2010 when it was made) and the fact that they spent so much and STILL didn’t air it was a travesty. No credits at all but I recognized quite a few actors. This pilot is by Michael Piller (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and The Dead Zone) and is based on the British mini series The Last Train.

Our main characters, as well as some that don’t survive the pilot, are each shown boarding a train near Pittsburgh and we get a bit of story with each character/set of characters and one guy in particular is REALLY nervous and is seen placing a call to his wife and talking about cryptic things like not getting there in time and if he will ever see her again. After a few minutes on the train, things start to shake and the nervous guy releases a canister of something that seals the train compartment and literally freezes everyone and everything inside.

As things thaw out, the 19 or so people emerge to find the tunnel emptying into what looks like the Land Of The Lost minus the dinosaurs. Turns out, Mr. Nervous was a NASA scientist that knew of an asteroid that was going to hit the earth and where he was trying to get to was the safe bunker that the government had set up. These people have been frozen for 70 years or so and since they were sealed in that compartment they survived the Armageddon that came. Turns out the asteroid impacted in Russia and sent the toxic hydrocarbons in the massive oil deposits and petrol into the atmosphere that killed most life on earth (except plants, which have overrun everything) and that even these people have to fear the air, and that nothing mechanical works, the petrol has since seeped into everything from engines to the gunpowder of bullets.

A few people explore the city and try to deal with what has happened while a few others refuse to accept the truth and “go for help” (they promptly get killed by a pack of wild dogs, turns out some animals survived). In the end, they find a car that still works (it was sealed in long term storage) and as they drive off, the silhouettes of human shaped figures are watching them in the distance, one of the figures turns to reveal mutated eyes… end pilot. I loved this pilot, the characters reactions where realistic, the story was engaging and the plot had lots of possibilities.

Doorways

Sliders a few years before Sliders. I have no idea if the production teams on this and Sliders had any connection or not, but the premise is more or less the same. Basically, what if there were other worlds out there where one small thing in the past was different and it changed everything? Oh and George R. R. Martin created this, yeah THAT George R. R. Martin. The pilot movie is… okay at best. For 1992 it was sufficient and hit the right notes but I wager it would be slow to audiences of today. Amazing cast of Kurtwood Smith, Carrie-Anne Moss, Max Grodénchik and Hoyt Axton really don’t DO much though.

The Elvira Show

1993 pilot trying to put the Elvira character into a sitcom; not Cassandra Peterson the actress but Elvira the character. Odd to say the least. Elvira and Katherine Helmond are real witches that run a medium business which is mostly fraud and the local DA stings them. Everything turns out okay and nothing funny happens. Also, Elvira’s virginal niece moves in and is also a witch but hates it so she tries to be “good” with her powers. A low point for even Elvira as this thing is devoid of laughs.

Fearless

Based on the hit (I’m told) book series, this pilot was as dumb as they get. It’s about a girl born without the GENE that causes fear (they specifically use the term GENE, I never knew it was a GENE that did that, I always thought fear was a chemical reaction in the brain based on the stimuli supplied to it, but what the hell do I know right?) and this somehow makes her superhuman as she can now survive 5 story drops from buildings and move in bullet time thanks to having no fear. I am really not sure that is how that works.

Oh and it makes her nearly emotionless too.

Did I mention this was really dumb? This Fearless woman is Gia Moore, and she is an FBI agent using her Fearlessness to catch the bad guys without cluing her partners into her abilities (again, I am not sure how the hell having no fear makes you Neo but apparently it does). This pilot is very short for what was meant to be a 1 hour show (only 36 minutes WITH credits) and features horrible performances from Rachael Leigh Cook as Gia and Ian Somerhalder along with Eric Balfour and lots of other 2003 era pretty people (this was made for the WB after all). It was even produced by Jerry Bruckheimer!! The WB canned this one pretty late though as they had ads in Entertainment Weekly and other magazines and even showed commercials for it, then a few weeks from the new season, decided not to go with the series. Good call.

Global Frequency

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Based on the comic of the same name, this stars Michelle Forbes as Miranda Zero, the head of a secret organization of operatives around the world who get activated as needed to threats… they are all part of… the Global Frequency. This would have made a great series honestly with the diversity of a rotating cast, a throughline of a plot and yet individual plots. The pilot was very well made and stuck fairly close to the comic (and Michelle Forbes was PERFECT as Miranda Zero).

The pilot flowed fast yet gave lots of character moments and never really lagged. What’s funny is that piracy ALMOST worked in the favor of this one. After the WB passed on this pilot it was leaked to torrent sites (Youtube didn’t even exist yet kids) and was downloaded almost 200,000 times in the first week alone prompting WB execs to rethink things. Ultimately they still passed on it though.

Ghost/Cop

Alexis Denisof is a phony TV psychic, too bad that after he is killed he is an actual ghost that has to convince a detective that he is a real spirit so she will solve his murder. This pilot was made in 1998 and really feels like it. The late 90’s were not a good time for genre television and Ghost/Cop would not have made it any better. The humor was dry and tepid and the supernatural material was goofy and unfocused. The tone was also all over the place as half of the scenes are played as serious and dark, then the story moves to slapstick and back to dark as if the producers were not sure if they wanted a comedy, or a drama (it becomes neither in the end).

The Grubbs

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Some of you may remember this 2002 abortion being advertised on FOX. A blatant attempt to make a new Married With Children style series, The Grubbs was pulled only a week before it was meant to air. A decent cast with the likes of Randy Quaid, Carol Kane and Michael Cera and songs in the pilot by Rob Zombie and Alice Cooper could not save some of the worst writing I have yet to encounter in a “comedy”. The show was about a family of low class people who reveled in being low class (and trust me, the jokes were worse then low class).

It was not funny for a second and somehow I get the feeling the writers knew this as the cast almost winks at you while telling these obviously awful jokes. Like being unfunny was somehow the joke. The line that made all the promos was apparently so funny they thought it would sell the show “Son, when life gives you crap, make Crapenaid”. Funny? Did you laugh? No one else did either.

Hollyweird

I have no evidence of this, but I have a sneaking feeling that this was a very early attempt at what would become Freakylinks later on. Same basic idea, same character dynamics and same network although the tone was completely different here and this had nothing supernatural about it. Melissa George and her friends documented serial killers for their website (ah late 90’s internet) and ran into more then they expected. Created by Shaun Cassidy and Wes Craven and featuring some genuinely funny moments along with interesting characters handcuffed by a bland plot that refuses to take the slightest chance at all. At least when this became Freakylinks they took some chances.

Hungry For Survival

This was the unaired pilot for the series that became Prey on ABC. Sherilyn Fenn is in the role that would later be played by Debra Messing in the series proper. Same plot as the series pilot with the same script but completely different sets, supporting cast, tone and structure. Very odd to watch back to back with the aired pilot.

Ice

Really funny NON-LAUGH TRACK comedy (that was a rarity in the 90’s so it was to be savored) about an isolated research station in the arctic and it’s crew of misfits just trying to remain somewhat sane. Ryan Reynolds (!!!), Michael Jeter and Leland Orser are the only actors I could put names too (my copy has no credits) but there were a few other faces I knew from movies and whatnot.

The comedy was actually funny with odd sub-plots (a female penguin with a crush on Reynolds and Orser being so obsessed with Star Trek that he wears a uniform similar to Classic Trek and records all of his official logs with Stardates being two).

Could really have been a cool (no pun intended) series.

John Doe

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Yes, that’s Prison Break / Legends of Tomorrow star Dominic Purcell as John Doe

Same plot and script as the aired version but this version runs 8 minutes longer (lots more exposition and a nice reveal of John talking to the dead body at the end are some of the major plot differences).

The main difference from this and the aired pilot though is this one did not have Jayne Brook, William Forsythe or Sprague Grayden in it.

In their roles were (respectively) Elizabeth Lackey, Meat Loaf(!) and Azura Skye.

One of the few times I preferred the recasting to the original cast (although the unaired pilot flows better as a story).

L.A. Confidential

2003 pilot that takes place BEFORE the movie.

Kiefer Sutherland as Det. Jack Vincennes, David Conrad as Det. Ed Exley, Melissa George as Lynn Bracken and Eric Roberts. According to an interview with Sutherland he mentions that he was making this pilot for HBO but the version I have seems to be cut (running only a little over 40 minutes and has nothing in it that would not be allowed on broadcast TV).

Trio aired this pilot a few years ago and the REALLY taxing thing about it is that it ends on a “To Be Continued” in the middle of a cliffhanger and since it’s a prequel to the movie we have parts 1 and 3 of story but with part 2 missing. More than a tad frustrating.

Lost in Oz

This 2002 unaired pilot was very interesting.

Melissa George is a Kansas girl that gets swept up in a tornado and her and a horse land in OZ. Afterwards she encounters some fragments of the yellow brick road and the burnt out remains of the Munchkin village. Yeah, this gets really damn dark.

The events of the movie are in continuity here, as is the fact that The Wizard Of Oz was a movie. Dorothy murdered the Wicked Witch (that is how it was perceived by the OZiens at least) and all hell broke loose after that. After Dorothy was returned to Kansas the essence of the Wicked Witch found a new host since it turns out that to keep balance, there always has to be a Wicked Witch and Good Witch. If one dies, the essence of evil or good finds a new host.

Mia Sara is the new Wicked Witch and Lynn Whitfield is the new Good Witch. Melissa George meets up with an Air Force pilot from 1939, although he has only been in OZ for a few months since time is a tad askew here and even weirder is that he saw the movie The Wizard Of Oz so refuses to believe that is where they are (confused yet?).

They team up and are given a guide by the Good Witch who guide HATES the new Wicked Witch with a massive passion. The group is attacked by wheelers and taken to the new Wicked Witch’s castle where a choice must be made to use a magic tornado to escape OZ or to save a captured princess who might just unify the kingdom against the Wicked Witch. Melissa George uses it in the manner that keeps them in OZ and therefore the promise of more adventures.

Oh, and we find out that if Melissa George kills the new Wicked Witch, the essence will take her over next and she will be the next Wicked Witch. I really liked this honestly but the plug seemed to have been pulled before the pilot was complete as there are many shots simply against a green screen and even some insert cards here and there. Too bad, the dark take on such a classic could have worked.

Lost In Space

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This was a 2004 updating of Lost In Space (no relation to the 1998 movie thankfully) for the WB. This time, we (Earth) just finished a massive and devastating war with a very hostile alien race about 200 years in the future. Brad Johnson is Capt. John Robinson (notice he is not a scientist anymore but a military man, very post 9/11), the hero that won this war for us. He and his family are chosen to start a new colony in a new planet (in another large change from the old series and the movie, there is another kid here, an 18 year old son, as well as the 10 year old Will, 13 year old Penny and 20 year old Judy).

On the way to settle this new world, the ship is attacked by the aforementioned alien race, pretty pissed off that they lost the war, and the 18 year old son is captured while the rest of the family is trapped in an escape pod with a pilot (Don West) as they drift off, being LOST IN SPACE!!!

All in all, this was not bad, but the WB cancelled this one before it was even completed (there are numerous scenes with just blue screens and 2 scenes in which the wires holding actors up in “zero G” are clearly visible). If this was made, I would definitely had watched it.

Man Made

Joss Ackland heads a secret government organization who’s mandate is to police criminal abuses of science (IE: keep anything “Man Made” in check).

For the pilot, it turns out that a former agent whom they thought was dead has figured out a way to completely cloak himself from electronic devices and is committing robberies all over the U.S. including some chemical weapons he plans to sell to Islamic terrorists (this is pre-9/11 by the way). It was not a bad pilot but really comes off as just what it was, an attempt to ape the success of The X-Files.

 

To Be Continued…

 

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