Vincent: What's a pilot?
A Pilot is a "test run" of a series concept, filmed and assembled to give the network an idea of what it will look like, how it will play, and (via viewer testing) what kind of demographic it will appeal to. Usually the network will turn down the pilot. Sometimes it will throw it back to the producers and say, "try again". There are probably ten pilots made for every series that actually makes it on the air, at least in American TV—some insiders have snidely claimed that Hollywood is more about making pilots than actually making shows.
(The term "pilot" is used in this sense outside the entertainment industry; a "pilot plant", for example, may be a smaller-scale power plant that's used to test some new generation technology.)
Even when a show is picked up and given a timeslot, there is no guarantee that a pilot will ever reach the air. They often do, usually as the Premiere. Sometimes—usually with those shows whose producers were told "try again", the original pilot is so different from what reached the air that they don't try to use it (as is the case with Gilligan's Island), or they reuse it in an innovative manner later in the series. (A good example of the latter would be "The Cage", the pilot episode of Star Trek: The Original Series, which was recycled into the two-part episode "The Menagerie".)
Pilots often have somewhat larger budgets than a typical episode of the series, but fewer purpose-built sets. A hospital or school or graveyard in a pilot is likely to be the real thing - no sense building an elaborate set for a pilot that probably won't be picked up. As such, if the series is picked up and purpose-built sets are built to replace these locations, then eagle-eyed viewers might be able to spot differences between the characters' base of operations from the first week to the second.
The writing in a pilot can be significantly worse than in regular episodes. Introducing all the characters and setting up the situation in a limited time can be difficult to do in a natural way, and pilots are therefore notorious for clunky expositional dialogue. In addition, pilots often are slightly differently-shaped than the series that coalesce if the show gets picked up; for example: in the pilot of Gilmore Girls Sookie is a Dojikko (this trait fades away by the fourth or so episode), Lorelai drives a different car, and many of the sets are not the ones used later in the show. Pilots may also be filmed on a different stock than the rest of the series; the pilot may look more 'cinematic' in film story and cinematography than other episodes in the series. If it's the length of a film and presented as such, then it's a Pilot Movie.
Animation often does the same thing, except it is usually a 5-10 minute example of what the series is going to be like: action, characters, dialogue, setting. This may give way to an actual television series, but the pilot itself is not considered a part of Canon. Live Action TV may do the same thing.
Should a pilot be integrated into another series, it's a Poorly-Disguised Pilot.
Many, many pilot episodes are simply named "Pilot", making "Pilot" the most common episode title among all series.
Failed pilots sometimes still make it on the air, when a network has a slot to fill and nothing better (or nothing they want to risk) to put there. There have even been Anthology series composed entirely of failed pilots, created solely so that a network can get some return back on their investment in them. (And sometimes a failed pilot might get licensed or sold to a marketing firm, who will show it to "test audiences" along with commercials, in order to test not the pilot, but the effectiveness of the commercials.)
The Futon Critic has reviews for many of the successful pilots and now the unsuccessful ones.
Anime and Manga
- Dragon Ball had one in the form of Dragon Boy. The main character who would be the inspiration for Goku was named "Tanton" and had bat-wings instead of a monkey tail. The character Bulma was an Expy for was a princess. The Dragon Balls had a small dragon instead of stars on them.
- Naruto wasn't a ninja series, but instead involved magic. Instead of wanting to be Hokage, Naruto was sent on a quest to find friends under the orders of whom would later become Hiruzen Sarutobi after one prank too-many. Instead of a demon being sealed inside Naruto, the Demon Fox was his father.
- Fist of the North Star had Kenshiro as a teenager. He is then on the run after being framed for killing his girlfriend.
- Following its 1975 cancellation, Jeopardy! made two pilots for a revival under original host Art Fleming. The first, in 1977, used a much different format which started off with each player playing as many questions as possible in 30 seconds apiece (with no penalty for wrong answers) before finishing off the rest of the board normally. After that, the lowest-scorer was eliminated, the two remaining contestants played an unaltered Double Jeopardy! Whoever had the higher score after this moved on to a Bonus Round with a 5x5 board, and had to get five right answers in a row within 90 seconds for a bonus or $100 per clue.
- The 1978 pilot omitted the timed portion of the first round and eliminated the time limit from the bonus round (but also ended the bonus round if three wrong answers were given). Under these radically changed rules, Jeopardy! aired just five months.
- The current Alex Trebek version, which began in 1984, also had two pilots. Both returned to the original format of straight-up answer-question gameplay that's still in use today. The first (1983) used the same set layout and music cues as the 1978 version, plus pull-card clues in the maingame and whiteboards in Final Jeopardy! like the first Fleming version and Jay Stewart announcing. The second (1984) had the familiar video wall for the maingame and light pens for the Final Jeopardy!, along with current announcer Johnny Gilbert. Both pilots, however, had much lower clue values — the first used the 1978 value of $25–$125 and $50–$150, while the second had $50–$150 and $100–$500.
- The $10,000 Pyramid evolved from an unsold pilot called Cash on the Line, whose bonus round became the maingame of Pyramid. Supposedly, the bonus round of the unsold pilot was the only part of the format that execs liked.
- Pyramid would later have no fewer than ten pilots recorded between 1996 and 2010 that went unsold (although the last revival aired from 2002–04). Several of these pilots strayed very far from the format, including one with one celebrity for each category, one with a rock & roll format (perhaps inspired by Rock & Roll Jeopardy!) and two in the late 2000s hosted by Andy Richter.
- Wheel of Fortune had three pilots. The first (1973) was Shopper's Bazaar, hosted by Chuck Woolery. It featured a vertical wheel, a much larger emphasis on prize-buying over gameplay (even in comparison to the shopping rounds used until 1989), a phone that delivered clues to the contestants, no Bankrupts, a confusing scoring system, and a way-too-easy bonus round. The second and third (1974) were much closer to what made it to air, but were hosted by a drunk Edd "Kookie" Byrnes. When the show finally made it to air in 1975, it used the Byrnes format with Chuck as host, who of course was replaced by Pat Sajak in 1981. More info on these pilots can be found here.
- Match Game had one for the staid 1960s format and two for the more-familiar 1970s format (all hosted by Gene Rayburn), a week for a 1990s revival that lasted one season (Bert Convy hosted the pilot week, but his death from brain cancer forced Ross Shafer to take over when it sold), and an unsold 1996 pilot with Charlene Tilton and a radically-altered bonus round. The last one evolved into a shorter-lived 1998-99 revival hosted by Michael Burger.
- Card Sharks filmed two pilots in 1978 with the same set and rules, which pretty much resembled the show's final product. The only difference was that #1 depicted a loss and #2 depicted the highest possible win in the bonus round (which also happened once in the real game). There was also an unsold 1996 pilot which greatly altered the format, and another in 2000 that eventually became the 2001 revival; there were also relatively unchanged revivals in 1986-89 network and 1986-87 syndicated.
- NBC accidentally aired the pilot to the 1990 revival of To Tell the Truth on the east coast. This was notable as Richard Kline hosted the pilot, but Gordon Elliott was the actual host of the series (for a few months at least).
- The Joker's Wild had two pilots hosted by Allen Ludden (of Password fame), in which a panel of celebrities asked the questions. A third pilot was part of an awkward 90-minute special, The Honeymoon Game, hosted by Jim MacKrell, which was a hodgepodge of games put together (including an entire first third that was axed during the pilot because Barry disliked it). Finally, once everything got going, Joker's wheels spun for 14 years, an amazing run for a game show.
- Surprisingly averted with The Price Is Right. When Mark Goodson began the revival in 1972, he instead created a pitchfilm that included him and Dennis James discussing the game. They played two mock pricing games and even showed a clip of Dennis filling in for Monty Hall on Let's Make a Deal. Interestingly, pretty much the only thing that carried over from the pitchfilm was Dennis James hosting the nighttime series (of course, with Bob Barker hosting on daytime).
- David Letterman hosted two pilots of The Riddlers in November 1977. The first pilot was shown on GSN, and Dave talks about it here.
- Pass the Line is an abysmal 1954 "game" created and hosted by Cliff Saber in which a professional artist drew something which was copied line by line by several panelists. Possibly the only redeeming quality is the presence of a very young Jonathan Winters.
- Babylon 5: Name a problem a Pilot Movie could have, and it's there. The creator re-edited it several years later to make it stink less. (The radical changes in characterization and the transformation of Delenn from an androgynous Uncanny Valley dweller to exotically attractive female are the major differences.)
- The latter was required by a Special Effects Failure—Delenn was originally supposed to be a male Minbari who became female as a side effect of the process that turned him into a Half-Human Hybrid, but they were unable to make the male Delenn (still played by actress Mira Furlan) look and sound believable.
- Being Human (UK): Notable in that two of the three main characters, as well as the big bad of the first season, were recast between the pilot and the start of the series.
- Bones: Notable in a bad way, with dialogue that clunks like a jackhammer and lead characters that come off as completely psychotic. These problems rapidly improved in the regular episodes.
- Doctor Who had a pilot episode (actually several, since they re-made it several times, using the same script) which, despite being a British show from 1963, survived. It was similar to the first episode, but with different costumes, a scene with Susan drawing a bizarre inkblot, and a statement that the Doctor and Susan come from the 49th Century. Because it was produced after the series was accepted rather than to sell the series, it may not technically be a pilot by some definitions.
- ER: Written in 1974 and filmed in 1994 with only minimal changes to the script, this is an extreme example of the gap between pilots and regular episodes. A male doctor was even changed into a woman - without altering his dialogue.
- Notable also in that it ends with the suicide of a character—Nurse Carol Hathaway—who would turn up alive and well in the fall and stay with the show for six seasons.
- Lost: One of the most expensive pilots ever made, but worth every penny for both the critical reaction and the ratings success.
- Also notable for being one of the few times "Pilot" has independently made sense as an episode title.
- Ranked by TV Guide as the fifth best television episode of all time, the only pilot in the top ten.
- Funnily enough, the guy who approved it (and its budget) was fired before the show was aired for investing such a large amount of money into a risky project.
- My Name Is Earl: Somehow manages to painlessly explain a convoluted backstory in only 22 minutes and still be funny.
- The pilot episode of Seinfeld is not only considered the worst in the series, but the producers can't even agree on the title. The current decision is The Seinfeld Chronicles, which was the original title for the show. TV Guide gives it as Pilot, but that was changed to avoid confusion with the Season 4 finale The Pilot. The most unusual name for it is Good News, Bad News. Don't ask me how they got there.
- Also, this pilot aired over a year before the first season began, which kind of showed how much hope NBC had for what would later become one of their biggest cash cows.
- And Elaine isn't in it. Instead there's a Deadpan Snarker waitress at the restaurant who was going to be the show's moral center. But she proved to be wildly unpopular with test markets. So when the show was picked up a whole year later, Elaine was created to add a female character to the show.
- And Kramer's name is "Kessler," which was used as an In-Joke later in the series.
- Star Trek: The Original Series had two pilots, which was unusual back then. The first one ("The Cage") didn't sell because Gene Roddenberry produced a dramatic show instead of the action show he had promised. It was later worked into the two part "The Menagerie". The second pilot "Where No Man Has Gone Before" lacked Dr. McCoy and was aired (in a slightly re-edited version) as an early episode of the series.
- One of the things that changed between the pilot and the regular series was the design of the Enterprise—due to the high cost of special effects and the low resolution of 60s televisions, many of the special effects shots from the pilot were re-used in the series, even though the ship looked subtly different.
- By the time of the spin-offs, the franchise was so large that any pilot was pretty much guaranteed a green light for a season. In fact, Deep Space Nine was picked up for multiple seasons right off the bat.
- 30 Rock: Rather mediocre pilot and quite possibly the worst episode of the whole series. Tina Fey herself has said "if I never see that pilot again, it will be too soon". Also notable in that the scenes with Jenna were refilmed before it aired, replacing Rachel Dratch with Jane Krakowski.
- Ironically, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, another NBC show that started in 2006 and takes place behind the scenes at a sketch comedy show, is generally considered to have had a great pilot and quickly gone downhill from there.
- Incidentally, in her book Bossypants, Tina Fey, while proclaiming her own negative opinion of the 30 Rock pilot, cited Cheers as an example of a sitcom with a great pilot.
- Kids Incorporated shot a pilot featuring most of the actors who become the first season cast but very different sets and a radically different format, using only the flimsiest of plots to link together not entire songs, but a series of medleys, mostly not by the main cast. The pilot was never aired, but it was intercut with some new footage in the form of bridging sequence with Rassan Patterson (who had not been cast for the pilot) and released as a direct-to-video feature with a framing story of how his character came to join the band—in the final sequence, quite obviously filmed much later than the rest of the episode, we're offhandedly told that three members of the pilot cast had suddenly moved out of town, leading to the Kid's invitation to join the band (No similar explanation is given for Stacy and Renee, who in the pilot had clearly been meant as supporting characters rather than band-members).
- Heroes' pilot was an hour and a half long, and many of the "lost" scenes and characters that didn't make it into the premiere were recycled in modified ways (the Terrorist character of The Engineer was changed to the neurotic Ted Sprague, for instance).
- The pilot of Arrested Development was shot in an actual model home which featured an elegant sweeping curved staircase leading to a barren unfinished attic.
- After the pilot of 3rd Rock from the Sun, significant alterations were made to the sets. For example, the entrance to the apartment became the door to Dick's bedroom and a staircase was added. There was also an earlier, unaired version of the pilot in which Dick's love interest was a secretary. It was felt that the character wasn't working and needed to be more of a Comically Serious type. She was subsequently split into two separate characters, Mary and Nina. Thus, Jane Curtin and Simbi Khali joined the cast for the second pilot.
- The pilot episode for Law and Order, "Everybody's Favourite Bagman", was filmed a couple of years before the series, and later incorporated into the series... eight episodes in. This led to the rather amusing continuity error in which Detectives Logan and Greevey met A.D.A Robinette for the first time when they've already worked with him for seven episodes.
- Worse yet, this pilot featured a different District Attorney (Wentworth) from the rest of the season. Thus, if you watch the episodes in order, you see D.A. Schiff for several episodes, then Wentworth for this episode, then back to Schiff for the next 10 years.
- The Global Frequency pilot episode was leaked onto the Internet, where it garnered widespread rave reviews. Unfortunately, the leaking ticked off the executives in charge so much that they cancelled the series out of spite. You'd think that, the illegality of the leaking aside, the possibility of having a show about which such good word of mouth had spread that it had a better chance of success than most other untested pilots would be worth giving a shot to anyway, but apparently not.
- The pilot episode of Alias was 69 minutes long, and originally aired commercial-free.
- "Serenity", the two-part pilot episode of Firefly, is notable in that it was not the episode the network first aired. The consequence of this action was that viewers didn't get introduced to the characters, the universe, and plot lines the proper way, and Firefly was canceled halfway through its run.
- The pilot episode of Ghost Whisperer, also titled Pilot, focused on the ghost of a Vietnam War pilot.
- The pilot episode for Kyle XY was reshot at a later date because it was considered to be too downbeat and dragging. This lead to a difficult scenario where all the cast were a year older. Josh, for instance, had to have all his lines redone because his voice was an octave lower.
- Sherlock has a 60-minute pilot version of "A Study In Pink", with the idea of this being the first episode of a series of 60 minute episodes. Instead, the BBC, despite loving the pilot, asked for three higher budget, 90-minute episodes. This led to the pilot needing to be scrapped and a new version of the same story being written. The 90-minute version is considered much stronger than the pilot, as it spends more time establishing the characters, fixes some elements of the sets and plot that didn't work the first time, and also added the "archnemesis" subplot. Though the pilot version of "A Study in Pink" never aired, it is included in its entirety on the home release of the series.
- The original pilot for Married... with Children has never been aired on TV, and featured different actors playing Bud/Kelly.
- The pilot for The Bob Newhart Show gave Bob Hartley the extra job of heading his apartment building's Action Board when the writers feared his psychologist practice wouldn't supply enough storyline possibilities. Also, Bill Daily was not in the pilot, but interestingly the actor who filled his position of Wacky Neighbor would later return to play his brother Warden Gordon Borden in an episode of the series.
- Sesame Street had five pilots produced and shown to children in early 1969. The biggest difference between these and what would eventually air is that the Muppets are kept separate from the humans, but since kids paid more attention to the Muppet and animated segments, they were integrated into the street once the show got off the ground, arguably for the better.
- One segment that never made it into the actual show but was heavily advertised even before the street segment was set in stone was "The Man from Alphabet", a spoof of detective shows. It failed in testing due to the lesson never getting across to the kids.
- The 6 minute test pilot of Walking with Dinosaurs has never been made public in its entirety, as it was merely meant for the execs at BBC to watch and decide if they should fund the project. It featured (to modern eyes) rather crude animations of the dinosaurs Eustreptospondylus and Cetiosaurus, a flock of flying Rhamphorhynchus and a swimming Liopleurodon that later gets beached. Although most of the animal designs and the special effects quality differed greatly from those in the finished product, apart from the Cetiosaurus, just about every element of the pilot was carried over into the series' third episode. A few of these clips can be watched on the Walking With Monsters DVD.
- The People's Court had its first pilot episode taped in October 1980 (a bit under a year before the first episode aired), as well as a second pilot episode which was taped in January 1981.
- South Park has three pilots. In the first one, Cartman is called Kenny, no name is given to the other three, and both "Kenny" (Cartman) & Nameless Kenny die. In the second pilot, used with the signature cutout animation, the town of South Park is firmly established and the characters have personalities, to the point where Kyle is Jewish. All of the characters have the names they currently have, and Kenny's the only one who dies. Kyle even starts the Catch Phrase, "Oh my God! They killed Kenny!", although "You bastards!" had not yet come into existence. This could be considered Canon, but in Season 4, the kids made it themselves, to provide example of something kids would make. Comedy Central saw the second pilot, and they asked Trey Parker & Matt Stone to make a 22-minute pilot. They made it with cutout animation, and it was accepted (although alterations were made before it actually aired, such as dropping Kenny's Back from the Dead stunt from the ending). Later episodes used Maya instead for Conspicuous CG.
- Executive Meddling forced the Pilot Episode of Robot Chicken to be broadcast as the 11th Episode.
- The Pilot Episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force was 16Min instead of the usual 11. Frylock was more robotic & subservient to Shake.
- Following ATHF's success, the shelved Space Ghost Coast to Coast script Baffler Meal, featuring the original conception of the Aqua Teens was dusted off and made into What Could Have Been a Poorly-Disguised Pilot had the script been used when it was originally written. Shake is even bossier (but humorless), Frylock is a completely different design and personality with a chipper high pitched voice, and Meatwad, looking closest to the actual character is less naive and much more an exaggerated The Eeyore.
- The pilot for The Ren and Stimpy Show is "Big House Blues". Unlike most pilot episodes, pretty much everything, from Ren and Stimpy's designs, voices and personalities to the animation is fine-tuned from the get-go. Nickelodeonit several times, albeit with some sexually-suggestive footage removed.
- The Pilot Episode of The Drinky Crow Show is the only episode not in HD.
- Batman: The Animated Series: The famous opening sequence where Batman foils some bank robbers is similar in the general style of their animated pitch.
- ReBoot: Did not have a pilot because of the expense of CGI hardware back then. It was an entire season or nothing.
- Inspector Gadget's pilot had the inspector himself with a mustache and a british accent (provided by Gary Owens). When the show was picked up as a series, they had to throw in a Hand Wave in the aired version explaining the mustache. US tropers, however, can see the aired version here.
- The pilot episode of The Venture Brothers, "The Terrible Secret of Turtle Bay", is markedly different from those that follow. The larger budget allotted to pilots typically allows for better visual effects compared to those found in "normal" episodes; that is inverted here, as "Turtle Bay" is the only episode of the series to be animated using Adobe Flash. As a result, animation appears choppy and uneven when compared to later episodes, which are hand-drawn. Some characters are drawn in a different style or act with different personalities than in the main series; Dr. Venture, for example, is depicted as a successful, competent scientist rather than a neurotic failure. Several supporting characters from the series also appear, although they are unnamed at this point. The Venture Brothers themselves also have a pet dog named Scamp (based upon Jonny Quest's dog Bandit), which is never seen outside the pilot; a later episode mentions in passing that Scamp has since died.
- The pilot for The Amazing Screw On Head animated series. Though the series was not picked up, the (awesome) pilot is avaliable online and on DVD.
- Futurama's pilot had a notable title, "Space Pilot 3000". (The second episode was named "The Series Has Landed".)
- KaBlam! had "Your Real Best Friend!" for Sniz and Fondue, Prometheus and Bob, and Henry and June, "KaBlam!! Gets Results!" had the Life with Loopy pilot, and the Action League NOW pilot aired as part of All That.
- Sniz and Fondue's REAL pilot is a rarely-seen short called "Psyched For Snuppa", directed by Jon R. Dilworth. Aside from starring Snuppa and Bianca and featuring Sniz and Fondue (called "Squeaky") as supporting characters, it pretty much is identical to the eventual show.
- The pilot for My Life as a Teenage Robot was shown on Oh Yeah! Cartoons. It was known as My Neighbor Was a Teenage Robot and had a different art direction. It was eventually remade as the episode "It Came from Next Door".
- The pilot for Rocko's Modern Life ("Trash-O-Madness") aired as the sixth episode. According to the creator he wanted the pilot to be just another episode that can be placed in any order without continuity issues. That said, the animation style is very different due to it being animated in-house rather than being outsourced to Korea.
- The pilot of Regular Show was created for Cartoonstitute. In July 2011, the pilot was extended slightly and became the episode "First Day".
- Kirby: Right Back at Ya! had a four-minute clip made to celebrate the release of Kirby Air Ride in Japan. The pilot can be viewed here.
- The Recess pilot, "The Break In" was made in 1996 and was aired as the first episode in 1997...at least the altered version. The "pilot" version had very different character designs, such as no one wearing their main outfit (except Mikey and the non-main six cast), T.J. being tall and skinny, Vince looking like a teenager, Spinelli looking like a kindergartener, and Gretchen with black hair (Gus wasn't in the pilot). When it aired as the first episode, it was re-drawn to look more like the series proper. Clips of the pilot version were seen in an ABC Saturday Mornings promo on the 1997 VHS to 101 Dalmatians (live-action), as well as certain station identifications for One Saturday Morning (depending on the ABC station). The pilot gave a good example of the show's setup and character personalities while not giving clunky exposition dialogue.
Never got beyond pilot stage
- Virtuality is an unfinished Mind Screw of a pilot which one can only describe as 2001 meets Serial Experiments Lain meets Big Brother IN SPACE (with some Ghost in the Shell and eXistenZ for flavor) from the producers of the Battlestar Galactica reboot. It's bad enough the crew has to pilot an experimental ship and be Reality TV stars in space for 10 years, but then mysterious "malfunctions" kick in, the VR goggles start to blur the lines between fantasy and reality the captain gets killed yet his consciousness seems to have survived; a crew member gets raped in her own simulation by a man who may or may not be a computer virus. Notable in that it was aired despite the show itself being cancelled.
- In 2006, SpongeBob SquarePants writer Derek Drymon completed a 12 minute pilot for Nickelodeon called Diggs Tailwagger in which he voiced the title character. It never got picked up for series, and Drymon now works at Cartoon Network.
- Micah Wright, a writer for The Angry Beavers, created a pilot called Constant Payne that never sold.
- There is a pilot out there for a "show" called Mercy Reef, starring Justin Hartley as Aquaman, and Adrianne Palicki as the villaness. To the enragement of many a fan, it wasn't picked up, but it was leaked onto iTunes for free download. It is awesome.
- There were two pilots made for an American version of Red Dwarf; nth-generation video copies of them can occasionally be acquired from "rarities" dealers at SF conventions and online.
- In 1991, a pilot for a live-action TV series of Marvel Comics' Power Pack was made, but never went anywhere.