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Failure to launch

July 6, 2013

What ultimately inspired this idea.

Back when I first started Fantastic Television I had this idea for a continuing series of articles on genre series pilots that never got picked up as a full series.  As is normal for me, other stuff kept getting in the way but now events have conspired to give me the chance to start this feature.

When you follow genre tv for as long as I have you start to run into pilots for genre shows that never made it.  I have always found these fascinating to watch although it can sometimes turn masochistic for a pilot that I really like because I then have to stop myself from playing the “what if” game for the next few days as some sort of bizarre wish fulfillment scheme.  But, enough about my neurosis.  A pilot, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a test first episode of a series that a network is considering picking up for a full or half season run.  These can vary pretty wildly in length.  There was a Wonder Woman treatment by the producer of the Adam West Batman series that lasted all of four minutes.  Generally though, they run for the expected episode length.  The networks would spend a lot of money on these pilots but, end up taking only a relatively small percentage of the filmed material to series.  To further add to this operating expense, if enough changes where made before a show went to series, the original pilot might never be aired either.  Given the amount of money spent on pilots it was only a matter of time before executives began finding ways to recover some of the money of this investment.  This began in 1956 on ABC and NBC when both networks would air some of these pilots in an anthology series over the summer, which was the traditional period for reruns for their regular series back in the day.  The blog Television Obscurities has a great article that covers these anthology shows and, is a very cool site that is worth checking out for its unique content.

One thing that is outside of the above article’s scope is the turn around that occurred when ABC launched their Movie of the Week series.  In 1969 ABC was the distant third place network and really needed to do something to recover market share.  A young executive named Barry Diller had the idea to do a series of original made for tv movies.  A large number of them where original movies such as Killdozer, Trilogy of Terror with its iconic Zuni doll, and The Duel, directed by a young new director named Steven Spielberg,   However, the series also featured movies that where actually test pilots for series that ABC was interested in.  A couple of genre examples include The Immortal and, probably most famously, The Six Million Dollar Man.  So, with ABC’s Movie of the Week we end up completing the circle where this anthology style format is used as a test bed for new series pilots.  There is actually a book called The ABC Movie of the Week Companion by Michael Karol that I’m planning to pick up one of these days.

The end result of all this is that while some of these failed pilots are relatively easy to get, some of them can be all but impossible to find.  What had originally originally inspired the idea for this series of articles for me was my then recently completed collection of Gene Roddenberry’s pilots that never made series.  I had envisioned starting this series with his many attempts at a post-apocalyptic drama series.  These started with Genesis II and went through a second attempt called Planet Earth and included a final attempt named Strange New World which was an attempt by the network without Roddenberry’s input but, retained John Saxon as the lead actor.  I will undoubtedly get to these some day but, for now I am going to start with two other pilots that didn’t make it past the launch pad.

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