10 Pilots With Light Turbulence

We select ten of the best and weirdest pilot episodes...



Sometimes, you'll hear about a forthcoming TV show called something like John Lloyd's Newsround or World In Acton. Then when you finally see it, it's called Have I Got News For You or In Bed With Medinner and is more or less a different programme. Other times, you'll buy a DVD on the strength of an 'unbroadcast pilot,' only to find out it's basically the first episode with a different credit font. What, though, of the shows where the pilot almost got it right, but still had one or two details that caused last-minute backroom brow-furrowing? Here's ten of the least seen, yet most interesting, tryouts for what eventually became hugely popular TV series…



Wars Of The Roses-set, throne-grabbing chicanery with different Baldrick. Uses much the same script as the first episode proper, only without any of the lavish location filming, and comes across as an uneasy mish-mash of The Black Adder and Blackadder II. Evidence of this historical diversion is notoriously not recorded in any extant Encyclopaedia Blackaddica, reportedly due to an unspecified party blocking its use even in clip form.



Vic Reeves' Big Night Out

Charmingly unpolished, straight-up transfer of original stage show. Long list of very slightly different stuff includes location filming, starry 'showbiz' backdrop, early version of the 'Let's Have A Little Bit More' song, and Luther Vandross trying to eat a slipper. Even more disorientating than the show itself, and about as far removed from Shooting Stars as you can get. Mysteriously absent from the 'Complete Series' DVD, along with about 12 million other things.



Doctor Who

BBC entrust technically demanding new sci-fi show with 'crotchety' star to young and inexperienced producer and director. Pilot episode comes back with unlikeable characters, malfunctioning scenery, technobabble dialogue and frankly ridiculous bleeps and thunderclaps all over the theme tune. BBC roll eyes and order young and inexperienced producer and director to try again. Second time's the charm. It's thanks to this kind of forward thinking that we got the Voord.



The Day Today

Shaky first attempt at making very visual TV show out of very non-visual radio show. Most of the characters and gags are just about there, but it looks and sounds like it was made for about seven pence, while Chris Morris looks about twelve. Most of it ended up reused in the series, with the notable (and puzzling) exception of multi-handed After Dark sendup 'Debate 2000.' See also the Brass Eye pilot, which despite being more whimsical than the eventual series was rejected by the BBC as 'too savage.'



Not The Nine O'Clock News

Bonkersly unrecognisable jamboree of hastily jettisoned ideas that nearly went out. The introductory gag about a 'cheap tatty revue' was worryingly accurate for this far-from-cutting-edge topical satire with a huge ensemble cast (boasting only Atkinson and Langham from the show proper) and proto-Spitting Image puppets, which was scheduled but then pulled when someone called a general election. A rethink ensued. Good news for those who like actual cutting edge topical satire. And trucking.



Fawlty Towers

From Fawlty Towers pilot episode

Moderately different we're-running-short-of-ideas-now version of A Touch Of Class. When it was originally taped, Polly was introduced as a philosophy student in a variant on the 'flogging something to departing guest' scene. Post-show humming and harring by Cleese and Booth led to them going back and reshooting a couple of scenes to make her into an art student. Would it still have become a comedy classic without this last-minute rethink? Erm, yes.


Spitting Image

Spitting Image puppet of Margaret Thatcher

Latex lampoonery with a slight difference. The first couple of episodes, under the short-lived producership of Tony Hendra, were weird enough, but for the very first edition they went one weirder, and showed it to a studio audience. However, the audience didn't laugh enough, doubtless due to Hendra-occasioned weirdness, so they dubbed on the taped reaction to rubber-faced ribaldry-toting warm-up man Phil Cool instead. And then took it off the broadcast version altogether.


Camberwick Green

The musical box from the opening sequence to Camberwick Green

Puppet-essaying test shoot later repurposed as fully functional Peter Hazel The Postman episode. Which you've all probably seen dozens of times, but have you ever noticed the not-like-the-other-episodes giveaways like the scenery wilting in stop-motion under the studio lights, the context-free presence of a Wicker Man-esque ritualistic 'Post Office Dance', or - most disconcertingly - that the puppets all have mouths?? And not static mouths, either. Don't have nightmares.


30 Rock

The cast of 30 Rock

Dry-run shenanigans for series about dry-run shenanigans. Compared to the actual transmitted first episode, this one's pretty much all there, except that they're working on a show called Friday Night Bits with Jenna DeCarlo, and the Jenna DeCarlo in question is played by erstwhile Saturday Night Live Fey-pal, Rachel Dratch. With almost postmodern irony, she 'tested' badly and was replaced for the series by Jane Krakowski as a differently-surnamed Jenna.



The cast of Heroes

Overlong rambling, doodle-in-the-margin-heavy demo version of first episode proper. Matt and his different wife discover their friend is a radioactively-charged, Islamic extremist sleeper agent, Isaac hacksaws his own hand off due to 'heroin,' and 'Paul Sylar' shows up at the end in a silly hat. Ruthless concept-editing resulted in the peerless first season, but after that they just seemed to fling all the rough unworkable ideas in regardless.


Tim Worthington



10 Pilots With Light Turbulence
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