Unsold Television Pilots

Saturday, 23 February 2008 09:44

Dozens of ideas make it to a TV pilot, a trial episode to introduce the characters and formats, but some, rightly or wrongly, fall at this fence ...

 

In a medium where we've had flying nuns (The Flying Nun), cars that take on the personalities of recently deceased mothers (My Mother, The Car), and where folk run real fast by being shown in slow motion (The Six Million Dollar Man), it's impossible to believe that some of the really daft ideas actually got left on the shelf.

In the UK, we had the likes of Timeslip, not the smart childrens' show from the 1970s, but a proposed anthology series that would each week feature John Taylor of Duran Duran as a computer hacker, trawling the net to find the story for that particular episode. While Taylor's appearance was a tad embarrassing, the story itself was well-executed, all about a malevolent office block hunting down two lovers within its walls, and the director wasn't opposed to showing off a little female flesh. Mind you, it did feature Virginia Hey as the female lead!

Then there's ever-reliable Doctor Who, which brought us the likes of the one-off pilot K9 and Company, featuring the Time Lord's pet robot dog teamed up with a former assistant, namely Elisabeth Sladen as reporter Sarah Jane Smith. Elisabeth coped admirably with having to play second fiddle to the computer pooch, but in the end it ended up being no more than a 1981 Christmas Special. Somehow, the idea of K9 chasing villains on his tiny castors didn't quite gel!

But it's to America we must go for the really left-field material...

 

SHOWS WITHIN SHOWS

One way to get a pilot made is to do a "special" episode of an ongoing TV series, oust the incumbent cast for one week only, and bring your new protagonists to the fore. Take Assignment: Earth, an episode of the original Star Trek series that featured Robert Lansing as Gary Seven, a human abducted by aliens who is returned to earth to save us from ourselves. He's given a dumb-blonde secretary in the shape of Teri Garr, and a shape-shifting Siamese Cat called Isis as partners.

And Starsky and Hutch didn't escape this back-door pilot-production route. In 1977, the series spawned an episode by the name of Huggy Bear and The Turkey, in which Antonio Fargas as streetwise Huggy somehow gets to work with a prim and proper private eye, strainingly called J.D. "Turkey" Turquet, as played by Dale Robinett. For some reason, Starsky and Hutch decide to refer the case of a missing person to these unlikely 'tecs, and the pair lumbered through solving the mystery. Needless to say future episodes of Starsky and Hutch completely ignored this little sortie completely.

Charlie's Angels, meanwhile, the tall tale of three pretty ladies taking orders from an unseen man called Charlie, also spawned an attempt to do the opposite side of the coin. In Toni's Devils, Barbara Stanwyck, later to play the matriarch in The Colbys was Antonia Blake, the head of a detective agency populated by three beefcakes - hence Toni's Devils. Picture the Chippendales as private eyes and you get the idea of how excruciating we're talking, here.

 

SCI-FI SCHMUCKS

Sharon Stone got to play a hard-as-nails female boss to two U.S. Marshals (one human, one bionic) in Badlands 2005, a concept where the near future sees water as a more precious commodity than gold. The West of America has been deserted after droughts a decade earlier, and now a re-population programme is underway.

Don't buy that? Okay, how about Ian McShane (of Lovejoy fame) as The Messenger of Death in a series called Chain Letters, where he sends out such communications to us mortals in the hope of tempting us into sin, and consequent death.

Then there's Dack Rambo (Sword of Justice)as an unfortunate author who falls in love with Satan's girlfriend in Good Against Evil. When she's hauled away by devil-worshippers, he teams up with an exorcist and the pair search for her while stamping out evil.

Or there's Infiltrator, where Scott Bakula (Quantum Leap) finds his molecules mish-mashed and combined with a spy satellite in a freak accident. When he gets angry he turns into a metallic android capable of taking out entire office blocks with the weapons that are part of him - it brings a whole new dimension to the problem of premature ejaculation! Hell, at least The Incredible Hulk just turns big and green!

Talking of Quantum Leap, a similar time-vaulting show was Wurlitzer, a 1989 attempt which saw Scott Maldovan as the owner of a restaurant with a jukebox that transports him back to the time of the songs it plays.

Ever thought those two TV evangelists are actually alien invaders out to brainwash earthlings? In The Mysterious Two, James Stephens plays the non-believer who has his girlfriend kidnapped by the extra terrestrials to try and keep him quiet - the aliens in question being played by John Forsyth (Blake Carrington in Dynasty) and Priscilla Pointer (Rebecca Barnes-Wentworth in Dallas).

You could always turn to Mars: Base One, a proposed sit-com from 1980 about a family, recently moved to the Red Planet, who find out they are living next door to a Soviet engineer and his American wife who's a stripper.

If you're really going for bottom-of-the-barrel laughs, think of 13 Thirteenth Avenue from 1983, where a widower and his son (Wil Wheaton, prior to becoming Wesley Crusher on Star Trek - The Next Generation), find they're in a block of flats surrounded by a model who's a witch, a lawyer who's a vampire, a superintendent who's a troll, and an accountant who's a werewolf! Naturally, there's a psychiatrist on hand to try and sort all their lives out!

Prior to M*A*S*H, Alan "Hawkeye" Alda featured in an alleged sit-com in 1966, featuring an invisible baby, called Where's Everett?. Apparently aliens have left this see-through oddity for them, although no-one was exactly sure why.

 

NOT WATCHING THESE DETECTIVES

We've had all sorts of detectives over the years, each with a gimmick - luckily we were spared Danger Team, where Kathleen Beller played a librarian who solved murders and mysteries with the help of animated clay figures and an arsenal of gadgets.

Then there's Gladiator (not the big budget movie), featuring Ken Wahl of Wiseguy fame as a vigilante taking revenge on those committing road-rage crime with the help of a gadget-festooned tow truck. Hardly Knight Rider!

What about Sonny Bono, former partner of Cher, as a Nashville songwriter who sets up his own detective agency in Murder in Music City? Guest appearances by Country and Western singers was to be a staple diet, but it never went further than the two hour pilot movie.

 

STARS RISKING REPUTATIONS

In 1976, Larry Hagman (J.R. in Dallas) played Sherman Holmes, a hardly thinly-veiled take on a certain Victorian gentleman in Return of the World's Greatest Detective. A traffic accident leaves Holmes convinced he is the reincarnation of our Sherlock, and is assigned a psychiatrist to keep tabs on him while he solves cases. Rather conveniently, the shrink is called "Dr Watson"!

Robert Vaughn is well known from The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Protectors and the final season of The A Team. But what possessed him to play a distant relation of Frankenstein in the modern day Doctor Franken in 1980? He made a creature from a dozen folks' left-overs, and it gains a mind of its own. The freak then goes on the run and, finding out it has the memories of all the people who donated organs to his cause, seeks out the friends and relations of said donors and tries to help sort out their lives.

Care to visualise Tom Selleck (Magnum) as one of two World War II gypsies roaming Germany and France on secret missions? That was the premise of 1978s The Gypsy Warriors, and needless to say they only roamed through one story.

 

CUTE ANIMALS, ETC

A precursor to Eddie Izzard's Cows, once on Channel 4, McGurk in 1979 we saw a family of actors dressed in dog suits, dolloping out observations on human life from the perspective of man's best friend. Needless to say, this one lay down and begged bad reviews.

However, one version of man's best friend, which has to be the funniest TV series never made, was 1990's Poochinski. Peter Boyle stars as Stanley Poochinski, a long-in-the-tooth cop who's seen it all. He's mortally wounded on a stake-out and his constant companion, a bulldog, becomes the new container for his soul. Only his former partner initially knows this incredible secret, which gives the dog the ability to talk through some nifty animatronics. The dialogue is snappy, the situations hilarious, and the duo avenge the human Poochinski's death. In the final scene, the pooch restrains his assailant by clamping on to the villain's crotch. When the criminal is released and is dragged away, the dog turns to his partner and mutters "I have to tell you I did NOT enjoy that!". Class.

What every oceanography student needs is a mermaid and her sea lion to help him swat up on areas that he's weak in. That was the concept behind Danny and the Mermaid. Needless to say the audience couldn't care less.

Equally, it's quite obvious that a New York photographer would take the action of letting an abandoned circus animal live in his small flat. That's the premise of the 1980 pilot Ethel is an Elephant, and the proposed series would follow the lengths the owner would have to go to keep the animal "with hilarious consequences".

 

YOU GOTTA BE KIDDING!

Great Day had the premise of taking Al Molinaro (Alfred from Happy Days) and showing how great and fun life as a tramp in New York could be. Needless to say, it did not succeed in its objective.

Or why not Love at First Sight, about a woman with frosty uptight parents who marries a blind music writer, who pens jingles for an advertising agency? Didn't think so.

Meanwhile, in "Which Way to the Mecca, Jack? from 1965, a Middle East king uses American aid to build up his harem, much to the disapproval of the local Embassy Emissary who is trying to control the use of the cash, again "with hilarious consequences".

In a medium where "reality" concepts have taken over, one wonders if in reality a lot of these ideas would actually be far better than some of the series we actually have on our screens these days ...

 

Further information on pilot shows that never made it can be found in the book Unsold Television Pilots, 1955-1988 by Lee Goldberg, and Published by McFarland and Company.

Last modified on Thursday, 10 May 2012 16:37

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