Monday, 20 May 2019

Gratuitous Lists: Top Ten SFF Pilots

Five years ago, I talked about the best SFF finales, the shows that stuck their landings with good, rousing endings. Even rarer than a good ending is a good pilot, a great first episode that hooks you into a show for the duration. Many shows take a good 3-4 episodes to bed in and start getting good, so shows which are on fire from the first episode are rarer, and more valuable to networks.

Here is a list of ten of the best show-openers (in no particular order). Note that I have used "pilot" to mean "the first episode of the series" rather than the technical definition (a premiere episode filmed separately to the rest of the series, not always for public consumption).

Battlestar Galactica: The Mini-Series
Aired 8-9 December 2003

Ronald D. Moore worked on the Star Trek franchise over a decade, starting on The Next Generation in 1989 and rounding off the final season of Deep Space Nine in 1999, co-writing two movies along the way. In 2000 he joined the writing team of Star Trek: Voyager in its sixth season, but quickly found his goals for the series being thwarted. He wanted to see Voyager, trapped far from home on the other side of the galaxy, taking damage and staying damaged from episode to episode. He wanted to see more consistent characterisation, the morals of Starfleet being tested in extreme circumstances. Instead the other writers and producers wanted to hit the reset button at the end of every week.

Three years later, Moore was approached by the Sci-Fi Network (now SyFy) with an intriguing offer. They'd picked up the rights to 1978 space opera Battlestar Galactica and were developing a remake project. A previous reboot attempt, with X-Men producers Bryan Singer and Tom DeSanto, had foundered in the wake of 9/11 and SyFy were now looking for a fresh take. Moore agreed to take on the project on the understanding that he wanted to make it a more gritty and adult show. Although he'd enjoyed the original show, he felt the premise had been under-valued. The destruction of twelve planets and the deaths of billions of people would have left a staggering mental scar on the survivors, not to mention raising extreme ethical concerns of how the military and civilian authorities worked together in such circumstances, not to mention the collective PTSD of having tens of thousands of people trapped in spacecraft with dwindling supplies for months or years on end.

The result was a mini-series, aired on SyFy and then NBC in 2003, which served as a backdoor pilot for a series proper. And it'd be fair to say that Moore and his team knocked it out of the park. The second the mini-series opens it feels different. Director Michael Rymer created a shaky, immediate style of shooting that put the viewer in the heart of the action. Composer Richard Gibbs used a drums-heavy sound to create a very different, military-feeling soundtrack. The actors, a mix of newcomers like Jamie Bamber and Katee Sackhoff and industry veterans like Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell, are uniformly excellent. The visual effects by CG studio Zoic are (still) amazing. Over the course of a generous three hours, the mini-series builds the world of the Twelve Colonies and then tears it down, leaving the bewildered survivors to try to escape and build a new life for themselves.

It's not the series at its best - the first episode of Season 1 and thus the next episode after this, 33, may hold that honour - but it does set up the show well and leave you wanting to watch more.

Blake's 7: The Way Back
Aired 2 January 1978

In the late 1970s, veteran TV writer Terry Nation was called in to a meeting at the BBC to discuss creating a new show. A respected writer with a huge amount of experience in the industry, he was still best-known for creating the Daleks for Doctor Who fifteen years earlier, and the BBC were hoping to tap that magic again. Nation had several ideas for crime dramas and other ideas, but the executives he was talking to seemed underwhelmed. Improvising on the spot, Nation suggested a dystopian space opera, with a band of malcontents and criminals reluctantly joining forces to escape a tyrannical government. He left with a commission to write a pilot.

Blake's 7 was developed as a conscious riposte to the relentless optimism of Star Trek; the symbol of the despotic Terran Federation is that of Star Trek's Federation but turned to the extreme right. Nation decided he didn't want to write a children's show, and instead wrote an adult, tough and at times brutal pilot script in which engineer Roj Blake is taken to a clandestine meeting of rebels against the government and learns that he was once a respected military leader, captured by the Federation and mind-wiped to be turned into a model citizen. Blake is horrified and suffers a mild mental breakdown as his real memories come flooding back. His new associates are killed in a massacre and Blake finds himself on trial on trumped-up charges of child molestation. His lawyers discover the truth and embark on a quest to clear Blake's name...with invariably fatal results. Only at the end of the episode does Blake meet some of his other soon-to-be fellow shipmates (Jenna and Vila; Avon doesn't appear until the second episode), as he is carried away from Earth on a transport, vowing to return to destroy the government.

The Way Back is uncompromising and quite astonishingly cynical, landing in tone somewhere between Nineteen Eighty-FourThe Prisoner and a waking nightmare, and light-years from the cowboy theatrics of the then recently-released movie Star Wars. It has money problems - Blake's 7 was commissioned as a replacement for contemporary crime drama Softly Softly: Task Force and given the exact same budget! - but these are mostly overcome by cunning use of industrial wastelands and locations as sets and some quite excellent model work. What remains overwhelmingly impressive is the bleak atmosphere and superb acting, particularly from Gareth Thomas as Blake. Not just a great pilot episode, this is one of the best episodes of the entire series.

Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child
Aired 23 November 1963

The day after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the BBC started broadcasting a very unusual drama series. Commissioned as a stopgap between the Saturday sports coverage and an evening pop music show, Doctor Who was a show that combined elements of historical drama, science fiction and educational show. Its long list of creators (Sydney Newman, Anthony Coburn, C.E. Webber, Donald Wilson, Verity Lambert and David Whittaker all played a role in development) shows it was a tough concept to translate to screen, but eventually they succeeded and filmed a pilot episode.

Unfortunately, the pilot episode was a failure. The direction was off, the actors fluffed their lines several times and bits of the set broke off during filming. Unusually (because of the considerable expense), the BBC took the step of mounting a full re-shoot of the pilot, along with a partial rewrite of the script to make the characters more relatable. This time, the team hit it out of the park, crafting a remarkable 25-minute science fiction mystery series that would ultimately launch a franchise that would run for fifty-six years (and counting).

An Unearthly Child sees Coal Hill School teachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright becoming concerned about the welfare of one of their students, Susan Foreman, who is quite astonishingly bright and intelligent about somethings (like science and maths) but astoundingly ignorant about others. They are bewildered to discover that she lives with her grandfather in what appears to be a junkyard. Her grandfather, who answers only to the title "Doctor," tries to escape their attention by taking refuge in a police telephone box, but the teachers follow him inside only to discover it is in fact a camouflaged space/time machine, a TARDIS. Shenanigans ensure in which they also learn that both the Doctor and Susan are aliens, exiles from another world, before the TARDIS malfunctions and carries them away from Earth, beginning an adventure that will last a long, long time.

The first episode of Doctor Who has many of the ingredients of later episodes, including a mystery and dramatic revelations, but this time they're about the Doctor himself. This was the first time people had encountered the character, or the TARDIS, and in many cases the very idea of time travel. With some impressive sets (by 1963 BBC standards), good writing and an off-beat atmosphere, not to mention a superlative performance by William Hartnell (the Doctor), which is somewhere between stern and outright threatening, An Unearthly Child sets the scene for all that has followed since.

The Expanse: Dulcinea
Aired 23 November 2015

Bringing James S.A. Corey's series of space opera novels to the screen was always going to be a big challenge, but it's one that the team at Alcon Entertainment rose to with a relish. Dulcinea introduces the setting of the 23rd Century Solar system as vividly as Ron Moore introduced the world of the Twelve Colonies in Battlestar Galactica a dozen years earlier. The attention to detail is amazing, from the lighter gravity in the asteroid settlements to the way the crewmembers of ships not under thrust have to float in zero-g. More important are the actors, with Thomas Jane as a world-weary detective and Steven Strait as the idealistic would-be hero who puts his life (and those of others) on the line to do what he considers to be right.

The result is a vivid and immediately-impactful vision of the future, and a show that starts already in fifth gear and only accelerates from there. Stunning visuals (the effects team on the show deserve all the plaudits for their clear, detailed style, and to be frank the guys creating the murky, often barely-discernible CG on Star Trek: Discovery could learn a lot from them), some excellent music and some terrific directing (the opening imagery of Julie Mao on her terror-stricken ship is now iconic) help propel the story onwards.

The Expanse is the best space opera show since - and possibly including - Battlestar Galactica and this first episode is an important part of the reason why. Remember the Cant!

Firefly: Serenity
Aired 20 December 2002

Serenity was the first episode of Firefly to be written and shot, but it was not the first to be broadcast: Fox felt the episode was low on action and pace, so they ordered Joss Whedon to create a punchier opening (resulting in The Train Job) and moved this premiere to later in the run. Of course, as this episode was the one that established what the hell was going on and introduced the characters and premise, this didn't do much but leave viewers extremely confused and switching off in their droves, leading a few weeks later to the show's cancellation.

This was a huge shame (understatement) as Serenity - not to be confused with the movie of the same name - is a splendid pilot, the best Joss Whedon has ever written. It sets up both the world and the worldview of its characters, introduces a relatively large cast and establishes a significant mystery that will run across the season. It also has to tell rollicking good story in its own right, which it does with enviable skill.

Whilst it's hard to pinpoint one reason why Firefly failed, taking it's excellent opening two hours and burying them at the end of the first season probably had a key role to play.

Lost: Pilot
Aired 22 September 2004

Costing almost $15 million, the pilot episode to Lost is still the most expensive TV pilot ever filmed. To sell the crash-landing of Oceanic Flight 815 on a remote island in the South Pacific, ABC shipped a broken-up Lockheed L-1011 to Hawaii, scattered bits of it along a beach and then, after several weeks of shooting, had to carefully remove it again. It was absurdly indulgent, but every second of the expense ends up on screen, resulting in a scene of chaos, explosions and people trying to save one another that grabbed the audience and didn't let up.

J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof's script is intriguing, setting up no less than fourteen regular characters (and several more recurring) and establishing almost all of them with some interesting character work before later episodes would do the heavy lifting of fleshing them all out via flashbacks. Excellent acting and fantastic location shooting in Hawaii added up to that rarest of things, a network TV show that looked as expensive as premium cable.

Lost's pilot shows the value of starting your show with a bang, grabbing the audience's attention, and then not letting it go.

Mr. Robot:
Aired 24 June 2015

Mr. Robot began life as a movie script by Sam Ismail which he developed for some time before realising that the story was too big and the characters bursting past the page count, demanding more material. Ismail reframed the two-hour movie as a ten-hour season of television, with the pilot expanding from the first thirty pages of the script.

Mr. Robot's pilot is remarkable, an intense drama blending psychology, hacking, cyberthriller and drama. Rami Malek is perfectly cast as Eliot Alderson, a man suffering from depression and loneliness who relates to people by hacking them online, even his therapist. In doing so he finds out secrets about them that they don't even know, and is able to influence their lives without them ever knowing.

Mr. Robot's pilot also has unusual rewatch value. You can watch it on the surface as the technothriller it comes across as, but after watching Season 1 you can go back with fresh information and see all the events again in a different light. A remarkable opening episode to a very unique-feeling series.

Red Dwarf: The End
Aired 15 February 1988

"Everybody's dead, Dave." The very first episode of Red Dwarf sets up a very strong premise, with Dave Lister, the lowest-ranking crewmember on the five-mile-long mining ship Red Dwarf (because the service robots have a better union than the human maintenance crew), being sentenced to spend the rest of the mission in temporal stasis after smuggling an unquarantined cat on board. This proves unexpectedly helpful when the crew is wiped out by a lethal radiation leak. Holly, the ship's AI (IQ 6,000, "the same as 12,000 traffic wardens"), steers the ship into deep space and waits for the radiation to die down to a safe background level...which takes 3 million years.

Emerging from stasis, Lister discovers his only company is the now-senile Holly, a humanoid lifeform who descended from his pregnant cat and a holographic recreation of Lister's commanding office, the painfully officious and unpleasant Arnold J. Rimmer.

It's a great premise which gets the show off to a good start (arguably the second episode, Future Echoes, is also required viewing as it sets up how the show can move beyond its limited premise), showcases the amazing cast and features some good gags. A 31-year (and counting) journey started here.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Emissary
Aired 3 January 1993

Deep Space Nine is almost certainly the finest Star Trek television series for myriad reasons, from its greater levels of serialisation to its intricate character arcs to its refusal to push the reset button at the end of each episode, but one that is oft-overlooked is the fact that it has the best opening episode in the entire franchise.

The Cage was so esoteric and weird that it put the broadcasters off and nearly killed the original Star Trek, before it came back with the (somewhat) stronger and mostly-recast second pilot Where No Man Has Gone Before; the broadcasters were still unconvinced and ended up dropping in a random early Season 1 episode to kick things off instead. Star Trek: The Next Generation's Encounter at Farpoint was intriguing but clumsily-written, with the characters pale shadows of their later, more fleshed-out incarnations. Voyager's Caretaker was only okay, and Enterprise's Broken Bow started off well by promising a more low-tech approach to Star Trek that it had pretty much broken by the end of the pilot. Discovery took arguably three whole episodes to even finish off setting up its basic premise.

Emissary, though, is a much more successful episode. It opens with a literal bang, with producer Michael Piller finally apologising to fans for having to wimp out on showing the Battle of Wolf 359 from The Next Generation's Borg epic The Best of Both Worlds three years earlier (due to cost). An epic flashback depicts the desperate struggle as the Borg cut through a Starfleet armada of forty starships with contemptuous ease, Commander Ben Sisko losing his wife in the process.

The rest of the episode is fascinating. The Cardassians have withdraw their occupation force from the planet Bajor after forty years of brutal conquest, leaving massive religious and social upheavals in their wake. The Federation has stepped in to help the transition and run an orbiting Cardassian space station, but to the surprise of the Starfleet personnel, they find a hostile reception among those Bajorans who fear they've swapped one oppressor for another. It's all rather messy and a big departure from The Next Generation, where everyone is so civilised and reasonable and solves problems over cups of (Earl Grey, hot) tea and sessions with the ship's counsellor. The fact that the main cast includes a significant number of both Starfleet and non-Starfleet personnel (a first and, to date, last for the franchise) allows for more character and cultural conflict than we'd previously seen on Trek, and fuelled seven full (and mostly excellent) seasons of stories.

The Walking Dead: Days Gone Bye
Aired 31 October 2010

The Walking Dead has become such a divisive and polarising show, that it's easy to forget how well-received the first episode (and most of the first season) was. Directed by Frank Darabont (that's Mr. Shawshank Redemption to you and me), the opening episode is a masterclass in slowly building tension and character interplay, particularly the exchanges between Rick and Morgan (so effective that Morgan would return to the series years later by popular fan demand).

The visuals are striking throughout, particularly the closing images of Rick riding a horse into an eerily deserted Atlanta, only to be attacked by a vast horde of walkers and forced to take refuge in a tank. It's rare to see a pilot given this level of production value, scripting and direction, and a genuine pleasure to watch.

Of course, Darabont would be forced off The Walking Dead in -contentious circumstances a year later (with litigation still continuing today), and The Walking Dead would go through so many showrunners, writing staffs and contortions of premise that the show today barely resembles how it started, but this opener remains excellent and compelling viewing.

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Wastrel said...

I just watched, for the first time, the pilot for Alias (I know, I'm a little slow on pop culture...). It's... actually pretty great. I mean, it's a string of clichés, sure, but it's VERY well executed. More intelligent, better written, and much better acted than it needed to be for its genre - and than 95% or more of analogous shows today. It's almost as though they thought that having a kickass heroine and explosions wasn't enough for their audience, as though they actually needed to hire people who could act!

Including Victor Garber!

[so far it's not really 'SFF', but I'm told it goes that way eventually]

I also not long ago rewatched the pilot for Farscape. It's... not the highpoint of the show, but it is good (and much better than the rest of the first half of the first season), particularly when you consider just how much it had to accomplish: it had to establish a protagonist on Earth, take him to the other side of the universe, introduce a cast of alien characters (two of them acted entirely by puppets and another under so much makeup it's basically an entire alien face), create an antagonist, get through a whole heap of infodump (like 'why can we understand each other!?' and 'hey, you look like a human, are you a human?'), establish a geopolitical status quo for this alien world, establish a very specific visual aesthetic, hint at a romantic subplot, AND entertain us all with a space war with lasers and space fighters and asteroids. It does more in 40 minutes than the Battlestar miniseries does in three hours (I agree, btw, that that's one of the great first acts, though it's cheating a bit by being feature-length). Fans usually pretty much take it for granted that a show with THAT much worldbuilding to do is going to be a bit wobbly for an episode or two, but Farscape really hit the ground running.
[although, as I said, the next few episodes are indeed a bit wobbly]

The Person of Interest pilot is really pretty solid too, although again the episodes that followed took a little while to find their direction. In particular, the trick POI pulls off is the way that the superficial excitement of the episodes is somehow anchored in fantastic character work, despite never seeming to get bogged down in it - most of that is due to the truly outstanding work by Michael Emerson as Finch, and the very good work by Jim Caviezel as Reese (among a generally excellent case), but a lot is also due to the writing, and the pilot quietly does a lot to establish the foundation of the entire series, in terms of showing us who Mr. Reese and Mr. Finch really are, and setting up the early trajectory of their relationship. You could use it in a filmmaking class (and like the rest of POI, it's visually gorgeous to boot). In particular, it tries something pretty difficult in giving Reese a transformative character development within a single episode, which both tells us where Reese has come from, and makes us immediately understand how he views what he's doing from this point on - it perhaps doesn't quite manage it, but it comes closer than it has any right to.

[Incidentally, while POI only goes outright SFF in its later seasons, and has been accused of using its initial seasons as a backdoor to get that SFF onto CBS, people overlook how much the early seasons are themselves secretly one of the best ever 'realistic' portrayals of Batman. I mean, Finch/Reese aren't called 'batman', but effectively that's who they are, and there's plenty of little homage notes along the way to make clear that the writers know it [to the extent that fans started referring to their base as 'the birdcage', alla 'the batcave'.]

[finally, talking of "pilots that have a LOT to establish", I'll second the Red Dwarf pilot nod. HUGE amount of work done in only 30 minutes, plus some good jokes]

Terry said...

I will agree with the [i]Battlestar Galactica[/i] miniseries. I'd have to say that, while my interest gradually dissipated over the course of season one and two - I haven't finished season two still - the Miniseries was damn near perfect.