Gene Roddenberry’s lost pilots – a glimpse at shows that could have been
What would the world be like if Star Trek never existed? It’s like wondering what your life would be like if you had been an only child. And just like with life, TV has a near infinite number of possibilities for what could have been. The difference is that with TV, those possibilities can still be realized even if only in short-lived ways. I’m talking about pilot movies and episodes for shows that, for whatever reason, never got the chance to take off like Star Trek did.
The most common reason is the audience’s lack of interest in the show’s subject matter, which is a shame considering there are many unsold pilots that were at least on par with Star Trek in terms of creativity and potential. Many of them could have stood strongly in its place, but the fastest runner still wins the race no matter how impressive the runner-ups are.
Lately, I’ve been discovering these unsold pilot episodes and movies, some of which were even created by Star Trek creator, Gene Roddenberry. That’s right, Roddenberry had a lot more than one baby, and some are just as worthy if not more so than everyone’s favorite. The man threw out a lot of pitches for shows, most of them were chaff, but quite a few grains of gold came through.
One of them is called The Questor Tapes, and it was created as a feature-length pilot movie in the early 70s and actually served as a prequel to Star Trek. The premise takes place in contemporary times and involves a hyper-advanced cyborg named Questor who embarks on a…quest…to discover his purpose all the while paving the way for mankind’s eventual ascension into the galactic community.
If a show had come out of it, then audiences would have been treated to the saga of the decades leading up to the formation of The Federation in Star Trek. Sadly, it didn’t happen, but the character of Questor, a cyborg striving to discover his humanity, was reincarnated as Data, the beloved cyborg character in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Another Roddenberry-produced pilot movie is Spectre, a totally different experience from what most people would expect from him. Conceived as high-concept horror-mystery show, Spectre involves a paranormal investigator named William Sebastian who travels to England to investigate a growing Devil cult that is taking over English high society.
While not a great technical accomplishment, Spectre was amazingly mature with its themes of spiritual corruption as the protagonist uncovers a grotesque satanic orgy site where virgins are offered to the dark gods in exchange for power over the kingdoms of the world. A hellish far cry from the futuristic trappings of Roddenberry’s more popular productions. Nowadays, such horror shows are quite common, but Spectre was one of the first to take a hard dive into occult horror.
Yet another 70s pilot movie produced by Roddenberry was Genesis 2, a post-apocalyptic adventure show taking place in a distant future in which extremist groups and mutants battle for control. The protagonist is a scientist named Dylan Hunt who was cryogenically frozen before the nuclear war and resuscitated by a faction of humans who want to use him to build weapons for them.
Over the course of the film, Hunt experiences the cultures and politics of each faction and discovers that things aren’t black and white in the fight for survival. Sounds a lot like an inspiration for the Fallout games which also specialized in morally-grey characters and philosophy in a post-apocalyptic world.
The three pilots I mentioned are just a taste of what’s out there, and I’m not just talking about all the stuff Roddenberry produced. There are hundreds if not thousands of pilots that, though they failed to take off, still stand on their own and make you wonder how different pop-culture history would be if they had taken the spotlight first.
Then again, for every good one, there are dozens of appallingly bad ones. Look up Heil Honey, I’m Home if want to know how bad pilots episodes, or ANYTHING, can get…
Image credits: NBC