Favorite Pilots of 2016

In the spirit of year-end lists, which I love, I offer my own mini-list. I’m calling this “favorite” rather than “best,” considering there are probably lots of great pilots out there I have yet to see. Inspired by other “best of 2016” lists, I’m eager to watch Search Party, Insecure, and Westworld. But for now, here are my faves.braindead

  1. Stranger Things

Do I even need to explain? The pilot featured Dungeons & Dragons, heart-warming humor, heaps of nostalgia, a hint of government conspiracy, and a scary-ass kidnapping scene. By the end of the episode, you still don’t know quite what you’re dealing with, but you know it’s something special. Continue reading

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Supernatural and victim POV

I’ve never watched Supernatural. By pure coincidence, I chose today to start watching it. I only found out afterward that today is the anniversary of the day the story begins, November 2, 1983. [Cue spooky music.]

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Here is the sum of everything I knew about the show. Two dreamy brothers, one of whom was played with an actor who left Gilmore Girls for the role, chase down supernatural beings. And that the driver picks the music and shotgun shuts his cake hole. That’s it. Continue reading

What makes a good sci-fi pilot?

Any fan of genre television probably has a mental list of dos and don’ts when it comes to pilots. With so many entries into the sci-fi category in the past few years, we’ve seen them all. You probably have your own. These are a few of my “dos.”

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Mal Reynolds. Awesome. Not crazy.

1. Don’t overdo it on the exposition.

Nothing kills a pilot like heavy exposition, but there’s a little room for forgiveness with science fiction or supernatural settings. There’s simply more that needs explaining. Still, a long voice-over that tells us a bunch of information that we’re going to learn anyway, more organically, is a waste of time. The single episode of Delirium is the best recent example of this. In addition to boring the audience, the opening VO revealed a character much more mature and aware than the one who belonged to the voice. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the Orphan Black pilot, which left us saying “WTF”? In a good way. Continue reading

Felicity

felicity (1)Who else is on a J.J. Abrams high? I’ve been catching up on Revolution, binge-watching Fringe, and catching Star Trek whenever it’s aired on basic cable. (I do own it on DVD, but it’s always on.) And SO MANY Bad Robot/Star Wars/Star Trek mash-up memes.

We’ve come to associate Abrams with time- and universe-hopping, futuristic warfare, and badassery. All good omens for the new Star Wars. But you do know he created Felicity, right? That teeny-bopper mellow-drama from the era of Dawson’s Creek? Fanboys and girls, I think this show warrants some examination. Continue reading

Isaac Asimov: Visions of the Future

If you’re at all into science fiction, I don’t have to convince you that Isaac Asimov was an amazing guy. He wrote about a zillion books and imagined worlds and technology that laid the foundation for science fiction as we know it. He coined the term “robotics,” for frak’s sake. But did you know he was working on a television show when he died? He shot a pilot episode, and the footage has been collected into a four-part video called Visions of the Future.

I admit when I first heard this news, I was hoping the imagined show was a drama — something along the lines of I, Robot meets The X-Files. This is not that.

Continue reading

Farscape

There are people who love this show. I’m gonna say right up front, I had trouble getting through the pilot — I thought it was awful. It premiered in 1999. I had to look that up to be sure because, watching it with no prior knowledge, I was estimating something closer to 1989. I’m going to plead, “You can’t judge a show by it’s pilot,” on this one because apparently it improves.

According to TV Tropes, “While its premise began as a fairly standard science fiction show, Farscape quickly distinguished itself with a focus on complex, evolving characterizations, jaw-dropping plot twists and movie-quality special effects and cinematography.” Continue reading

Will It Fly?

Source CodeWhen I first heard that the movie Source Code, which I haven’t seen but which looks pretty cool, is being developed for TV, my instinctive first question was, “What network?” (The answer is CBS.) Because, with sci-fi and genre TV, the network is everything. It will largely determine how the material will be handled and whether it will succeed. Continue reading

The X-Files

XFilesPilotLooking back at The X-Files, which premiered in 1993, it’s almost impossible not to compare it to a hundred other shows to air since. As a huge Bones fan, I’m most inclined to look for parallels to that show, and many have been drawn. Yes there’s the female-skeptic/male-believer duo, which apparently, was unusual in 1993. But upon re-watching, the X-Files pilot strikes a tone that is all its own.

The pilot opens, as many crime shows do, with a murder. But this is not two drunk kids having a frolic in the woods when they stumble onto a body. Instead, we witness a scene that, if you happened to just turn it on at that point, you might mistake for the climax of the episode. The victim displays absolute terror as a bright light appears over a ridge and a figure emerges from it. Cut to the police investigating the scene. We are briefly introduced to a detective who recognizes the victim as a classmate of his son, class of ‘89. Only after the crime of the week is established do we meet our protagonists.

Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) is an FBI agent who is brought into the office of one of her superiors, where she is properly introduced to the viewer. She was recruited out of medical school to the FBI, where she has worked for two years. She is clearly a trusted member of the team, as they are asking her to check up on another agent with an established high-profile career who takes an interest in classified files. As she is briefed on her new assignment, a tall, silent man–who will later be known in X-Files lore as Cigarette Smoking Man–stands by…smoking a cigarette.

Scully heads to a cramped basement office to meet this volatile agent, Fox Mulder (David Duchovny). Mulder is painted as eccentric, but he’s not Walter Bishop eccentric. In fact, with his boyish charm he could be described as a cross between Walter and Peter Bishop. Later, his celebratory reaction at realizing that he and Scully just jumped through nine minutes is reminiscent of Dr. Emmet Brown. He’s a likeable character, as is Scully, but the immediate tension between them feels forced. It’s understandable that he is defensive toward her; he believes she is there to spy on him. Her defensiveness isn’t so easy to understand. We can assume the writers are going to work up some sexual tension between the two.

Legend has it that Scully had a boyfriend in the original script, possibly increasing the stakes. here is a hint of sexual tension when Dana strips down to her underwear to show Mulder some bumps on her back, after which they sit around and talk by candlelight. The scene reveals some of each character’s vulnerabilities. But there is no witty, flirtatious back-and-forth; just two people getting to know each other.

As one might expect, this work has personal meaning for Mulder. His sister was abducted, he believes by aliens, as a child, and the record of the case was covered up. It’s predictable, but you have to have your personal connection. (Bones’ mom was murdered, Olivia Benson was raped, Kate Beckett’s mom was murdered, Veronica Mars was raped… I could go on.)

There is something unique about this pilot, however. The episode overall has the feel of a true crime television special, putting into a realm of freakiness above normal network drama. Opening with the subtitle, “The following story is inspired by actual documented events,” and then using typewriter text to denote times and places add to this effect.

The plot, which involves mysterious deaths of several former Oregoneon high school classmates, gets relatively complex. Personally, I find the casting of all these middle aged white guys with receding hairlines confusing; I couldn’t keep straight the detective, the medical examiner, and the coroner. That being said, the show really is story-driven. There are no shots of gorgeous bodies and scenery like in the CSIs or any slapstick, such as sometimes works into Bones or Castle.

The detectives more or less solve the case, only to learn that all the paperwork they file on it immediately disappears. The show ends with the Cigarette Smoking Man taking the one piece of surviving evidence and filing it away deep in the Pentagon archives. This scene sets up the show for a long time to come.

Perhaps the lines that best encapsulate where we’re headed are when Scully asks, “Do you have a theory?” to which Mulder answers, “I have plenty of theories.”

Lost in Space

With a show set in a future that is now the past, it would be easy to simply pick apart the inaccuracies and laugh at the technology (and ask the age-old question, “Where is my jetpack?”) But I won’t do that. I’m going to examine the pilot of Lost in Space for what it is—a first episode designed to introduce the premise for a series.

Okay, I lied. First I have to make fun of one thing.

It’s 1997 as the Robinson family is being loaded aboard the Gemini 12 for a 100-year voyage to Alpha Centauri where they hope to colonize a sort of overflow zone for the bustling Earth. By setting this technologically advanced endeavor in 1997, the creators showed great faith and ambition in the abilities of mankind. Not so much for womankind. This is “the first time in history that anyone but an adult male has passed the International Space Administration’s grueling physical and emotional screening.” They could foresee space colonization but not female astronauts? Crikie. 

Dr. John Robinson (Guy Williams), his wife Dr. Maureen Robinson (June Lockhart), their three children, Judith, Will, and Penny, and their assistant Donald are put into suspended animation and launched into space. An 11-minute introduction explains all of the circumstances, narrated by a news anchor. The mood is ominous as the world watches a historic moment. The set is a busy space station, filled with tense-looking individuals and complicated-looking machinery. The mood as the ship lifts off is more somber than celebratory. Shortly after launch, the ship encounters an asteroid field, it’s passengers are jostled around in their slumber, and the Gemini 12 is reported lost in space.

The tone then shifts as we jump ahead to 2001 and find the Robinsons surviving on a distant planet. The set up for this section is also narrated, as Dr. Robinson reads from a journal. At last, 12 minutes in, we hear the characters speak on screen and finally start to get a sense of their personalities.

Spooky music continues the air of foreboding introduced in the opening, but there are moments of levity. The children bicker and goof off, like any siblings. The whole family falls instantly into societal patterns recognized by the show’s 1960s audience. Mother and older sister prepare dinner and do laundry, the younger kids play with toys and pets, and the menfolk work outside the home.

What we know about the planet is that it has extremes in temperature, a variety of flora and fauna, and at least one sea. And as in nearly all science fiction shows, the air pressure, oxygen level and gravity are exactly comparable to Earth. We can assume it’s not Alpha Centauri, since our heroes have journeyed for just three years to get there (and because Alpha Centauri is a star system, not a planet, but there I go nitpicking). Nevertheless, the Robinsons seem to have brought all the right equipment.

The homestead is complete with appliances and alien pets. Things are powered with solar batteries. (Why couldn’t Gilligan’s castaways have thought of that?) The show has fun demonstrating the fantastical advances of the future. The washing machine, for example, washes, dries, and packages clothes in plastic wrapping all in seconds.

Naturally there is a hook-up in the works between 19-year-old daughter Judith and the hot young Ph.D. How could her parents not have seen that coming? Shark jumping is inevitable with a cast of six.

By the end of the episode, the travelers have stumbled upon some kind of tomb that suggests other human-like beings live here, or did. So, it looks like they will have plenty left to discover, enough to last a few seasons. The action is intense and some of the special effects aren’t terrible. The episode leaves us in suspense, always a strong move for a pilot. This is actually an unaired pilot, so there is a character not introduced until the actual pilot. Either way, it stokes the imagination—even today—and sets the stage for high adventure. And unlike its contemporary Star Trek, it introduces characters for each member of the family to relate to. So if you can suspend your disbelief in accept it as fantasy, it’s pretty fun.

Firefly

I have been putting off writing this entry for a long time, which is in no way a reflection on my opinion of the show. It’s more like I’m afraid I can’t do Firefly justice, especially considering the rapturous devotion of its fans. If you’re a loyal browncoat you probably know the pilot backwards and forwards. If you’re not, it may be that you blinked and missed it before Fox canceled it. (I won’t rehash the whole fan outcry/Serenity story.)

It’s not like Joss Whedon invented a new genre here; we’ve seen space anti-heroes before. And I, for one, was not a Whedon fan prior to this, so I wasn’t like “Hooray, a new show from the creator of Buffy.” The show just hit all the right notes with cool setting, fascinating characters, great dialogue, and a healthy dose of dark humor.

The show opens with an in-the-trenches war scene, which could be out of any number of movies. The clue that something is different is that the aircraft flying overhead look like nothing we’ve seen before. A man (Mal, played by Nathan Fillion) and a woman (Zoe, played by Gina Torres) are leading a shell-shocked contingent against an attack. Their language is slightly heightened; in fact, the whole scene is a bit confusing the first time around. All we really need to know is that the troops are forced to lay down arms when their back-up abandons them. The look on Mal’s face and the music playing tell us all we need.

Music is huge in this pilot. The score is a twangy, gritty collection of music reminiscent of old westerns. Its juxtaposition with high-tech space travel gives Firefly its own unique tone.

We jump ahead six years from the battle scene to a spacewalk by a crew of three. The striking quality of this scene is that it is very quiet—opposite the previous scene—with sound seemingly sucked up by the vastness of space. Meanwhile the pilot of the ship, who seems to be keeping an eye on the mission, is actually playing with dinosaur toys on his console. (I may have to add this to my list of best character introductions.) “Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal,” cries the Stegosaurus to the Tyrannosaurus.

From there, we start to meet the rest of the crew. There is the ever-cheerful mechanic, Kaylee (Jewel Staite). There is a “companion,” or prostitute, Inara (Morena Baccarin). And there’s Jayne (super-dreamy Adam Baldwin), all-around tough guy. The pilot is Wash (Alan Tudyk), Zoe’s husband.

The crew has to quickly shut down the ship’s power as they pass an enemy, and we find out a few details. The ship our crew flies is an out-of-date model called a Firefly. Its name is Serenity, and it becomes a character unto itself over the course of the series. The ship and its crew are, for lack of a better term, off the grid. They’re clearly hiding from something.

Captain Mal and company land on a dusty planet and pick up some new passengers, a preacher, a doctor, and a third man. A lot of characters and a lot of information are introduced very fast. The show demands your attention and is worth watching over and over, because so much happens. The dialogue is layered with character revelations and plenty of wit. The basics are, they’re short on cash, carrying stolen cargo, and on their way to seek help from a woman who once shot Mal. This is not going to go smoothly.

If you haven’t seen this, watch and enjoy the twists and turns for yourself. No one is who they seem. They all have secrets. Some violence beaks out now and again. And the doctor is transporting some very unusual cargo. Our protagonist, Mal, seems cool on the surface, even when angry, but clearly that war experience—and maybe a lot of other pain—is seething beneath the surface. Oh, and there are enemies out there in space called Reavers, to whom the crew’s reaction is bone-chilling. Just watch it.