Blogging about the Charmed pilot, “Something Wicca This Way Comes,” has been on my to-do list for some time, but how much more fun is it to cover the unaired pilot? It’s available on YouTube (legally or not I couldn’t say).
In a nutshell, Charmed is the story of the Haliwell sisters, Phoebe, Piper (Holly Marie Combs) and Prue (Shannen Doherty), who learn that they are witches, each with a unique power.
The setup in this version of the pilot is identical. Some of the footage looks to be the same as what aired. Two sisters living in their dead grandmother’s San Francisco house are joined by their third, black sheep sister returned from New York. In the meantime, a detective is trying to solve a series of murders of young women. These events are set against the backdrop of a raging thunderstorm, lending an air of foreboding.
The most unmistakable difference is that Phoebe, the youngest sister, is played not by Alyssa Milano but by Lori Rom, who went on to play a recurring role on Party of Five. This Phoebe is more down-to-earth, lacking the perkiness Milano brought to the role. The trick to Phoebe is that we, the audience, have to like her even though she annoys the heck out of Prue. She needs an impishness that Rom doesn’t pull off. Rom dresses dumpier too; the costumers later made the most of Milano’s hot bod.
Phoebe drives the action throughout the story, so it was important to get the casting right. Her curious nature catalyzes the discoveries that bring the sisters their powers. She is the only one brave enough to venture into the attic when directed there by a spirit board. She recites the incantation that instills the powers, and she continues to read the Book of Shadows and educate her sisters about witchcraft. As the Phoebe character is described, “She has no vision, no sense of the future.” This observation is one of many examples of ironic foreshadowing in the pilot, since Phoebe gains the power to see visions of the future.
In both versions, character introductions and exposition evolve pretty naturally, with one glaring exception. Phoebe asks Piper, “I’m glad you’re still with Jeremy. Where did you meet him anyway?” The answer hints at the “twist” to come, wherein Jeremy is a warlock specifically preying on the sisters. It’s not particularly surprising when he pulls a knife (an athame) on Piper in an abandoned building.
What I’ve never understood about this pilot—this version or the final one—is why they try so hard to be truthful to what Wicca is all about while at the same time making it so far-fetched. Both versions open with an anonymous woman setting up an alter and calling the gods/goddesses to oversee a ritual. The writers explain to us what at athame is and make a point of explaining the Wiccan rede and that witches are not evil—obviously important if we’re to sympathize with the protagonists. This point is subtly different between the two versions, actually. In the unaired pilot, Phoebe says, “A true witch is a good witch,” and in the aired pilot she says, instead, “A witch can be either good or evil.” Either way, the powers of the witch in the opening, and the Haliwell witches, are the stuff of science fiction.
There are some details missing from the unaired version—tattoos on the murder victims,—and some things that are done better. In the unaired version, Phoebe’s bike accident makes her look foolish, reminiscent of Stacy in Wayne’s World. Prue’s conversation with Detective Andy Trudeau is much shorter, giving less basis for their future relationship. The aired version contains some back story about the Haliwells’ father; Prue doesn’t like him, and only Phoebe is still in touch with him. Basically, the aired version gives more information to build on for the future.
In the end, the women have to overcome their various levels of skepticism about witchcraft and stand together—literally—chanting about “the power of three.” This climactic scene embodies the theme of the whole show, that the three (never mind that one of them gets replaced) have to learn to count on each other.