The 10 Best TV Pilots

Last week we took a look at some of the most controversial finales ever ( ), so we thought that this week we'd see how some shows actually began – with those strange little curios known as 'pilots'.

Pilots, by their very nature, are a huge gamble – often with a large amount of money riding on them – designed to draw in network executives and audiences, leaving them wanting more. They're essentially hopeful, sweaty-palmed souls dressed up for a first date, praying they wore the right tie or the correct blouse so that a second date will ensue. Luckily for all of these shows, the first date was a blast. Jayne Nelson explores the best pilots out there – and it's kind of amusing how many episodes are just called 'Pilot', isn't it?

Oh, and some honourable mentions that we couldn't fit into this list: Being Human (so good it launched a fan campaign for a series that actually worked!), The Walking Dead , Babylon 5 , Battlestar Galactica (which cheated by making a miniseries first, but it was a pilot of sorts).

10. The X-Files

' Pilot'

"Sorry, nobody down here but the FBI's most unwanted,” quips Agent Fox Mulder as his new partner, Agent Dana Scully, walks into his broom-closet office in the basement of the FBI's Washington HQ. As far as meetings go, it could have been a bit more exciting, but it also perfectly sums up what made The X-Files so great: an oafish charm, a sense of humour and just the merest hint of weird.

The first episode of The X-Files brought us everything we came to expect from the show, from alien abductions to the story of Mulder's missing sister to Scully denying Mulder's off-the-wall theories. There's even a smidge of sexual tension – involving bug bites on Scully's back, hilariously enough – and the final shot of a cigarette-smoking man hiding evidence in a vast government warehouse is enough to whet the appetite of even the most critical viewer.

If you'd like to know more, Chris Carter discusses the pilot here:

9. Angel

'City Of'

In case you're wondering why we haven't put the pilot for Buffy on this list, try rewatching it. It's good, isn't it? But whoa, it's dated, and it's nowhere near as good as what came after. Whereas Angel 's first episode, 'City Of', still holds up today as a fine piece of telly and one of the show's best episodes – notably because Buffy did all the hard work for it first, and Angel was already a well-rounded character in a well-thought-out universe. So yay for Buffy, and double-yay for Angel!

This really is a fantastic introduction to Angel's new life, from the shots of him sweeping down alleyways in his big coat to the slightly doofy side of him that emerges when he jumps into the wrong car, thinking it's his. Then there's Cordelia, lighting up every scene she's in with her optimistic enthusiasm, and Doyle bleating on about destiny and doing good things while at the same time, let's face it, being a bit of a dick.

It's all about the juxtapositions, see, and Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt have a blast as they introduce us to a bad guy who's really a good guy who lives in one of the sunniest places on Earth despite the fact the sun can kill him. 'Los Angeles' means 'City Of Angels', of course. 'City Of' places Angel fair and square in LA noir.

8. Heroes


When it comes to Heroes -worship, you just can't beat this episode. 'Genesis' is probably one of the most perfectly-formed pilots ever made, introducing us to a group of characters dotted around the planet in a style that brimmed with jaw-dropping confidence and imagination. Essentially, this was X-Men done on a TV budget, and it looked fabulous .

It reeked of bravado, from the way its shots mirrored comic-book pages to the power of the sequence which saw Claire Bennet running into a flaming train wreck without being harmed. It was so full of itself, so convinced of its own brilliance, that we couldn't help but fall for it – just as we fell for the characters, too. Who couldn't adore Hiro after he teleported from Japan to Times Square and threw his arms up in joy?

'Genesis' also had one mega-idea to bring people back for more: a painting of New York being obliterated by a nuclear blast. How could anybody resist tuning in again to find out what happened? We certainly couldn't...

7. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles


We don't envy Josh Friedman, the writer of this episode. It's probably one of the most complex TV pilots ever assembled, having to explain to what could be a completely clueless audience who Sarah Connor is, why she's important, who her son will be one day, what those peculiar 'Terminator' thingies are, and why the world is going to blow up in 2011. Phew. And you thought the first episode of Game Of Thrones was confusing...

What's amazing is that it works . It's a horribly confusing plot that begins with a dream sequence and ends with the Connors travelling forward in time from 1999 to 2007, but at no point do you think, “Hang on, WHAT?” And even if you are a bit banjaxed by it all, who cares when you have Summer Glau's Cameron saving John's life by taking bullets for him then running over a fellow Terminator with a truck? They're action sequences that are so polished, they almost belong in the movie franchise that spawned this show.

6. Dead Like Me


You can't really top a pilot that begins with its young heroine being obliterated by a toilet falling from space, can you?

5. Odyssey 5


If you were orbiting the Earth in the Space Shuttle with the rest of your astronaut pals, what the hell would you do if the world was destroyed beneath you, leaving you the only people alive?

It's a fantastic idea. A bona fide, 100% brilliant idea, oh yes. But how do you film something like that without cocking it up? Terrible FX could ruin the emotional intensity. The wrong actors might not be able to sell it. The wrong tone could scupper the whole thing. Thankfully Odyssey 5 nailed it, first by providing us with genuinely shocking footage of the Earth's fiery end – seriously, it's more horror film than sci-fi show – and secondly by casting Peter Weller as the lead astronaut. With a Weller in your pocket, you too will believe our blue planet just bit the big one.

4. Firefly


A pilot that does exactly what any pilot is supposed to do: introduces us to a new world, the characters in it, the conflicts they face, the emotions they struggle with. 'Serenity' does it brilliantly, with confidence and a bucketload of class.

And so obviously the bigwigs at Fox decided it would be a great idea to ignore 'Serenity' completely and ask for another pilot ('The Train Job') with a ton more action and no introductions at all, thus throwing the audience headfirst into an ocean with nothing to cling onto except their remote controls, which they used to change channels, thus dooming Firefly to death.

Thanks, guys.

3. Twin Peaks

Back in 1989 allowing cinema's weirdest auteur, David Lynch, to run loose in telly-land must have been the equivalent of letting Salvador Dali loose inside a branch of IKEA: sure, he'd have a whole lot of fun, but nobody would understand why he'd just painted lobster claws on those bookshelves. So we give the higher-ups at American network ABC all the kudos in the world for taking a chance on Lynch, and their gamble well and truly paid off. Instead of painting lobster claws, Lynch killed a cheerleader. And the rest is history.

To this day, the thing that stands out most about Twin Peaks ' feature-length opener is its mood ; slow and almost creepy, not scared to linger on mournful scenes of fir trees draped in mist, or a bereaved mother crying her heart out. But it was also quirky and fun, with the introduction of crazy characters handled matter-of-factly (“Who's the lady with the log?” “We call her the Log Lady”) and otherwise ordinary moments given comedic pathos for no reason (“Diane, I'm holding in my hand a small box of chocolate bunnies”). It really was like nothing ever seen on American TV, and as it was broadcast around the world and the word spread, it was clear it was like nothing ever seen on planet Earth, period.

Here's a vintage promo for the pilot (and a few other episodes) to show you what we mean – although we don't envy the ABC marketing team for having to promote something so downright bizarre...

2. Lost


Say what you like about the way Lost ended, just about everybody who ever lived in the history of the world (possible hyperbole there) would agree that the pilot for the series was one of the most amazing things that's ever popped up on our tellies. Not that it 'popped', exactly; it full-on exploded.

Guaranteed to put pteromerhanophobes off flying for life,* this $14-million movie-quality opener crashed a jet on a tropical island before the opening credits even rolled, throwing us right into the aftermath. And what an aftermath it was: a fresh and innovative survival tale that instantly had us on the edge of our seats, with a cast who were more than brilliant enough to hold our attentions. From there, question after question was set up beautifully and we weren't given any answers – what better way is there to ensure there'll be a second, third and fourth episode?

Lost 's opener isn't just a thrilling story; it also uses some excellent techniques to show off its style, from the first shot of an eye opening to the chaotic camerawork of the crash site as Jack runs from victim to victim. The location was fresh, too – remember how New Zealand came to life thanks to The Lord Of The Rings ? Hawaii got the same makeover here. And there's that tantalising sequence involving a monster in the jungle who first rustles some trees and then devours the plane's unfortunate pilot. Thanks to this mysterious chappie (later revealed as the Smoke Monster), Lost landed firmly in SFX territory and man, are we happy it did.

*people with a phobia of flying. Yes, we had to look it up.

1. Star Trek

'The Cage' and 'Where No Man Has Gone Before'

Anyone who knows their Trek history will understand why '60s Star Trek is at the top of our list. Heck, even if you don't know your Trek history you've probably spotted something odd about this entry: there are two episodes!

The original pilot for Gene Roddenberry's space opera – 'The Cage' – wasn't picked up by network NBC, who were looking for something a bit more actiony to appeal to a larger audience. However, it did pique the network execs' curiosity to such an extent that they made the unprecedented decision of ordering a //second// pilot, 'Where No Man Has Gone Before'. This pushed their buttons so perfectly that the rest is history.

So what makes these two entries truly great? It's like watching evolution in progress. In 'The Cage', Spock laughs and has feelings. There's a different Captain, played by movie star Jeffrey Hunter, who lacks William Shatner's sparkle but still does a grand job. Everything seems proto- Trek , from the lack of finesse on the costumes to the slightly clunky Enterprise bridge. But 'The Cage' gives us some of Trek 's signature moments, from a dancing green Orion slave girl to bald, veiny-headed aliens, not to mention beautiful visuals such as the purple-skied planet.

It probably was a little slow and thinky to grab the attentions of audiences not used to seeing sci-fi treated seriously, which is why 'Where No Man Has Gone Before' speeds things up, throws in a fist-fight or two and generally kicks ass. It's about as wonderful as sci-fi gets and all these years on, it's still a breathtakingly fun watch.

Gene Roddenberry remembers making 'The Cage' in this interesting documentary – note the horrible sexism from Captain Pike, and a real-life, female audience's reaction to it... Boy, times sure have changed.

Next... the pilots that sucked!

And Here Are Some Pilots That Sucked...

Not all pilots make us want to carry on watching the show; some make us want to run screaming in the other direction. Here are some pants pilots which somehow still manage to spawn series (some of which thankfully grew better than their humble beginnings)...



Falling Skies

'Live And Learn'

This Steven Spielberg-produced sci-fi series struggled from the off, introducing us to a bunch of bland, one-dimensional characters who seemed to spend all their time either moaning about their lot (with some justification, of course, seeing as aliens have just wiped out their civilisation) or staring at each other while syrupy music played in the background.

But two things about it really sucked: the fact that there was an ad break every few minutes (a whopping five in the first half hour!) so the show could recoup its high costs from sponsors, and the sequence which showed a kid trying out his new skateboard for what seemed like hours. That's a RipStik skateboard, just in case you missed it. RipStik. Go out and buy one, okay? Then the show can afford to make a CGI alien for the next episode. RipStick, right? BUY IT. BUY IT NOW.

Star Trek: The Next Generation

'Encounter At Farpoint'

Thank Q this show improved way beyond this clunky, awkward pilot and became the Next Gen we know and love. The plot was atrocious (watch as the Enterprise rescues a space jellyfish from a life of slavery!), the actors looked uncomfortable in their uniforms (especially poor Marina Sirtis as the be-skirted Troi), the dialogue was wince-worthy (“Farpoint Station... Even the name sounds mysterious”) and, let's face it, it had Wesley Crusher falling into a river. Excuse us while we facepalm.

Thankfully 'Encounter At Farpoint' served as nothing more than a scene-setter for what was to come, introducing us to more good things than bad (hurrah for Data, Q, holodecks and a million other Trek changes). But really, it's one big cringe when watched today.

The Bionic Woman


“Hello, my name is Jaime Sommers and I'm going to spend the entire running time of this pilot whinging like a whinging whinger. God, I'm miserable. Did I mention I'm miserable? Whinge, whinge, whinge.”

Seriously, why would anybody go back for more?

Jayne Nelson

SFX Magazine is the world's number one sci-fi, fantasy, and horror magazine published by Future PLC. Established in 1995, SFX Magazine prides itself on writing for its fans, welcoming geeks, collectors, and aficionados into its readership for over 25 years. Covering films, TV shows, books, comics, games, merch, and more, SFX Magazine is published every month. If you love it, chances are we do too and you'll find it in SFX.