In order to sell a TV series producers generally are required to film some sort of `pilot episode’. Sponsors, or the network want to know if the characters are likeable, if the premise is interesting, and whether there’s ample room for future story lines.
Given the number of truly awful TV series that have made the grade over the past 6 decades, you really have to wonder about the pilots that failed to attract a buyer.
Not all of them were bad, of course. Some simply were too derivative of earlier shows, while others were simply ahead of their time.
In TV lore, there is probably no more famous `failed pilot’ than the first shot at making `Star Trek’. Although NBC didn’t buy the series based on the first pilot submitted by Gene Roddenberry (they thought it was `too cerebral’) the took the unprecedented step of ordering a second pilot.
Other pilots showed promise, but required tweaking of the cast.
The pilot for what would eventually become The Dick Van Dyke Show was originally called Head of the Family, and starred Carl Reiner. Largely autobiographical, this series based on Reiner’s life as a star and writer for Your Show of Shows, failed to sell with him as the lead.
Many of these failed pilots never made the air, although a few ended up as `filler’ episodes on anthology series during the 1950s and 1960s. Most are lost in the dustbin of TV history, although I’ve written about a few in Failed TV Pilots and Failed Pilots Part Deux.
Today, another sampling of shows that . . . for whatever reason, never made it out of the starting blocks.
First stop, Destination Space, which attempted to cash in on the burgeoning space program craze of the late 1950s. Like it’s far more successful cousin `Men Into Space’, Destination Space attempted to portray a more realistic outer space opera.
Most of the special effects were pulled directly from the 1955 George Pal production of Conquest of Space, and so this pilot at least has the `feel’ of golden age Sci-Fi.
Unfortunately, the plot moves slowly, despite the efforts of a cast of very familiar faces; John Agar, Harry Townes, Whitney Blake, Charles Aidman, Cecil Kellaway, and Edward Platt.
Although many reviewers have looked upon this pilot unkindly, I confess that as a child of the 1950s, I enjoyed it for nostalgic – if not artistic – reasons when I saw it recently.
You can watch it, along with the others in today’s blog, on the Internet Archive.
Next stop, a TV pilot treatment of a one of the longest running detective characters in detective fiction; Bulldog Drummond.
As I wrote in Before There Was Bond, the character of Bulldog Drummond was created in 1920 by British author Herman Cyril McNeile who wrote under the pseudonym `Sapper’.
In all, `Bulldog’ would appear in 10 novels by McNeile (and a handful of short stories), and another 9 novels penned after his death in 1937 by Gerard Fairlie and later Henry Raymond. Between 1923 and 1969 there were 2 dozen Bulldog Drummond movies made, and from 1951 to 1954 Bulldog Drummond was portrayed on the radio by Ned Weaver for the Mutual Broadcasting System.
In 1957, in what is admittedly a lesser attempt at bringing Captain Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond to the screen, we get a pilot that eventually aired on Douglas Fairbank’s anthology series, Douglas Fairbanks Presents.
The episode is called `The Ludlow Affair’, and it starred Robert Beatty as a vaguely Americanized Drummond, racing around 1950s London in a vintage sports car, and dealing with dangerous villains.
Although the voice over (by Fairbanks) in the closing credits promised weekly adventures of Drummond in exotic locations around the world, the series was never picked up.
Last stop, a 1954 pilot based on the highly successful 1930s comic strip, Mandrake The Magician.
Already portrayed on film by Warren Hull in a1939 12-part Columbia movie serial and on the radio during the 1940s by Raymond Edward Johnson, this 30 minute pilot for NBC starring real-life magician Coe Norton and Woody Strode failed to attract a buyer.
Having watched this episode, I can’t help but feel that the stilted acting, and lame dialog, and weak plot had something to do with that.
Still, it has a degree of nostalgic value.
Hopefully more of these gems will show up on the Internet Archive, and other venues.
While they may not represent the best that the golden age of TV had to offer, they are still valuable glimpses of our shared past and deserved to be saved, and shared, for future generations to enjoy.