A backdoor pilot is essentially a spinoff hidden within the parent series.
Last time I mentioned that Star Trek had one of these and it’s a bizarre item indeed.
The episode was the finale of season 2, “Assignment: Earth.”
Star Trek fans might remember that NBC was about to cancel the show at the end of it’s second season so it might seem odd that they were reading a spinoff.
Well they weren’t. Gene was.
The Enterprise crew is barely in the episode and when they are they feel shoehorned in… because they were. See, Gene was trying to get “Assignment: Earth” made as a show and no one was interested so he decided to sneak it by everyone and make it anyway… as an episode of Star Trek.
Star Trek would try this again in the 80’s with Next Generation, but that is for another time.
The Enterprise travels back to 1968 and while over earth a man (human) called Gary Seven beams onboard (from no origin point), overpowers the crew and heads down to the planet.
His mission is to stop the U.S. and The Soviet Union from establishing nuclear missile bases in outer space. Seems Gary has been sent by super advanced beings to save humanity from itself. Gary has a black cat he carries with him everywhere. It can turn into a beautiful woman. Why? Shut up that’s why.
Gary gets an assistant in the form of a contemporary ditz named Roberta (played by Teri freaking Garr). In the end Gary and his partners stop the space launch platforms. Did I forget to mention that while all this is going on Kirk and Spock mill about and do nothing? You could literally edit out all of the Trek cast from this episode and besides the pre-credits teaser it would effect NOTHING. In fact some of the scenes with the Trek crew are literally reused shots from previous episodes. This is so much not a Star Trek episode that they kind of intrude on the story.
That is how obvious this was as a backdoor pilot and why it makes for such an awkward episode of the show. The original script had no mention of the Star Trek characters at all. Roddenberry was determined to get this thing going and eventually rewrote it into yet ANOTHER unsuccessful pilot years later as The Questor Tapes.
The episode itself is annoying as it is rife with Roddenberry hippy nonsense and is beyond preachy. It’s like a dumb version of The Day The Earth Stood Still. We all know Trek would come back the following season and Assignment: Earth would be mostly forgotten save for the characters having a few appearances in the novels and the comic books.
Miami Vice was set for a spinoff as well… and a ripoff spinoff at that.
Producers knew that season 5 of Vice was going to be it’s last as costs were rising, ratings were slipping and the cast was starting to fight with one another.
Story wise season 5 of Vice was it’s darkest. People seem to remember the bright colors of the series along with the goofy episodes and forget the hardass tone that seasons 1 and 5 had.
By the fifth season Crockett and Tubbs had grown disillusioned with their jobs and the overall arc of the season was of the futility of the drug war (hammered home by the series finale “Freefall”). The episodes of season 5 dealt with somewhat taboo topics such as child molestation, AIDS, remorseless killers and most of all the apathy that these things cause.
Knowing the end was near the producers wanted a spinoff so the episode “Leap of Faith” was created. The plot of the particular episode has Crockett leading a team of young cops undercover to investigate a professor who has created a new designer drug. Tubbs has a small cameo and none of the main cast appear at all. This is another obvious backdoor pilot.
The spinoff (running with the working title, Young Criminals Unit) would have been about a team of cops that all look young and go undercover in high schools. Seems NBC wanted to take some of the popularity that 21 Jump Street was generating at the time. It’s so obvious that they were chasing Jump Street that you could basically change the character names from “Leap of Faith” and a Jump Street script and they would fit with one another.
The only clever thing Vice did here was using an existing character. Earlier in season 5 undercover DEA agent Joey Hardin was introduced (“Line of Fire”). That was a very smart episode (seriously, the plot twist in that one is shrewd and genuine). Well, Joey Hardin was meant to lead this new series so at least he had a character we already were familiar with.
NBC was apparently pretty well onboard with Young Criminals Unit going to series that when the series finale of Vice was shot it, was shot with 3 different endings just in case they wanted Crockett or Tubbs to appear now and then on the new show.
It is unclear why Young Criminals Unit never went to series though.
Crossing Jordan is a show that lasted for 6 seasons on NBC and yet no one remembers it.
Starring Jill Hennessy and the late Miguel Ferrer the series was about the Boston coroners office investigating crimes (in TV all coroners investigate crimes, damn you Quincy). A side character was introduced in the middle of season 1 and that was Woody Hoyt played by Jerry O’Connell. Hoyt was a Wisconsin bumpkin who was also a great detective. He joined them on their many adventures and at the end of season 2 he was set to get his own show… Sunset Division.
Sunset Division has Woody finding his way to LA and becoming part of a secret elite division of the police who handle the crimes too big for the normal force.
The episode (aptly titled “Sunset Division”) is another clear backdoor pilot. Of the main Crossing Jordan cast only Hennessy appears and that is a cameo at best. This was O’Connell’s chance to shine.
A huge case links up Hoyt and the Sunset Division and then… nothing. An ongoing plot is started and never followed up on. The characters from this show are never mentioned again.
Woody goes back to Boston and save for a one line drop of “I called my friends at the Sunset Division and they have nothing either” 2 seasons later this pilot was all but forgotten.
Personally I think it was one of the better episodes of the series as it was fun and creative and I would have watched this spinoff. It would have been better off than the bullshit the main show turned into.
By the way, I didn’t intend to make this entry all NBC shows… that just happened. Odd.