Sometimes a pilot is hiding right there out in the open and you didn’t even see it.
There are times an established series wants to create a franchise so they might spin-off a beloved character into their own show or perhaps introduce a new character or setting specifically to create a new show.
These are called backdoor pilots… they are an episode of the main show but with the express purpose of being a pilot for this new show.
NCIS started as a backdoor pilot on JAG.
NCIS: Los Angeles was a backdoor pilot on NCIS.
S.W.A.T. was a backdoor pilot on The Rookies.
Maude and The Jeffersons were backdoor pilots on All In The Family.
Wonder Woman, Magnum P.I. and even The Twilight Zone all had backdoor pilots.
Often times these go on to be successful series on their own and sometimes they simply become a weird episode when you see the series again years later.
Hell, Star Trek even had one of these.
Every wonder why the final episode of season 2 (“Assignment: Earth”) felt so out of place and why the Enterprise crew had to little to do with it? Because that a was a pilot for a contemporary spin off.
Most fans remember that Knight Rider had a later sequel series in Team Knight Rider (and even later as the disastrous 2008 reboot) but who remembers the spin-off Code of Vengeance?
I don’t need to explain what Knight Rider was but I will wager you don’t remember the character of David Dalton on the show.
Appearing in 2 episodes (“Mouth of the Snake”, a 2 parter) near the end of season 2 the character was being groomed to become the next breakout star. This did not happen. A spin off series did happen but it was a LONG road and one that was not fruitful.
In “Mouth of the Snake” it becomes clear that a backdoor pilot was being aired as Michael Knight and KITT are noticeably pushed into the background to have the Dalton character take center stage.
Dalton is played by Charles Taylor (credited as L. Charles Taylor). A Nam vet in the series but here a Guatemala vet who lost someone close to him. A man known only as Archibald (genre mainstay George Murdock) pulled Dalton out and uses him whenever the Justice Department can’t officially investigate something. It is strongly hinted at that Dalton has some kind of superpowers as even Michael Knight notes some of the things he does are above that of normal people. Dalton says “I don’t want to talk about it”.
The plot is average Knight Rider with Michael and The Foundation running afoul of a gun runner (experimental guns) and as happens Dalton and the Justice Department are investigating the same thing. A team up naturally erupts and everyone goes their own way at the end.
The episodes were ratings losers and are considered by Knight Rider fans in the bottom of the series, usually among the worst of the series.
The Dalton solo series was meant to be titled “All That Glitters” but whatever was planned for that was scrapped very quickly as Dalton goes from being a kind of superpowered “secret agent” on Knight Rider to a drifter that helps people when he gets his own adventures.
After his appearances on Knight Rider NBC commissioned a TV movie for Dalton: Code of Vengeance in 1986.
A great guest cast joined Taylor but Murdock was nowhere to be found. Guest starring Erin Gray, Charles Haid, Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb, Chad Allen and Keenan Wynn. The movie was not well received by the network and was more or less burned off but unfortunately 6 episodes of a series had already been filmed. Now with more a Nam Vet wanderer vibe (remember this was a time when Rambo was one of the most popular characters in movies) the series began to air to no one watching. In fact the last 2 episodes were never aired as episodes, they were edited together and burned off as Dalton: Code of Vengeance II (directed by Alan Smithee, I might add).
Maybe it’s for the best that Dalton is forgotten… his Knight Rider pilot was not that good.
Friday the 13th:The Series was set for a spin-off. Why didn’t it happen? Really bad timing coupled with a set of circumstances out of the productions’ control.
Friday the 13th:The Series was based on the idea of the date being unlucky rather than the more famous masked killer (despite both being produced by Paramount). Lewis Vendredi made a deal with the devil for power on earth and in exchange he would sell cursed antiques through his antique store. Feeling guilty after a bit, Lewis goes back on the deal and old scratch cashes in the soul. Lewis’ niece and nephew along with a former ally now are tasked with finding and storing all of the cursed items in a magic vault… usually with the objects creating quite a bit of carnage along the way.
The show was quite good with an anthology feel to it all the while having continuing characters. It was also VERY graphic. See, this was 1987 and Tales from the Darkside had created a new first run syndication boom and since first run yyndication programs were far looser with restrictions than their network brethren this led to a gore and sex factor that a network series just could not match. This also made the episodes a lighting rod of controversy.
Ratings for Friday the 13th: The Series were always quite good, usually coming in just behind another Paramount show, Star Trek: The Next Generation which debuted at the same time. In fact the third Paramount show, War of the Worlds, was even gorier but that was far lower rated than it’s sister shows.
With strong ratings and a stable budget why was Friday the 13th: The Series cancelled at the end of the third season then?
It was a combination of factors.
One was that Paramount was starting to get sick of the non-stop controversy surrounding the show and then the episode “Hate On Your Dial” aired. This was a tale of a man going back in time to help his father get away with murdering a black civil rights leader in the 1960’s. Ku Klux Klan members, burning crosses and the use of… um colorful language to describe blacks was simply too much controversy this time. Couple this with the fact that Paramount had just lost the soundstages in Canada where the sets where built and this forced them to simply cease production.
A family is doggedly hunting down a demon. They have advanced weapons, tracking gear and a hatred of the paranormal. As said demon tears through them the Curious Good shop (the real main characters) seems to have the demonic temple which created the demon in question just below it under the basement. This of course leads the 2 groups into a head to head confrontation.
How does this all play into a backdoor pilot?
Well at the start of season 3 our main characters all took a back seat to a new set of characters, a family of demon hunters. The paramilitary demon hunters were created specifically to star in a new series. All but one of them die in the F13th episode but the father was meant (had the show been picked up) to start hunting the cultists who corrupted his daughter anew. The episode as aired sets up more than a few things to be used in the “new” series but which just become hanging threads as is.
Unfortunately as this episode, aired Paramount had already pulled the trigger on cancelling the series. The rest of the season was aired (the entire season was filmed beforehand) and no finale was ever shot. The demon hunters were never seen again because you don’t spin off a show you are cancelling now do you?
Watching the episode (simply title “Demon Hunter”) you get the distinct feeling that something is off. The normal main characters have only small roles in their own show and it’s obvious that this is a backdoor pilot. It’s not a bad one in that I would have liked to have seen these people in their own show or at the very least have them pop back up in the series proper but that is not how this played out.
Next time we shall look at some other pilots hidden in parent series.