Every year, of the dozens of pilot episodes that are made for TV, some don’t get picked up, while others are changed significantly or even remade when they become a full series. Our series Pilot Error! takes a look at some of them, including the ones that got away.
When President Donald Trump announced in March 2018 that he was going to be setting up a brand new branch of the military – Space Force – the internet meme industry went into overdrive, parodying the notion by mashing it up with everything from Spaceballs to Flash Gordon and Star Trek; it even led to the creation of a new online sitcom, in the form of Netflix’s Space Force, which features the late, great Fred Willard in a guest role.
However, what most likely isn’t known by a lot of people is that this isn’t the first time Willard had crossed paths with a programme named Space Force – in fact, it had actually happened over four decades ago, in a failed TV pilot made for the NBC network.
The sci-fi boom triggered by the release of the first Star Wars movie on May 25th 1977 hadn’t yet happened, and nobody knew just how huge and entirely unprecedented a phenomenon it would be. As such, science fiction – with the notable exception of 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey – was largely seen as being cheesy, low-budget kids’ stuff, and not taken terribly seriously as a genre, whether on TV or at the cinema.
It seems that NBC was looking for a sci-fi show to add to its schedules, so it set about finding a suitable candidate. There were ultimately two contenders – Quark, devised by Buck Henry (co-creator – alongside Mel Brooks – of the 1960s spy sitcom Get Smart); and Space Force, which was the brainchild of John Boni and Norman Styles, a pair of writers who happened to be best known for their work on Sesame Street.
Both the pilots were being produced by Columbia Pictures Television, but it came as a shock to Boni and Styles to learn that they’d got competition, as they’d assumed that they were the only ones in the running. It seems that having the big names of Buck Henry and actor Richard Benjamin attached to Quark was a big draw, as NBC aired the pilot on May 7th 1977 (shortly before Star Wars hit cinemas).
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It was subsequently picked up for a series, which started on February 24th 1978, and satirised the 1930s Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials, as well as Star Wars; three of the episodes were even direct parodies of Star Trek stories. Its run was, however, rather short-lived, and in the end only eight episodes were made, with the series ending on April 7th 1978. Almost ignominiously, Space Force finally aired on NBC on April 28th 1978, precisely three weeks after its rival had bitten the dust.
Originally titled ‘Fort Leo’ (after the name of the vessel in the show), Space Force introduced us to the incompetent Commander Irving Hinkley (William Phipps), along with his warmongering second-in-command, Captain Leon Stoner (Jim Boyd), whose life is complicated by all the perpetual scams being run by his rival, Captain Thomas Woods (Fred Willard). The ship is run by the German-accented D.O.R.C. (Richard Paul), short for Digital Omnifunctional Rotisserie and Computer.
The pilot focuses on the crew’s efforts to rescue an agent who’s been taken hostage on an alien planet, threatening an intergalactic war. In the meantime, Woods is running a money-making scheme selling off Space Force equipment (including the Commander’s bathtub), along with using Space Force’s facilities to transport unauthorised civilians, all being done under the pretext of raising funding for a children’s hospital.
Even though the Space Force pilot had been made before Star Wars was released, it still looks and feels remarkably cheap, even by the typical standards of the pre-Industrial Light & Magic era; in fact, sci-fi shows from a decade or so earlier seem more technically adept and accomplished. All the sets appear flimsy, and the costumes could have been taken from any typical kitschy 1950s B-movie. As for the effects, they’re sadly far from special.
In fact, the whole production comes across as dated, with the humour in particular harking back more to sitcoms like Hogan’s Heroes or Gilligan’s Island, rather than comedies of the same era, like M*A*S*H or Taxi. With all of Captain Woods’ rackets presumably to have been a regular feature had it gone to a series, it would have perhaps come across as being like Sergeant Bilko in space, only somewhat less slick or accomplished.
Even the opening title song, in the style of a rousing march, feels remarkably out of step with the era – you can judge for yourself from the following lyrics:
“We will fight to keep the planet free
You can say goodbye to tyranny
We can help you out a lot
We’re the Space Force
We’re all you’ve got.”
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With only a single airing, Space Force seemed destined to languish in the backwaters of forgotten TV shows, until a copy of it was uploaded to YouTube in 2013, courtesy of a viewer who’d recorded the original broadcast on Betamax. However, more recently, late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel made a trailer for a fake sequel – Space Force 2: Attack Of The Space Pirates – in order to satirise Senator Ted Cruz’s comments about the real Space Force needing to focus on the potential threat of space piracy; Fred Willard even reprised his role from the pilot for the skit.
It’s perhaps ironic, then, that Fred Willard’s last acting role should be in Greg Daniels and Steve Carell’s new comedy, Space Force, albeit in a rather more Earthbound part than his 1970s equivalent. At least the production values in the Space Force of 2020 are much higher than its predecessor from 1978, which had been directed by someone whose CV includes illustrious entries like The Harlem Globetrotters On Gilligan’s Island and A Very Brady Christmas.