TV Discussion

Buffy The Vampire Slayer – Pilot Error!

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.

Between 1989 and 1990, Joss Whedon – a recent graduate with a film degree from Wesleyan University – was cutting his teeth in the world of media production as a staff writer on sitcoms Roseanne and Parenthood. After moving on to being a script doctor and consultant, he wrote a spec movie script called Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

Except that this was very nearly something rather different. In the early stages of the idea’s gestation, Whedon devised a character who he called ‘Rhonda The Immortal Waitress’. Whedon wanted to buck the trend of Hollywood constantly erring on the side of making shows and horror films where pretty young girls were hapless victims; instead, he wanted to try and provide a role model in the form of an ordinary – yet empowered – woman who did extraordinary things. As a result, Rhonda was (nearly) born.

When he starting developing this concept further, it then morphed into the story of a normal high school student whose ultimate destiny was to dispatch the undead. The selection of ‘Buffy’ as the being character’s name mirrored Whedon’s thinking in originally picking ‘Rhonda’ – he had wanted to juxtapose an unlikely-sounding name with the fantastic feats of which she would be capable, along with the rather ‘B-movie’ air it would give.

Whedon managed to sell the script in the Autumn of 1991 to Sandollar Productions, a company which at the time was co-owned by Dolly Parton. Unfortunately, the script which Whedon delivered was very significantly rewritten at the behest of the studio, which felt that the darker tone needed to be altered, and many of Whedon’s jokes were removed, feeling them to be too abstract for the mainstream summer comedy which they’d wanted to make Buffy The Vampire Slayer for its release in 1992.

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While it managed to return just over double its budget at the box office, it wasn’t seen as a commercial or critical success; however, one of the film’s producers at Sandollar – Gail Berman – believed there was still merit in the basic concept, so after several years had passed, she approached Whedon via his agent, with a proposal to turn Buffy The Vampire Slayer into a television series. The pair set about preparing a pitch to the US networks.

Fox and NBC both passed on the show, but with one of the newest addition additions to the network roster – The WB – having launched in January 1995, it was seen as being a real possibility as the home of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, with the network seeking to carve out its own niche in the marketplace, as well as taking on a rival which had hit the airwaves a few days later, in the form of Paramount’s UPN, which showcased Star Trek: Voyager.

The WB’s execs loved the idea, but ordered a presentation instead of a full pilot. As a result, Joss Whedon got his first directing gig, at the helm of a 25-minute ‘proof of concept’ piece, which was never intended to be a formal pilot which could be aired ‘as is’; instead, it was meant to introduce the programme, and demonstrate how it could look on screen, with the understanding that some retooling may ultimately be necessary if it were to be picked up as a series.

So, in 1996, production got underway on the ‘try out’ for what was to become Buffy The Vampire Slayer (although it appears the idea was initially pitched under the title of ‘Slayer’, perhaps to try and distance it from any negative association with the film). When casting the main roles, it was felt the part of Cordelia would be perfect for a young actress who’d wowed the producers with her audition; as a child, she’d also starred in a famously litigious advert for Burger King. Her name was Sarah Michelle Gellar.

However, it became clear during the casting process that no-one was really suitable for the lead, so the producers saw Gellar again, this time to play Buffy, and they came to realise that they’d found their Slayer. The majority of the characters in the pilot were cast with the same actors who ended up in the eventual series: Anthony Stewart Head as Giles, Nicholas Brendon as Xander, Charisma Carpenter as Cordelia, and Julie Benz as Darla.

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However, one significant difference here was that Alyson Hannigan didn’t appear in the pilot, with Willow instead being played by Riff Regan. Other notable contrasts with the series are the school’s name being Berryman High, as well as Stephen Tobolowsky (Groundhog Day) being cast instead of Ken Lerner to play Principal Flutie. In addition, the pilot presentation also lacks any opening and closing credits, as well as a theme tune.

The plot is basically a condensed version of the eventual opener, ‘Welcome To The Hellmouth’, jettisoning any of what was to become Series 1’s arc of The Master, along with Angel (Firefly’s Nathan Fillion had auditioned for the part, but Angel ultimately wasn’t included in the pilot). It’s easy to see why this was done, as the pilot presentation was only intended to illustrate how the show would look and work in practice, without needing to add in all the complications of the mythology.

It’s also interesting to note that the story follows on from Joss Whedon’s original script for the film, which included events which didn’t feature in the finished movie, such as Buffy burning down the school’s gym to kill the vampires. Whedon’s version of the script was eventually adapted by Dark Horse Comics in 1999 as ‘The Origin’, which Whedon considers to be pretty much canonical, in contrast to the movie as released.

Whedon seems to have a similar relationship with the pilot as George Lucas does with the Star Wars Holiday Special, as he’d be quite happy for it never to officially see the light of day on DVD or Blu-ray. However, as with Lucas’ personal bugbear – along with many other such similar projects and productions – the unaired Buffy pilot has made its way into the public arena through illicit means, and was once sold illicitly at conventions and other such gatherings, before it ended up being posted online.

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It’s actually not too far removed from the series proper, as it has most of the same cast in place, and has a similar feel to the transmitted ‘Welcome To The Hellmouth’. It’s odd seeing a brunette Buffy, as well as a different Willow, but it’s hard to judge Riff Regan too harshly, as she has only 25 minutes in which to make an impact, compared to a whole seven seasons’ worth of Alyson Hannigan in the same role, and Willow as a character changed significantly over the full run of the show on TV.

Following the pilot leading to the show being picked up as a mid-season replacement for another programme, the series finally hit the airwaves in early 1997, and ran on The WB up until 2001, before transferring to UPN for its last two years. With a sequel currently in pre-production, and Joss Whedon acting as Executive Producer, we may yet get to see another pilot episode, like the mooted animated series. But that’s a tale for another time…

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