It’s pilot season!
All year long, broadcast and cable networks hear pitches from writers and producers, which they then commission into actual scripts. Every winter and spring, they order some of these scripts to “pilot,” which means the show is cast and a “pilot” episode is shot.
This does not mean that the show is necessarily going to make it on the air. Pilots are ordered precisely so the networks can decide whether they want to invest in them. From the pilot, they can see how the show looks, whether or not it “works,” and whether casting changes are necessary. Case in point, last year Fox passed on Ron Moore’s sci-fi drama Virtuality (though the project was so high-profile and expensive that they did end up airing the two-hour pilot as a mostly-incomprehensible TV movie last July).
Many more pilots are shot than ever become TV series — though the number of pilots ordered has fallen considerably in recent years as the networks try to save money.
Still, pilots are how networks pick their future schedules.
How does the current slate of sci-fi and fantasy-themed TV pilots look? Franky, not good. Despite strong starts, high-profile genre shows such as V and FlashForward have seen their ratings sink — and returning shows such as Fringe and Dollhouse fared little better.
Their relative failure has translated into a widespread consensus in Hollywood that sci-fi and fantasy shows are risky bets, especially since they tend to be more expensive than other shows due to elaborate sets and special effects.
In short, the current thinking is that the era of genre mega-hits like Lost and Heroes is over and that genre shows will now gravitate to pay cable channels like Starz (which airs Spartacus: Blood and Sand) or niche channels like SyFy (which is airing the second season of NBC’s Merlin).
Could some future show “break out” into a massive hit, upsetting the conventional wisdom all over again? Since everything in Hollywood is cyclical, you can bet on it.
In the meantime, Hollywood is playing it cautious. Here is the smattering of sci-fi and fantasy shows that we might be seeing on TV screens this fall and next winter:
The Cape (NBC): The highest-profile genre pilot to date is surely this one, about a former cop who is framed and opts to become a superhero to clear his name. Clearly an attempt to capitalize on superhero-movie-mania, the show stars E.R.’s David Lyons as the cop, and Firefly’s Summer Glau as an investigative blogger. Simon West (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) directs the pilot episode.
Betwixt (The CW): Taking a cue from The Vampire Diaries, this is based on the young adult novel series of the same name, about three teens who are “changelings,” or the children of fairies, who can transform into mythological creatures: one has claws and fangs, one can fly. The show stars Jessy Schram (Life, Veronica Mars) and Allison Miller (Kings).
Three Inches (SyFy): Syfy has ordered a 90-minute pilot of this show about a “professional daydreamer and underachiever” who is struck by lightning and develops a “super-power” of the ability to move objects with his mind, but only a distance of three inches. SyFy has had enormous success blending humor with action in Warehouse 13, and this seems to be an attempt to build on that sort of cheeky irreverence.
2012 (ABC): ABC has officially passed on Roland Emmerich remake/sequel of the end-of-the-world movie 2012, which was supposed to be set in 2013 and tell the story of the survivors of the cataclysmic events of that movie trying to resettle the earth.
Nikita (The CW): This isn’t strictly sci-fi, but the CW is readying an update of the USA Network’s La Femme Nikita (which was itself based on the 1990 movie). Live Free or Die Hard’s Maggie Q will star — an interesting choice in a genre that almost always casts white actors as leads.
A Game of Thrones (HBO): As previous announced, this pilot, filmed last fall and based on the George R.R. Martin novel, has officially been picked up as a 10-episode series, though a broadcast date is not yet know.