Tuesday, July 11, 2006

A Few (Fairly Random) Thoughts on the Unaired Buffy Pilot

So the 26 minute-long unaired pilot for Buffy the Vampire Slayer is available on Youtube here (via Pharyngula). As I am a huge fan of the show, I'd heard of the unaired pilot before, but I'd never seen it until a few minutes ago. So here are some thoughts on it.

The very first thought is that while it is interesting for a fan of Buffy to see -- and, just possibly, for someone who isn't a fan of the show but who has seen the (aired version of the) pilot episode and is interested in the techniques of screenwriting -- it holds no interest for anyone else: it's a clearly inferior rough draft, and is interesting for basically the same reasons, and in basically the same ways (insight into the finished work and/or creative process) that reading earlier drafts of good fiction are interesting. But no one should go see it who hasn't already seen the aired pilot -- hence, spoilers for the pilot (and the unaired pilot, since it's not of interest for plot reasons) will be forthcoming.

It's like an earlier draft, but, as I understand matters, it isn't, quite, an earlier draft, since it was never intended to air. Nor, for that matter, is it in the normal format of a TV show: at 26 minutes long, it's too long for a half-hour show (which would have commercials) and too short for the hour-long show it would become.

If there's something it's an earlier draft of, it's mostly the first half of the double-length aired pilot: there are scenes from it more-or-less intact in the first twenty or so minutes of the unaired pilot, which then ends with a fight in a school auditorium and a final discussion the next day at school which are clearly the ancestors for the final fight and coda of the second part of the unaired pilot. But it's mostly the first half.

Many of the changes seem -- from the point of view of having seen the finished version first, which is, presumably, the reverse of the order of composition -- like inferior versions whose changes are largely due to cutting for time. The connections between the scenes in the finished version are clearly better (e.g. Buffy recognizing a vampire because she sees his outfit is dated is both funnier and more plausible than her asking Xander to describe it and getting it from that) -- but the versions in the unaired pilot are briefer and allow the cutting of various extraneous material and many extras. Buffy's first meetings with Willow and Cordelia are more awkward; her rapport with Xander and Willow more forced. The scenes aren't as sharp as the final versions, even when they are more or less the same -- little changes can make a big difference.

While the finished version was, as I said, clearly superior, the unaired version had a few things I liked:
* The line "hold that thought" -- a very characteristic Joss line (in context), one which worked fairly well, but which he never used that I recall.
* The set for the library seemed larger, colder and (therefore) somewhat more realistic -- I like the final set, of course, but I'm not sure how much of that is familiarity plus a love of the material filmed there -- it's possible the unaired version was better, or maybe simply just as good.
* Stephen Tobolowsky -- you might remember him for his roles in such movies as Groundhog Day (where he played Ned Ryerson, the annoying insurance salesman) and Memento (where he played the seen-in-flashback character of Sammy Jankis) was really good as the high school's principal -- possibly even better than Principal Flutie, the (early) season one principal. I liked his performance and found his character (somewhat different than the character in the final pilot) funny.

With the obvious exception of the actor playing Willow who wasn't in the final version, everyone's performances -- the way they said certain lines, their affect, and so forth -- seemed remarkably similar to the performances in the aired version, despite differences in the script, context, and so forth. (There is a moment in the "homework" of the Lord of the Rings DVDs where they show multiple takes of a line of Aragorn's; those varied far more than most lines from this to the final pilot.) The most changed character seemed to be Giles -- he was written to be both less humorously awkward and somewhat harsher, and Anthony Head played him accordingly.

It was fun to see how Darla, Harmony and Jonathan were in the show from the very beginning.

I'm not sure if the unaired pilot would have sold me had I seen it fresh -- whether as a TV executive deciding whether to make the show or as a viewer deciding whether to see another episode; then again, the final pilot didn't totally sell me either: I thought it was fun but didn't see the greatness in it that people said (correctly, of course) was in the show -- I wasn't sold on the show as a whole until late in the first season (and other people have taken into season two). But the final version is clearly better.

And, as we learn from the aforelinked Wikipedia entry, Joss knows this:
IGNFF: Is the presentation ever going to make it to DVD?
WHEDON: Not while there is strength in these bones.
IGNFF: Well, I mean, it's one of the most heavily bootlegged things on the Internet.
WHEDON: Yeah. It sucks on ass.
IGNFF: Yeah, it does, but it's sort of that archival, historical perspective...
WHEDON: Yeah, I've got your historical perspective
IGNFF: It would take it off the bootleg market...
WHEDON: Ah, I don't – what are you going to do?
IGNFF: Put it on the DVD.
WHEDON: Not me
Writers can hardly be blamed for the unreleased drafts that historians -- or rabid internet fans -- insist upon digging up and making public. So see it as a curio if you're interested. Just don't expect it to be any good.

Update: While I'm mentioning interesting bits miscellaneous Whedonania, here's two more pieces:

This article on Whedon and race is an interesting, complex look at a (to me) rather troubling question. I don't know if I agree with the whole analysis, but it's definitely quite interesting and worth reading. (Via)

This fictional trailer for a sadly-probably-always-to-remain-hypothetical sequel to Serenity is well done -- really, extraordinarily well done, if you consider the fact that the creator had no new footage to work with: not only did they manage to put together a credible and interesting looking trailer (not the most compelling trailer ever, but a very compelling one), but they even managed to imply a story that is a quite reasonable direction to go in, if there were going to be a sequel (probably not the direction that Joss would go in -- but one that would be (one of the many) quite reasonable directions to go in). The imaginary film is titled Return to Serenity; I'd go see it in a hot second. Too bad it almost certainly will never find its way out of Lucien's library (the film annex). A marvelous fan remix. (Via)

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