A pilot note on pilot episodes.
Detail in The Garden of Earthly Delights by Jheronimus Bosch.
Detail in The Garden of Earthly Delights by Jheronimus Bosch.

I was having trouble deciding on what this first post should be. A straightforward one could have been some thoughts on why I decided to start blogging but that felt too serious. There’s always this unnecessary pressure on firsts.

As I continued mulling on the topic, I thought of first episodes—why do so many shows call their first episode “Pilot”? I’ve wondered about this before (probably even googled at some point) but never really looked into it—here’s the perfect opportunity.

Looks like the word pilot was first coined in the 1500s with the definition of “one who steers a ship”. The origin of the word can be traced back to the Greek word pedon, meaning “steering oar”. It wasn’t until the 1920s that pilot adopted an additional new meaning of “serving as a prototype”. The term pilot episode supposedly emerged not long after this, around the 1950s.

In the early days of the TV industry, pilot episodes used to be standalone episodes that producers or networks would buy before making the show. Their purpose was similar to design prototypes or pilot studies in research; some say the ‘pilot episodes’ concept was directly inspired by the latter. Here’s an excerpt that explains it well:

[A] TV pilot is used to determine whether the concept for a show is a good idea. They are often shot on their own to test with audiences and make other tweaks before a network orders the full season — if they place an order at all.

Miller, 2023. Source

The meaning of a TV pilot has expanded since. Nowadays, the first episode tends to be named “Pilot” more as a symbol for being the first aired episode. Pilot episodes aren’t necessarily the best episodes and that’s OK. And sometimes, the original unaired pilot episode is radically different to the aired pilot. Apparently an (in)famous case of this is the unaired pilot of Game of Thrones.

But not all pilot episodes are the first episode of a series, and not all pilots are single episodes. Turns out there’s different kinds of pilots. My favourite is the backdoor pilot — an episode in a series that spotlights supporting characters to gauge interest in a spinoff.

Bottom line is, pilot episodes do what human pilots do — steer and guide. They set the tone and direction for the show by introducing main characters and giving the audience a glimpse into what’s to come or what could be.

Consider this the pilot for my blog.

What is a pilot episode? — A comprehensive read on the topic complete with example scripts and video snippets.

Where Does “Pilot” in “Pilot Episode” Come From? — A short audio clip from a podcast where the hosts discuss words, sayings, and other linguistic things in response to questions from callers.

Other thoughts