6 Classic Series You Didn't Know Were Made Up On The Fly
None of the film or TV series we're about to mention are bad -- we're not saying that. Some of them are great, even. But each of them was presented as having a master plan from the start, an overarching story or mystery that caused viewers to wait intently for the resolution, to see what the creators had in mind.
But time and time again, it turns out that the creators had nothing in mind at all, figuring they could throw out the mystery now and figure out the rest when it got closer to deadline. This is true of the minds behind...
(Cracked's Adventures in Jedi School mini-series wasn't made up on the fly. But we'll pretend it was if that will impress you.)
The Original Star Wars Trilogy
The first film says it's "Episode IV" right in the opening credits. That's what makes Star Wars different from, say, Transformers or even the Matrix trilogy -- it was a single grand epic spawned in the possibly deranged mind of George Lucas long before cameras started rolling on the first film.
"There's no way the first three are anything but gold!"
According to the legend, when Lucas began writing the story it got too big for one movie, so he decided to split it up. Shortly after releasing the first film, Lucas claimed he already had an idea of what all nine parts of the saga would be about.
"Bullshit. They'll all be about stupid, pointless, petty bullshit."
But Actually ...
Obviously there have been only six films (Lucas now says there were always supposed to be just six). But the truth is, when he released the first film he had no idea it was anything other than a stand-alone movie. The studio greenlit only the one film, and they had their doubts about making their money back. Lucas thus had to write it assuming he'd never get a chance to add to the story.
Most fans don't realize that the famous "Episode IV" isn't anywhere in the original opening crawl -- it was only added to later prints.
The original Star Wars started production under the name Adventures of Luke Starkiller, as taken from the Journal of the Whills, Saga I: The Star Wars, later shortened to just the last two words. The idea of numbering the episodes came up with the second film ... which was originally announced as Star Wars II.
"Star Wars II: Electric Boogaloo, thank you very much."
Oh, and about the story... let's look at Darth Vader as an example. The prequels make it clear that the overall saga is supposed to be the story of Darth Vader's corruption and final redemption -- but Lucas didn't even know who Darth Vader was until the second draft of Star Wars II (that is, The Empire Strikes Back).
In interviews, Lucas has claimed that he came up with the name "Darth Vader" as a variation of "Dark Father," implying that it was always supposed to be a clue of his relationship with Luke. But in the early drafts, Lucas gave the name "Darth Vader" to a completely normal Imperial general who had nothing to do with Luke. In all likelihood, Darth Vader's real name was supposed to be ... Darth Vader. That's why in the original Star Wars, Obi-Wan calls him "Darth" instead of "Anakin," the name he would have known him by. In fact, in Lucas' early notes, Vader and Luke's father are supposed to appear together on-screen.
Though we're saying all of this to avoid the obvious: If Lucas had planned for Leia to be Luke's sister all along, this probably wouldn't have happened:
Battlestar Galactica (2004 version)
Unlike the formulaic 70s sci-fi show it's based on, the 2004 version of Battlestar Galactica had a running narrative with a fascinating mystery at its center: the identity of the 12 Cylons posing as humans, sometimes without their knowledge.
The remake also surpassed the original by touching on philosophical, social and spiritual topics, as opposed to just trying to rip off Star Trek.
AND Star Wars.
Fans stayed tuned until the very end to find the solution to the mystery the writers clearly had known from the beginning. Right?
But Actually ...
So, the show ran for four seasons. At what point did showrunner Ronald D. Moore decide that five regular cast members had been Cylons all along? In the middle of Season 3.
Here's how this massive, show-changing decision was made, in his own words:
"We were in the writers room on the finale of that season ... and I literally made it up in the room, I said, 'What if four of our characters walk from different parts of the ship, end up in a room and say, Oh my God, we're Cylons? And we leave one for next season.' ... And then we sat and spent a couple of hours talking about who those four would be."
"Eventually, we just drew names out of a hat."
Suddenly, the show's finale makes a whole lot more sense. Fans were annoyed to say the least when, in the last episode, the characters found an uncivilized planet resembling their old Earth (which, as it turns out, had been devastated by a nuclear war) and settled there. At which point it is revealed that this planet is our Earth, and that this futuristic sci-fi show really took place in the distant past all along! Of course, this revelation created countless contradictions (at one point, the Cylons use the song All Along the Watchtower as a secret code, for instance).
Maybe this explains why it wasn't the Hendrix version
We're not saying the writers just threw out a bunch of stuff without ultimately knowing how it would pay off. We would never accuse them of that. Instead, Moore refers to it as" stuff we just threw up and decided to take a flier on without ultimately knowing where it would pay off."
Oh, wait ...
The X-Files was mostly made up of "monster of the week" episodes where the two agents would take on some kind of supernatural threat or other. But what made the show famous, and what drew in obsessive fans, was the over-arching story behind it -- a complex mythology involving a seasons-spanning alien conspiracy. Also, enough sexual tension to kill anyone standing between the two protagonists from sheer atmospheric pressure.
If real FBI agents were this sexy, they'd never get anything done.
Fans are still looking forward to the proposed third movie, which according to Chris Carter's master plan will center on the 2012 alien invasion predicted by the series finale.
But Actually ...
There was never supposed to be a continuing story at all. It all happened because Gillian Anderson got knocked up.
It was David Duchovny's first interaction with a pregnant woman that didn't end in screaming and death threats.
The whole premise of The X-Files was originally just having two agents go around investigating random, unconnected weird shit, which is what they did for most of the first season. They did have some alien conspiracy-themed episodes in Season 1, but writer/producer Frank Spotnitz says they weren't really supposed to form an overall arc. The main reason this all changed had nothing to do with artistic growth or originality; it's because Gillian Anderson got pregnant.
The writers decided to work around Anderson's pregnancy by showing her as little as possible -- that's why the government splits the two agents in the Season 1 finale.
Scully's reduced role resulted in other characters getting more developed, like Director Skinner, the Cigarette-Smoking Man and Alex Krycek. None were supposed to be major characters. The Cigarette-Smoking Man, ultimately the key figure in the entire mythology, started off as "an extra leaning on a shelf."
Then Scully had to be written out for a few episodes so she could have her damn baby already, so the writers came up with the story arc where she's abducted and Mulder has to search for her. This was the first larger plot they ever did, and it was completely unplanned. As Spotnitz put it, "This mythology really ended up running through the life of the series, all because Gillian Anderson became pregnant."
So, no, Chris Carter never had a master plan and probably knew as much about the conspiracy as the people watching. For instance, one of the main draws of the show was the mystery behind the abduction of Mulder's sister, but even that was improvised. The early seasons dropped numerous clues that she was still alive, like Mulder finding a medical file with a "recent tissue sample" or, you know, being flat-out told "She's still alive" by people who had no reason to lie. But then, when the writers got tired of the plot, they revealed that she had been dead all along.
"Well, shit, that was a waste of time."
Everyone who first heard the concept of 24 (that each of the 24 episodes would represent one hour in a single day, told real-time) thought it would either be the coolest damned thing ever or a ridiculous gimmick. Where normal dramas like House have a new story line (or patient) every week, each season of 24 would be like one 24-hour-long action movie, with one continuing story.
Plus as much torture as a major network will allow.
This of course made for quite a challenge on the writing end, since they'd need to carefully map out exactly what was going to happen during that season's "day," just as they would with a film. Otherwise you wind up with a confused mess with ridiculous plot turns they were forced to pull out of their ass when they wrote themselves into a corner.
But Actually ...
Early in Season 6 they had a nuclear bomb going off in Los Angeles and killing at least 12,000 people ... only to be forgotten a few episodes later. That is, a few hours later. In the world of 24, America gets over an attack four times the size of 9/11 before the emergency response even gets fully under way. Did the writers really plan it that way?
That's worth what, at least a half-dozen Toby Keith albums?
To quote writer David Fury, they were just "winging it." He says that worked out fine because they got good ratings doing it: "In the early seasons of 24, [the writers tried] to map out stories and arc out stories [beforehand] a little bit more than they did, say, in seasons four and five, and four and five turned out to be two of most successful seasons."
Though even during the seasons he claims they planned out, you have sequences that come completely out of left field, like the bit in Season 2 where Jack's daughter Kim "ended up lost in the middle of a forest, chased by a cougar, where she was taken in by a lonely man who she subsequently escaped from."
Cougar encounters are rarely the result of careful planning.
The problem with thinking of 24 as one long movie is that TV shows aren't shot like movies -- in terms of schedule, it's more like a series of movies or sequels that are all being made at once.
Remember that it takes months to make just a single episode of a show once all of the prep work is thrown in. An action show like 24 has to go through creating storyboards, securing locations, procuring gallons of fake blood, etc. But you can't spend five years making one season, so the production of the episodes has to overlap, and different episodes have different directors. In other words, Episode 1 will be shooting while Episode 5 is still just drunken notes on a cocktail napkin.
Actual DVD extra.
And not only do you not have time to write 24 complete scripts before shooting starts, but even a vague map of story specifics can be thrown off if an actor or location isn't available later on.
In reality, the first time the writers of 24 actually sat down to plan a whole "day" or season in advance was Season 7, according to Kiefer Sutherland. Why? Because a writers strike delayed production.
"Who killed Laura Palmer?"
Twin Peaks was a massively influential, genre-defying series that made a lot of people realize you could still be original on TV. It became a national obsession 20 years ago, and half the shows on this list wouldn't exist if it wasn't for Twin Peaks. In fact, David Duchovny got his start there:
Odd thing is, Duchovny would totally do her.
At the center of Twin Peaks' two seasons and theatrical film was the mystery of the murder of Laura Palmer, which creators David Lynch and Mark Frost used as a springboard to explore the disturbing underbelly of a seemingly peaceful little town.
Also, they serve pretty damn good waffle fries.
But Actually ...
It was eventually revealed that Laura's killer was a demon by the unassuming name of Bob, who had possessed Laura's father and forced him to abuse and kill her. Bob (already a recurring character) went on to become the main antagonist of the second season -- he was so important that the series cliff-hanger focuses on him, hinting that he would have played an even larger role in the unrealized third season.
If you've read this far, you know you're about to find out that when the series kicked off, Lynch had no freaking clue that the killer was Bob. What is even more ridiculous is that Bob exists only because of this:
That scene is from the first episode, which ends when Laura's mom has a terrifying vision. We don't see what it is, but you can see a reflection in the upper-right corner -- the face of the killer.And it was an accident. That face is the set decorator.
Look at him vault that couch.
While looking at the footage for the scene, they noticed that set decorator Frank Silva was reflected in the mirror, even though Laura's mom is supposed to be completely alone. Instead of firing the guy for ruining the shot, David Lynch incorporated him into the story as Bob. The entire rest of the series centered on his murder of Laura. So, basically, Silva got cast as a major character in a popular show by being the most incompetent set decorator ever.
Related: Peak TV IS Dead. R.I.P.
OK, people skipping ahead to see if Lost was #1: You can go back to the beginning of the list now. Of course it is.
Wasn't this show originally some sort of survival drama?
The plot: A bunch of people get stuck on an island, weird shit happens. Then the entire series involves unfolding the mystery of what exactly is the nature of the island, and about six dozen sub-mysteries. ("What is the nature of Hurley's numbers? What happened to Walt?")
But Actually ...
The thing with Lost is that fans didn't just assume all the mysteries had an answer -- they were explicitly told so by the creators.
In a 2005 interview, co-creator Damon Lindelof said: "Every mystery that we present on the show ... all of those are questions that we know the answers to." He also said that "nothing in the show is flat-out impossible" and that everything so far could be explained by science. Sure, he was talking in the present tense -- but the present tense included the Smoke Monster, who ended up being the ghost of a 2,000-year-old guy who can impersonate dead people, and Michael's 10-year-old son, Walt, displaying supernatural powers that turned out to be ... actually, we have no idea, because that was never explained.
Fortunately, some of the writers have been a little more up front. You know the sequence of numbers that kept recurring in the show? The numbers that seemed to have so many mysterious influences (from making one man win the lottery to causing a plane to crash) that an explanation seemed almost impossible?
Season 1 writer David Fury (there's that guy again) says he has no idea what "the numbers" meant, and he's the one who came up with them.
"I was too busy practicing my comb-over to pay attention to my writing."
Hey, what about the early episode where characters hear mysterious whispering in the jungle? Let's again hear what Fury said in an interview:
"I can't tell you what they are now, but I can tell you what they WERE. They were supposed to be the Others, lurking in the jungle. At that time, we hadn't yet settled on what the Others would be."
Well, what about that episode that implied Walt could summon animals, and even made a polar bear appear on the island after reading about one in a comic book? Fury says:
"That was the intent. But then ... things have changed since my time."
OK. Well, how about that Smoke Monster then?
"There was no mythology to speak of in place during the early episodes of the series. We were building it as we went along, discussing possibilities. ... Some thought of it as a monster of the id, much like in Forbidden Planet -- that maybe it appeared differently to everyone who saw it. The most tangible thought, as explained later by Rousseau, was that it functioned as a security system set up by the island's creators/early residents ... whatever we later decided the answer was."
If you're ready for a tight, hole-free script watch Cracked's delightful parody of the Star Wars universe.
Maxwell Yezpitelok lives in Chile, and when he isn't waiting for the next catastrophe, he likes to waste his time writing back to scammers or making stupid comics. Special thanks to Gishface, Ashe and Robinyj.
For more television revelations you didn't want to hear, check out The 7 Most Soul-Crushing Series Finales in TV History. Or learn why, sometimes, you should let the fans write these things, in 6 Insane Fan Theories That Actually Make Great Movies Better.