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More networks need to do what Syfy is doing with its passed-on pilot High Moon

Syfy passed on High Moon, which, as you might expect, is set on the moon.
Syfy passed on High Moon, which, as you might expect, is set on the moon.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

If you're like a lot of TV fans, then the thought of getting to see one of the hundreds of pilots networks pass on every year is something that fills you with excitement and/or curiosity. But unlike decades ago, when passed-on pilots often aired in the summer (as with this misbegotten attempt to turn Steel Magnolias into a TV show), this happens very rarely today. Part of that is the increased prominence of summer TV taking up more airtime. And part of it is likely just how much the most savvy part of the audience now knows about the process. Networks are rarely fond of promoting their failures, and even more so in a world where lots of people know they're failures.

God bless the Syfy network, then, for airing High Moon tonight as a made-for-TV movie. The pilot, based on the John Christopher novel The Lotus Caves, takes place in a future where the people of Earth are slowly but surely colonizing the moon, with all of the political intrigue that implies. A couple of American prisoners performing grunt work discover a flower growing on the moon's surface, and that leads to a series of revelations that culminate in one big reveal that will probably never be followed up on.

One of the show's creators is Bryan Fuller, of TV's Hannibal and Pushing Daisies. Fuller has experience with pilots that weren't picked up being broadcast, as NBC showed his Munsters remake Mockingbird Lane shortly before Halloween in 2012. Fuller has created this show with Jim Danger Grey, who takes sole credit for the episode's teleplay, and it's directed by Adam Kane. The three have constructed a future-retro vibe that makes nearly every image appear to be the cover of some middle-grade science fiction novel from the '50s.

Truth be told, the pilot for High Moon has some significant problems. It's much too complicated, for instance, trying to lay out every single element of its future world in about 10 minutes, and there are parts where it plays weirdly flat and affectless, as if the characters are all aware they're in a TV show. The pilot also has probably one or two too many likable rogue archetypes, with too few of the characters really sticking in a way that will make you want to watch the next episode immediately.

But if you like this sort of show, and you like this sort of thing, then High Moon might sting just a little bit. There's some really inventive, really great stuff in the middle of all of this, like a man with detachable hands that he uses to effect escapes from enclosed prison cells and the like, and the show bears a sly political streak that understands the import of having a couple of Russian characters having a homosexual relationship. There's really nothing like High Moon on TV, and even if the show had never lived up to the best parts of the pilot, it would have been fun watching it try.

Plus, the pilot works reasonably well as a standalone movie, which may be why Syfy repackaged it. It also could have something to do with how much more rare it is for a cable network to pass on a pilot than for a broadcast network to do so. Cable networks produce so few pilots that there's an incentive to try to recoup at least some of the expense, no matter how they can, which leads to things like this. And with its gleaming surfaces, High Moon likely cost just enough to make Syfy want to see a return on investment.

If nothing else, it's just fun to see a show that a network passed on, to try to get a sense of what it was thinking when it picked the show up and what it was thinking when it passed. It's rare we get this kind of look into a network's decision-making process, and just watching High Moon might encourage networks to air more passed-on pilots in the future. Just don't expect a resolution to that cliffhanger any time soon.

High Moon airs tonight on Syfy at 9 p.m. Eastern.

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