Things start off with another one of the "Film Ventures International" credit sequences of heavily processed footage from a completely different movie. ("You know, I don't think we should get wrapped up in these credits; I'm sure they've got nothing to do with the movie.") Then, it's on to three astronauts in a pretty approximate version of an Apollo capsule, about to finish off a long mission despite some sort of malfunction. ("And we ran out of oxygen two days ago.") In any case, they can see Earth and talk to mission control in real time, and then the capsule starts tumbling...
Astronaut Neil Stryker survives to wind up stranded in a hospital room, cut off from contact with the outside world and starting to suspect his doctors. It so happens that the doctors are drugging him nightly and questioning him about "their space program," overseen by George Benedict, sort of ominous in a grey double-breasted suit and black turtleneck and played by Cameron Mitchell, who played the benevolent yet somehow not quite competent Santa Claus-like patriarch captain in "Space Mutiny." Despite being beardless and black-haired in this particular movie, he's recognizable enough.
Neil Stryker finally manages to break out of his hospital room, threatening a female doctor during his escape (she promptly gives him away to the black-helmeted authorities) and getting Benedict to machine-gun a dumbwaiter full of clothing he used for misdirection. ("Oh, they shot my spare turtlenecks.") On the outside, despite having been shot in his escape Stryker discovers that phones in phone booths have no buttons, there are three moons clustered in the sky, and everyone is left-handed: the planet's name is "Terra." ("Hey wait, isn't that where Scarlett O'Hara lived?") In the meantime, Benedict is explaining to a meeting ("You know how many TV series would be wiped out if his room were blown up?") that by being different, Stryker threatens "the Perfect Order," which has eliminated dictators by enforcing uniformity of thought and may be enforced by other people also dressed in grey double-breasted suits and black turtlenecks.
Stryker stumbles into a bookstore where he discovers via the elderly and apparently kindly proprietor ("His name isn't Yoda by any chance, is it?") that history books say "it all started with the Perfect Order," no more than thirty-five years ago (given when the pilot was made, this might have provoked a thought or two of the start of World War II). While Stryker is trying to treat his injury, a doctor's brought in and it just happens to be Bettina Cooke, the doctor he threatened during his escape. Driven off into the country in a great boat of a Chrysler car, Stryker starts talking Cooke out of supporting the Perfect Order, and then forces a kiss on her to escape detection by people driving the other way. Cooke slaps him, then takes him to an old professor who we can tell stands against the Perfect Order because he now lives out in the country next to a pigpen, and informs Stryker that religion has been outlawed.
In the meantime, Benedict's hopes of being promoted to the next level are threatened by Stryker being on the loose, and the doctor who had been drugging him in the first place but had wound up suffering pangs of conscience over his is apparently unresponsive ("Lobotomy means never having to say you're sorry.") in an actual "futuristic" set that might be the "Ward E" spoken of in threatening tones. Out in the country, the professor has concluded that Earth and Terra must have been "flung out from the sun" at the same time so that they both developed in exactly the same way right up to both worlds having Chryslers, with the sun always exactly between them. (Even for the time the pilot was made, this struck me as an old and discredited idea; nowadays, I could imagine "parallel universes" being invoked, although perhaps this just amounts to making one big claim about which there's complete uncertainty rather than a series of smaller claims that might have once seemed a little more plausible.) It turns out that the professor has been worked over by the Perfect Order in the past and has to inject himself every so often (much fun is had by the "riffers" about this), but he still has a plan to get Stryker on to one of Terra's spacecraft. Cooke, who has managed to fall for Stryker in a big way for some reason not quite clear, has an emotional farewell with him.
The professor manages to bluff Stryker into a launch centre that might be an industrial plant somewhere, but in the meantime Benedict has been waiting for Cooke. When the professor happens to break the one vial of necessary drugs he took with him ("Note to myself: pack more life-saving liquid!"), Stryker manages to do pretty well all by himself. However, since this is a mere pilot and not a standalone movie, Cooke has been roughed up and sent to the professor's house (by this time, I suppose I can begin to sympathise with upset complaints about how bad things are always happening to female characters, in this hypothetical case), and insists on seeing Stryker one last time. With the professor shot, Stryker must make a getaway through a utility tunnel (with Benedict around, it's tempting enough to get "Space Mutiny" vibes), and finally blows up a liquid oxygen tank and uses the explosion to leap into the ocean. His grey double-breasted jacket finally missing, Benedict thanks the electroshocked Cooke for her help of the Perfect Order and then happens to drop a bit of Stryker's watch that Cooke picks up. ("Oh, he dropped the thing that's going to drive the whole series!") Stryker stumbles ashore ("And so, standing erect, he emerged from the slime.") and falls in with some helpful people (with the riffers speculating about how they're going to get lobotomies too).
The pilot, I suppose, leaves me wondering about different ways of presenting dystopia; not, perhaps, that it was ever quite successful at that itself. Some of the "riffing" and some of the "host segments" do seem inspired just by around when the pilot was made to dwell on 1970s TV, and that might go over my head a little and leave me pondering some recent comments about how later episodes would have just gone for comments sharper or nastier about what was on screen, and if indeed I'm stuck somewhere in the middle of that. However, Crow and Tom discussing what "Ward E" means to them is kind of fun.