The creative vision of Avatar: The Last Airbender remained consistent throughout its three-season run, but its original pilot was far different. The episode has been an extra on home releases for years, but has now been made available online for free.
Shown as part of a stream on Nickelodeon’s Twitch channel (beginning at the 43:29 mark), the segment in question is less than 15 minutes long, but relates the basic ideas that would grow into the beloved series.
It begins with a voiceover similar to that which opens every episode, but is neither as concisely worded nor efficiently timed, and adds as backstory the basic plot of what became series opener “The Boy in the Iceberg.” Also, its art style is far more simplistic, something akin to Flash than the more familiar richly detailed animation.
It has fragments of similarity to first season episode “The Warriors of Kyoshi,” but is by and large devoid of any real story, first seeing Team Avatar attacked by Zuko as they fly on Appa over the ocean, and then again as they search for food on an island. It demonstrates several plot aspects that the series expands upon though, such as the bending arts being a martial discipline and not just a manipulation of the classic elements, Aang’s occasionally immature nature that contrasts against the responsibility weighing down upon him, and his attraction to Katara.
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A few differences are also apparent, most notably Katara having yet to be renamed from her original name of Kya, Aang consciously entering the Avatar State without effort, Katara being more protective of Aang’s safety and less confident of his prowess in battle, an odd moment seeing Fire Nation soldiers using hoses to put out a fire instead of, y’know, their inherent ability to control flame, and perhaps most glaringly, the complete absence of Iroh.
Pilot episodes are not designed to be watched by a viewing public, but instead function as a proof of concept for network executives, who use them to decide what shows to commission that year. Most premiere episodes of new series are versions of an initial pilot reworked to be more coherent and narratively relevant, incorporating details developed after the series was greenlit. Seen after the fact, the pilot of Avatar: The Last Airbender might not appear to be anything particularly special, but its potential is clear even in such a straightforward presentation, and we can all be glad it was afforded the opportunity to realize it.