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SYFY WIRE Features

How Avatar: The Last Airbender's unaired pilot differs from original, while still setting up the show

By Nivea Serrao
Avatar The Last Airbender

Avatar: The Last Airbender deepened its already impressive legacy when it came to Netflix this summer — and it has since been joined by its sequel series, The Legend of Korra. With so many fans watching the iconic series again (or going on this journey for the first time), it's hard to imagine the series being any different from what fans have come to know and love. But, things almost looked a little different. 

Nickelodeon streamed the unaired pilot of the popular animated series on Twitch on Tuesday, giving fans new and old a taste of what creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino had initially pitched to the network in order to get the series made. The unaired pilot is worth watching, especially because, even in this early state, it also offers an early glimpse at some of the aspects that would later work their way deeper into the show's lore over the course of its three seasons.

This unaired pilot starts off with Zuko already in pursuit of Aang, Katara, and Sokka, who are flying overhead on Appa. Despite his attacks, the trio is able to escape when a sea serpent attacks. They take refuge on an island, but when Sokka goes in search of food, he gets captured by the Fire Nation, prompting Katara to go rescue him. However, when she too gets caught, Aang bursts into the camp, going head to head against Zuko, who still wants to capture the Avatar for his father. Eventually, Aang taps into the Avatar State, while Katara is able to waterbend her and Sokka to freedom, with Aang eventually using his air glider to rescue them and fly all three of them to safety. 

Right away it's clear that Konietzko and DiMartino had locked down their main character designs, as Aang, Katara, Sokka, and even Zuko all look pretty much like how they do on the actual show (and in the recent comics), even though the animation is a little rougher than what fans might be used to. And while the plot of the unaired pilot is quite different from the one that kicked off the show — with Katara and Sokka getting into an argument that un-ices Aang — there's a lot in it that feels familiar, with both Konietzko and DiMartino having recycled bits of the episode's plot and other action set pieces into later episodes, and even having stuck to the similar sound effects and music. 

Here are some of the key differences between the pilots and how they show up later in the series:  

Screenshot of Katara/Kya from the Unaired Avatar: The Last Airbender pilot

There was no 'Katara'

OK, this isn't exactly true. The character still existed and she was still Sokka's sister — as well as a talented and eager waterbender in her own right — but she went by a different name in the episode: Kya. 

Due to certain rights issues, this would go on to become Katara's mother's name, with the character herself getting a different one. The pilot also seems to emphasize her maturity in comparison to Aang's, though it's clear even here that Aang has a crush on her. 

Screenshot from Avatar: The Last Airbender Unaired Pilot

The opening credits were completely different

While the one in the unaired pilot still opens up with four different benders demonstrating the four styles of bending, this one is a lot slower, showcasing each bender in their own nation, rather than the dynamic, faster-paced sequence that depicts them set against a red backdrop. We also get to see Aang's use of the "air scooter," something he later shares that he invented, much to the delight of his fellow airbending students. 

Another aspect of the opening credits that differs is that Katara (or rather, Kya) not only explains her and Sokka's discovery of Aang — something we later see in the show's pilot — but she also vows to keep him safe, rather than just stating her deep belief in him and what she believes he can accomplish. The introduction is also relayed as something her grandmother (aka "Gran Gran") told her.

The map we see is also different, featuring various creatures from the A:TLA universe, including a certain fan-favorite air bison (yip yip!), and Aang's eventual advisor, the Lion Turtle. 

Screenshot from Avatar: The Last Airbender Unaired Pilot

The Avatar State doesn't quite work the same way

When the show first starts, Aang doesn't quite have control over when he goes into the Avatar State; it's just something that gets triggered when he's in grave danger. But in the unaired pilot, Aang purposely puts himself in danger so he can easily access that state, as he goes up against Zuko in a bending battle that sees him employ it as an offensive attack style rather than a specific state of being that allows him to connect with his past lives and wield their collective power. (In the pilot, it also allows him to run across the side of a statue!) 

Screenshot from Avatar: The Last Airbender Unaired Pilot

Zuko has a messenger hawk!

Avatar fans may be used to Aang's animal companions, Appa and Momo, but as this episode reveals, Zuko originally had his own creature who seemed to accompany him in the same way. (At one point Zuko even falls on him for comedic effect!) Sadly, this hawk never became a regular mainstay of the show, but later on, Sokka does get his own messenger hawk, though it too leaves Team Avatar shortly after — possibly to live with Toph's parents! At least "Hawky" and Momo still had a similar rivalry, though not because they were on opposite sides. 

And this isn't the only A:TLA creature to make a surprise appearance in the pilot! Early on in the episode, Aang, Katara, and Sokka are also attacked by a sea serpent who shoots up out of nowhere, though that wouldn't show up until Book 2 of the show. 

Screenshot from Avatar: The Last Airbender Unaired Pilot

There are some methods of bending we haven't seen before

The pilot starts off with Zuko already chasing our original trio, but seeing as they're all flying atop Appa, he needs a way of bringing them down so he can capture them. So he orders his men to use their firebending, and thus gives viewers a never-seen-before technique that never makes it into the series, with four firebending soldiers working together to create a giant fireball that later explodes into smaller ones, almost like a firework. 

And that's not all! In the unaired pilot, "Kya's" waterbending is also strong enough to help her and Sokka escape their capture, even though when the show kicks off, she needs to keep practicing her skills as she doesn't have access to a proper teacher right away — just a water scroll she eventually uses to teach herself. (In fact, the unaired pilot features a sequence that will later be reused in the episode featuring the water scroll, as Aang advises Katara on her waterbending technique as she practices.)

Even Aang's airbending is depicted a little differently, though that could be chalked up more to the slightly different animation style from the animation studio Tin House than to any real change in style. 

Screenshot from Avatar: The Last Airbender Unaired Pilot

The outfits are a little different

One of the things that makes Avatar: The Last Airbender so distinctive is that as the show goes on, characters change outfits and even hairstyles, though some of that has to do with them going undercover. However, eagle-eyed fans will quickly notice that some of the Fire Nation soldiers' outfits in the unaired pilot look a little different than what we're used to on the show. But that's because the creators decided to update the army's armor, instead using a version of those specific designs for Fire Nation soldiers' armor in the past. 

Screenshot of Uncle Iroh from Avatar: The Last Airbender Clip

There's no Iroh!

That's right. When the unaired pilot begins, Zuko isn't in the company of his gentle, tea-loving uncle. In fact, there's no wisdom-infused sight of Iroh throughout the episode. While his presence isn't quite missed — what with the presence of an animated Fire Nation hawk —  Zuko's relentless pursuit of the Avatar with no one to temper his rage really highlights just how instrumental Uncle Iroh was to his redemption arc, and how the characters tend to play off of each other.