Season 1, Episode 1
Episode 1 of 78
Network NBC
Air date January 2, 1994 (USA)
February 2, 1995 (Germany)
Written by Danny Bilson
Paul DeMeo
Directed by Danny Bilson
Guest stars: Sydney Walsh
Lee Chamberlin
Jon Polito
Jason Carter
Fay Hauser
Marte Boyle Slout
William Russ
Episode Guide
none, pilot episode
Once a Thief
NBC Pilot promo

NBC Pilot promo

Pilot is the first episode of Season 1 of Viper. Starring James McCaffrey, Dorian Harewood and Joe Nipote, it first aired on NBC as the "NBC Sunday Night Movie" on January 2, 1994.


Metro City is gripped by a crime wave, under siege by The Outfit. The police force, MetroPol has one weapon to try to fight the crime - a new Dodge Viper RT/10 roadster that can morph into an armored "Defender". However, the problem is that it lacks a driver with quick reflexes that is able to handle the vehicle.

Plot Edit

The episode opens at MetroPol, at the evening, where Julian Wilkes (Harewood) and few other technicians are currently looking at a computer screen. Wilkes then tells Madison (Josh Cruze) to start up the Viper and head out for the test track. After initiating the changeover to the Defender mode, Wilkes has one of his assistants put out an obstacle in the form of a car, Madison proves unable to handle the Defender and crashes.

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Wilkes preparing for the next test of the Viper.

The next day, Metro City Councilman Strand (Polito) and MetroPol Commander Thorne (Chamberlin) arrive at the garage, accompanied by Madison, who claims that there's something wrong with the Viper. Wilkes rebukes his claims, to which Madison quits. Strand is annoyed that Wilkes has used up most of the funds allocated to him, and yet after six drivers, still can't find a driver for the Viper. Strand is planning to run for Mayor of Metro City, with his campaign based entirely on fighting crime. Strand then asks Thorne to find them a driver, "no matter where or how".

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The leader of the Highwaymen gang.

The scene then cuts to four black Dodge Stealths outside the Vectrocom building. A lone guard is on duty, when he gets a call that from a deliverywoman (Lisa McCullough) who needs his signature for a package. He lets her in, just as four criminals in black rappel inside. One of them takes the woman hostage, and the guard is ordered to deactivate the alarm system and open the inner doors. The guard is then locked with the woman inside a security room, where he is about to activate the master control system to seal them in and wait for the police to arrive, only for her to knock him out. She then takes off her uniform, revealing that she's wearing the same outfit as the intruders, who then walk in and remove their masks.

One of them (Mark Pellegrino), speaking with a Russian accent, deletes the security video memory; another one (Carter), speaking with a British accent, is about to "delete the guard", before being stopped by the team's leader (McCaffrey), who calls him Conner, not wanting to add a murder to his rap sheet; and the African-American henchman (Sami Chester). The woman's name is then revealed as Andi, as Conner comments that the guard had seen her and might be able to identify her. The Russian goon unlocks the lab doors, and the intruders move inside to steal a satellite.

As they pull out of the underground parking garage, it triggers an alarm system. A police unit goes out to catch them, which the team's leader overhears over the police radio in his car. At an intersection, the cars suddenly all split up. The leader's name is then revealed as "Payton" by the black henchman, who informs him that he's heading towards a police roadblock. As Payton drives towards the roadblock, with the officers ready to fire, he suddenly makes a 180 and drives off in another direction. Two police units start to chase him, and during the chase, he fails to notice a bus cutting him off in front of him, hits the bus, and crashes into a wall.

The scene then cuts to County General Hospital, where he is being treated, as Strand and Thorne look on. Strand comments that he had Payton declared dead at the scene, and with him being the best wheelman of the Outfit, he intends to change his looks slightly, create a memory loss and have him reborn as the MetroPol's driver.

Wilkes is at home, having breakfast with his family - his wife Mara (Hauser) and daughter Lucy (Camille Winbush), annoyed that the Outfit - namely, "The Highwaymen" gang has yet again been able to strike and yet the MetroPol is not able to stop them, and the Viper may face cancellation due to the inability to find a driver to handle it. Just then, they hear a crash outside, as their older daughter, Ronnie (Dawn Gardner) walks in, only to be followed by a lookalike. It turns out that Ronnie had used Wilkes' hologram projector to make a real, life-size copy of herself. Although annoyed that she had played with his tools without his permission, Wilkes is impressed that Ronnie was able to figure out how to use the projector all by herself. Just then, Wilkes is called on his videophone by Strand, asking him to meet him at Thorne's office in one hour, as they had found a driver.

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Joe Astor is "reborn".

At hospital, the "new" Payton is being treated by Dr. Elizabeth Houston (Walsh), whom he asks for information on how he ended up in hospital, and is told that his name is Joe Astor and he's a police officer. Meanwhile, Strand tells Wilkes that Astor had been "transferred from the Chicago Police Department", and he's highly qualified with a good service record and is a National Auto Rally champion". His accident is explained as having been injured in a high-speed chase the day before he was due to leave Chicago, and that physically he will make a full recovery, but he suffers from amnesia. Wilkes is not happy about having an "banged up amnesiac" being selected to drive the Viper, but as they're out of time and money, he's told that either Astor becomes the driver, or the Viper project will be cancelled.

Astor is checked out of hospital, and on Monday, he comes to test the Viper. The test is a success and he comments that he would now "never want to drive anything else". As he, Elizabeth, Wilkes and Mara celebrate at a restaurant, he is spotted by the black henchman seen before, who recognizes him flipping the coin between his fingers. He leaves to the team's hideout, where he is seen trying to convince Conner that he just saw Payton, who refuses to believe him, as they are preparing for the next job - stealing a plague anti-toxin and holding it for ransom.

Next at the garage, Wilkes is demonstrating the Probe - a drone installed in Viper, as Joe pulls in with the Viper. However, Strand is dismayed that the Viper does not have any real guns, which Wilkes objected to, having been relegated to a wheelchair since he had been caught in the crossfire while walking home from school. Joe agrees to take the risk of driving the Viper without guns mounted, but elects to carry his own sidearm.

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Frankie gets caught taking pictures.

Meanwhile, a man in a suit is caught taking photos of the car, as a cop catches him in the act and arrests him. The man identifies himself as Motorpool records officer Franklin X. Waters. The cop takes Frankie inside to meet Wilkes, who tells Joe that Frankie, a car nut, has been constantly asking him to sign the transfer papers ever since he had found out about the Viper project.

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Disabling Andi's car with the pulse.

That night, Joe drives off in the Viper for his first official crime-fighter missions. Using the static pulse projector, he manages to stop a Corvette that two car thieves had stolen and taken for a joyride, and next up, catches a burglar in the act with the Probe's video camera. Then he chases the four Stealths that were just involved in the theft of the serum. Using the pulse gun, he manages to disable Andi's car, however, she pulls out a gun and starts firing at him, before being picked up by Conner. As Joe chases them, Andi suddenly pulls out a launcher and fires at him, damaging the Viper's armor by the door. However, Joe elects to continue the chase, and with the help of the Probe, discovers the black henchman hiding inside a building. Using the grappling hook, he pulls out the door of the building and disables the Stealth by ramming it with the battering ram.

As Conner and Andi escape, they recognize the man who pursued them as Payton. The black henchman is identified as Nichols. Conner then visits the Outfit's leader, Mr. Townsend (Russ), who tells him to steal the Viper. As Joe is reviewing the photos from the chase, he starts to have flashbacks from the first chase. He is then visited by his old team, and attempts to fight them off, but is then tranquilized and kidnapped. At the hideout, the team tries to revive his memory by attaching a pair of video goggles on his head and running his memories as Michael Payton through them, which seems to work. The Russian henchman is then identified as Yuri. Conner then tells Joe to go to the Motorpool, steal the Viper and bring it to them. Yuri then drives Joe back to his apartment, where Joe angrily starts "cleaning the house" - throwing everything of Joe Astor's "past" to the floor. Angry at having been lied to, Joe lashes out at Elizabeth and heads off to confront Wilkes, who, however, convinces him that Michael Payton wouldn't have had much of a life anyway and would have been killed sooner or later, but as Joe Astor, he was given another chance.

Joe leaves the garage without the Viper, where he is seen by Yuri, who reports it to Conner. Conner decides that "we'd have to give him the additional motivation". As Joe heads out to visit Elizabeth, the house is blown up just as he gets off the bike. He rushes inside to find Elizabeth dead and cries. Next up, Townsend is seen talking to Conner, telling that he'll deal with the situation himself from now on, then calls Strand.

Joe visits Elizabeth's mother (Slout), who, upon hearing his name, invites him in. Mrs. Houston reveals that Elizabeth had confided in her everything about him, including his former life as Michael Payton, and says that Elizabeth did really love him and was happy doing her job. As Joe is about to leave, she gives him a box Elizabeth had requested that she gave him. Inside that, he finds a key to a safe deposit box, where he discovers a large stash of money.

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Locked out.

Meanwhile, Wilkes arrives at the garage, only to find out that his access has been denied. He goes to confront Thorne about it, who tells him that the Viper project was terminated and funding was redirected to the River Tunnel extension. Wilkes recognizes it as an Outfit job, but she informs him that there is no hard evidence of Outfit involvement, and she has orders to recycle his monitoring equipment and destroy the Viper in 48 hours. Thorne tells Wilkes that he will be reinstated in Research Ops with a pay raise. Disgusted, he leaves.

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Joe hijacks the Viper from Frankie.

Joe arrives at the police department, where he is met by Frankie, who informs him about the Viper project's cancellation. Frankie takes him to his office, where reveals that Strand received a campaign donation from Townsend, so it couldn't be tracked as a bribe. Frankie and Joe drive to the garage in a police vehicle under the pretense that they came to take the Viper to the crusher. They leave the motorpool in the Viper, with Frankie driving. However, on the way, Joe pulls out his gun and forces Frankie out of the Viper, hijacking it to keep MetroPol from finding out the truth about his involvement.

Joe takes the Viper to Wilkes' garage. Later that night, Joe and Wilkes meet Thorne, who reveals that she knew all along about Strand being bribed by the Outfit and resigned from MetroPol. She reveals to Joe that the amnesia was induced on Strand's orders, which she had reluctantly agreed to, in the interests of the city. Joe tells her to lie to the Council that the car has been destroyed and arrange for Nichols to be transferred to state prison.

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Strand gets killed by Townsend's driver.

Strand, having just been elected Mayor, is visited by Townsend on a bridge. Strand provides Townsend with the route and escort request of the transfer due to take place in the afternoon. However, having heard from his contact that the Viper was never destroyed, Townsend's driver throws Strand off the bridge.

The Highwaymen are then seen planning to break Nichols out of the prison convoy. Having predicted it would happen, Joe and Wilkes head out in the Viper to intercept them. The Highwaymen immobilize the police sedans escorting the prison transport vehicle with hidden roadside mines, and hijack the transporter. However, Yuri is unable to undo Nichols's cuffs as the Viper arrives, leading Conner to drive the transporter himself.

As Joe attempts to immobilize Andi's car with the pulse, he and Wilkes discover that the vehicle has been fitted with a neutralizer. Using the hologram projector, Joe and Wilkes take out Yuri, and then Andi by firing a grappling hook from the rear into her engine, and then pulling her close to the rear-mounted battering ram, before sending her spinning out off the road. Since they're about to arrive in the town soon again, Joe asks Julian to drive, controlling the car with the computer while steering manually, as he morphs the Defender back into normal mode, before jumping on the van. He and Conner engage in a fight, but before Conner pushes Joe out, Joe pulls the pin on a smoke grenade, before jumping back on the Viper. The smoke emitting from the grenade causes Conner to crash the van. Discovering that the backup units are responding to the failed hijack, Joe and Wilkes put the Viper in four-wheel drive mode and drive off over the fields.

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Team's safehouse.

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Joe and Wilkes (with the Viper in the background) inside the safehouse.

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Frankie joins the team.

In the final scene, Joe and Wilkes are seen in an power station, that had been abandoned for 50 years, which Joe reveals that he bought, using the money Elizabeth had directed him to - which had been Payton's. Joe comments that he chose the location because it was off the grid and no one will come looking for them in there, just as Frankie pulls up outside in his Barracuda. Frankie comes in, revealing that the place is not even included in the city survey maps, and that he hacked the transaction online to wipe all evidence of it. Wilkes finally agrees to let Frankie onboard, but reminds him that the Outfit will be after them. However, Joe says that the Outfit would have to "catch them first".


Season1 big

Promotional picture with James McCaffrey, Dorian Harewood and Joe Nipote.

Michael Payton originally had brown eyes. When he was reborn as Joe Astor, he now had blue eyes, changed with a biochemical dye on orders from Strand.

In the end credits, the copyright year shown is MCMXCIII - 1993. The Pilot was originally filmed in early 1993, and was slated to debut on CBS in Fall 1993 season, but was delayed to January 1994 and moved to NBC; first due to a copyright infringement, when Stephen J. Cannell chose to use the name "Viper" for his new TV show, but after a lawsuit by Chrysler Corporation, he renamed it "Cobra". Second deferment was due to CBS deeming Viper to be too violent and considering burying it.

In the original script, Strand's first name was Warren.

Joe's gun is a Glock pistol with stainless steel slide and a laser sight.

Joe's bike is a Honda VF750C Magna.

Frankie's car is a purple 1971 Plymouth Barracuda.

The prison transport vehicle is a Plymouth Voyager minivan.

As a product placement for Chrysler Corporation, many contemporary Chrysler Corporation concept cars are featured in addition to the Viper and Frankie's Barracuda:

  • 1992 Dodge EPIC minivan, driven by Julian Wilkes;
  • 1993 Chrysler Thunderbolt coupe, driven by Strand;
  • 1991 Chrysler 300 four-door, driven by Yuri;
  • 1987 Lamborghini Portofino sedan, owned by Townsend, chauffeured;
  • 1988 Plymouth Slingshot seen during the first heist;
  • 1989 Plymouth Voyager 3 seen at the Highwaymen's hideout behind the Chrysler 300.

Alec Conner would later reappear in Episode 3, "Ghosts".

During Season 1, Thorne would become a recurring character in four episodes.

Sometime between this episode and next episode, Once a Thief, Townsend would be replaced as the Outfit's leader by Lane Cassidy.

The German title of the episode is "Gehirnwäsche" - "Brainwash".

In German, the Outfit is dubbed as "Das Syndikat" (The Syndicate).


(First line)
Wilkes: Okay, let's hope the human factor doesn't derail us again.

Madison: Defender initiated.
Wilkes: How's the handling?
Madison: It's still a little jittery, but better than last month.
Wilkes: I don't see any mechanical problems. (covers microphone) Think the only thing jittery is behind the wheel.

Madison: You just keep it right there. I'm out!
Wilkes: You know where the door is.

Wilkes: If he [Madison] could drive half as good as he can bitch, we'd be fine.

(Strand and Thorne are overlooking Payton's operation)
Strand: It's a gift, Commander.
Thorne: Who knows about this?
Strand: No one. I had him pronounced dead at the scene of the crash.
Thorne: It can't work!
Strand: Think of it as recycling. Payton is the best driver that the Outfit's ever turned out. After a little cosmetic fine-tuning, he'll be our driver. We'll restructure his nose and his jawline, we'll change the color of his eyes with biochemical dye.
Thorne: But what you're doing is surgically creating a memory loss!
Strand: What I'm doing is trying to save the city!
Thorne: The man's a felon!
Strand: As a felon, he faces life in prison. But after we're finished with him, he'll be the state of the art in criminal rehabilitation.
Thorne: What makes you think he's better than all the other drivers who failed?
Strand: Well, look at his record. He was out on the streets at 10, he started driving at 12. He has no wife, he's got no children, he's spent half his life in jail.
Thorne: It's crazy, Strand.
Strand: No, Commander, it's a gift.

Joe: Julian, I've got a problem. I'm never going to want to drive anything else.

Frankie: Wait till next time that yutz wants a vehicle, I'm gonna give him a Pinto from Parking Patrol.

(Joe and Wilkes are looking over the slides of Michael Payton's memories)
Joe: Makes one hell of a slideshow, doesn't it?
Wilkes: Look, I didn't know. They sold me the same pile of grift they sold you. In the back of my mind, I knew it was all a little too easy, I just couldn't admit it to myself.
Joe: Why not?
Wilkes: It was my car, my dream, my chance to save the city. I needed a driver and there you were.
Joe: Yeah, sure, what the hell did it matter, right? Michael Payton was just another lawbreaker, criminal trash, why should the law protect him? Strip out the old, plug in the new, that doesn't work out, throw him out in the dumpster with the rest of the garbage!
Wilkes: Look, I can't pretend I understand how you feel, but maybe you got something back out of all of this.
Joe: Like what?
Wilkes: Michael Payton would have died in jail, or on the highway, or in some Outfit double-cross. However you look at it, he was going nowhere fast.
Joe: That was his choice, his life!
Wilkes: But sometimes your life gets turned upside down. No one can control that, but if you're lucky it works out and I'd say you are a very lucky man. Now you got a second chance, man, and a woman who loves you and wants to help you take it. You're gonna turn your back on that?

(Strand has been bribed to shut down the Viper project)
Thorne: You needn't worry about your position, we're moving you back to Research Ops with an upgrade in pay.
Wilkes: Keep it. (wheels out)

Joe: Look Julian, yesterday I lost everything! I had no idea who I was. Now I do. This car is a part of me as much as it's a part of you. With or without you, I'm taking the Viper.
Wilkes: Oh, oh, there you go, there you go! Stomping on the gas without putting it in gear. The Viper belongs to the city!
Joe: The city is corrupt!

Thorne: It's a beautiful city, isn't it? The lights, the river, from up here it looks like it did when I started on the force.
Joe: It can be that city again.

Wilkes:  There's a dozen back-up units almost on it.
Joe: I don't feel much like answering questions. You?
Wilkes: No, not me.

Wilkes: Okay, okay, but I'm warning you, it's gonna be a hard road. The Outfit will be breathing down our necks and there will be a lot of people who won't be happy the Viper's out there.
Frankie: Well, if you ask me, I'd say the jeopardy factor is pretty high.
Joe: That's not so high, Frankie. They'll have to catch us first.