Episode By Episode: The Steven Universe Pilot, “The Time Thing”

The Steven Universe pilot is no longer streaming, but you can still watch it on Internet Archive.

You know how they say it only takes one moment to change your life forever? I didn’t know it then, but mine happened on May 21st, 2013 when the seven-minute-long Steven Universe pilot was uploaded onto the Cartoon Network website.

The show would grow into its first 3 seasons before I began watching it, quickly amassing a fanbase of millions with its loveable characters, intricate world building, and message about love and family. It would then go on for another 2 seasons, culminating in a total of 160 episodes, before spawning its own television movie and 20-episode epilogue season.

As for me? Hook, line, and sinker.

It’s been a year since Steven ended his journey, but the show is still my Happy Place. I suppose part of it is the way it uses music as a storytelling medium (a.k.a. my kryptonite), and the other is its commitment to inclusivity and vulnerability when addressing real life issues, something that was unheard of in the industry when it first premiered.

A lot of this can be attributed to Rebecca Sugar, the creator of Steven Universe, whose unique voice is inseparable from the show. In 2012, she was the first solo female to get an official series green-lit by Cartoon Network with Steven Universe. Before that, she worked on another Cartoon Network production, Adventure Time, as a storyboard artist and songwriter.

But among fans, she was most known for championing LGBTQ+ representation on the show, leading to the introduction of Princess Bubblegum and Marceline the Vampire Queen as the queer icons we know and love. She also wrote, and returned to write, many of the show’s iconic songs including “Fry Song”, “I’m Just Your Problem”, “Bacon Pancakes”, “Good Little Girl”, “Everything Stays” and “Time Adventure”.

Though she left the show in its fifth season to develop Steven Universe, a little bit of Adventure Time remained in her show, from its storyboard-driven approach where artists are also writers, to the show’s multifaceted storytelling and appeal to both children and adults.

Rewatching the pilot after that, it feels more like a love letter to everything Rebecca Sugar accomplished on Adventure Time. Yet, the two shows couldn’t be more different.

Originally created as a way to pitch the show to Cartoon Network, Steven Universe‘s pilot was named “The Time Thing” after a powerful artefact that the Crystal Gems — Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl — bring home to Steven after another adventure.

But when Steven gets into an embarrassing situation at the local doughnut shop, he accidentally programs the artefact to turn back time so he can make a snappy comeback. Needless to say, things quickly descend into chaos and it’s up to the Crystal Gems (with a little help from Steven!) to save the day.

For what sounds like a simple premise, the pilot is surprisingly in-depth. Its stunning how quickly it manages to establish its main characters and their dynamics; Garnet as the silent leader type, Pearl as the controlling goody-two-shoes, Amethyst as the casual and fun one, and Steven as the young, eager child that just wants to belong.

Not only that, it functions as a sneak peek of what the show has in store for us, from the Crystal Gems’ magical-girl-inspired transformations, to Steven singing what would be the show’s theme song on the ukulele.

But the show changes quite a bit from the pilot too. It abandons its 90’s art style for a cleaner look and pastel palette. The Crystal Gems’ designs are more streamlined with clearer silhouettes (another practice adopted from Adventure Time so they’d be recognisable no matter the art style). Steven is also aged down and has a more positive attitude, something that would become iconic to the character.

Still, the essence of the show remains. That is, a story about unconditional love and kindness. A sappy one, perhaps, but I think you’d be pleasantly surprised by the complex story it has hidden under wraps. I know it impacted the way I think about media (and about myself) until today, which makes me even more excited to watch it all over again.

On next week’s Episode By Episode, I’ll be kicking off my journey by analysing the 1st and 2nd episodes of Steven Universe. Until then!

Coming Soon: Steven Universe Episode 1 & 2
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