The recent conclusion of the Game of Thrones TV series, which coincided with the release of A Dance With Dragons, the fifth volume in George R.R. Martin’s ambitious fantasy epic Song of Ice and Fire, made me wonder how many viewers are actually aware of the rich history behind the show. No, I’m not talking about the long history of the Westeros continent, but rather on that of Martin’s television career.
Martin emerged as a new bold voice in the world of science fiction and fantasy literature in the early 1970s, and established himself as the leader of today’s epic fantasy literature with the release of A Game of Thrones in 1998. But between 1984 and 1995, Martin’s name became associated with a surprisingly eclectic filmography of genre works. His short stories were adapted (by other writers) into episodes of the anthology shows The Hitchhiker and the 1990s version of The Outer Limits, and also into the theatrical feature Nightflyers (a messed-up, cheap looking sci-fi thriller from 1987 that nonetheless benefitted from a strong performance by Catherine Mary Stewart in the leading role). Martin’s own screenwriting career began in 1986, adapting stories by other authors for the new version of The Twilight Zone before writing his first original script for the show, “The Road Less Travelled”. He then became one of the leading writers in the romantic fantasy drama Beauty and the Beast, starring Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton. Finally, in 1991, Martin got a call from his agent telling him that pitch meetings with the major networks were set, and that the networks executives were ready to hear his ideas for new shows. Martin went to those meetings all excited about the possibility of adapting his own novella “Skin Trade” into a supernatural mystery show. As a backup plan, he pitched another idea in these meetings, based on another story he wrote – the story of a girl travelling between parallel worlds. The “Skin Trade” concept failed to generate interest among the networks executives, but the parallel-worlds traveling girl got them all excited, and ABC was quick to snatch the project underneath the other networks’ noses. Martin’s pilot script, titled “Doorways”, was given a green light, filmed in 1992, and was screened to an enthusiastic network – so enthusiastic, that it immediately ordered scripts for six additional episodes and scheduled it for its midseason in the following year. Martin was gearing up for the greatest achievement of his TV career…
And then things just fell apart. Management changes at the network led to an indefinite postponement of the show’s broadcast, and finally, to the decision not to pick it up. Martin continued to write and sell scripts, including other pilots, but his interests clearly lay elsewhere now, as he began devoting more time to the project that would become the Game of Thrones novel.
Doorways opens with a girl named Cat (Anne Le Guernec) who appears seemingly out of nowhere in the middle of a highway. Panicked, she causes a lot of collateral damage using some kind of an advanced weapon. She is caught and placed by the authorities under the care of young Doctor Thomas Mason (George Newbern) who, in his attempt to help the girl, soon finds himself in trouble: as it turns out, both a group of government operatives, led by the determined agent Trager (Kurtwood Smith), and a group of not-quite-human creatures led by a frightening bully named Thane (Robert Knepper) are after Cat and the secrets she’s holding. While on the run from both groups, Cat leads Mason to a mysterious “Door” they both pass through – only to find themselves in a weird version of the world they just left, in which all petroleum has disappeared from the face of the Earth. To make matters worse, the gang that chased Cat is still hot on their tails.
Martin’s major source of inspiration for Doorways appears to have been Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber series – in one of the pilot’s key scenes, Thane wonders aloud if all the worlds he visited are merely “shadows” of one true world, a concept that practically mirrors Zelazny’s novels. Martin’s own Twilight Zone script, “The Road Less Travelled”, also demonstrated his strong interest in parallel realities, upon which he has expanded in Doorways. Another source of inspiration may have been the time-travel hit show Quantum Leap, with the protagonists being thrown in each new episode (had the show been picked up) to a different world, facing new problems, and hoping to make it back home one day.
But Martin’s script, Peter Werner’s direction and the cast members’ performances all help mixing these ingredients into a highly fresh and entertaining 90 minutes of television. From the opening scene on a busy highway through Mason’s investigation into Cat’s identity to the desperate chases trough both our world and the parallel reality – everything bursts with energy and excitement, a wild ride of a story in which anything can happen. Newbern is at his top form playing the kind doctor whose good intentions get him into trouble, and French actress Le Guernec fits perfectly into the role of someone who clearly came from another region. It’s the actors in the smaller roles that steal the show, however, particularly Smith in a dual role of a lawman in both worlds, and Jennifer Rhodes as a Ma Barker-type bandit leader. The only disappointment is perhaps Robert Knapper, whose performance as the bad guy pales in comparison to the great job he did later playing a psychopath in Prison Break. Though the production’s limited budget is sometimes felt in the stunts and special effects areas (both were supposed to go through a makeover before the pilot’s airing), a clever choice of urban and rural sets provides the production with convincing backdrop, and even considering the low budget, it’s hard not to be impressed with the pilot’s rich supply of innovative visual ideas, especially when it comes to the portrayal of the alternate world (a gang of though bikers riding…bicycles?).
But the most striking thing about watching the pilot today is realizing just how ahead of its time it was, and what a ground-breaking show it could have grown into. The most obvious comparison that comes to mind when watching the pilot is Sliders, the 1995 show whose protagonists were also trying to find their way home through parallel worlds, though it largely lacked the intensity and urgency that accompanied Martin’s pilot. Another parallel that comes to mind is the Wachowski brothers’ Matrix films – Thane, the seemingly unstoppable foe who travels through realities, bears more than a passing resemblance to Agent Smith, and the pilot also features a charming performance by a young Carrie Anne Moss. Doorways also recalls Luc Besson’s film The Fifth Element, especially in its portrayal of the relationship between an Earthly protagonist and a girl from another world with broken English, who find themselves charged with saving the cosmos. And above all, I’d love to know if comic writer extraordinaire Neil Gaiman had a chance to see the Doorways pilot before he sat down to write his own TV show (which he later wrote the novelization of) Neverwhere – the similarities between Gaiman’s and Martin’s works are all over, from the good-hearted guy who gets into trouble for helping a mysterious girl in need, to the girl’s ability to open “doors” between worlds. Alas, the innovativeness of Doorways remained largely unknown to most genre fans – the filmed pilot found its way to a limited VHS release, now out of print.
And now, almost twenty years later, it’s back – in comics form, at least. Publisher IDW has acquired the rights to adapt the pilot’s original pilot script into a four-issue series with artist Stefano Martino now in charge of visualizing Martin’s vision. Originally published between 2010 and 2011, the series was recently collected in a handsome hardcover collected edition. The plot remained essentially the same, as did Martin’s dialogue, and both feel as fresh and entertaining as before. In fact, the comics version keeps a somewhat better pacing than the filmed version does: things move a lot faster, with both action and talking-heads scenes compressed into shorter segments, pushing things forward with each new page. Compared to the pilot’s generally low production values, Martino’s art certainly gives the script a far more polished feeling – now without budgetary constraint, Cat’s futuristic weapon is a truly frightening device, while the appearance of Thane and his gang is truly monstrous.
But it wasn’t just the plot and the action that made Martin’s original Doorways script such a fun experience – the memorable characters played an important part as well. This is one area in which the comics comes off lacking in comparison to the filmed pilot. The filmed pilot’s cast delivered its line with a lot of personality and charm that Martino’s character designs simply fail to capture, mostly because he plays it safe and sticks with the familiar conventions of today’s comics market. The look he gave Cat is perhaps the greatest offense: instead of the deeply scarred, though-as-nails woman portrayed by Le Guernec – who isn’t, by any means, a classic beauty – Martino’s Cat is a typical “babe” who hangs around most of the time wearing a variety of crop-tops that emphasize her big boobs. Mason and Trager received the square-jawed tough guy look under Martino’s pencils – which, while not entirely unfitting, ignores both characters’ gentler, more caring side. Martino’s art also generally keeps the atmosphere very dark and serious, ignoring the script wittier elements.
Still, the re-introduction of Doorways to Martin’s fans, old and new, is definitely a good thing, and it came in a perfect timing. I hope that some distributor will see the potential in a digital re-release of the filmed pilot as well, with appropriate extras (a commentary track by Martin would be nice). And who knows? One day, Martin may decide to tell us more of Mason and Cat’s journeys through alternate worlds.
When he’s not working on his PhD researching animation as a text, Raz Greenberg works as a content editor and translator, and spends his time writing reviews, articles, and stories. His articles have appeared in Strange Horizons, Animated Views, RevolutionSF, and Salon Futura; his fiction has appeared in FutureQuake, Murky Depths, and Ray Gun Revival, and in several Hebrew genre magazines in his home country of Israel. In 2010, a short story by him was nominated for the Geffen Award, given by the Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy.