Entering the Twilight Zone
If you’re a fan of fantasy fiction or simply enjoy a good violent drama, George R. R. Martin is probably a name you know. Since at least 1996, with the release of A Game of Thrones, the first book in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, Martin has been crushing all of your hopes and dreams with his pen, which I imagine drips a sanguineous ink. But before he (along with Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss) busied himself with ruining your Sunday nights, Martin brought his disturbing creations to the 1985 revival of The Twilight Zone.
Unlike its predecessor, the ’80s version of The Twilight Zone didn’t quite carve out its own special place in American pop culture, but it did boast some of the best genre talent of its day. You’ll find names like Harlan Ellison, Stephen King, Wes Craven, and William Friedkin within the show’s writing and directing credits, not to mention the actors who brought the nightmares to life, such as Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, Martin Landau, and Jonathan Frakes. And, of course, there’s our friend Mr. Martin, whose career was in a bit of a lull after his fourth novel, The Armageddon Rag, turned out to be a commercial failure in 1983. But good things come in strange ways. Although his career as a novelist was in tatters, Martin soon found a place writing for television—and on one of the most iconic genre shows at that.
Martin told Financial Times in 2012 that “[The Armageddon Rag] was the worst-selling of all my novels and essentially destroyed my career as a novelist at the time. Oddly enough, the same book that essentially crippled my career as a novelist started my career in Hollywood.”
Despite his failure as a novelist, Martin was relatively well-known within the genre writer’s circle, having won several Hugo and Nebula awards for his short fiction and novellas. This made him an absolute shoo-in for The Twilight Zone writers room. It was producer Philip DeGuere Jr. who first reached out to Martin, although it wasn’t for the show just yet. He was interested in turning The Armageddon Rag into a feature film, and although the movie never turned out, the two remained friends. When DeGuere became a producer on The Twilight Zone revival, Martin naturally found himself in the position of staff writer and eventually story editor for the show. The writer penned five stories for the revival’s first and second seasons, all of which aired in 1986.
I took a deep dive into all five of Martin’s Twilight Zone episodes, finding two absolute gems of genre television that foreshadowed the writer’s cruel pen later in his career. Not all of the episodes are great, although I found only one to be particularly hard to watch. And that really is the first Twilight Zone revival’s legacy, isn’t it? A couple of absolute gems among many forgettable stories that led to the show’s cancellation after three seasons.
The Last Defender of Camelot – April 11, 1986
Martin’s first Twilight Zone episode, “The Last Defender of Camelot,” was actually adapted from a short story of the same name by the late, Nebula Award-winning author Roger Zelazny, who is best known for his Arthurian legend-inspired fantasy series, The Chronicles of Amber. The story is a continuation of the adventures of Lancelot, who survived the fall of Camelot, and through powerful magic, has survived as an old man in the present day (as in the 80s). Camelot’s greatest knight of the Round Table has spent most of his immortal life searching for the Holy Grail, which he believes is the key to ending his curse, until he encounters Morgana le Fay, a legendary enchantress who informs Lancelot that the great wizard Merlin is responsible for his immortality.
Morgana tells Lancelot that the legendary wizard has been sleeping for centuries and is about to awaken in order to right the world’s wrongs as its new ruler. Once Merlin wakes, he plans to make Lancelot his champion, but the knight tries to dissuade the wizard from becoming a tyrant. This doesn’t go over well with Merlin, who strips Lancelot of his immortality and tries to have him killed by an animated suit of armor he calls the Hollow Knight. The struggle plays out as you’d expect: Morgana shows up in the nick of time to help Lancelot defeat the power-mad Merlin, but in the process, Lancelot is mortally wounded. In his final moments, the greatest knight that ever lived sees a vision of the Holy Grail that evaded him all of his life.
Although The Twilight Zone isn’t as well known for fantasy as its science fiction and horror stories, it’s easy to see why Martin gravitated towards this modern take of the Arthurian legend, a cycle of tales that would later prove to be a major influence on A Song of Ice and Fire. It’s a shame that “The Last Defender of Camelot” hasn’t aged very well in the years since it first aired, and is the only episode that really felt like a chore to watch for this article.
The episode was directed by Jeannot Szwarc, who had previously directed episodes of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, as well as the movies Jaws 2 (1978) and Supergirl (1984), and would later direct episodes of Smallville and Fringe. “The Last Defender of Camelot” was his second and last episode for ’80s Twilight Zone.
While Martin stayed pretty close to Zelazny’s original story, he did take some liberties, such as adding some dude named Tom to the Merlin affair. In order to get Lancelot’s attention, Morgana hires Tom and some thugs to attack Lancelot in the streets of London. The knight takes them down pretty easily and forces Tom to take him to Morgana le Fay, who apparently moonlights as a fortune teller in a little shop. That last bit is actually from the Zelazny story. Martin changed the ending of the story, too. It’s Morgana that faces death in the final scene of the episode, as Lancelot lives to fight another day…along with young Tom, who ends up accompanying the knight to a mysterious castle in the distance I’m guessing we’re supposed to assume is Camelot reborn.
Unless you’re a big fan of the Arthurian legend and hunger for any continuation to the original cycle, “The Last Defender of Camelot” drags on a bit too long before the climactic sword fight between Lancelot and the Hollow Knight. The fight does take place in True Stonehenge beyond our reality and in the land of Faerie, which is a nice touch.
The Once and Future King – Sept. 27, 1986
In contrast, this Elvis time travel story is a lot of fun and a must-watch for both Twilight Zone and GRRM fans. I’d call this his best episode, although “The Toys of Caliban,” which we’ll get to in just a moment, is also quite good. Best of all, the episode is a great precursor to Martin’s later writing. “The Once and Future King” is an exercise in cruelty. Like Jon Snow after him, this episode’s Elvis is a man destined for greatness who suffers a cruel fate only to be revived to continue his suffering. All that, plus the time paradox.
Martin actually wrote the episode based on an idea pitched by a writer named Bryce Maritano, whose only other writing credit is for an animated series from the 90s called Samurai Pizza Cats. Although Maritano pitched the idea of an Elvis impersonator traveling back in time to meet the King, he wasn’t sure where to take the story from the initial concept, according to Harlan Ellison, who wrote about “The Once and Future King” in his book Slippage.
Ellison writes about the process of figuring out the episode’s story in The Twilight Zone‘s writers room:
The story meetings we held, in which we sat for hours trying to make either silk purses out of sow’s ears or sow’s ears out of silk purses, invariably foundered on Maritano’s story, “The Once and Future King.” It was a touching, dangerous concept, but Maritano didn’t seem to know where to go with it. There was talk of putting the story in abeyance, but with one of those rare insights my wife refers to as “dumb luck,” I said to DeGuere, “Jeezus, what dummies we are! One of the basic problems of this script is that Maritano doesn’t have the feel for rock n roll. He’s even got Elvis playing an electric guitar, and everybody knows Presley played only acousticals. Give the story to George. He’s perfect for it. He’s got the smarts for this one if anybody has!”
And Ellison was right. After all, the novel that had inadvertently landed Martin in The Twilight Zone writers room in the first place, The Armageddon Rag, was about rock n roll in the 60s. Martin had been working on another episode at the time, one titled “Nackles,” based on a short story by the acclaimed novelist Donald E. Westlake (writing under the name “Curt Clark”). “Nackles,” a Christmas horror story about an anti-Santa Claus, proved to be a difficult challenge for Martin, according to Ellison, who eventually took the episode over from Martin and resigned from the show when CBS refused to produce it.
Martin set to work on “The Once and Future King,” which ultimately aired as the first episode of the second season. The episode was directed by Jim McBride, whose directorial credits include The Big Easy (1986) and the 1971 X-rated post-apocalyptic drama Glen and Randa.
The episode sees down-on-his-luck Elvis impersonator Gary Pitkin travel back in time after getting into a car accident. Forced to hitchhike, Gary suddenly finds himself in Elvis Presley’s old pickup truck in 1954. Although he’s understandably skeptical at first, Gary eventually realizes that he really is in the presence of Elvis pre-fame.
Gary, pretending to be Elvis’ deceased twin brother, Jessie, says he’s come back to help him and tries to convince the future King how great and famous he’ll be one day. It just so happens that the very next day, Elvis is going to record for Sam Phillips, the real-life Memphis music producer who launched the King of Rock’s career. Before he meets Mr. Phillips, Elvis rehearses the song for Gary, who is flabbergasted by the King’s rendition of “I Love You Because,” a soft ballad that would certainly ruin Elvis’ chances of being discovered. Gary takes it upon himself to show Elvis how to play “That’s All Right,” the song that did, in fact, launch his career in 1954.
Elvis is disgusted by Gary’s (Elvis-inspired) hip-thrusting rendition of the song and becomes convinced that “his brother Jessie” is actually a devil come to tempt him. The two get into a fight that ends with Elvis being impaled by his broken guitar. In a panic, Gary buries “real” Elvis and decides to assume the King’s identity. Gary-Elvis shows up at Mr. Phillips’ studio and plays “That’s All Right.” The rest, as they say, is history.
The question remains at the end of the episode, as Gary-Elvis sits alone in a hotel room overlooking the Vegas strip, whether Gary from the future has been impersonating and worshipping himself all along. Gary-Elvis ponders whether the real Elvis would have been a better King.
“The Once and Future King” is really a lovely episode about desire and fame. It’s grim, beautiful ending is more than enough reason to revisit this one during your next Twilight Zone marathon. One might even draw a connection between Gary’s ultimate fate, sitting alone in a hotel room waiting to die, to Stannis Baratheon’s final demise in the outskirts of Winterfell—both men defeated by their desire to be King.
Lost and Found – October 18, 1986
Martin’s third Twilight Zone story was actually a short five-minute segment in the 28th episode of the second season. The script is based on the short story of the same name by Phyllis Eisenstein, a Hugo and Nebula-nominated writer who is also a lifelong friend of Martin’s. (Fun fact: Martin told Conan O’Brien in 2014 that Eisenstein was actually the person who convinced him to include dragons in A Song of Ice and Fire. He later dedicated the third novel in the series, A Storm of Swords, to Eisenstein.)
“Lost and Found,” which first appeared in the October 1978 issue of Analog, tells the story of a college student named Jenny Templeton, who discovers that her things, including her political science textbook, are mysteriously disappearing from her dorm room. Although she suspects her roommate Kathy is playing a prank on her at first, it is soon revealed that the cause of the disappearances is way more Twilight Zone-y.
Jenny finds two time travelers from the year 2139 in her closet, who are just trying to take a souvenir that will not be missed. They reveal that Jenny will one day become the first president of Earth and that she will be known as “The Great Peacemaker.” After the time travelers bid her farewell, Jenny decides she won’t cut her political science class anymore.
Although this is a much lighter story than “The Once and Future King,” I do wonder if this is another case of a time traveler from the future affecting the past that then brings about the future they come from in the first place. You’ll get a headache thinking about it.
The Toys of Caliban – December 4, 1986
“The Toys of Caliban” might be Martin’s most memorable and haunting tale. The script was based on a short story by Terry Matz, who shares writing credit with Martin on the episode. (Martin’s teleplay and Matz’s short story were published alongside each other in Subterranean Press Magazine’s inaugural issue in 2005.) Thomas J. Wright sat in the director’s chair for “The Toys of Caliban.” Wright would go on to direct many episodes of sci-fi cult TV series Millennium and the 1989 Hulk Hogan movie, No Holds Barred.
The episode is the story of a mentally ill boy named Toby who can summon things he sees in pictures. While the power might seem like a gift—say, like Bran Stark’s Warg and Greensight abilities—it turns out to be quite the burden. Toby’s powers make him a danger to himself and others, and his kind parents must keep him away from the outside world out of fear that he might summon something in public and be dragged away by the authorities.
Toby’s power manifests itself in interesting ways throughout the episode, including a scene where he summons a heart from a magazine and accidentally gives his mother a heart attack, killing her instantly, only to summon her back later as a walking corpse. Another scene, where Toby summons and eats too many doughnuts, is more mundane.
The episode also features the most horrific ending of all of Martin’s Twilight Zone stories, as Toby lights his house on fire, committing suicide with his father, ending this poor’s family’s suffering once and for all. The house coming down on father and son is actually really reminiscent of Stephen King’s ending to Carrie, although I’m sure there’s no connection there. In the end, although it’s a haunting moment of fire and flesh and a boy’s innocence burning away, the final scene is also quite beautiful. As the father waits for his son to summon the fire—the police are closing in after a social worker reports Toby’s powers—he caresses Toby and tells him that he’s always been a good boy.
This one’s best watched with a tissue or two.
The Road Less Traveled – December 18, 1986
Martin originally came up with the idea about a man living two separate realities for an anthology about the War in Vietnam. Although he never got around to writing the story, the idea eventually became Martin’s final contribution to The Twilight Zone before CBS cleaned house for the third season after increasingly low ratings in the first two seasons.
“The Road Less Traveled” benefited from the masterful lens of the late horror legend Wes Craven, who by the time of the episode already had The Last House on the Left (1972), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) under his belt. You’re probably thinking that Martin and Craven made for a particularly scary combination, one that offered up a true tale of horror, but that’s not really what their collaboration turned out to be. The episode is less horror—although there are definitely horror elements in the earlier scenes—and more a tale of redemption.
The episode, as best as I can describe it, is about a man named Jeff, who years later is still struggling with his guilt for deserting during the War in Vietnam. He has a wife, Denise, and a little daughter, Megan, who complains that there’s a scary man watching her at night. Although Jeff and Denise think Megan is just having nightmares, they soon discover that the man is anything but a nightmare.
Craven and Martin do a great job of building up the tension in the episode. What seems at first to be a ghost story or perhaps a slasher turns out to be something way more unique and interesting. I’d say this is Martin’s most creative and experimental episode out of the five. Coincidentally, it’s the only script that he wrote that wasn’t based on a short story or someone else’s initial idea. Perhaps that accounts for the trippier elements of the episode…
Throughout the episode, Jeff is thrust into memories of the Vietnam War, pacing through the dangerous jungles amidst enemy fire—memories Jeff couldn’t possibly have since he never went to Vietnam. When he meets the stalker that’s terrorizing his family, it’s, in fact, a beaten and scarred Jeff in a wheelchair. This other Jeff is from a different reality where he went to Vietnam and was crippled during the conflict. One idea that really stuck with me from the episode is the notion that the only way both Jeffs are in the same reality is that one Jeff is dreaming the other, although it’s never made clear which one’s which.
There isn’t any final conflict, a battle between both Jeffs for the better reality, though. Vietnam Jeff hasn’t come to replace regular Jeff. Things get a lot more melancholy than that, as Vietnam Jeff admits that he’s only come to see the life he could’ve had if he hadn’t honored the draft and deserted instead.
The episode really serves as a mirror for regular Jeff, though. Through Vietnam Jeff, Martin shows us the scars regular Jeff has had to live with all his life. Martin gives a body to his regrets and fears, and coming to terms with all of that is the only way Jeff can truly move forward with his life, which he does in a touching scene at the end of the episode.
“The Road Less Traveled” is by far Martin’s most sentimental episode. One could even call it a bit melodramatic at parts, especially for a writer who isn’t exactly prone to sentimentality. But if his final two episodes prove anything at all, it’s that Martin can produce a tearjerker as good as any writer. In fact, Martin’s five Twilight Zone episodes are a testament to the writer’s versatility and evolution, from a writer sticking his hands into many different pots of fantasy and science fiction to the more bully-like scribe we know today.