Don't Open Till Doomsday

Directed by Gerd Oswald; written by Joseph Stefano. Cast: Miriam Hopkins (Mary Kry); Buck Taylor (Gard Hayden); Melinda Plowman (Vivia Hayden); John Hoyt (Emmett Balfour); Nellie Burt (Wife); David Frankham (Harvey Kry); Russell Collins (Justice of the Peace). Broadcast January 20, 1963. Story: On the run from a disapproving father, underage newlyweds Gard and Vivia take refuge in a remote house owned by eccentiric Mrs. Kry. The honeymoon is cut short, however, by an unusual and unwelcome wedding present from their landlady.

In its own obscure fashion, The Outer Limits specialized in frank, often painfully honest explorations of subjects normally avoided by all but the most prolix of television programs. The spiritual dilemmas of "A Feasibility Study," for instance, or the harsh and awkward marital dynamics in "ZZZZZ", represent an honest attempt to wrestle with complex human values rather than base human sensations. It's a hallmark of the series. But even recognizing and appreciating the fruits of this brave approach leaves one ill-prepared for the unsavory sexual undercurrents at play in "Don't Open Till Doomsday." Joseph Stefano (in screenwriter mode) takes an unflinching and highly personal look at the horror of frustrated desire in "Doomsday," and chronicles its inevitable, explosive release. It's one of the series'—and television's—most sublimely disturbing hours, and its unpleasant effects linger long after the episode ends.

This is not to imply that "Doomsday" is in any way sexually graphic—on the contrary, Stefano's subtlety and skill as a symbolist and the tastes of the era dictated that the episode's themes take shape in less direct, and thereby more disquieting, forms. Yet an aura of impropriety still manages to hang over the episode. From the intrusive, near-lustful probing of the newlyweds by the wife of the justice of the peace to Mrs. Kry's embarrassingly flirtatious exchanges with Gard (and, ultimately, to the implicitly incestuous dominion Emmett Balfour has over his daughter), the film hinges on the suggestion of inappropriate sexual behavior. This atmosphere is borne out in a series of candid scenes designed to build an inexorable tension, the most prolonged and unnerving of which involve the featureless, strangely alluring box containing Harvey Kry and his alien captor. In the first of these scenes, as Vivia is helplessly absorbed into the box, her moaning is a plainly sexual mixture of pleasure and pain that is both shocking and uncomfortably erotic; significantly, we never experience her final teleportation into the box—the scene's "orgasm." Later, Mrs. Kry kneels before the cube as she implores the resolute Harvey to capitulate to the creature's plan for universal destruction; her shameless begging is brutal to witness, and actress Miriam Hopkins shows an uncommon willingness to expose the raw and troubling emotions behind Mrs. Kry's ranting.

For all its disturbing implications and loaded imagery, though, "Doomsday" isn't simply a fable of sexual repression. Rather, Stefano uses that repression as a vehicle to explore some of his most compelling pet themes: specifically, personal liberation and the insidious forces at work to inhibit such liberation. Here, it's opposed not just by the malevolent sterility of "uncreators" like the box creature and the daddies Kry and Balfour, but also by misguided good intentions and a kind of cosmic bad timing from which no one or no thing is immune. The accidental abduction of Harvey and, later, Vivia, result in two interminably forestalled consummations, and even the creature itself (one of the series' most despicably callous aliens, and one of its few genuine monsters) is trapped in a realm it cannot understand, let alone escape; it tells Balfour that is has "no experience with time and space" (a kind of virginity in itself). The ensuing frustration fails to hold off imminent release indefinitely, though—it only redirects it into something much more malign and apocalyptic. For Mrs. Kry this sad alternative is madness and stasis, while for Daddy Kry and the creature—but not Balfour, who finds a kind of salvation in self sacrifice—it's thoughtless and chaotic self-destruction, a kind of anti-orgasm that leaves only sorrow and rubble in its wake.

The human drive for salvation has little room for selfless motivation in "Doomsday," where Stefano seems to argue instead for the taking of some kind of decisive action—including petty, selfish action, and "action" in the sexual sense. He finds the passive nobility of Harvey Kry—the episode's ostensible hero—as suspect and fruitless in its way as the box creature's ruinous fervency. It is, after all, Balfour who angers the alien into its ultimate, suicidal tantrum, and through admittedly deceitful and plainly self-serving tactics rather than prolonged, stalwart refusal; that he does so in a matter of hours is ironic and sad, considering the decades-long imprisonment of Harvey and his pitiable bride. Kry's stand-off, Stefano suggests, is the sort of seemingly selfless act that, while well-intentioned, breeds only bitterness and resentment and leads as surely to barren, destructive repression and "uncreation" as does an insatiable appetite for destruction.

Stefano employs an appropriately symbolic palette in "Don't Open Till Doomsday," and makes use of some subtle doubling to underscore his themes. Always bold in his use of character names, the author is at his most pointedly suggestive here: from the morose "Krys," stalwart "Gard," and lively "Vivia" to the patently absurd "Dr. Spazman," Stefano daringly colors our perception of this group early on. Perhaps the only disappointment in this regard is that he lets the justice of the peace go unnamed (although the man's predatory wife is unpleasantly referred to as "mother"), and never supplies Mary Kry with a maiden name. Still, the names lend an appropriately surrealistic tone to the episode. The doubling employed in "Doomsday" is equally disorienting, and helps to reveal the cyclical, repetitive nature of the cosmic repression at hand. The unexplained box that houses the alien is reflected in the cavernous, hermetic Kry mansion—itself a barren box in which Mrs. Kry is the resident monster, as trapped as the creature is in its cube. The two honeymooning couples share similar fates, with Gard and Vivia very nearly stumbling into the same trap as Harvey and Vivia and with near-identical results; Daddy Kry and Emmett Balfour, too, provide similar motivations for the fleeing couples. Finally, the creature itself embodies the vague sexual dread of the various honeymooners, with its disturbingly malformed mixture of genitalia and fecal lumpishness; when Mrs. Kry accuses Harvey of being a "heartless mountain of good," she (and Stefano) deliberately aligns him with this shapeless, morally oblivious creature.

As mentioned earlier, Miriam Hopkins turns in a stellar performance as Mary Kry. Her forthrightness and keen perception of the character are wondrous and frightening to behold; hers is one of a handful of Outer Limits performances (Jeff Corey in "O.B.I.T" also leaps to mind) in which the actor appeared to be perfectly in tune with the nuances of the role. The supporting cast is just as good, with Nellie Burt and John Hoyt standing out as the sort of self-serving manipulators the box creature would no doubt have little trouble sharing an eternity with. Buck Taylor and Melinda Plowman, too, bring a convincing youthful awkwardness to the roles of Gard and Vivia, and seem perfectly game to deliver some of Stefano's most uproarious double entendres ever.

It's difficult to imagine how the daring and repugnant "Doomsday" played to mid-1960s television audiences (though TV Guide critic Cleveland Amory's misguided and simplistic review of the episode, reprinted in David J. Schow's The Outer Limits Companion, provides a clue); it's harder still to picture contemporary audiences responding favorably to its overtly symbolic imagery, elliptical structure and deliberately unpleasant subtext. But because of its sly intelligence and emotional complexity, "Don't Open Till Doomsday" remains both resolutely ahead of it's time and wildly entertaining. If for no other episode, Joseph Stefano deserves recognition as a true television pioneer, unafraid to explore and expose his—and our—deepest, most troublesome longings somewhere between the sitcoms and horse operas of the day.

—MH

 

 

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