Destruct that ship, General!

Monday, January 20, 2014

Episode Spotlight: "Don't Open Till Doomsday" (1/20/1964)




“Don’t Open Till Doomsday”
Season 1, Episode 17
Originally aired 1/20/1964


On The Outer Limits fifty years ago tonight, shit got weird. Like, real weird. Like fuck-with-young-minds weird. 


The year is 1929. A strange man delivers a package to Harvey Kry’s wedding, which a servant dutifully places on a table with the rest of the gifts in the bridal suite. Alone in the room, Kry hears a strange humming sound emanating from the package, attached to which is a card reading “Don’t Open Till Doomsday.” His curiosity piqued, he opens the box….



Inside the box is another box with no apparent seams and a single round hole. He peers inside the inner box, sees a hideous orbicular creature, and screams.

Fast forward 35 years: using a forged marriage license, underage lovers Gard Hayden and Vivia Balfour are pronounced man and wife by the local Justice of the Peace. The Justice’s wife places a clandestine telephone call and directs the newlyweds to Mrs. Kry’s house for lodging. Mrs. Kry, a relic from the Roaring Twenties, has kept her bridal suite intact and undisturbed since her wedding night, right down to the table of unopened gifts… including the Doomsday box which, as we see, contains a miniaturized (and unaged) Harvey Kry. It's also worth mentioning that Mrs. Kry's lack of deflowering has left her quite out of her mind.


Mrs. Kry (over) eagerly offers the newlyweds her unused bridal suite, telling them that her groom vanished on their wedding night, and that she’s spent the last 35 years faithfully awaiting his return. leaves Vivia alone for a moment while he goes to park the car in a more discrete spot (it seems Emmett Balfour, Vivia’s father and well-known political figure, is trying to track them down) and, while alone, she’s drawn to the strange humming of the Doomsday box… and is sucked inside of it.


Gard is devastated to find Vivia gone and, assuming she’s lost her nerve and returned to her daddy’s disapproving arms, leaves in a dejected huff (much to Mrs. Kry’s chagrin; who clearly intended Vivia’s fate for him). Meanwhile, Balfour tracks the couple to the Kry residence. Mrs. Kry directs him to the bridal suite, where he too is sucked into the box.


The alien explains all to Balfour: it was part of an alien plot to destroy the universe (starting with Earth for some unspecified reason), a plot which hasn’t been completed because the alien was accidentally separated from its comrades and needs help finding them, so they can “blend frequencies” (apparently their weapon is sonic in nature and won’t work with a missing component), which Kry has steadfastly refused to do for 35 years while the alien has held him prisoner. Vivia has also refused to help it… but her father agrees, on the condition that he and Vivia are released.

The alien complies, and both are teleported out of the box. Gard arrives just in time to get Vivia out of harm’s way as the alien recognizes Balfour’s ruse. It sucks Balfour back into the box and then, realizing that mankind will never assist it, destroys itself and the Kry house, obliterating Balfour and both Krys in the process. 



RANDOMONIUM

Got all that? Yeah, it’s a pretty zany reverse-Pandora’s Box tale, which only starts to make sense in the final few minutes of the show, as the alien (a.k.a. the Box Demon) explains everything to Balfour (and, perhaps more importantly, us). Up till then, the uninitiated viewer will have no clue what the hell is happening. It’s actually a bit jarring, after 45 minutes of near-impenetrable weirdness, to receive such a sharp jolt of clarity (like M. Night Shyamalan’s early films, it almost demands an immediate second viewing). In his awe-inspiring Outer Limits Companion, David J. Schow relays the episode’s storyline in a manner that lays out the alien’s plot first, which helps immeasurably to distill the story into a clear narrative. I opted to reel it off in a linear fashion, in the hopes that I might capture at least a bit of the confounding nature of the story as it unfolds. Did I succeed? I’ll probably never know, because anyone who reads this will have most likely already seen the damn thing.


If you start peeling back layers, it becomes evident very quickly that the whole thing is about sex. Like, all of it, every bit of it, in one way or another. I’m not going to dissect all the sexual angles and how they interconnect because, frankly, it’s been done, and pretty damned thoroughly at that. In writing this blog, I’m constantly wary of hashing over ground already covered --- brilliantly covered at that --- in Schow’s book (by contrast, I rarely have this problem in my Twilight Zone blog because, frankly, Marc Scott Zicree’s Twilight Zone Companion is a pretty cursory affair, sometimes infuriatingly so). I've been dreading this episode for exactly this reason. Do I have anything of value to say? Or will I just throw up some mildly inappropriate memes?



“Don’t Open Till Doomsday” is another Joseph Stefano original, so we get another group of psychologically unbalanced characters wandering around in an unconventional narrative structure with (seemingly) random, atypical tension points (his script could easily be adapted for the stage, like his earlier “Nightmare” and the forthcoming “The Bellero Shield”). Said narrative structure seems to mirror the events that comprise the loss of virginity: awkward and frustrating lurches forward, underlying emotional turmoil, and a climax that arrives suddenly and terminates too abruptly. I don’t know if Stefano intentionally erected (heh heh) his story in this way, but…

What was Stefano’s overarching message here (if any)? Perhaps this was his love letter to all those poor guys out there, trying like hell to hook up with the fairer sex, by subliminally showing female viewers the end result of not putting out. It could be argued that Mrs. Kry is a living breathing cautionary tale against abstinence, so....  c'mon ladies, drop the frigid routine. Fine, I'm a dog, whatever.


“Don’t Open Till Doomsday” is directed by Gerd Oswald and captured by DOP Conrad Hall. When this dynamic duo brings a Stefano script to life (as they did with “It Crawled Out of the Woodwork,” and will do again with “The Invisibles” and “The Forms of Things Unknown”), the result is something too big for television, too grand. The little boxes of 1963 couldn't possibly contain such a flood of multi-layered ideas and brilliant visuals (the bigger high-def sets of today really can’t either, come to think of it)... their work is nothing if not pure cinema.

The time lapse from 1929 to 1964 is simple and effective: a gust of wind and a swarm of autumn leaves transition us from a shot of the newly-built Kry mansion to the shabby husk that 35 years of disuse has reduced it to. The empty house, and the dusty bridal suite within it, is a potent physical manifestation of Mrs. Kry’s untapped and wilted sexuality (just as Andro was a living embodiment of the ruined and sterile future he came from in “The Man Who Was Never Born”). The shot of Balfour ascending the stairs at the end of act three looks like something out of 1947’s The Uninvited. The shots of Vivia and Balfour after their respective absorptions into the box are nightmarish and surreal; their reduced size somehow makes the terror bigger.


In fact, there's lots of surreal imagery on display here; most notably the floating eyeballs seen from inside the box, evoking Salvador Dali's The Eye (1945) as well as Dali's work on Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound that same year.


“Don’t Open Till Doomsday” is actually the second half of a much larger story. The tale actually begins with scientist Dr. Mordecai Spazman, who is denounced as crazy for announcing that an alien invasion is in progress, which he has clear and obvious proof of (the box and its globular inhabitant). Rather than produce his proof and regain his credibility, he uses it for revenge against his nemesis, the man who made a public laughing stock of him: Harvey Kry Senior (this all kinda sounds like a Weird Science comic plot, doesn’t it?). The episode opens with Spazman delivering the box, disguised as a gift, to Kry Junior’s wedding party, and away we go. Interestingly, when all is said and done, Spazman emerges as something of a hero, since his revenge ploy keeps the Box Demon, well, boxed… ultimately preventing the earth’s destruction.

The single biggest lingering mystery (for me, anyway) centers around the Justice’s wife. First of all, she’s just plain creepy, but what is her connection to Mrs. Kry, and how much does she know about the whole Box Demon situation? She’s very obviously directing male traffic to the Kry house, so she’s either in on the whole hostage-trading scheme or she’s just trying to get poor Mrs. Kry, that eternal virgin, laid. Either way: man, what a friend.


I was pretty hard (heh heh) on the Chromoite’s design a couple of weeks ago, but compared with the Box Demon… hoo boy. If that thing was wacky, then this critter is… well, über-wacky. There are some pretty goofy aliens and monsters still to come before we get to the end of the series a year from now (I’m looking at you, Megasoid), but they can’t touch this. The Box Demon --- sometimes derisively referred to as “Turdo” for obvious reasons --- is the series’ single goofiest creature. By far.

I can see how the script breezed past the censors, since all its gooey squirmy adult themes brim and bubble just beneath the surface and are therefore easily missed by pencil pushers trained to screen for profanity and explicitly sexual content… but how the hell did the Box Demon squeak by? Look at it! In plain sight we have a very obvious penile tip (making Turdo an actual dickhead), bisected by a big labial mouth and, further down, a pair of saggy breasts and what looks like a pig’s nose at the base (okay, that last one’s not sexual… at least it fucking shouldn’t be). It’s like a copulating couple was transported to the Enterprise and their patterns were accidentally merged (my god, does my Trek nerdiness know no limits?).

And that eye. That single terrible eye, rolling around in that ugly head. So it’s a variation on a Cyclops-type monster too. Jeez, this thing just gets uglier and uglier. We get a brief overhead shot of it, in which it appears to be propping itself up with one of its hands. It’s somewhat mobile, but we never learn how it moves around (is it like a slug in that regard? If so, it’s even more disgusting, impossible as that may seem).



So what exactly is the box that houses this lumpy beast? It seems to be a shell of sorts for the pocket of negative space that fills it… was it originally part of the Demon’s spaceship? Or did Spazman construct it?  And how does it move back and forth on the table in the bridal suite? Does it contain some sort of motorized mechanism, controlled by the Demon, or is the Demon endowed (heh heh) with some sort of telekinesis? 

As presented, the Box Demon is pure evil, bent on galactic destruction for no apparent reason; however, in Stefano’s original script, there’s a very definite reason given: it seems our universe “intrudes” on the void that it and its kind hail from (this line was deleted before shooting for some unknown reason). If we opt to accept the deleted line as canonical (which I’m inclined to do, since I feel compelled to reconcile everything; it's kind of a curse, actually), then we achieve at least some measure of clarity as to the aliens’ origin: their universe is the negative equivalent of ours, coexisting in the same space but constituting an opposing dimension. From there, we (okay, I) begin to wonder how they reached their fateful conclusion in the first place: what happened to convince them that our entire universe had to go?

In last week’s “Controlled Experiment,” Phobos-One outlined the danger of negative matter being released into our universe if a section of the space-time continuum were to become worn out. Might this sort of catastrophe have prompted the Box Demons to lash out? Did some careless Martian over-examine a piece of history and rupture the cosmic barrier between our positive reality and its negative counterpart? Could it be that they’re only trying to protect themselves?



TEASE ME!

The episode’s teaser is short and sweet (a mere 40 seconds in length) but, even in that tiny window of time, we get exclusive footage not seen in the episode proper. We see Balfour hesitantly approach the Doomsday Box and reluctantly peer inside (in the episode, we cut in on a shot of him already looking inside). It’s nothing substantial, I grant you, but it’s a nice little detail for obsessive fans like yours truly.



AURAL PLEASURE

“Don’t Open Till Doomsday” features a dark and intense original score by Dominic Frontiere, with a couple of ragtime jazz pieces by Robert Van Eps (who scored last month’s “Tourist Attraction”) thrown in as source music (wedding band, Victrola records, etc). For me, the Eps bits are a huge distraction interrupting an otherwise brilliant Frontiere score (one of his best for the series), but I suppose they’re relevant to the period (and Mrs. Kry’s unwavering adherence to said period).

The end titles confuse the issue by including two different music credits: first, we see the standard Dominic Frontiere card, followed immediately by the same card from "Tourist Attraction" (indicating that Frontiere is only responsible for the main theme, while Eps contributes the actual score). A bit contradictory, to be sure, but anybody with ears should be able to immediately identify which of them to thank. The score includes cues that we’ll hear regularly for the rest of the season (starting with next week’s “ZZZZZ”), most notably “A Father’s Search," “Upstairs," and "Zapped Into Box" (all three occur sequentially in the episode, incidentally).

Special note on “A Father’s Search”: In his Outer Limits Companion, Schow refers to this cue as “Lay the Green,” which strengthens a suspicion I’ve been having for a while now: the cue titles used for La La Land’s soundtrack are not always the actual cue titles. For a film/TV music buff like me (who, oddly enough, is endlessly fascinated with TV library music and its associated uses and reuses across multiple episodes and even different series; Christ, talk about a sub-category of a sub-category), this is… well, pretty damned frustrating. Maestro Lawrence Rapchak, Music Director for Chicago’s Northbrook Symphony Orchestra, at one time had (and maybe still has?) access to all of Frontiere’s TOL scores, and wrote a very nice piece about the “Nightmare” score for the We Are Controlling Transmission blog (2010-2011). If I’m being perfectly honest, well… I seethe with jealousy. I’m not proud of it, but I do. Seriously, this is something that I obsess over. I’m probably the only person in the world who fervently wishes to catalog every single cue from the entire series (and do it accurately and correctly), and I don’t have the access and means to do so. 

If you’re a fan of great film and television music, you really need to own a copy La La Land Records’ wonderful three-disc Outer Limits soundtrack collection, released in 2008 (which includes the “Don’t Open Till Doomsday” score, complete with those distracting Dixieland pieces). It’s still available on their website, and it's now been permanently marked down from the ridiculously low price of $19.95 to the obscenely low price of $15.98 plus shipping. Don’t delay, order today!



DRAMATIS PERSONAE

Miriam Hopkins (Mrs. Kry) has an impressive resume from the early decades of film, but nothing really of genre interest… with one notable exception: she played the ill-fated Ivy in 1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.


John Hoyt (Emmett Balfour) is much easier to find genre connections for. First and foremost, he’ll return to The Outer Limits later this season (“The Bellero Shield”) and next season too (“I, Robot”). He also played Dr. Phillip Boyce, the original chief medical officer on the USS Enterprise (“Bones” McCoy’s predecessor) on TV’s Star Trek, in that series’ pilot episode “The Cage.” He also crossed over into The Twilight Zone twice: he played android creator Dr. Loren in "The Lateness of the Hour” and the titular Martian (with three arms!) in “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” (perhaps he knows Phobos-One and Diemos…?).


Gard Hayden, that dreamy hunk of Mid-American young manhood, is played by Buck Taylor in his only TOL appearance, but this wasn’t his first Daystar rodeo by a longshot: he appeared in three different episodes of their pre-TOL series Stoney Burke (“The Mob Riders”, “Gold-Plated Maverick”, and “Kincaid”).


Of course we recognize David Frankham (Harvey Kry Jr.) from his role as Captain Terry Brookman in “Nightmare” earlier this season. Star Trek fans will also recall his appearance as Larry Marvick in “Is There No Truth in Beauty?”


Nellie Burt (the Justice’s wife) will be back in March, playing another shrewish and domineering wife in “The Guests.” She’d cross paths with Joseph Stefano again in 1964 when she appeared in the pilot episode of The Haunted (“The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre”), a series starring TOL alum Martin Landau which was never picked up. The pilot was subsequently released theatrically oversees, and is a real rarity here (I've never seen it myself; how ‘bout a DVD release? Please?). Meanwhile, Russell Collins (the Justice of the Peace) was also seen in a whopping nine episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and one Twilight Zone (“Kick the Can”).


Anthony Jochim (Dr. Mordecai Spazman) would cross paths with John Hoyt again in 1966 in the first Star Trek pilot “The Cage” as an unnamed Talos IV crash survivor. He also put in time on Thriller, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond.



HOME VIDEO RELEASES


The episode first appeared on home video in the late 80’s and, like many Outer Limits VHS tapes, was graced with a stunning cover (it’s probably one of my favorites). In the early 90’s, Columbia House offered the entire series in a subscription-club format, each volume containing two episodes (“Don’t Open Till Doomsday” was paired with “A Feasibility Study,” which is an odd coupling (heh heh); if anything they should’ve put it with “ZZZZZ” (for reasons we’ll discuss next week). I should mention that, while the retail tapes each had unique, episode-specific covers, the Columbia House tapes had one unifying cover which incorporated imagery from four different episodes, one of which was “Don’t Open Till Doomsday.”


LaserDisc collectors had to wait until 1994 to see the Box Demon on the (then) superior digital format, when the episode appeared on the third (out of a total four) Outer Limits collection. LaserDisc collectors also had to deal with an incomplete collection when the LD flow stopped in favor of the next big deal in home video….


...DVD! MGM released the entire first season in one big boxed set in 2002 (season two followed in 2003), immediately rendering all previous releases obsolete (of course there was resistance, but eventually everyone gave in to DVD’s seductive siren song; seriously, do you know one single person who never upgraded, and stuck with their VCRs and/or LD players?). MGM released the series on DVD two more times (in 2007, then again in 2008) and, as of this writing, apparently has no intention of taking The Outer Limits to the next logical platform: blu-ray. 


If you’re sitting at your computer (which you probably are, if you’re reading this), and you've got a hankering to watch “Don’t Open Till Doomsday” right this very minute, point your browser toward Hulu, where the entire series is available for viewing via streaming…. for free. Damn... one of the greatest television series ever, and they’re just giving it away! You kids today don’t know how good you have it.


TRADING CARD CORNER


Topps included the Box Demon in their 1964 trading card series Monsters from Outer Limits, dubbing it “The Brainless Glob” (that ugly sumbitch hasn’t suffered enough, apparently).


MERCHANDISE SPOTLIGHT


Like most Outer Limits monsters and aliens, the Box Demon was immortalized in a 1/8 scale resin model kit by John Garcia for Dimensional Designs (DD/OL/BD-11). Want it? $59.95 plus shipping and you’ll have your own mini-Turdo to assemble, paint, and gaze lovingly at while you squirm uncomfortably for reasons you can’t readily explain.


Artiste extraordinaire (and friend of this blog) Woody Welch recently laid down a pretty awesome acrylics-on-canvas rendering of the Box Demon, complete with a human eye peeping in on its private negative space domain. This is one of five Welch originals commissioned for the upcoming Outer Limits gallery event at Creature Features in Burbank, CA (date and time to be announced). We’ll see another one next week for “ZZZZZ,” but as for the other three…. they remain a mystery as of this writing.


THE WRAP-UP


One of the most subversive (and hysterically strange) things to ever air on network television, “Don’t Open Till Doomsday” is yet another high point for The Outer Limits. As season one wears on, things will (sadly) get a bit more pedestrian, but fear not! There’s still plenty of weirdness to come.




This week’s entry was brought to you by Jim Beam’s Red Stag Black Cherry Whiskey. Pick up a bottle for your next social gathering and… yeah, bust that cherry! 



...goddamn it, I’m despicable.







11 comments:

  1. Excellent blog about, probably, the most difficult to discuss episode. It IS a great one, despite (or because of?) its impenetrable, ultra-personal Stefano symbolism -- which may have been intentional. It reminds me of Kubrick's famous explanation that the symbols in "2001" were INTENDED to defy rational analysis, so that they would penetrate directly to the subconscious, without the filter or barrier of the intellect. Just quoting, for what it's worth. Not only do you clearly "get" whatever the message of "Doomsday" is, but obvioulsy so does Woody Welch. We might ask David J. Schow if, had Joe Stefano seen this fantastic new painting, he might have said, "Yes -- THAT'S how uncomfortable I wanted to make the viewer!" PS: I neglected to insert "heh heh" at the appropriate place, and, yes, you are despicable.

    ReplyDelete
  2. In the interest of building content, I am pasting some thoughts I wrote on a website some six or so years ago. Much of it treads the same turf that Craig's article does, and I don't know if I poached it from anyone else back then, but what the Hell...

    This is weird. No matter how you interpret it; a sexual nightmare, an alien invasion, "Don't Open Till Doomsday" is just warped. But I like it. An alien, that looks like either a combo platter of male and female naughty bits or a pile that the neighbor's dog left in your yard, is in a small box equipped with a peephole. Now, how the alien ended up in that box is not explained. Was it captured and imprisoned in the box by Dr. Spazman? Was the box actually the alien's craft? Who knows. What we do know is the alien needs help from someone, anyone actually, so it may reunite with other aliens to destroy the universe. I'm not sure why you would make a deal with anything that had a goal of universal destruction, but that's not the point. The point is that this is a cool story. Miriam Hopkins is demented as the bride who's husband was beamed into the box by the alien some thirty years ago on their wedding day. Her goal is to get her husband out of the box by exchanging him with one of the newlyweds who are staying at her home. As the viewer, we get to enter the box late in the episode. It's interesting even though the alien just slowly scoots around babbling about blending frequencies with other aliens to bring about an end to everything. The ending of the story is a bit anticlimactic, especially when you realize it's pointless. But as you lean back scratching your head about what you just watched, it will leave you feeling strangely satisfied.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Miriam Hopkins has one of my favorite lines of dialogue in all The Outer Limits: "YOU ... stupid ... MONSTER!" Why it's my favorite, I'll never be able to put into words.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

      Delete
    2. The other really great line, from all the episodes, belongs to Jeff Corey (as Byron Lomax, in "O.B.I.T."): "The machines are EVERYWHERE!"

      Lurker111

      Delete
  4. Tremendous write-up! Also, many thanks for your sections giving shout-outs to other SF roles of the actors. As probably a TOL fan only second to ST:TOS and then TZ, you are speaking my language!
    In my pre-retirement life I was a TV programmer for KTLA in L.A. and then TNT/TCM, and my proudest accomplishments are what I was able to do with Trek, Zone & Outer Limits while I was at each respective gig. I love them all!!

    ReplyDelete
  5. This is my favorite episode. My fascination with the 1920's captured me when I was a little kid when it first aired. Miriam Hopkins was fabulous in the part, a true actress, and her beauty came out even as grotesquely as she was made up.

    LOVED the "Tre Nouveau" bridal suite.

    If you watch the episode several times, you see repeated clips, depicting different scenes, indicating that it was a very low budget production, but I always admired what "The Outer Limits" could do with a lower than low budget, counteracted by an an extremely vivid imagination!

    ReplyDelete
  6. MeTV just showed this episode at 1 a.m. this morning. I'd forgotten just how well Miriam Hopkins played her role. I suspect she truly got into it and got a kick out of playing Mrs. Kry. A truly superb and underappreciated performance.

    Lurker111

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Correction. It was our local THIS TV station, not the MeTV. My goof.

      Delete
  7. Wow... I have been searching for this for a good 15 years or more, having decided to try and track down the mystery horror that years ago did indeed fuck with my young mind and which spawned the second-most horrifying nightmare I've had in my adult life. So... a form of thanks to you, for ending my search, and bringing that horror to me a-fresh!!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Funny, but the episodes I seem to like least, you guys seem to like most. This one just doesn't do it for me. I find it tedious. Not sure why. This was done a year or 2 after "Whatever Happened To Baby Jane". Miriam Hopkins tries SO hard to cop the Baby Jane look and feel. That bugs me. The whole look of the Box Demon doesn't work for me either. None of this episode works for me, except for the music and cinematography. Next-

    ReplyDelete