Nick of Time is another of those stories written by a writer other than Serling. In fact, this is written by Richard Matheson, writer of The Incredible Shrinking Man and the amazingly good I am Legend. Will this be one of those stand-out episodes that we remember for years to come? Chances are good. The thing is, those stories have the benefit of pages and pages of text to build character; not so with the 25 minute story. Here we are introduced to Don (William Shatner) and his fiancé Pat Carter – well, that’s what IMDb and Wikipedia say. Since Pat asks if she’ll ever be married, my guess is they are actually engaged. Their car has a broken fuel pump and has to be towed into town for it to be worked on. Were people really allowed to ride in their cars as they were being towed around town in the 1950’s? You may never know. Fair enough. Well, knowing they will have a 4 hour wait, Don and Pat go to the nearby diner to get some lunch and kill some time.
So there’s a sense of humor underlying some of this. Was it intended? Don’t count on it. The waiter tries to get the Carters to order the chicken but all they want is lettuce and tomato on whole wheat. Was Ohio short on bacon that they couldn’t even ask for a BLT? Signs point to yes. Now it’s time to get acquainted with the Carters. When the two sit down to their meals of tastelessness, they see a napkin holder in the form of a Mystic Seer that also makes predictions for a penny. Anxious to know if he’s gotten the promotion he’s waiting for, Don asks the Mystic Seer if the promotion came through and the answer is yes. So he calls his office and finds out, sure enough, he got it. Now from this point on, most of the questions are very ambiguous with only one other question really having much validity – the one about the car that says things have already been taken care of, at which point the mechanic walks in to say the car is fixed. Coincidence? You may rely on it. But Don happens to be a very superstitious man. He carries a keychain with a four-leaf clover and a lucky rabbits foot on it. He even tells Pat to “cross your fingers” when he calls the office to check on that promotion. With some very clever camera work and a few well-placed lines, we’ve learned a lot in a very little time about these two. So Don is a man easily duped. He’s clearly never been to an astrologer and probably reads the horoscopes. (Ah, Shatner… from Astrology to Astronomy in just a few short years!) Pat isn’t quite so ready to believe it and wants to convince Don to create the future, rather than have it foretold. She cries, and in typical Kirk fashion, he gives in and decides to leave with her – which happens to be the right call. A soft heart is often a good thing. As they leave, another couple come in and the process starts all over again.
The image of the devil-headed Mystic Seer is haunting. There’s something ominous with it as it bounces on its spring-loaded head. Maybe we should call this a spring-headed Jack? Very doubtful. Ok, well, they can’t all be winners. At any rate, it pumps out loads of answers and even the Magic 8 Ball can’t do such a good job, and they’ve been around forever. The most off-putting thing about the episode was a line that, by today’s standards, would be somewhat controversial. Shatner asks Pat to stop treating him “like a retarded child.” Ouch! I realize things were different back then but that has a sting to it that I just wasn’t expecting. I think of that period as a more wholesome time and to hear such a thing makes me cringe. Is that just because I’ve been living in an overly politically correct time? Cannot predict now. No, I guess not… I guess that will be for us to evaluate in another 50 years. But it still felt wrong and I wonder how long it will be before that gets edited out. Regardless, the message of this episode seems reasonably clear: one can either do nothing and hope for the best, or one can go out and create the future, build the life one wants and not rely on wishful thinking and predictive napkin holders. I still want to find one, but it would probably cost a dollar per prediction now!
Is this a classic? It is decidedly so. It’s also one of the most amazing write-ups I’ve ever done. That’s not a self-congratulatory statement either. I was using a Magic 8-Ball for my writing and with each question I asked, it gave me the answers; look how well they worked. Amazing. The real question is: am I lying? Without a doubt. Damn thing… I thought for sure I’d have convinced you. After all, this is The Twilight Zone. ML
The view from across the pond:
Superstitions can be very tempting. It’s perhaps a little easier for somebody with Christian beliefs, because of the commandment, “thou shalt not worship false idols”. It’s a wide-ranging principle that can easily be applied to all sorts of things, and I would suggest that it could be useful even to somebody with no Christian beliefs. If you find yourself in the grip of superstitious behaviour, tell yourself that you are in thrall to a false idol. It has worked for me many times, to take a step back from a compulsion to engage with superstitions that have been passed on from parents to children for generations, without anyone stopping to think about what they are doing. How many people say “touch wood” (“knock on wood” in the US, isn’t it?) without realising their behaviour is absurd, irrational… a false idol?
The message of Nick of Time is the avoidance of superstitions, and how they can ruin a person’s life. What starts as a harmless bit of fun soon escalates to a point where Don Carter (William Shatner) can no longer make a decision for himself. His wife understands exactly what is happening:
“Are you just going to sit here and let that thing run your life?”
This reminds me of people who allow their actions to be governed by what their horoscopes say, an indication of what an absurdly superstitious species we can be. Apply even a modicum of logic and it’s obvious that some stars that have no relation to each other apart from how they look from one particular planet cannot possibly have any bearing on a human life. It’s a laughably foolish belief, but that’s how superstitions work. Every so often a coincidence will lead a believer in nonsense further down their blind alley, making it appear as if the superstition works. Knocking on some wood can’t possibly change the course of your day (unless you hurt your knuckles), but it doesn’t stop so many of us from doing it, and the reason is probably the “just in case” mentality. What can it hurt, right? It probably makes no difference, but you might as well, just in case. And here again we come to the theme of this episode, because behaviour that initially seems harmless can soon become insidious. Superstitions can hurt.
It’s both simplicity itself and horrendously difficult to break from a cycle of superstition. You simply have to walk away from it. Your brain is probably screaming at you not to. This episode does a great job of showing that inner turmoil. Don plucks up the courage to leave the diner earlier than the 3pm time the Mystic Seer indicates, and then nearly gets hit by a truck. Here’s where a false link is formed in the brain, with Don’s belief in the Seer being strengthened, and yet he has behaved in an incredibly reckless manner, running across the road when it was not safe to cross. That near miss was caused by Don, but the Seer seems to have foreseen it, so back Don goes to the diner. A golden opportunity is missed when the car is ready. There are no predictions to obey or reject at this point, so it’s a perfect time for Don to cut his losses and go, but he is now addicted to his superstition.
The moral of the tale is of course almost entirely undermined by the abilities of the Mystic Seer. While writer Richard Matheson is telling us not to let our lives be ruled by superstition, he is also showing it to be true. The Seer clearly does have some kind of demonic power, and right from the start we know something is up. The reply to the second question, “It has been decided in your favour”, would have been a non sequitur in answer to Don’s first question, whether anything interesting ever happens in the town, so immediately it feels like something unusual is going on. We are therefore simultaneously told that superstition is a false idol, while being shown that it’s actually a real idol, albeit a sinister one. The episode has a happy ending, showing how simple it is to break out of a cycle of superstition, while also offering the “counterbalance” of somebody who couldn’t. In the end, it all comes down to one simple but essential principle: “You can decide your own life.” RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: The Lateness of the Hour