Even a casual “Twilight Zone” viewer may recognize the now iconic Mystic Seer fortune-telling box from the episode “Nick of Time.” Its signature winking bobble-head “seer” atop a common table napkin dispenser has grinned through black and white television screens since 1960. The sly, toy figure that grants a brief glimpse into the future personifies a prescient lesson on temptation, and the power of ideas to oppress the mind.
A young salesman, Don (William Shatner), and his wife, Pat (Patricia Breslin), are traveling across Ohio on their honeymoon. The car breaks down and needs repairs in a small town. While waiting, the young couple enter a small diner for lunch and find a Mystic Seer machine on the table, which will tell fortunes for a penny.
A ‘Powerful’ MachineAlthough the machine’s answers are open-ended, the power it inflicts upon the willing recipient is almost unbreakable. Don’s superstitious thinking is exploited by the power of the machine and its “ability” to partially predict the future. These notions help to take over Don’s thinking and begin to control his entire life.
Television critic Mark Dawidziak notes that the episode is crafted in such a way that the Mystic Seer is somewhat arbitrary. The power of “Nick of Time” isn’t in whether the machine can truly predict the future, but in its corrupting influence over the non-rational mind. Fortunately for Don, his wife finally convinces him to break the spell the machine has over him and leave to save his sanity and their marriage. It is at this moment a similar, albeit, more haggard-looking couple enters and begins asking questions of the Mystic Seer. Don and Pat are then able to escape the prison of addiction; they appear vibrant and enthusiastic, while the second couple is beaten down after succumbing to its power.
The Power of Ideas and Addiction“Nick of Time” is a powerful reflection on the addicting, influential power of superstition and dogmas; however, it also is an allegory of humanity’s ability to easily fall into addiction. At one point Don is consumed by the idea that the Mystic Seer may have predicted their demise if they leave. Back in the diner, he comforts his wife in the knowledge that he is not becoming addicted to the machine and compares himself to an alcoholic: “Instead of bottles and chandeliers, [I have] rabbit’s feet and four-leaf clovers.” His actions are fully driven by the irrational thought-pattern beholden to the object of dependence.
After they are nearly hit in the street by a passing truck, Don convinces Pat that the machine predicted the scenario, completely ignoring his own actions of crossing into oncoming traffic. Even the booths in which the fortune telling machines sit are enclosed in screens that cast shadows like cell bars. It also is of importance that the bobble-head atop the machine is a winking devil that personifies its evil, tempting power. Both visuals symbolically construct the prison of temptation and addiction the objects hold.
Don is trapped in his endless superstition thought pattern that creates a need for asking more questions. It isn’t proven the machine can predict the future; it is only important that Don believes that it can. The allusion to addiction can be extended not just to superstition but to any prostration before an outside power.
Breaking DependencyThe episode articulates the overwhelming power that irrational thought and ideas can have over an individual. In the postmodern era, Western society is seeing a devastating rise in addictive behaviors whether they be chemical dependency, gambling, video games, shopping, social media, technology, binge-streaming media, thought patterns, or political ideologies. Several recent news articles have pointed to the rise of “addiction” due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During the national lockdowns, many resorted to placating boredom and isolation through binge-watching television, playing video games, or becoming dependent on addictive chemicals such as alcohol.
This is the episode’s powerful universality: The knowledge that thought and irrational behavior patterns lead down a dark path, particularly when deep meaning seems to be derived from the dependency. Recognizing the power of temptation and seduction of addiction is the first step to avoiding a dangerous descent.
In the end, Don escapes the grip of helpless addiction to the Mystic Seer. His wife convinces him to live as he sees fit and allow his own individuality and beliefs to govern the future. Finding a sense of purpose and meaning devoid of oppressive ideas and thought patterns should be the goal.