Lessons From ‘The Twilight Zone’: Overcoming Addiction in ‘Nick of Time’


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.

(L-R) Patricia Breslin, William Shatner, and Guy Wilkerson star in "The Twilight Zone" episode "Nick of Time." (CBS Video Library)
(L-R) Patricia Breslin, William Shatner, and Guy Wilkerson star in "The Twilight Zone" episode "Nick of Time." (CBS Video Library)
Don toys with the machine’s simple “yes” or “no” answers and exposes his hidden pathological obsession with superstitious thinking. Simple questions such as “Will I get a promotion?” or “Will we leave Ohio this afternoon?” seem to result in coincidental events that force an endless cycle of questions.

A ‘Powerful’ Machine

Although 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 juxtaposition between Don’s ability to overcome such influence is paralleled with the frightened couple at the conclusion. “Twilight Zone” creator, writer and narrator, Rod Serling drives this point home in the closing monologue: “Counterbalance in the little town of Ridgeville, Ohio. Two people permanently enslaved by the tyranny of fear and superstition, facing the future with a kind of helpless dread. Two others facing the future with confidence…”. By the narrative’s conclusion Don has navigated the dreadful waters of addictive influence and found that living his own life is a benefit for both him and his wife, as opposed to the final couple that is shackled by fear.

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.

The psychologist Jordan Peterson notes in his book “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos” that deeply held ideas and beliefs can lead to devastating outcomes when they take full charge of a person’s thought pattern and actions: “An idea defines figure against ground. An idea is a personality, not a fact. When it manifests itself within a person, it has a strong proclivity to make of that person its avatar: to impel that person to act out. Sometimes, that impulsion (possession is another word) can be so strong that the person will die, rather than allowing the idea to perish.”

Breaking Dependency

The 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.

Rod Serling hosts "The Twilight Zone" episode "Nick of Time." (CBS Video Library)
Rod Serling hosts "The Twilight Zone" episode "Nick of Time." (CBS Video Library)
As Serling notes in the closing monologue, letting go of fear and unending dread, but also finding a sense of meaning and security is the conduit to avoiding addictions of any kind. In today’s atomized and fractured society, finding meaning in relationships over screens, astrology, gambling, alcohol, and so on, is the road best taken. 
‘Nick of Time’ Director: Richard L. Bare Stars: William Shatner, Patricia Breslin, Rod Serling Running Time: 30 minutes MPAA Rating: TV-PG Release Date: Nov. 18, 1960 Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Dustin Fisher is a writer and educator. He has penned multiple articles on film and popular culture as well as given lectures and presentations at universities in both the U.S. and UK. Currently, he is teaching at Edison State College while completing his doctorate in film studies and American literature at the University of Cincinnati.