Sunday, April 7, 2013

"Nick of Time"

Patricia Breslin and William Shatner test their fate with
the Mystic Seer.
“Nick of Time”
Season Two, Episode 43
November 18, 1960

Don Carter: William Shatner
Pat Carter: Patricia Breslin
Counterman: Guy Wilkerson
Mechanic: Stafford Repp
Desperate Man: Walter Reed
Desperate Woman: Lee Carroll

Writer: Richard Matheson (original teleplay)
Director: Richard L. Bare
Producer: Buck Houghton
Associate Producer: Del Reisman
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson and Sidney Van Keuran
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis and Philip Barber
Set Decoration: Henry Grace and H. Web Arrowsmith
Assistant Director: Darrell Hallenbeck
Casting: Ethel Winant
Editor: Leon Barsha
Sound: Franklin Milton and Charles Scheid
Music: Stock

And Now, Mr. Serling:
“You’ve probably run across these penny machines that tell your fortune.  You put a penny in and out comes a card.  Only this particular machine, which you’ll see next week, is a little bit unique in that the fortunes that it tells happen to come true.  A most intriguing tale called ‘The Nick of Time’ by Mr. Richard Matheson.  And you’re invited to partake of it.  Thank you and good night.”

 Rod Serlin’s Opening Narration:

“The hand belongs to Mr. Don S. Carter, male member of a honeymoon team en route across the Ohio countryside to New York City.  In one moment they will be subjected to a gift most humans never receive in a lifetime.  For one penny they’ll be able to look into the future.  The time is now, the place is a little diner in Ridgeview, Ohio.  And what this young couple doesn’t realize is that this town happens to lie on the outskirts of the Twilight Zone.”

Don and Pat Carter are newlyweds on a road trip across the Midwest en route to New York City for a Manhattan honeymoon.  While tooling through a small town called Ridgeview, Ohio they come into car trouble.  They have the car towed to a local mechanic who tells them it will be four hours before it’s ready.  Hungry, fatigued and with little to do in such a long stretch of time they decide to grab a bite to eat at the Busy Bee Café.  They walk in, sit down, order, and then turn their attention to a quirky-looking novelty toy placed on the table.  It’s nothing more than a box-shaped, medal napkin holder with a lever and a winking, plastic devil’s head protruding from the top of it.  Written on it are the words “The Mystic Seer.”  It’s a fortune-telling machine.  For just a penny a willing patron may ask it anything he or she wishes as long as it requires no more than a yes or no answer.  Feeling adventurous they decide to give it a try. 
               Searching for a question, Don drops a penny into the coin slot, pulls the lever and says, “Does anything exciting ever happen around here?”
                “It is quite possible,” the Seer replies.
                They forget about the machine for a few moments while they order their food but then Don decides he wants to ask it another question.  This time he asks it about a big job promotion he is line for.
                “It has been decided in your favor,” says the Seer.
                Don decides that this is enough reason to phone his office again to ask for an update on the status of his promotion.  Pat protests, explaining to him that his constant calling may be an annoyance to his bosses.  Don shrugs her off and decides to call anyway.  After he hangs up the phone he cheerfully announces to his wife that he got the job.
                Feeling as though the machine foretold his future in a way, Don decides to ask it another question.  “Will it really be four hours before we get out of here?” he says.
                “You may never know,” the Seer replies.
                Finding the answer curious, Don then asks it if something will happen to prevent them from leaving.  “If you move soon,” the Seer says.
                Finding this to be more than just a curious answer but a somewhat disturbing one, Don begins to ask questions at an increasingly faster pace as his wife watches nervously.  Finally, he asks “Should we stay in here until three o’clock?”
            “There’s no question about it,” the Seer responds.
             “If we don’t stay in here until three o’clock, something bad will happen to us?”
“Do you dare risk finding out?"
Finding the ordeal quite unsettling, Pat suggests that they leave the café and explore the town.  Don protests, saying that he has not finished his food, but really he is afraid to leave the café before three o’clock.  But Pat is persistent and eventually he decides that he cannot stay in there any longer without admitting to her that he is afraid to leave.  They pay their check and walk outside.
             Pat inquires to Don as to why he wanted to stay in the café so badly.  He claims that the Mystic Seer was specific about every answer it gave and that it was right about his promotion.  That every answer seemed to fit the question asked.  Then he admits that he is prone to superstition and carries rabbits’ feet and four leaf clovers wherever he goes.  Pat kisses him gently on the cheek and beckons him forward.  But she notices Don nervously looking all around them for some sign of malice.  Moments later, while crossing the street, they are almost run over by a speeding car.  The camera pans up to a clock which reads three o’clock. 
            After consoling his new wife, Don suggests that they go back to the café to relax.  Reluctantly, she agrees.  When they enter the café they notice that two elderly women are sitting their table.  Even though there are Mystic Seers located on every table Don doesn’t drop a penny into any of them.  Pat tells him that he could get the same kind of answers from any one of these machines.  That the machine did not say not to leave until three, he did.  But Don waits until the two elderly women leave and then makes his way back to their original table.  He begins to ask questions at a rapid fire pace. 
            “Did you know about the car almost hitting us?” “Will we reach New York alright now?” “Will it still take four hours before the car is ready?”
Out of nowhere the mechanic walks into the café to tell them that their car is ready to go.
Don asks his wife if she still thinks that it is a coincidence.  He suggests that she ask some questions.  She does but quickly gets frustrated and stands up to leave.  Don continues to ask questions.  Pat begs him to stop but he cannot.  “This machine is predicting our future,” he says.  “Do you think I can just walk away from it?”  She convinces him that if he doesn’t let the machine go then it will end up running his life.  She tells him that she doesn’t want to know what is going to happen in their lives, she wants to make it happen.  Don realizes the ridiculousness of his behavior and he stands and puts his arms around her.  He tells her that they should leave.  They can go anywhere they want and do anything they want.  They walk out of the café arms in arm with a new outlook on life.
               Immediately after they leave another couple walks in.  They appear ragged, tired, beaten, worn, desperate.  They walk over to the same table that was, until moments ago, occupied by Don and Pat Carter.  They sit down and drop a penny into the Mystic Seer.  “May we ask some more questions now?” the man says.  “Can we leave Ridgeview today?  Is there any way out?  Any way at all?”
 Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“Counter balance in the little town of Ridgeview, Ohio.  Two people permanently enslaved by the tyranny of fear of and superstition, facing the future with a kind of helpless dread.  Two others facing the future with confidence, having escaped one of the darker places of the Twilight Zone.”

Rounding out the unprecedented three episode run on The Twilight Zone is the subtle Richard Matheson-penned masterpiece “Nick of Time.”  The focus on the past three episodes, “The Howling Man,” “Eye of the Beholder” and “Nick of Time,” as being such an extraordinary creative arc is because each of these episodes are considered by both fans and critics to be among the best efforts that the show has to offer and among the best offerings from each of their respective writers (the three primary writers on the show), Charles Beaumont, Rod Serling and Richard Matheson
                Unlike the visually aesthetic episodes of Beaumont and Serling, “Nick of Time,” in true Matheson form, is meticulously subtle.  Even the twist at the end of the episode is left up to the audience’s interpretation.  But the ending is more important than just artistic trickery.  It actually helps to drive Matheson’s point home; that people control their own destiny.  After leading the audience to believe that the Mystic Seer is only a hallucinated manifestation of Don’s fear and paranoia Matheson then tells us that maybe it is real.  But it doesn’t matter either way because its purpose hasn’t changed.  It is still a representation of paranoia and apprehension and all of the trappings of modern psychology.  One has to face his fears if he wants to free himself from them, the message here being that Don has finally learned that he is the only one that controls his destiny.  True, Matheson could have said all of this without the twist ending but, as suggested by the title of the episode, the ending basically implies that if a person doesn’t learn to face his fears then he will be consumed by them forever.  Don learns this lesson, but his less fortunate counterpart does not.
                The idea for “Nick of Time” came to Matheson while having dinner with his wife at a café where he saw a fortune telling machine much like the one that ends up in the episode.  Characteristic of many of his stories the title here holds a double meaning.  According to Matheson “Nick of Time” refers not only to the fact that Don and Pat escape in the nick of time but also to how a person can become a slave to time, how it cuts into our lives.  The devil’s head was not in the original script and was added later by the art department.  Though it seems like only a prop this episode would not work as well without it because it gives the Seer a face and thus a personality, which is what the story revolves around.
                As meticulously crafted as the script for “Nick of Time” is it would completely fall apart without the right actors.  In the entirety of the Twilight Zone catalog I don’t believe that there is another actor more suited to his role than William Shatner is in both of his performances on this program.  Shatner also stars in the Season Five episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” which is probably the single most recognizable episode of the show (also written by Matheson).  When “Nick of Time” first aired in 1960 Shatner had just begun appearing on television.   Though widely regarded as sort of a ham-a fairly accurate description-Shatner is actually a theatrically trained Shakespearean actor who appeared in dozens of highly acclaimed plays in his twenties before coming to Hollywood.  Through roles on various projects and because of his association with the science fiction community Shatner eventually became friends with Matheson and fellow Twilight Zone scribes Charles Beaumont, George Clayton Johnson and Jerry Sohl and several other members of the Southern California School of Writers (the Group).  He and Serling had already worked together in 1958 when Shatner appeared in Serling’s Playhouse 90 play, A Town Has Turned to Dust.  In 1962 Shatner accompanied Beaumont, Clayton Johnson, William F. Nolan and director Roger Corman to Missouri to play the lead in the film adaptation of Beaumont’s novel, The Intruder, which Beaumont adapted himself.  Beaumont, Nolan and Clayton Johnson all have roles in the film.  That same year he appeared in two episodes of Thriller, both of which were written by Matheson’s close friend and mentor Robert Bloch.  Over the next few years he did the rounds on the anthology circuit appearing in episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, One Step Beyond and The Outer Limits.  In 1966 he took the role of USS Enterprise Captain James. T. Kirk in Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek and was forever immortalized in modern popular culture, becoming the key figure in one of the most successful television franchises of all time.  Matheson, Bloch, Clayton Johnson and Sohl all contributed stories to the series.
                Although Shatner is often accused of overacting, his dramatic enthusiasm is what makes his characters so memorable.  There are many other things working for Star Trek but put simply I don’t think the show would still be around today if it were not for William Shatner.  It’s interesting to compare his two performances on The Twilight Zone because they are so much alike.  He is almost playing the same character at two different stages of life.  When the audience first meets Don Carter he is a newly married, intelligent young man with nothing but potential in front of him.  But his tragic flaw is that his paranoia and insecurity are beginning to blind him from the rest of the world.  If we were to fast forward ten years from this point we would most likely see a different Don Carter, one more like Bob Wilson.
                But it is the relationship between Shatner and Patricia Breslin that really holds this episode together.  The dominant theme in much of Matheson’s work is American domesticity.  Whereas Serling’s work focused on personal compassion and social issues and Beaumont’s stories often focused on ideas and atmosphere, Matheson’s episodes were often about the common interactions between husband and wife.  The way Shatner and Breslin react to one another on the screen is both convincing and totally accessible to the audience.  They appear to be like any young married couple.  So their arguments come off as genuine and are easily relatable to the viewer. 
                Breslin was a popular television performer in the 1950’s, appearing in many of the live dramas and daytime soap operas, but she appears to have abandoned her acting career in the mid-60’s.  Her credits include AHP & AHH, Thriller, Perry Mason, and Bonanza. 
             “Nick of Time” was directed by Twilight Zone regular Richard L Bare whose other episodes include “Third from the Sun” and “To Serve Man.”  Everything about this episode depends on subtlety and Bare chose to keep his camerawork minimal and let the actors and Matheson’s script work on their own, and the result was an undeniable landmark of the series.

Grade: A+

--As mentioned, William Shatner also stars in the Season Five classic, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”
--Patricia Breslin also appears in the Season Four Episode, “No Time Like the Past.”
--“Nick of Time” was adapted into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Marshall Allman (2002, Falcon Picture Group).

--Brian Durant

Up Next: Come back next time for a story about family and robots when we review Rod Serling's "The Lateness of the Hour" right here on The Twilight Zone Vortex.


  1. At last, "Nick of Time"! Thanks for this enjoyable review, and I am glad to see some love for Our Greatest Living Actor!!!

  2. Love this episode! A favorite of mine

  3. This was the first solid episode of Season 2, and one of the few without a gimmick (i.e. it's quite possible that none of it *actually* takes place in the Twilight Zone -- another example is "The Silence")

    Thanks for a lovely review!

    1. Thanks! "Nick of Time" is definitely one of the show's best, although the previous two episodes, "The Howling Man" and "Eye of the Beholder," are personal favorites of ours as well. Yeah, the supernatural aspect is minimal which was brilliant on Matheson's part. The double entendre in the title is also really clever. Matheson was the best at titles like that. He originally wanted to do the same thing with "The Last Flight," calling it simply "Flight" to reference Decker's cowardice, but Serling felt it needed a catchier title.

  4. Nick of Time stands up to this time as well to use a bad pun! I like the fact that Matheson leaves it up to the viewer as to whether Old Nick (as the double-entendre is written) is alive in that creepy machine or it is self-fulfilling prophesy) I know in this write-up the prop of the fortune-telling machine with the Devil head makes it more mysterious, but the character study of how people who are superstitious to begin with can be lead into even more obsessed behavior by even the most simplest of coincidences such as when Don Carter calls his office and learns he got the promotion or almost gets hit by the moving car with his wife, Pat (Patricia Breslin). Well, he was more or less in line for it anyway (50/50 shot) and he was not paying attention in the middle of the street, and all of the Mystic Seer's answers were all generalizations. However; on the other hand, it could be like a Ouija board and opened up the forces of the netherworld as well, which is why this episode is creepy and holds your interest. Not one of the better episodes in my opinion. I would give it a C+. Of course, William Shatner, known for being a ham, really gets into the obsessed young executive role in the episode. I am glad Cpt Kirk is still with us as of this writing. He ties us to the past with two episodes from TZ, and the immortal Star Trek.

  5. I generally don't admit to being superstitious, however, there have been enough experiences in my life to challenge that. Particularly in my relationships with girls. I believe I'm happy, then something like a glass heart that I might have or come across breaks, and soon after, my relationship has always ended with said girl(s). How many coincidences add up to a fact? And how much, I wonder, is anything of this nature confined to the Twilight Zone?

  6. I generally don't admit to being superstitious, however, there have been enough experiences in my life to challenge that. Particularly in my relationships with girls. I believe I'm happy, then something like a glass heart that I might have or come across breaks, and soon after, my relationship has always ended with said girl(s). How many coincidences add up to a fact? And how much, I wonder, is anything of this nature confined to the Twilight Zone?

  7. "Nick of Time" is one of my all-time favorite "Twilight Zone" episodes (and I've got quite a few). Like all first-class fantasy, it's rooted in a very real issue: the fact that some people (often, although not always, men), who seem dynamic, ambitious and go-getting as all-get-out, are actually jelly at the core. They can be discombobulated by the most trivial of events, seeing them as "omens". (One such man whom I knew years ago, who had fought and clawed his way to the corner office at a major law firm, was superstitious to a degree that made Don Carter in this episode look like a piker. If something he deemed even remotely ominous occurred when he was about to make a major decision, or launch a new initiative, his pet phrase was "This thing's got the Indian sign on it." And, unfortunately, he didn't have anybody as practical and level-headed as Pat at his elbow to make him see reason). God, I love Richard Matheson -- his ability to mine the frailties and weaknesses of the human condition for the gold ore from which to produce refined fantasy was itself a kind of sorcery. The best kind.