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Recap / The Twilight Zone S2E43 "Nick of Time"

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"Ask Me a Yes or No Question... you have nothing to lose but your sanity."
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Air date: November 18, 1960

When Don (William Shatner) and Pat Carter's (Patricia Breslin) automobile breaks down in Ridgeview, Ohio, they decide to have lunch at the Busy Bee Cafe while they wait. The booth they sit in has a fortune telling machine (with a devil's head) on the table that answers yes or no questions for a penny each. Don sarcastically asks the seer if anything exciting happens in Ridgeview. The response on the card reads...

"It Is quite possible"

Rod Serling: The hand belongs to Mr. Don S. Carter, male member of a honeymoon team on 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 will 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.
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Don asks the "mystic seer" if he is going to get a promotion at work. The card says that it has been decided in his favor. When Don calls the office, he discovers that the seer was right. Because of this initial success, Don asks the seer more and more questions.

Pat begins to recognize that Don is taking the seer too seriously. Based on the seer's predictions, Don believes it is unsafe to leave the diner until after 3 p.m. Pat convinces him to leave a few minutes before 3, but the couple is almost struck by a car while crossing the street. A nearby clock shows it is 3 p.m. After they calm down, Don wants to go back to the cafe for more answers. However, two women are sitting at their booth, so Don and Pat wait at the front counter.

Pat wants proof that the seer is legitimate, pointing out that it was Don who had brought up the matter of precisely 3 p.m. After reclaiming their booth, Don immediately asks the seer more questions. One of the things he wants to know is whether their car will be fixed by the end of the day. The seer answers in the affirmative and, as if on cue, the mechanic steps into the diner to tell Don that his car is fixed.

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The breaking point comes when Don wants the seer to tell him where they're going to live and asks the seer every conceivable yes or no question to arrive at that information. Pat tries to break the spell the seer has over Don. After a persuasive speech from Pat, Don apologizes and then announces directly to the mystic seer that they're leaving to go do what they please. After their cautious but uneventful exit to their car and out of town, a slightly older couple enters the diner. The couple is noticeably beleaguered and distraught. Approaching the same mystic seer, the man first asks the seer if they can ask more questions. After receiving an apparently affirmative answer, the man asks a series of questions including "Do you think we might leave Ridgeview today?". The couple is obviously deflated by the answers to this question and others and, unlike the now-free Don and Pat, will remain trapped by their obsession with the seer's "counsel".


A Nick of Tropes:

  • An Aesop:
    • Don't let superstition control all aspects of your life.
    • Fear is a very powerful thing, but only if you let it control you. You can make your own life on your own terms.
  • Everytown, America: Aside from the weird Mystic Seer in the Busy Bee Cafe, Ridgeview, Ohio is an otherwise quaint and friendly little American town.
  • Here We Go Again!: As the Carters walk out of the diner, another couple walks in and begins frantically consulting the fortune-teller.
  • Lucky Rabbit's Foot: Don carries one with him at all times, as well as a Four-Leaf Clover.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: According to writer Richard Matheson, he left it ambiguous whether the fortune-teller is actually predicting events or whether Don is simply interpreting it that way. All of the following are possible: the machine accurately predicted the future as it was meant to, it was designed for/attempted to trap people (which would be a lot of trouble for a few pennies), its only ability was to make you think it made accurate predictions, or it was in fact an ordinary machine and the seemingly accurate predictions were a series of improbable coincidences.
  • Nothing Exciting Ever Happens Here: Don offhandedly questions the seer if anything exciting happens in Ridgeview. Needless to say, a lot happens, more than he could possibly imagine...
  • Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: Sort of. The seer appears to control one's actions as it gains their trust.
  • Shadow Archetype: In the end, another couple approaches the fortune teller machine and ask it questions about whether they may leave the town. They are implied to be what could've happened if both Don and Pat were superstitious and had resigned themselves to the fortune teller.
  • Women Are Wiser: Pat is far more skeptical of the fortune teller's supposed "powers" and repeatedly urges Don to stop obsessing over it. In the end, her persistence and wisdom get through to him and they escape. It's subverted with the woman in the couple at the end, who is just as trapped by superstition as her husband.

Rod Serling: Counterbalance in the little town of Ridgeview, 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, having escaped one of the darker places of the Twilight Zone.
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