“Nick Of Time” (season 2, episode 7; originally aired 11/18/1960)
In which you really should read this article at exactly 3 p.m.
There are some actors who just fit on The Twilight Zone. When they step into the show’s weird confines, everything pops, and the series’ artificial trappings fall away. It’s easier to ignore that these are often small morality plays or the way that the exposition can be thuddingly delivered. It’s easier to just sit back and let the whole thing wash over you.
William Shatner is one of those actors. When I say that, it sounds like a bit of an insult, since Shatner’s so well-known now for being such a ham. But something about his over-acting tendencies works on this show. In this episode, he plays a man who immediately gets addicted to asking a napkin holder what his future will bring, and where it would have seemed completely implausible with lots of other actors—isn’t this guy supposed to be a real up-and-comer in the business world?—with Shatner, you go with it. Shatner always seems like he’s about five seconds away from going off the deep end anyway, whether he’s in Star Trek or working as a pitchman for Priceline. When he gets it in his head that there’s a little machine with a devil’s bobblehead that can tell him exactly what’s about to happen, so long as he phrases it just right, it makes perfect sense. You were probably waiting for him to do this back on Rescue 911.
The thing is, I’m not sure “Nick Of Time” would work without Shatner. Oh, sure, the closing moments are so well-done that they would have maintained some of that power with any actor, I imagine, but there’s a lot of stuff here that requires even more suspension of disbelief to swallow than usual. For starters, there’s the idea that this guy—who seems pretty rational for the first 10 minutes, until we learn he’s really superstitious out of nowhere—would become addicted to getting his fortune that quickly. But we’ve also got a bunch of other weird little issues here and there, all of which mostly have to do with the way the episode wants to work as a morality play. Episode writer Richard Matheson—one of the great genre writers to ever have lived—obviously wanted to tell a story about how you can’t let anyone but you dictate your life, but he lays on the moral button a little heavily here and there.
Still, this one works like gangbusters, particularly in the closing moments, when Pat, a young newlywed bride, finally convinces her husband that he needn’t be enslaved by this fortune-telling machine. Her speech is a little overwrought, but you totally buy in the moment that this is just about the only thing that would keep Don from asking the malevolent hunk of metal every possible question he could until he knew every step his future was going to take. I’ve praised Shatner already, but Patricia Breslin is also excellent as Pat. When she’s trying to trick the fortune teller into giving her an answer that’s obviously false, so she can break the spell, the episode takes on the weird, fever-dream intensity the best episodes of this show have.
I think what ultimately works best about this episode is that it ends up siding pretty heavily with the idea that the machine is telling the future, then decides it shouldn’t matter. If it had been a little more vague, allowing us to suspect that, yeah, it was all a coincidence, then I don’t think the final moral of the story would have worked at all. When Pat and Don walk out of the restaurant, leaving their iced coffees and the fortune teller behind, it’s a triumphant moment because we know that if they just sat there and asked, over and over again, to learn more about what was going to happen, they would find out. But Pat’s right that that’s no way to live your life, as we see when the second couple walks in at the end (one of my favorite of Zone endings) to feed more pennies into the machine. The chilling final question: Will we leave Ridgeview today?
I was going to quibble with the idea that the people of Ridgeview wouldn’t notice the folks who seem to be in thrall to this one, specific fortune-telling trinket in this one, specific café, but the more I think about it, the more I think that’s where the episode gains some of its power. That final question isn’t about whether that man and his obviously despondent wife will become rich or have a baby. It’s simply whether or not they’ll get to leave town. The machine seemingly can pick up on people who will be uniquely susceptible to it, and it finds a way to play on those fears, just as it seems like Pat and Don’s accident was no accident. Ridgeview wanted them there, it’s easy to imagine, and it was going to do whatever it could to keep them there.
The Twilight Zone was a show that aired at that unique time in American history when the country was increasingly an urban one, yet it still bore a sort of national memory of the time when everyone lived in idyllic small towns and didn’t leave for any reason. There are numerous episodes on this show about wanting to get back to that time or wanting to find a way to construct that sort of Utopia, but there are very few that are purposefully about trying to escape that time. (One of my favorites, “Walking Distance,” is very much about that idea.) The show itself understands how sinister this desire to live in the past is, but the characters often don’t. Yes, the putative moral here is that these two people are able to walk away from a sure thing because they have the confidence they need to do so. But there’s also the subtext here of having that confidence to step out of the perfect past of Ridgeview and toward the bright new future of New York City. It’s an interesting play on some of the show’s usual formulas.
Because, yeah, if I found a machine that could tell me the future, I’d be hard-pressed to leave it behind too. Wouldn’t you? There’s nothing we want to know more than what’s around the next corner. And if it’s a little bit bizarre that this man would suddenly start thinking a fortune-telling machine filled with vague slips meant for just about any occasion after one lucky guess, well, that’s when you bring in Shatner and have him unleash his full fury. “Nick Of Time” comes so close to not working that it’s a surprise it’s as successful as it is. That it works at all is testament to its two central actors and Matheson’s brilliant structure.
What a twist!: The fortune-telling machine sure seems like it can tell the future, but Pat talks Don out of signing his life over to it. As they leave, another couple comes in… to begin asking the machine if they’ll leave the little town today.
- I just love the look on the woman’s face at the end. You can tell she’s been stuck here a long, long time but doesn’t know how she’s ever going to get out. You see that face a lot on this show.
- Richard L. Bare directed this one, and he makes excellent use of medium shots that frame the fortune-telling gadget in such a way as to indicate just how much power it holds over either Don or Pat in any given moment. Some really nice work.
- Want to build your own Mystic Seer? This guy’s done it and can show you how. Be warned, though, that if you accidentally tap into some malevolent spirit that can see the future, you may end up with a couple of friends who never leave your house.
“The Lateness Of The Hour” (season 2, episode 8; originally aired 12/2/1960)
In which the butler was built to be a butler
It’s always fascinating when watching older TV shows to see episodes where the producers would try certain things to save money. Nowadays, if a show needs to save money, it’ll usually just toss everybody onto the same set and do a bottle episode, or it’ll jettison half the regular cast to cut back on its acting budget or whatever it can come up with. But in the old days of TV, producers would often change whole sets or switch up filming styles or shift the film stock to save money. (A good modern example is Buffy The Vampire Slayer, which filmed its first two seasons on 16MM film to save cash, then bumped up to 35MM for season three when it had the money to do so. Though I guess that example goes in reverse.) I reviewed the complete series of Upstairs Downstairs last year, and there was a string of episodes there that were in black and white, just randomly, because of a strike that didn’t allow the color to be completed. Used to be that few people thought of television as a “true” artform, and producers would do whatever they could to just stay on the air.
All of this is a long preamble to say that we’re coming up to the greatest experiment in Zone history with this one. For six episodes in the second season, the show filmed on videotape, instead of film. Those episodes were then copied to kinescope for preservation. It’s rather amazing how much video makes a difference in how the show is perceived, honestly. There are some good ideas in “The Lateness Of The Hour,” but as I was watching, I couldn’t get over how, well, cheap everything looked. I complained about this on Twitter, and someone responded that videotape flattens out everything that makes the show as good as it can be and turns it into something more like Dark Shadows. While I wouldn’t go that far (Dark Shadows is kind of stupid and fun), videotape definitely robs the show of much of its atmosphere. Here’s an episode that’s supposed to be taking place in an old mansion, out in the middle of nowhere, with only a few souls trapped inside. This is meant to be an existential treatise on what it means to be a human being, versus what it means to be artificial life, and it never stops looking like it’s being filmed on a soundstage.
This isn’t a bad episode, by any means. Rod Serling’s script is a little didactic, as only Serling scripts can be, and the scene where the father explains to his daughter just why and how he built the robots is very silly, since you figure she’d know that already. But it’s saved by a twist ending that’s a genuine shock, even if you’ve sort of guessed where this is going, and a genuinely great performance from Inger Stevens, who really makes the aforementioned daughter’s rage at being trapped in a house with two parents who are slowly getting older and five robots feel palpable. Once it’s revealed that she, too, is a robot, everything that happens feels like it was inevitably leading to this point, and the final shot of her giving the woman who was once her “mother” a shoulder rub, dressed in a maid’s outfit, is a perfect little stinger, even if it doesn’t need the too-heavy music cue.
At every turn, however, this episode wants to be menacing. It wants to be a story about a young woman who’s been trapped by two parents who don’t understand how much they’ve hurt her upbringing, until she realizes exactly why they’ve trapped her. The robots are supposed to be these innocuous presences that gradually become more and more disturbing. The scene where, say, the father sends all of the robots down to his workroom is meant to be filled with overtones of genocide and murder, of a man who’s been forced to do something awful by a daughter who puts him in an untenable position. And Jana’s breakdown at the end—as she realizes she was “built” to be a daughter—should be this huge moment, when she and the audience both tip over the edge and into madness.
Throughout, however, the videotape and the constant use of long shots keeps any of this material from being as powerful as it might be. Jana’s breakdown mostly happens in the distance, as her parents watch her beat her hand on a stairway railing. Similarly, the scene where the robots are dismissed is just blocked oddly, to make sure that the camera can see the faces of every single robot. These are moments that feel built for the stage, not for the camera, and they rob many of these scenes of whatever power they could have had. Stevens does her best with constantly being stranded in the background of shots, but John Hoyt and Irene Tedrow as the parents don’t seem as well-served, often ending up stuck in stage positions that don’t give them a lot of room to act.
Compare this episode to last week’s “The Howling Man,” an episode that had ideas far more preposterous than this one—confronting the devil is several shades more difficult to suspend your disbelief for than robots who think they’re people—but an episode that works so much better. And almost all of that, I’d say, is due to the way that episode uses its very cinematic look and feel to suck you into the nightmare that is its protagonist’s story. “Lateness” tries to do the same with Jana—and Stevens is doing her best—but the effect of the videotape and the weird staging issues is to distance you from her. Everything that happens to her is something you can think about critically, but it’s not really something you feel.
The ultimate effect of all of this is to pull the audience out of the story, even when it’s doing its best to pull us in. And that leaves lots of time to think about the implausibility of the whole scenario. Don’t you think Jana would have figured out her true nature earlier? Why on Earth would they build an adult daughter, rather than, say, a teenage daughter or even a younger one? What are her parents going to do once she realizes that she doesn’t age? Or once they die? Are they just going to leave her to wander the house and dream of the day when she might go off and find love? All of these are good questions, and all of them might have made fruitful lines of storytelling in other episodes of this show. But this one is undone by something as simple as how its filmed, and they never get room to breathe. Serling and company would only do those six episodes on videotape, concluding that the small amount of money saved wasn’t worth what was lost. I agree with them.
What a twist!: Jana’s a robot! After a mental breakdown, she’s reprogrammed as a maid, complete with overdramatic musical cue.
- The episode might have worked a little better if the robots were given a little more individual screentime. As it is, we really only get to know the maid who gives mother the shoulder rubs.
- I didn’t really clue in that Jana was a robot for far too long, given how many times I’ve watched this show (though I don’t know if I’ve ever seen this particular episode). I was thinking that, perhaps, the rest of humanity was dead or that the parents were robots or that the robots would rise up and kill everybody. Too many killer robot movies, I guess.
- After all of that grousing about the videotape, I remember liking at least a couple of the other videotaped episodes quite a bit. So we’ll see where we stand once the season’s over.
Next week: Zack heads back into Broadway’s heyday in “The Trouble With Templeton” and finds yet another future-predicting device in “A Most Unusual Camera.”