I’ve spent the better part of last week sick in bed. A bug that was going around our house caught up to me in the form of a bad headcold, and I was laying low through the new year, not doing much of anything.
The saving grace was (in addition to watching the original Star Wars trilogy as an homage to the late Carrie Fisher) watching the Twilight Zone marathon on the SyFy network, an annual tradition in which that network runs every episode of that iconic television series over the New Year’s holiday. While its first run was before my time, I was introduced to the iconic show by my father, and it quickly became a favorite. Growing up I watched as many episodes as I could when they were on TV (before streaming services), read books about the series and even read collections of the short stories on which some of the episodes were based.
For those catching up, the Twilight Zone was a television series that ran 1959-1964. Created by (Jewish) writer Rod Serling, who also provided narration at the beginning and end of every episode, the Twilight Zone told individual stories of fantasy or science fiction usually involving some twist or surprise. Sometimes unnerving, never very scary, but always thoughtful—and the best episodes are the ones that provide commentary on society or human nature.
There are still plenty of episodes I haven’t seen, and though I have my usual favorites, I sometimes develop new ones. Such is the case this time as I rewatched an episode I had seen before but now, for some reason, resonated more with me. (Kind of like reading the Torah—we read the Torah each year, but although the stories are the same, we are different, and so what resonates is different.)
One of my new favorite episodes is called “Nick of Time” and stars William Shatner (before he was Captain Kirk from Star Trek fame.) Rather than reinvent the wheel, I will include the plot description of the episode from Wikipedia (Spoilers ahead):
When Don and Pat Carter’s automobile breaks down in Ridgeview, Ohio, and because of potential delay in obtaining a replacement fuel pump, they decide to have lunch at the Busy Bee Cafe while they wait for repairs to be made. The booth they sit in has a fortune-telling machine on the table that answers yes or no questions for a penny each. Don asks the “mystic seer” (with a head like the devil) 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, such as when their car will be fixed, and how long they should stay in the restaurant.
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. and tries to stall for time. 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 suggests trying one of the other seer machines, but Don is drawn to the original machine.
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; the mechanic has exactly one fuel pump available. Pat asks the seer trick questions, and the seer’s answer are still accurate.
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/no question to arrive at that information. Pat tries to break the spell the seer has over Don, who is unable to make any decision without the machine’s answers. 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, 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 using the pennies Don left behind. 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. While this is happening, Don and Pat leave Ridgeview.
The “Magic Seer” is like the “Magic 8 Ball” in which the answers can potentially be open to interpretation. And that is the power of this episode, not that there was any real magic involved, or nefarious supernatural forces at work, but that we can create our own reality based on our adherence to certain norms, or how we choose to understand certain events, how how we are susceptible to suggestion.
There is a positive side to this of course. We interpret and make meaning based on our own needs and inclinations. We create ritual to mark time and space, we find causality and connection when it is meaningful and uplifting to do so. But these same forces can hold us back. If we are unwilling to deviate from expected outcomes or norms, or we give up too much of our power to create, then we are chained to one reality unable to break free from it.
That is where Don was through most of the episode and where we learn the couple at the end of the episode still is.Don and Pat were able to break free. The other couple, not yet.
The lesson learned over the course of the episode is that while at first Don and Pat chose to read the Mystic Seer’s novelty answer cards–which were vague enough to be open to imposed meaning–as containing real answers, they ultimately came to understand that the real power did not come from without but from within. They held the ability and power to create their own reality, not the Mystic Seer. And they, therefore, have the ability and power to change their reality.
And that reality comes perhaps more from the questions asked, than the answers offered.