"Nick of Time" is the seventh episode of the second season of The Twilight Zone. It was first broadcast in November of 1960. It was written by Richard Matheson and starred William Shatner (in one of his first television roles) and Patricia Breslin as newlyweds Don and Pat Carter.
The car of Don and Pat Carter breaks down in a small town in Ohio, and they enter the diner to pass the time. The diner has a coin operated device on the tables: a bobbling devil head that tells fortunes. Out of boredom, the man starts to put pennies into the machine, but when the answers start to seem more than just random, the man becomes addicted to asking the machine for advice. It doesn't take a veteran Twilight Zone viewer to know that asking a mysterious devil head for advice is probably a bad idea on many levels. After some dramatic turns and discussions of free will, the episode reaches its conclusion.
Certain aspects of this episode have started before. The Hitch-hiker also begins with a person getting a tow truck ride into a small town, and The Fever also involves a husband getting addicted to using a coin-operated machine. But the true interest of this episode lies elsewhere for me: the presence of William Shatner and the incidental appearance of the bobble-headed devil.
It took me a few minutes into the episode to realize that the actor was William Shatner. I knew that he would be in the later, famous episode Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, but I had forgotten that he was in an earlier episode. At the time this episode was filmed, Shatner was not a famous actor, and at first glance, he seems to be simply acting out the part in a serviceable way. But what has been seen can not be unseen: after almost 50 years of Shatner and his delivery and mannerisms being a part of popular culture, it became impossible for me to separate the character out from William Shatner. I half expected him to stand up and start making a speech in his inimical manner:
"We humans must live...by our own...destinies! We can not allow ourselves...to be controlled by forces...we do not! understand!"
Perhaps it is unfair to Shatner, but popular culture has retroactively tinted everything he has ever been involved with.
My second question was about the devil-headed fortune telling device. Although labelled as "The Mystic Seer", it had horns and a typically Satanic face. One of the things about watching media from the past is that it is hard to tell what is an incidental feature, and what is considered highly unusual. I don't know if penny operated fortune telling machines were actually something that could be commonly seen at diners in the 1950s, but at least in the episode it isn't treated as a great curiosity. I can't imagine that in the present, a small town in Ohio would be receptive to occult, devilish entertainment. But at the time, the occult was not seen as an item in the (still unknown) culture war: without a cultural battle about religion in society, the presence of occult figures was seen as a joke or a trifle, in a way it never could be today.