The Twilight Zone: The Obsolete Man

The Twilight Zone Original Logo 1959As we come to the end of season 2, we are greeted with Burgess Meredith playing another bookish character (Time Enough At Last), but he’s a far more likeable one this time around.  In fact, this is another strong contender for a top ten episode which is especially weird considering just how wordy it is.  I was going to say “talkative” but with a man named Wordsworth as the central character, I felt “wordy” was a better option.  In modern terms, this episode could be a scathing critique of office culture: no one is irreplaceable.  But thanks to some damned fine writing, this works more like a thought experiment about government gone wrong.  You hang on every word, waiting to see how Wordsworth will outmaneuver his opponent, the Chancellor.  What makes it even more incredible is that he doesn’t “win”.  He does posthumously outsmart his enemy, but he doesn’t find a way out.

The episode is about a man who has a job that has become obsolete; he’s a librarian in a world without books.  With no other skills, he’s a burden on the state and has to be put to death in the next 48 hours.  He gets to choose the manner and the exact time, but it has to be within two days.  He comes up with a plan: a bomb in his room, a visit from the chancellor, and a locked door.  The dialogue is outstanding but it’s an episode that is driven by some powerful dialogue.   Sadly, there isn’t enough to fit the 25 minute format so, like many of Serling’s stories, it does lag slightly when we are supposed to be watching the passage of time.  Thankfully, this only takes place for a few minutes, but it does leave an impression.

This episode predates my favorite of Alan Moore’s outstanding works, V for Vendetta, by 20 years, but they both share a central thought that has an undeniable indelibility to it: ideas are bulletproof.  Wordsworth says it, ironically, with just a few more words: “I’m a human being, I exist. And if I speak one thought aloud that thought lives, even after I’m shoveled into my grave.”   It’s a gratifying concept, especially to one who writes a blog!

The episode has some of the best opening and closing narration of any episode of The Twilight Zone to date.  We often get something to chew on but this was next level stuff.  Just read this from the opening narration…

This is not a new world, it is simply an extension of what began in the old one. It has patterned itself after every dictator who has ever planted the ripping imprint of a boot on the pages of history since the beginning of time. It has refinements, technological advances, and a more sophisticated approach to the destruction of human freedom. But like every one of the super-states that preceded it, it has one iron rule: logic is an enemy and truth is a menace.

Or this from the closing…

Any state, any entity, any ideology which fails to recognize the worth, the dignity, the rights of Man…that state is obsolete.

Anyone who has been let go from a job, especially due to downsizing, will sympathize with Wordsworth.  Thankfully, execution doesn’t happen as a result but it can feel like a form of death!  Yes, I’ve been through it and it was sad, but I got lucky, ending up somewhere I love.  It’s scary to have your livelihood taken from you but in our world, we can find other paths forward.  Wordsworth didn’t live in our world.  He lived in a world where people’s value is based solely on what they can do for the state.  Depressingly, the followers of that state don’t see what happens to the Chancellor as a cautionary tale; if they did, they would realize the same could happen to them.  One of humanities greatest traits is the ability to adapt.  A strict, militant regime cannot last forever because it will eventually break.  Like Wordsworth finding another job, people have to be given a chance to grow, to change, to adapt.  A job can become obsolete, even an idea can become obsolete; not people.

One other thing that can become obsolete is a gimmick.  I’ve ended every Twilight Zone review in the spirit of Rod Serling himself, but it’s both restrictive and, by its very nature, not original, so I declare my old endings obsolete and will start season 3 fresh, leaving an old idea behind in The Twilight Zone.  ML

The view from across the pond:

If Rod Serling had left me in any doubt about his capabilities as a writer thus far, The Obsolete Man dispelled those doubts. This is so well written that it’s almost poetic at times, with the Chancellor talking about “delusions that you inject into your veins with printer’s ink”, for example. Librarian Romney Wordsworth is perfectly named, because he is defending the value of words, while the Chancellor and his fascist society considers words to be worthless.

The only problem with Serling’s writing here is that he can’t help himself, hitting us over the head with his theme. He does not trust his viewers to join together some very simple dots when he presents us with a society that eliminates “undesirables”, “the sick, the maimed, the deformed”, and instead feels the need to have the Chancellor specify Hitler and Stalin as predecessors who had “the beginnings of the right idea”. This robs the episode of a little of its credibility and some degree of subtlety could have turned a brilliant episode into 25 minutes of perfection.

It is brilliant, though. The idea seems to have inspired everyone. The set design is superb. It looks like an expensive film set, incredibly tall, with massive doors, an unnecessarily long table and a very high lectern. Everything is designed to intimidate. The director makes the most of what he has, with extreme close-ups on the Subaltern’s face, with the Chancellor high up behind him on the lectern, and later framing his shot through a visible camera lens. The acting is also spot on. Burgess Meredith is obviously an ideal choice for a librarian defending the importance of books, while Fritz Weaver has the perfect voice for the Chancellor, rich, deep and full of authority. The difference in their heights also helps his intimidating presence.

This is not a happy tale, but it is rich in irony. A simple librarian turns out to be braver than a dictator in the end, meeting death with dignity while using it as an opportunity to expose his enemy for what he is. Meanwhile, a man who absurdly makes the impossible claim to have proven a negative (“the State has proven that there is no god”) ends up pleading in God’s name to be saved from the same fate as his victim. As Wordsworth puts it, “you cannot erase God with an edict”, and “you cannot destroy truth by burning pages.”

In the end, the Chancellor does what no dictator who rules by fear can do: he shows fear himself, and is swiftly replaced, falling victim to a screaming mob who are ready to tear him to pieces. The man who othered “undesirables” and the “obsolete” and denied them their basic rights as human beings, was himself deemed obsolete in the end. There is a grim satisfaction in that moment, but it leans towards schadenfreude, and the reason the ending is so unhappy is that the evil society continues without him. Some hint that the events of the episode had planted a seed in the wider population that would grow to a rejection of their rotten philosophy might have been helpful. Serling says it, but doesn’t show it:

“He was obsolete. But so is the State, the entity he worshipped.”

Worship is an interesting word, isn’t it, in this context. Serling is perhaps suggesting that a state which seeks to prove the absence of a god seeks to become god itself. Power corrupts. How much bearing does this have on our Western societies today? Here’s where a little more subtlety from Serling could have made this even more powerful, because nobody talks about wiping out “undesirables” any more, and yet the direction of travel from a couple of powerful leaders of Western democracies in recent years raises the awful possibility that too many people subscribe to a philosophy that is not far removed from the extremism of the Chancellor, and take their societies ever closer to fascism once more, by choosing their words more carefully than he does. Take care, lest we end up one day worshipping a state that considers us to be “undesirable”. We separate morality from power at our peril.   RP

Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: Two

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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6 Responses to The Twilight Zone: The Obsolete Man

  1. Carl Rosenberg says:

    Many thanks for these reviews, as always! In what sense do you think Burgess Meredith’s character in this episode is more likeable than the one in Time Enough at Last? The fact that the main character at the end of that episode was delighted at the destruction of the world because it would give him all the time he wanted to read?

    There is a Facebook group I belong to, Twilight Zone Politics, in which a conservative Twilight Zone fan used this episode, among others, to argue that Serling was both politically conservative and a Christian. He pointed to the fact that the dictatorship in this episode is overtly atheistic (hence presumably communist) and that the hero Wordsworth is a religious believer. (I found this argument rather questionable.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Roger Pocock says:

      I’ll let Mike speak for himself, but I’m certainly no fan of Bemis. If you’ve not read my half of our Time Enough at Last page, it’s mostly a demolition of the character of Bemis!

      Liked by 1 person

    • DrAcrossthePond says:

      There’s a big difference to me between being political, religious, etc and being a misanthrope. So in this, we have a very intelligent man who is against the system. Regardless of his political beliefs, he’s still a man of learning who works on making a point.
      By contrast, Bemis is such a self-centered introvert (and I don’t even want to say that word because it’s a putdown to introverts but SO BAD was he, that he couldn’t even give his wife time or love. Yes, she was a shrew, but she undoubtedly became that because he couldn’t offer her anything. He’s also a lousy worker, miscounting money at the bank. He’s beyond redemption. Then he proves to be a coward the moment things got tough.
      No, Bemis is a far worse individual than Wordsworth. I have no sympathy for his plight. ML

      Liked by 1 person

  2. scifimike70 says:

    For a most down-to-basics dystopian or totalitarian future story to pave the way for many to follow in TV and film, The Obsolete Man is the most profound ending for this second Twilight Zone season that we could have asked for. Both Meredith and Weaver give knockout performances and remind us how most integral the dialogue for such a sci-fi story can be. As with so many dark futures seen throughout the genre, we may be left to imagine how such a future came about to begin with, even though Rod Serling sums up some quite recognizable details in his opening narration. The realism for bad futures that the people must somehow subscribe to bad ways of life, especially in light of a most grim future like 1984, THX 1138, A Clockwork Orange or Blade Runner, should awaken us all more to the most authentic values that could preferably lead us into a future like Star Trek. So the dark future genre of sci-fi may serve fans somewhat better in making us more considerate. Thank you both, ML and RP, for all your Twilight Zone: Season 2 reviews.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. benmc47 says:

    Perhaps my favorite episode of the Twilight Zone. Nice job, guys!

    Liked by 2 people

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