One of Twilight Zone’s, and indeed television’s, classic episodes, “The Obsolete Man,” checks in at #8 on the list of the 25 best Twilight Zone episodes based on writing, performance, and compelling subject matter as judged by a group of 250 people in the New York metropolitan area. This survey and compilation celebrates the program’s 50th anniversary.
“You walk into this room at your own risk, because it leads to the future; not a future that will be, but one that might be,” begins Rod Serling’s 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 advancements, 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. This is Mr. Romney Wordsworth, in his last forty-eight hours on Earth. He’s a citizen of the State, but will soon have to be eliminated, because he’s built out of flesh and because he has a mind. Mr. Romney Wordsworth, who will draw his last breaths in the Twilight Zone.”
There are some elements in “The Obsolete Man” that rest rather comfortably in Twilight Zone lore. The theme, for one, is a common thread throughout the series, seemingly borne of Mr. Serling’s fear of a future gone awry. Of course, Serling is simply speaking for all of our “worst case scenario” anxieties tucked away in our subconscious.
There is the ticking time bomb of nuclear annihilation, so prevalent at the time. Coincidentally, Twilight Zone veteran Burgess Meredith, who performs so brilliantly in “The Obsolete Man,” starred in one of several of Serling’s nuclear nightmare episodes, “Time Enough At Last.” Here, Meredith’s so-aptly named character, Romney Wordsworth, is about to suffer the ultimate end at the hands of a government that does not condone individuality. See “Eye of the Beholder,” the recently-featured #11 on this top 25 anniversary countdown.
Since the State has denounced literacy and declared there is no God, Mr. Wordsworth has no chance. After all, he is a God-fearing librarian. The chancellor, played passionately and with great dimension by yet another Twilight Zone veteran, Fritz Weaver, bellows, “That you inject into your veins with printer’s ink, the narcotics you call literature: The Bible, poetry, essays, all kinds, all of it are opiate to make you think you have a strength, when you have no strength at all!!! You are nothing, but spindly limbs and a dream, and The State has no use for your kind!!!! You waste our time, Mr. Wordsworth, and you’re not worth the waste.”
Mr. Wordsworth has one final plea, one he knows will appeal to the State. Citing he has been granted a choice of death, he selects to die with an audience. The chancellor agrees, gleeful because executions have “an educative effect on the population.”
As Mr. Wordsworth sits in his room quietly awaiting the midnight bomb blast that will end his life, he is visited by the chancellor, who arrives as an invited guest of the librarian. Why does he accept this invitation, so close to the time of execution? The arrogance seeps from his response that his visit will demonstrate that the State has no fears. Incredulous, Wordsworth responds, “Forgive me, Chancellor, that has the elements of a joke….I mean you come to MY room to prove that the State isn’t afraid of me!? Why what an incredible burden I must be! For the State to have to prove that it isn’t afraid of an obsolete librarian like myself.”
Eventually, the tables are turned, and the arrogance and elitism is deflated like a balloon at the behest of a needle. The chancellor, with an eye on the time, elects to end his visit, but alas, Mr. Wordsworth has locked the door. Will the State come by to rescue him? Well, of course not, since selfishness and apathy share the spotlight with arrogance and superiority. And besides, how demeaning would it be for the State to have to rescue a high-ranking official from the hands of a mere librarian?
They wait and wait while the chancellor frets and sweats. Eventually he pleads, “In the name of God, let me out of here.” There, in the midst of panic, he seeks out the help he needs from the beyond, from the God he so eagerly denounced as a member of the ruling authority. Knowing the chancellor’s impending fate at the hands of the State he served so diligently, there was no longer reason to hold him, to subject him to the bomb’s hastily arriving finality. “So here you have this strong, handsome, uniformed, bemedaled symbol of giant authority and this little, insignificant, librarian,” declares Mr. Worsdworth, “and suddenly in the eyes of God, there is precious little to distinguish us.
Of course, the chancellor, upon arriving back at this post, is aghast that he is now the subject of “obsolescence” proceedings. But, really, could it end any other way?
“The chancellor, the late chancellor, was only partly correct,” Serling concludes. “He was obsolete, but so is the State, the entity he worshipped. Any state, any entity, any ideology that fails to recognize the worth, the dignity, the rights of man, that state is obsolete. A case to be filed under “M” for mankind-in the Twilight Zone.”