“The Obsolete Man” in the 21st century
Can a half-hour TV show be a masterpiece? The genius of Rod Serling’s best work is he isn’t taking aim at left or right, patriot or rebel, believer or unbeliever. If you’re displaying the behavior, it’s about you. Minus commercials, twenty minutes to tell a story that sucks you in and often turns you inside out. What’s more, in these times of trigger warnings and public vilification for a careless word or unpopular perspective, The Twilight Zone is at least as relevant as when originally broadcast in 1959-64.
The Obsolete Man, emblematic of Serling’s best work, features Romney Wordsworth (Burgess Meredith), a librarian in a state without books, judged to be obsolete and sentenced to death. The warehouse-like courtroom is a gray beehive with buzzing drone-like people. Serling introduces this dystopian state as a place where “Logic is an enemy and truth is a menace”. We learn the “State has proven there is no God”. When he’s judged to be obsolete, Wordsworth responds, “No man is obsolete. I am a human being. I exist”, to which the Chancellor responds, “Delusions that you inject into your printer’s veins with printer’s ink…the state has no use for your kind…no more books means no more librarians”. When the state lets him choose the manner of his execution and permits the broadcasting of his death for its “Educative effect on the population”, Wordsworth chooses to die in his book-laden room, invites the Chancellor to observe him prepare for his “educative” death. But unbeknownst to his executioner, Wordsworth has locked the door so both men will perish. The oblivious Chancellor poses the question: “How does a man react to the knowledge that he is going to be blown to bits?” With the locked door revealed and the clock on the wall ticking, Wordsworth counters with a word of his own: “Let’s see how a Chancellor of the state dies…let’s have a little chat…just you and me and the great equalizer.”
Wordsworth proceeds to read from Psalm 23, from the Book of books forbidden by the state, the Chancellor smoking in nervous silence, both men defined in the moments the clock ticks down to the blast.
Serling’s postscript sounds quaint today: “Any state that does not recognize the worth, the dignity, the rights of man, is obsolete.” In the verdict the state levies on the disgraced Chancellor, we might recall the Robespierres and Trotskys of history, the “Chancellors” in our day dragged down by their ideological brothers and sisters for one false step, one moment of weakness. In black and white and in 30 minutes, Serling depicts flashpoint issues in ways that chips away at our psychological and ideological biases.
In his time, no one would have called Serling a reactionary or religious zealot, but his views about human dignity no longer correspond with those who apply gender, sexual orientation, religious, psychological, racial, ethnic, or class struggle lenses to every spoken or written word. He was from a generation that witnessed the “obsolete” eliminated by the millions. The Chancellor says the problem with Hitler and Stalin was they didn’t go far enough. Serling was a humanist who knew that liberty, justice, and solidarity can only be built on a foundation of “The worth, the dignity, the rights” of every human being.