Thursday, June 02, 2011

The Obsolete Man

Chancellor: You're a librarian, Mr. Wordsworth. A dealer in books and two cent fines and pamphlets and closed stacks and the musty insides of a language factory that spews out meaningless words on an assembly line. Words, Mr. Wordsworth, that have no substance and no dimension like air, like the wind, like a vacuum that you make believe has an existence by scribbling index numbers on little cards!

Wordsworth: I don't care. I tell you, I don't care. I am a human being! And if I speak one thought aloud, that thought lives on long after I'm shoveled into my grave.

Twilight Zone
June 2, 1961

Burgess Meredith may have been featured in more episodes of the original Twilight Zone series than any other actor.

Well, more than any other big–name actor, I guess.

There may have been — indeed, probably were — performers who appeared in more episodes than Meredith did.

But I don't think any other star was seen in more episodes.

Most of Meredith's career was in movies, but he was featured in four episodes of Twilight Zone. When his name is mentioned in connection with the series, people usually mention "Time Enough At Last," the episode in which Meredith played a timid, book–loving bank teller who survived a nuclear attack because he retreated to the vault to read during his lunch hour.

That is a good episode, but, to be honest, the one that always comes to my mind first when I think of Meredith's contributions to the series is the one that made its debut 50 years ago tonight — "The Obsolete Man."

(And my guess is that, in the current economy, a lot of people are feeling like obsolete men ... and women. But that's another story.)

It was an apt title because, in the futuristic setting, a person's relevance was determined by his/her occupation. (And that, too, can be seen as a metaphor — for just about all times and all places on this planet.)

Meredith played a librarian, but there was no use for librarians in that society because books had been outlawed by the state. There were no similar tasks for a librarian to perform; consequently, Meredith's character was obsolete.

According to law, because he had been declared obsolete, Meredith had to be terminated. He had no choice in that, but he did have some choices — such as the method for his execution and when and where it would take place.

He also had the option of allowing his execution to be televised. He requested that, and his request was granted.

He also asked that the man who presided over his prosecution (played by Fritz Weaver) be there, and that request was also granted.

The chancellor arrived less than an hour before the execution. Meredith's character locked the door and then told the chancellor that the method he had chosen was to be blown up by a bomb that had been placed in his apartment. At the stroke of midnight, the bomb would go off and everyone in the apartment would be killed.

Meredith's character then began to read aloud from his edition of the Bible. Possession of the Bible was a crime punishable by death because the state had "proven" that there was no god. Meredith said that made his Bible quite valuable to him.

He calmly proceeded to read biblical passages while the chancellor became more and more agitated, finally pleading with Meredith to let him go "in the name of God."

That was a request that Meredith was willing to grant, and he flung open the door, allowing the chancellor to escape mere seconds before the bomb went off.

But he had exposed himself through his behavior, and the next thing the audience saw was the chancellor being escorted to the same courtroom in which Meredith had been declared obsolete, where he was accused of being obsolete as well because he had shown cowardice.

"The chancellor ... was only partly correct," said series host Rod Serling at the end of the episode. "He was obsolete, but so is the state, the entity he worshiped. Any state, any entity, any ideology that fails to recognize the worth, the dignity, the rights of man, that state is obsolete."

(By the way, you can see this episode at 5 p.m. Central on July 4 on the Syfy Channel's Fourth of July Twilight Zone marathon.)