I still remember staying up late on weeknights in my youth watching episodes of The Twilight Zone. I appreciated the interesting storylines and twist endings, but as a child, and later as a teenager, I was rarely able to appreciate the depth of the issues involved in many of the episodes as Rod Serling and other writers engaged in some of the best writing and social commentary on television. As an adult, repeated viewing of The Twilight Zone, both in the various holiday marathons on television, and in my growing personal collection on DVD, has helped me appreciate the program as not only solid entertainment, but also in providing commentary on pressing social issues of the past, of the time period when the program aired, and I believe in application to issues of the present day.
One of the episodes that recently appeared in a collection of “best of” for the series was “The Obsolete Man” which first aired on June 6, 1961. This episode was written by Serling, and his opening narration for the piece went like this:
“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. 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 booth 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 superstates 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.”
As this episode begins we find Wordsworth (played by Burgess Meredith) entering into a hall of judgment for the State. A long table sits before him, and at the end of the table is a tall podium where the judge for the State, the Chancellor (played by Fritz Weaver), announces the sentence of death upon Wordsworth and works out the details for the accused as to the manner of execution. Wordsworth is an enemy of the State who has lost his usefulness. As a result he has become obsolete. Yet he uses his final moments on earth through the means of execution to make the point to the State that the individual matters, as does freedom, and in so doing brings embarrassment upon the Chancellor. After Wordworth’s death the Chancellor returns to the same hall of judgment to resume his duties only to find that only to find that the State now finds him worthy of death. In the chilling final scene the Chancellor pleads for his life by arguing that he still serves a useful function to the State, only to find the government’s representatives chanting repeatedly, “Obsolete! Obsolete!” The episode concludes with Serling’s final narration:
“The Chancellor – the late Chancellor – was only partly correct. He was obsolete. But so was 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.
Airing as it did in the first decades following World War II, it is no surprise that The Twilight Zone included several episodes that critiqued the dangers of Nazism, fascism, and other forms of totalitarianism. As such Serling’s concern for government abuses of the past still serves as a valid critique for our reflection on history. But I would also suggest that this episode has much to say to us today about current issues as well.
Citizens of the United States are currently embroiled in a debate over reforming healthcare. If the Administration’s healthcare plan is implemented it will give the government control in one seventh of the country’s economy. This follows on the heels of the government’s bailout and resulting financial interest in large segments of the auto industry and banking industry. In response to a worldwide recession the government has grown larger and more powerful.
This growth and power is not only the result of the Obama Administration’s actions. For several presidential administrations over several decades, both Republican and Democrat, and despite promises to reduce government during Republican administrations, the government has grown, and with it has come greater power and finances in the hands of political leaders across party lines.
Perhaps Serling has something to say to us in the twenty-first century. As government grows more powerful and is poised to take control over a major aspect of the individual, in the name of reformation and cost savings will some members and segments of our society be declared obsolete? Regardless of the party affiliations of my readers, I hope we will pause to think through what our government is currently proposing, openly debate the issues involved, and that we will also take to heart Serling’s closing narration for this episode lest our State become obsolete in the quest for hope and change.