18) The Obsolete Man (The Twilight Zone)

Okay, so, this is the last Twilight Zone, and most people will probably never agree with me on this one as being the best episode of the show, but I think it’s mostly that this episode hardly ever gets replayed because it’s an extremely uncomfortable episode.

TwilightZoneFever
Unlike “The Fever” which is uncomfortably bad

You might remember that I pointed out in an earlier Twilight Zone review that Rod Serling had a strong set of opinions about fascism. Specifically, he hated it more than you’ve ever hated anything in your life.

TwilightZoneSerling
Imagine if you will, my foot in Hitler’s ass

He believed that totalitarianism of any kind inevitably led towards the suppression of the inherent rights of a human being, and the 1950s had not done anything to convince him that this belief was wrong. Instead, it had convinced him that any government, at any time, was at the risk of becoming totalitarian, as long as people were not willing to stand up to it. Moreover, he’d realized that, while people usually associated totalitarianism prior to the 16th or 17th Century with religious zealotry, such as the Pharaohs, Popes, or the kings who wielded Divine Right, there was now emerging a totalitarian mindset claiming “utilitarianism” and “science” as its support. It took many faces: Eugenics, corruptions of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, Immigration restrictionists, “the Negro’s Place in Nature,” White Man’s Burden, etc.

TwilightZoneWhiteMan.png

Remember, the Nazis, while they definitely had some Christian support and structure at the beginning, also justified many of their actions through a belief in the cold logic of “science.” In retrospect, it wasn’t actual science so much as propaganda posing as logic, but they still used it as support. At the same time, Mengele was mutilating and torturing children in the name of scientific progress and Unit 731 of the Japanese Army did things that humanity should not even have words for in the name of advancing biological warfare. So great was the scientific value of the latter that the US granted them immunity in exchange for the data. Serling might not have been aware of that (it wasn’t confirmed to the public until long after this episode), but he would definitely have been aware of the US granting sanctuary to Nazi Rocket Scientist Wernher von Braun and his associates, who, likewise, claimed that their actions were only in the name of advancing science.

TomLehrer.jpg

Then, under Eisenhower, the US started to define ourselves strongly as a religious country in opposition to the “Godless Soviets,” but at the same time the McCarthy hearings had provided an obvious element of government persecution within the US itself. Calls for banning of books and films containing “Socialist propaganda” and “Anti-American Sentiment” ran throughout parts of the country. Also, George Orwell published Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1949. These factors all seemed to come together in the writing of this episode.

SUMMARY

The episode only has two real characters in it. The first is introduced as Romney Wordsworth, a Christian librarian played by Burgess Meredith. The second is the unnamed Chancellor, played by Fritz Weaver. The episode begins in a large room containing a single table and a high podium. I cannot describe the setting better than Serling himself did:

“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 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.”

TwilightZonePodium

Romney Wordsworth enters, and is put on “trial” for being obsolete. His profession, librarian, is unnecessary, as the state has banned all books, and unnecessary things are to be terminated. Additionally, he is a Christian, which is a capital crime since the State has proven that God does not exist. He is immediately found guilty by the Chancellor, whom Weaver portrays as being simultaneously an obvious showman and also an unrepentant merciless narcissist. Wordsworth accepts his fate, but asks for two things: 1) That he be allowed to choose the method of his execution in secret, and 2) That his death be televised. The Chancellor acquiesces to the first, on the condition that Wordsworth arrange to die within 48 hours, and proudly agrees to the second, saying that it is the desire of the State to show the weakness and fear on the faces of the State’s opponents as they die. Wordsworth states that he will die at Midnight the next day. During this exchange, both men portray themselves as believing they have the upper hand.

The next day, at 11:16 PM, Wordsworth requests the Chancellor’s presence before he is to die. The Chancellor shows up, telling Wordsworth that he came only to prove that the State is unafraid of anything he would say or do. Wordsworth responds that it must truly be a burden on the State to prove that it isn’t afraid of an unarmed librarian the hour before he is to be executed. The two begin to discuss the nature of the State and the human will, with the Chancellor sure that Wordsworth is only moments from breaking. The Chancellor even points out that the State has learned from the errors of all of the former dictators, understanding that it needs to eliminate literally any undesirables, because any person who is not directly part of the State will begin to plot against the State. They are the true totalitarian government.

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The Chancellor gloats at Wordsworth as he leaves, only to find the door locked, and Wordsworth being the only one who knows how to open it. Moreover, Wordsworth reveals that the manner of his execution will be by an extremely powerful bomb that will destroy everything in the room (explaining why his books have been left there). The Chancellor asks for help, but Wordsworth points out that the State would be embarrassed if it had to rescue someone from something so foolish as being locked in a room by a condemned man. Wordsworth suggests that the Chancellor accept his fate, and then proceeds to read various Psalms calmly (23, 59, 14, and 130), while the Chancellor is clearly struggling not to panic at the thought of his death while looking at the camera broadcasting the scene. Finally, with a minute left, the Chancellor breaks and says “Let me out, in the name of God, let me out.” Wordsworth responds “Yes, Chancellor, in the name of God, I will let you out,” and hands him the key. Wordsworth then happily dies in the explosion as the Chancellor escapes. The episode ends with the Chancellor now on trial as being obsolete. As he cries out that he is not obsolete, the masses of the State swarm him. Rod Serling closes the episode with the monologue:

“Any state, entity, or ideology becomes obsolete when it stockpiles the wrong weapons: when it captures territories, but not minds; when it enslaves millions, but convinces nobody. When it is naked, yet puts on armor and calls it faith, while in the Eyes of God it has no faith at all. Any state, any entity, any ideology which fails to recognize the worth, the dignity, the rights of Man… that state is obsolete. A case to be filed under “M” for “Mankind.”

END SUMMARY

SerlingThe last statement, that any state is obsolete which fails to recognize the worth of Man, resembles the sentiment of Immanuel Kant in his Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” A State cannot act as if people are a disposable resource to sustain itself, it should only act as if the preservation of the people are the end itself. The State that this episode presents does not have a set leader they form behind, only the State itself, which shows itself as truly being the end goal when the Chancellor is executed at the end.

People have criticized the episode sometimes for being overtly pro-religion, but I actually am going to say that you could replace Wordsworth’s Christian beliefs with almost any moral or ethical belief, whether religious or philosophical. The key is that he has something upon which he can rely to deal with the inevitability of death, whereas the members of the State have nothing, because their existence has no meaning beyond sustaining the State itself. Similarly, the fact that the Chancellor refers consistently to the State’s reliance on science to justify its policies are not meant to be a negative on science, it’s only to say that if one puts science ahead of morality or philosophy, then any cold fact can be used to justify an action. Science does not see an inherent worth in an individual over any other, only abstract equalities, highlighted in the episode with the exchange:

“I’m a Human Being.”

“You’re a librarian, Mr. Wordsworth.”

More than that, when you allow the state to control science, then even the nature of fact is now going to be brought into question, because the state controls what research is being done and how. This episode is stating straightforwardly that putting science ahead of all other forms of knowledge can, and has, led to the same dehumanizing effect as religion did to non-believers, only now it can affect anyone outside of the formula set by the State. It’s easy to rely on science as being an absolute truth that overcomes all others; unlike religion or philosophy, science is based on being able to independently and reliably prove a hypothesis. But, science cannot provide moral guidance, and cannot be used to excuse moral failings. Millions of people were saved by the data provided by Nazi and Japanese data following WWII, but saying that the ends of saving those lives excuses the means of obtaining them, vivisection and torture, is something that humanity cannot allow. People are not a means to an end, and we should not divorce ourselves of empathy to the point that we can treat them as such absent urgent necessity. This is true not only in The Twilight Zone, but in the real world, too.

PREVIOUS – 19: Fawlty Towers

NEXT – 17: Scrubs

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The Obsolete Man from Ryan Sebo on Vimeo.

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55) Deaths-Head Revisited (The Twilight Zone)

It’s pretty obvious from their contemporary portrayal in movies like The Great Dictator, that most of Europe and the rest of the world didn’t realize how bad concentration camps were. When we did find out, most of the people who heard the descriptions or, even worse, saw the camps themselves, wanted to forget that such a thing ever happened. Even now, one of the things that most aids Holocaust deniers is that the camps were literally nearly unbelievably cruel. It’s so uncomfortable to bring up, some people just want to avoid the subject altogether. Rod Serling was not one of those people.

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Oh, yes, just funny walks. That’s all.

Serling clearly had a mad-on for intolerance in general, and for Hitler and Nazism in particular. He often wrote episodes that depict horrifying ends for people who judge based on race, as well as any who would sympathize with the Nazi ideal of the übermensch. He also clearly hated that television episodes were not sufficiently depicting the level of atrocities that had been committed not 20 years beforehand, choosing instead to try and overlook the cruel past. In response, Serling wrote “Deaths-Head Revisited.”

TwilightZoneConcentrationCampReal.jpg
People deny this even happened. Contemplate the insanity of that.

SUMMARY:

TwilightZoneDeathsHeadImage.jpg
This. This is how you frame a shot.

It begins with a man visiting the site of Dachau Concentration Camp. That man is Gunther Lutze (Oscar Beregi), its former commander, who relives the torment he inflicted upon the prisoners with a sick glee and a cold smile (really, Beregi pulls it off almost too well). As he prepares to leave, he runs into a former prisoner, who keeps asking Lutze about his actions. Lutze insists that he was just following orders.

More people emerge, also former prisoners, who put Lutze on trial for his crimes against humanity, and sentence him to experience everything that he put the prisoners through.

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Judgment at Dachau

It is then that Lutze realizes that he personally killed all of the people trying him nearly two decades before, right before the US troops reached the camp. These are the ghosts of the victims. Lutze endures, in his mind, the tortures of a concentration camp: the hunger, the beatings, the inhumanity of the guards, the cold, the steel prison walls closing in. Quickly, he is driven insane, with his lead juror stating:

“This is not hatred. This is retribution. This is not revenge. This is justice. But this is only the beginning, Captain. Only the beginning. Your final judgment will come from God.”

END SUMMARY

TwilightZoneAdolfEichmann1.jpgAt the time of this episode’s airing, the world was also witnessing the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann was the person responsible for the logistics of setting up the concentration camp system. Eichmann’s defense was that he was just following orders. What’s worse is that, now, we know that the US was working to forgive and hide many Nazis from these international trials because we needed their expertise in helping to rebuild West Germany as our ally. That perhaps explains why the US wasn’t exactly thrilled with this episode’s airing, supposedly leading to Serling bribing people to put the show on as written, especially the end. At the end of the episode, after Lutze is brought to a psych hospital, the Doctor treating him asks “Dachau, why does it still stand? Why do we keep it standing?” Those questions were brought up by various groups during the Eichmann trial. Serling answers them, and I will add nothing to it:

“All the Dachaus must remain standing. The Dachaus, the Belsens, the Buchenwalds, the Auschwitzes – all of them. They must remain standing because they are a monument to a moment in time when some men decided to turn the Earth into a graveyard. Into it they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, but worst of all their conscience. And the moment we forget this, the moment we cease to be haunted by its remembrance, then we become the gravediggers. Something to dwell on and to remember, not only in the Twilight Zone but wherever men walk God’s Earth.”

PREVIOUS – 56: Monty Python’s Flying Circus

NEXT – 54: Star Trek: The Next Generation

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Here’s the Ending:

Here’s the Episode:

 

81) A Nice Place to Visit (The Twilight Zone)

Okay, this is also a pretty well-known episode of the Twilight Zone. Granted, the title itself makes it pretty obvious what is happening in the episode, since the expression is “A nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.”

It’s Hell. Hell is a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there. I know that’s a weird thing to write, but it’s got a nice, warm climate, right? Sorry, spoiler alert from something 50 years old. Also, the Allies won WWII.

SUMMARY

TwilightZoneHotelRoomThe story’s pretty simple. Henry “Rocky” Valentine (Larry Blyden) gets killed robbing a pawn shop. He wakes up to find a guide and servant ready to attend to his every need named “Pip” (Sebastian Cabot). Rocky is skeptical at first, not yet understanding that he’s dead, until he shoots Pip, only to find that Pip is bulletproof. He declares that Pip must be his guardian angel because he’s never been treated so well in his life. After spending his free time with women, victims, and gambling, Rocky becomes curious what he did to deserve to get into Heaven. Upon retrieving his record, the audience is informed that, if anything, Rocky’s life stands as a testament that he is the kind of person who absolutely shouldn’t get into paradise. The only reason he didn’t have “Serial Rapist” and “Domestic Abuser” on his file is that they weren’t allowed to say those words on TV back then.

TwilightZoneANicePlaceCasinoActually, this episode was one of the most censored episodes of the Twilight Zone (which, in light of a few others that are on this list, is an impressive claim). It turns out that Rocky was originally going to be even more crass and direct with women than he was in the final episode of the show. Despite the fact that the episode would show that such a person GOES TO HELL, the censors nixed it. Note, of course, that he was allowed to be a multiple murderer and torturer of animals, he just couldn’t call a woman “stacked.” America is weird about stuff.

In the end, Rocky is driven to the point of madness because, first, it is his private paradise, so he can’t see any of his old friends, and second, because it is too perfect. Nothing is unpredictable. There is no chance. If he commits a crime, he’ll get away with it, unless he says he doesn’t want to get away with it. He can kill, screw, whatever, but all of his victims will be both fake and willing. In a desperate plea, he begs Pip that heaven is wrong for him, and that clearly he belongs in “the other place,” only to have Pip laugh demonically and inform him that of course, he is in “the other place.”

END SUMMARY

This episode is one of my favorite versions of hell, because it allows for a chance for anyone to be redeemed. Think about it, the damned gets whatever he wants. It’s his desire to inflict pain on himself and others that keeps him from being happy. He could ask for books on philosophy and inner strength so that he could learn to be happy in solitude. He could ask for a place to work on projects and discover new things about the world. He could probably even ask for forgiveness from God. The thing is, a person like Rocky Valentine would probably take eternity to think of any of those things. Especially since, in the circumstances, he’s not being tortured to his limits, he’s just driving himself crazy every day.  It’s a perfectly fair hell, because, if God really loves people, he’d only want them to suffer as long as they don’t understand their mistake.

PREVIOUS – 82: Have Gun – Will Travel

NEXT – 80: Ellen

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Interestingly, someone re-cut the episode into 5 minutes of the essential plot. Pretty awesome. Enjoy.

92) To Serve Man (The Twilight Zone)

The Twilight Zone was both nominated for, and received, more episodes on this list than any other show. It was early in television’s history, it pushed every envelope it could find, contained episodes by some of the best writers willing to work on TV at the time (which later made it okay for others to do likewise), and it has had one of the biggest impacts on society and pop culture of anything since Sherlock Holmes and Superman. Even if you’ve never seen an episode, you’ve at least seen a tribute to one, I guarantee it.*

SUMMARY

TwilightZoneToServeManAn episode of The Twilight Zone was typically a morality tale relying on a sci-fi or fantasy element, and this plot is a classic one: Aliens arrive on Earth. However, rather than trying to take over the world, the Kanamits supply us with everything we ever wanted. Starvation, war, power issues, disease; you name it, they’re all eliminated. The world becomes a utopia. A commission is set up to determine if the aliens pose any threat, but the only information they have on the aliens is a book whose title is translated as “To Serve Man.”

TwilightZoneKanamit.jpgIf you’ve watched films or television shows in the years since, you’ve probably seen a joke about what we find out at the end. Right before the main character departs for the home planet of the aliens, he is told that it’s not a guide to helping humanity. It’s a cookbook. The aliens only pretended to help humanity so that we would be fat, healthy, and docile. Now, we’re the perfect livestock, even unwittingly volunteering to go to the Kanamit home planet to be devoured.

END SUMMARY

TwilightZoneKanamitAmbassador.jpg
This guy seems “punny.”

I’m going to go ahead and address the two problems with the twist. First, it requires that someone can translate the language enough to translate the title, but not the rest of the book. Second, it requires that “serve” can have the same dual meaning in both English and Kanamit. However, there is actually a way to reconcile both of these: Someone just asked the ambassador what the title was. The Kanamits in the episode use a few colloquialisms, so they’re at least capable of using English puns. Since they probably assumed no one could translate the book for real without any form of reference, telling people the title in that way was probably just a sick joke on their part. Alternatively, maybe the guy who figured out the language died after translating the title, like Michael Ventris, the guy who translated Linear B.

Regardless, it’s not the twist that got this episode on the list rather than some of the others. While the twist is clever, and famous, it’s not any more so than the end of, say, “Time Enough at Last” (the one where the man with all the books he could read in a lifetime breaks his glasses). These were pretty standard Twilight Zone quality, so if I included them all, this list would be forty percent Twilight Zone.

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All the books, no more glasses. Better find the large print section.

What sets this episode apart is that this is one of the first episodes of television to truly break the Fourth Wall as we now consider it for a purpose other than humor. Sure, host Rod Serling always addressed the audience before and after each episode, but he was (almost) never a character, just the narrator. But, at the end of this episode, before Rod Serling shows up, the main character, Michael Chambers (Lloyd Bochner), who has been on a hunger strike to make himself less palatable, turns and talks to the audience, asking them if they’re on Earth or the spaceship with him. He says that in the end, it doesn’t matter, because everyone is just on the menu.

TwilightZoneToServeManEnding
This must’ve blown minds in 1962

The subtle camera work as he says this creates a mild disorienting effect that adds to the message: We, the audience, are the cattle, whether in the field or the slaughterhouse. It made the audience part of the story in a way which had not really been done to that point on a major show, and it deserves acclaim.**

PREVIOUS – 93: The Simpsons

NEXT – 91: Lost In Space

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Rather than just put in the clip of the reveal, I’m instead putting in one of my favorite references, from Naked Gun II: The Smell of Fear. The man saying the phrase is none other than Lloyd Bochner.

*Not a guarantee.

** Serling calls it a “soliloquy” in his closing, but that’s not correct. Bochner isn’t talking out loud about his feelings regardless of anyone to hear it, like in Shakespeare. Bochner’s clearly talking to the audience.