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Old 03-19-2021, 05:39 AM   #11 (permalink)
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Title: “Time Enough At Last”
Original transmission date: November 20 1959
Written by: Rod Serling (from the short story by Lynn Venable)
Directed by: John Brahm
Starring: Burgess Meredith as Henry Bemis
Jacqueline de Wit as Helen Bemis
Vaughn Taylor as Mr. Carsville
Lela Bliss as Mrs. Chester

Setting: Earth
Timeframe: Present (at the time)
Theme(s): Loneliness, suicide, nuclear war, societal intolerance
Parodied? Multiple times, by among others Futurama, Simpsons, Family Guy
Rating: A++

Serling’s opening monologue

Witness Mr. Henry Bemis, a charter member in the fraternity of dreamers. A bookish little man whose passion is the printed page, but who is conspired against by a bank president and a wife and a world full of tongue-cluckers and the unrelenting hands of a clock. But in just a moment, Mr. Bemis will enter a world without bank presidents or wives or clocks or anything else. He'll have a world all to himself... without anyone.

Henry Bemis is more interested in reading books than paying attention to his job as a bank teller, constantly short-changing people and messing up, and his boss is having no more of it. He issues an ultimatum: either Bemis stops reading at work and devotes himself to his job, or he’s fired. Fairly understandable really: you can skive off to the toilets and read if you’re not busy at work, but it’s a bit brazen to be reading at your desk. Bemis counters by explaining that his wife is totally against reading, and refuses to allow him do so at home. Mr. Carsville is not impressed and has no sympathy for the teller.

We see his wife’s shrewishness in sour action when she vindictively defaces one of his poetry books, telling him he is a child and should devote more time to her and less to books. We also see he is quite the hen-pecked husband, she a stern, unforgiving, vinegary old tart who probably thinks she married beneath her, he the quiet, submissive man just looking for a bit of peace and harmony, and willing to put up with her nasty ways.

The next day at work he takes his break as usual in the vault, snatching the opportunity to do some reading, and while down there he experiences a tremendous explosion. His fob watch face cracks and when he exits the vault he sees that some terrible disaster has struck and the world has been destroyed. Wandering out of the ruins of the bank and through the ruins of the city he sees he is alone. There is food enough to last him forever, but no human company. In the rubble he finds a gun, but just as he contemplates ending his torment he sees the ruins of the library, and suddenly is seized by a wild delight. All the books he could ever want to read, and all the time in the world, now, to read them!

The one thing that was weighing on his mind was the loneliness, having nothing to fill the empty hours, and now he has books. Books, books, books! Enough reading to occupy his mind until he dies.

And then, as he bends down to retrieve one book, his glasses slip off his face and crack. Unable to see without them, he is now surrounded by all the books he ever needed, and unable to read even a single one. As he says himself, it’s not fair.

Serling’s closing monologue

The best-laid plans of mice and men...and Henry Bemis, the small man in the glasses who wanted nothing but time. Henry Bemis, now just a part of a smashed landscape, just a piece of the rubble, just a fragment of what man has deeded to himself. Mr. Henry Bemis, in the Twilight Zone.

The Resolution

It’s a bit tough on the guy. The ending would have worked well enough had he been left there, sitting in the rubble of mankind’s empire, reading to his heart’s content. I feel it’s an unnecessarily cruel ending, especially when he was such a mild-mannered man, though to be fair he did get a little on my tits. Still, it’s kind of unexpected the first time you see it, and has provided fuel for so many parodies of this clever story.

The Moral

Not really sure. Initially it would seem to be a kind of version of the meek shall inherit the earth, but then it turns that on its head, so what lesson are we meant to learn from the ending?

And isn’t that…?

Burgess Meredith (1907 - 1997)
A famous Hollywood actor, popular for his roles in, among others, the Rocky franchise and as The Penguin in the classic sixties Batman series.

Personal notes

Classic though this episode is, and deservedly regarded as one of the best in the series, I find the speech patterns used by Mr. Carsville odd: he says things like “I will tell you something and this is the route by which I will approach it” and “I give my reaction thus”. It’s stilted and surely intentional, but I’m not sure what it’s meant to convey, other than to make the boss seem like the straight man in an Abbott and Costello movie or something.

Nasty and vindictive though it is for his wife to cross out all the poetry in his book, if you look at it from her side she could have been crueller. Considering Henry was hiding the book in his pocket, obviously intending to sneak off and read it later, would it not have made more of an impact upon him, and served her purposes better, had she not revealed her horrible deed beforehand? As it is, she goes out of character (which even he must suspect) and asks him to read to her. Yes, it raises his hopes but he can’t be fooled, can he? And how much more crushing would it have been for him to have thought he had beaten her, only to find she was two steps ahead of him in petty malice?

I also think the author got it wrong with Bemis. While reading is a solitary occupation usually, it’s not an antisocial one. We don’t closet ourselves away and read and then do nothing about it. We want to tell everyone about what we have read, how good it was (or not) and while Bemis does try to force his character summaries on the bank customer who is not in the least interested, this isn’t how it goes. You’ll tell someone you read a great book and IF they show interest THEN you MAY go on to describe roughly what it’s about. You will not give away character names, or plots, or twists, in case you convince that person to read the book themselves. And that is the biggest triumph any reader can hope for, that his or her love of a book will inspire others to try it.

Bemis though forces his appreciation of the books he reads on others, knowing (surely he must know) quite clearly they are not interested, and when someone tries desperately to get you into something or tell you about something for which you have not the slightest enthusiasm, you will actually resist their advances and think them rude to keep forcing them upon you. Obviously Bemis is never going to get his bitch wife to see the value in reading, nor his boss, who seems to consider such activities beneath him, so if he just shut up and read his book instead of drawing attention to what he’s doing, he would get on a lot better.

In a way, you can’t help but smirk at his fate, in the end, as he has become something of an annoying, opinionated, superior bastard and you’re kind of glad that he is surrounded by books he can never now read. Sort of poetic justice for foisting his obsession on others.

Oops!

Classic this episode might be, but it is rife with errors and inconsistencies. For one thing, Bemis escapes the (supposedly) nuclear holocaust by virtue of being in a bank vault. While some vaults are indeed underground, and would afford some protection from a standard bomb, they’re not by any means built to withstand a nuclear assault, so the bank vault should have been no safer than the rest of the bank.

Emerging into the shattered landscape, Bemis would have been walking into a highly toxic, radioactive atmosphere, yet he walks around, totally unaffected.

Similarly, the food he mentions that will last him forever would all also be contaminated, and unfit for human consumption.

The public library is knocked down but the books survive. Why? Surely fires raged through the place, which would have consumed the books and turned them to ash?

With his glasses broken, would it not have been possible for Bemis to find either replacements (from some unlucky corpse, of which there must have been many around) or even from an optician which might still be standing, as some of the buildings appear to be? At worst, he could surely rig up some sort of crude magnifying glass to enable him to read. He’s not blind, just very shortsighted. In time, with enough effort, this could be overcome.

When the explosion rocks the building, the face of Bemis’s watch cracks. Why, then, do not the lenses on his glasses?

Iconic?

Totally. This whole idea has become very popular in science fiction, mostly, as noted, through parodies, but also in other areas.

Themes

Again we’re looking into loneliness. When the Earth is destroyed, and Bemis wanders disconsolately through the ruins of his city, the isolation weighs heavily upon him, and he considers ending it all rather than face being alone for the rest of his life. America’s strange intolerance for “readers”, even this far back, comes up here, with Bemis considered odd and strange, a bookworm and, used pejoratively, a reader. Almost as if to read is an undesirable trait. But Bemis can also be accused of societal intolerance; all he wants to do is read his books, and badger others about how great they are, so in a way he’s withdrawing from society in the same manner as Barbara in “The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine”, sinking into his own world and refusing to engage in the real one. A balance could be struck, but neither Bemis nor his harridan wife wish to consider a compromise.

The ever-present fear of nuclear war and MAD (Mutally Assured Destruction) that hung over America - and indeed, the world - during the worst years of the Cold War is clearly evident here. We’re not told what happened to destroy the world, but Bemis is reading an article about how deadly the H-Bomb is just before the incident, so we can probably assume a nuclear strike.
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