In this segment of "The Twilight Zone" and Atheism, I'm going to take a look at one of the program's most popular episodes: "Time Enough at Last".


For those who have not seen this classic episode, it follows a thick-spectacled man who is obsessed with reading. He works as a teller at a bank, where he is frequently sidetracked from his duties because of his reading habit. When his boss brings up the issue, he explains that his wife won't let him read at home. His employer is unamused by this, and forbids him to read on the job anymore.


The day after this confrontation, our protagonist takes a newspaper with him on his lunch break. Looking for a quiet place to read, he decides to cloister himself into the bank's vault. While he is there, a hydrogen bomb is dropped on the town, destroying the entire area. The protagonist survives only because he was secure in the vault, and emerges to witness the absolute devastation. He discovers the corpse of his employer and the remains of his house during his explorations. He locates a stock of food, and concludes that he will be able to survive on what he has found (contamination aside). After a day or so, he realizes how bored he is with nothing to do, and decides to take his own life. Just prior to pulling the trigger, he recognizes the remains of a public library, with all of the books in tact. He immediately becomes estatic and puts away his thoughts of suicide. He then plots out his reading schedule for the coming year with stacks upon stacks of books, giddy with the joy of the discovery. Just as he is about to delve into the first, his glasses fall off of his face and shatter on the library steps. He begins weeping, uttering "there was time now..." as the camera pans away.


So, how can this relate to atheism?


To begin, I should point out that although this is a specifically famous epiisode of TZ, it is relatively aformulaic for the series. Typically, TZ episodes act as morality tales, involving a sort of karmic justice to the theme. The bad characters get what they deserve in the end. However, in this episode, the protagonist is not a villain. He isn't a nazi or a racist or a murderer. He is just a man who faces daily abuses, who wants nothing more than to read. Instead of being handed a paradise to make up for his sad life, he is handed a black card of fate (or so it would seem).


The ending can be called nihilistic, but I prefer to label it as naturalistic (rather, "unnaturalistic"). In this story, there is no all-powerful being running the show. The bomb falls, the populous is killed, and there is no divine interference. This people were not sinners or villains; just a casual populous of a town. The ending, as well, is not due to the supernatural interference of a diety. The man simply drops his glasses. None of the action, in fact, is supernatural at all. Everything that occurs is done on a human level. In this sense, what we are presented with is a tale of an environment that is entirely ambivalent to the presence of our protagonist. Not malevolent, mind you, but ambivalent. Nothing supernatural goes out of the way to torture anyone in this story. Typically in a naturalistic story, a man is presented with a conflict with nature. In this case, however, his conflict is with a nature imposed by humanity (the blast and fallout). Aside from the presence of a bomb explosion in the place of a flood or a hurricane, "Time enough at Last" is a naturalistic tale. Thus, I refer to it as "unnaturalistic".


There is no creator, no supernatural justice, and no divine reassurance for the viewer. This episode is a look into the darkest corners of humanity itself. Keep in mind, this episode first aired in 1959, during the height of the Cold War. The concept of a bomb dropping on any given day was a very real fear. Keep also in mind that the 50s was a time of rabid religiosity (fighting "godless communists"; also when the pledge was altered): it was one of the few consolations Americans took when facing the nuclear threat. Presenting a realistic, naturalistic view of the aftermath on the homeland was thus all the more shocking. This episode is thus a masterpiece of horror: it drives into a tangible fear within the hearts of the viewership, brings it to the surface, and puts it right into the face of the audience. This is why "Time Enough at Last" is memorable, and why it has stood the test of time.


Anyway, I have a few more TZ episodes I am going to do in the forseeable future; but I may switch my focus over to Doctor Who for a bit just to mix it up. For those of you who are reading these (I may be assuming too much there), I would love any feedback that you may have. I'll try to update again before the week is up. Peace, heathens!





The Twilight Zone - Time Enough At last
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Comment by Gordon W Maples on March 29, 2011 at 9:38pm

I could see that, but at the same time all of his interactions with other people are abusive and negative towards him. From what we are shown, he has cowered away from people in general because he has only had negative experiences with socialization. His wife is cruel, his employer is cold and unsympathetic, and the few "friends" we are shown are more captors than acquaintances. He's a victim at the core, from beginning to end. Admittedly, he didn't do anything to alter his fate either. He could theoretically have left his wife and quit his job, but he was already a very broken man by that point.

Comment by Wanda T on March 29, 2011 at 8:40pm

From my perspective, I see this as the tragedy of a man who spent his entire life seeking something (meaning? knowledge? entertainment?) from a book.  Human relationships were merely an obstacle to be overcome so that he could read.  When chance delivered him to a place where he was unencumbered by these bothersome human interactions, the very means by which he could realize his purpose was lost as well. At last, he was alone with his precious books.......   Well, that's the way I see it, anyway.  It still has an atheistic bent, don't you think?  Live as if this life is the only one there is. Make time for all of the things that give life meaning.


Comment by Gordon W Maples on February 16, 2011 at 4:40pm

IMO, I think TEAL is perhaps the best adapted story in television history. The title and premise were not originally Serling's, but he really turned it into something stellar and potent. I agree with you that the Meredith's acting and the overall work put into this episode was outstanding, and greatly contributed to the episode's place as one of the best of the TZ. However, the cultural relevance of the story and themes to the era cannot be undersold as factors to the episode's success. I feel that the same can be said of The Monsters are Due on Maple Street and a number of other classic episodes as well.

I'll be getting around to The Obsolete Man in the near future, btw. It is a particularly interesting one in how it pertains to atheism.

Comment by Loren Miller on February 16, 2011 at 6:07am

Yeah, maybe ... but what I guess I remember Time Enough At Last for was for the superlative work of Burgess Meredith.  I've heard in interviews that when fans met him, they frequently brought up that performance in particular, though he was in three more TZ episodes, most notably The Obsolete Man, which has aspects of concern to atheists as well, and is also a Meredith tour de force.


Yet Time Enough for what I've seen is the episode which most people single out as their favorite and/or best single work of the series, and I tend to agree.  That it was written and performed over 50 years ago tells me the level of craftsmanship Serling put into it, and it makes me wonder at how infrequently I see such dedication to one's craft on the small screen (or even the large one) any more.


Excuse me if I'm off-topic here ... but that's what TEAL means to me.

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